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IV. Penser et Représenter l’événement contemporain : un théâtre d’histoire immédiate

Writing, rewriting and revisiting the Cold War in Tom Stoppard’s Squaring the Circle. Poland 1980-81 (1984)1

Écrire, réécrire et revisiter la Guerre froide dans Squaring the Circle. Poland 1980-81 (1984) de Tom Stoppard
Jean Du Verger


Cet article étudie l’une des nombreuses pièces de Stoppard écrite pour la télévision : Squaring the Circle. Poland 1980-81. La pièce fut diffusée sur Channel 4 au mois de mai 1984. Elle est l’une des quelques pièces de son corpus dramatique qu’il consacra à la Guerre Froide. Il s’agit de mettre en lumière le dilemme auquel doit faire face le dramaturge lorsqu’il est confronté à l’histoire et à la manière dont il traite des faits et des événements historiques. Si l’histoire est avant tout le récit d’événements passés, le travail du dramaturge, à l’instar de celui de l’historien, est de spéculer sur les fissures et les zones d’ombre qui surgissent inévitablement au cours de son travail de reconstitution historique. On montre ainsi que la pièce de Stoppard possède un certain nombre de caractéristiques méta-théâtrales qui sont propres aux docudrames ainsi qu’au théâtre verbatim. De plus, l’engagement politique de Stoppard ainsi que l’intérêt réel qu’il éprouve pour les événements se déroulant de l’autre côté du Rideau de Fer, et qui apparaissent clairement dans la pièce, tendent à nous montrer le dramaturge sous un autre jour. Enfin, l’étude examine la manière dont Stoppard met en scène certains événements historiques et l’influence que la pièce a pu avoir sur le public de l’époque.

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  • 1 This article is greatly indebted to Niloufer Harben’s compelling study on history plays.
  • 2 Although one should probably not overstate the influence of the Cold War on British literature and (...)

1The period between 1968 and 1978 has been acknowledged by critics as probably one of the most significant eras in British political theatre. During this period, British drama questioned the concept of democratic ideals as it explored the blurring boundaries between State and society, while shedding light on the awareness of theatre’s potential for influencing audiences. At the time, Tom Stoppard was viewed as a witty and entertaining playwright, however critics seemed to overlook the importance of history in his plays. The subsequent plays from his television plays Neutral Ground (1968), Professional Foul (1978), through his stage plays Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977), Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth (1980) to Rock’n’Roll (2006), all stand as theatrical representations of the Cold War2. Not unlike the historian, Stoppard wrote his plays on the basis of available documentation of (recent) past events, presenting the audience with an “unofficial” version of those events. Consequently, his plays create a bridge between history and fiction, developing an æsthetic discourse whereby the theatrical performance creates, as Freddie Rokem notes, “a secondary elaboration” of historical events (Rokem 2000, 6). Stoppard’s “Cold War” plays draw attention to various metatheatrical features of the plays themselves, showing how they were written, while also reinterpreting events that had or were actually taking place at the time.

2This article attempts not only at examining the way in which a seminal historical period of contemporary history, namely the Cold War, is represented in one of Stoppard’s television plays Squaring the Circle. Poland 1980-81 (1984), but also to say something about the ways in which this play offered, and still does, another perspective on viewing our past, as it reinterprets and revisits the events that took place at the time, providing the reader-viewer with a critical view of history. Thus, in a post-modern context, Stoppard’s play creates a marginal space for the theatre-goers, a space from which they can actually view the unfolding of a major historical event. I will therefore be considering the way in which Stoppard, when writing his play, had to deal with the paradox which lies at the heart of historiography. Thus, while reconstructing the past as an object, the playwright’s historical narrative rests inescapably on his own subjectivity as a result of which the authorial voice inflects the perception of historical reality. I will then examine the metatheatrical strategies he resorted to before finally considering the notion of performing history and what it suggests in this particular case.

Squaring the Circle (1984): Stoppard’s Documentary Play

3Most of Tom Stoppard’s plays are rooted in history and could well be described as history plays – that is “a piece of writing for the theatre that engages with historical events” (Harben 1988, 21). My article focuses on the television play Squaring the Circle which, like a number of his plays, is set during the Cold War. The central idea of the play was born in early 1982 when producer Fred Brogger suggested Tom Stoppard write “a television film” (Stoppard 1987, 9) about the turmoil in Poland in the early 1980s – the strike movement that had emerged in 1979, the rise of the trade union Solidarity headed by Lech Walesa, the imposition of martial law and the advent of General Wojciech Jaruzelski. Squaring the Circle was directed by Mike Hodges and broadcast on Channel 4 on 31 May 1984. The play was unfortunately never released on VHS or DVD and has since fallen through the cracks of television history. In his lengthy introduction to the play, Stoppard highlights the problems which he was faced with when writing about the past events as he seamlessly felt he was becoming a historian of sorts, throwing into sharp relief the paradox that lies at the heart of historiography: writing about real events (history) while, at the same time, rewriting, recreating events which have been irretrievably lost (fiction). Fred Brogger provided Stoppard with a wealth of materials “tens of thousands of facts about Poland” (Stoppard 1987, 9), leaving the playwright at a loss as to what had to be done with all these documents, thus focusing on the interaction between the historian and his source material. Stoppard recalls that “[m]any of Lech Walesa’s statements were on record, some of them actually on tape, a state of affairs which tempted one towards documentary reconstruction without the possibility of fulfilment” (Stoppard 1987, 9). The term fulfilment is, I believe, of critical importance here as it poses the question of interpretation and reinterpretation of past events on stage, and questions the way in which the playwright’s imagination fills in the gaps and cracks of the historical narrative as the play holds the promise of more even though it may be rightly argued that the ratio between fact and fiction is not the same in both fields. Consequently, the historian or playwright, on the basis of the available documentation at hand, presents his “authorized version” (Rokem 2000, 6) of the past while being at the same time a “story teller” or to paraphrase Aulus Gellius’s description of Greek Historian Herodotus: a Homo Fabulator (Gellius 1967, III, x, 11, 168).

4Another problem was clearly formulated by Stoppard while the preliminary work was unfolding in February 1982, and transcribed in the minutes of the preparatory meetings. The issue at stake concerned the audience’s reception of the play:

The principal problem, [Tom feels], is that we don’t know what happened and what was said […]. Whatever he portrays will be taken as fact rather than as “fiction” by the audience unless there is some form of disclaimer or dramatic device which will make it clear […]. (Stoppard 1987 9).

  • 3 The term was coined by Derek Paget in 1987 when describing a form of documentary theatre thats uses (...)

5Stoppard’s concern about perspective and point of view sheds light on the notion of subjectivity which is at the core of any narrative. In the case of Squaring the Circle the narrative, which engages in the ongoing ideological debates that took place in the late seventies and early eighties about the political violence and repression in the Soviet Union and its satellite countries, clearly reveals the playwright’s political opinion. The play being a television play, it is tempting to assimilate it to television docudramas that integrate witnesses into the reporter’s discourse. Documentary theatre sprang from the tradition of theatrical realism or as Rokem observes, by “presenting a ʻsliceʼ of almost contemporary life or reality on the stage” (Rokem 2000, 7). In Stoppard’s opinion, “Documentary fiction, by definition, is always in danger of seeming to claim to know more than a film maker can know. Accurate detail mingles with arty detail, without distinguishing marks, and history mingles with good and bad guesses” (Stoppard 1987, 9). This clearly poses the question of translating verbatim material into dramatic material, while dealing with the playwright’s desire to create drama that would stand in the vanguard of the political debate. In many ways Stoppard’s television play shares some characteristics with “Verbatim Theatre”3. I am thinking here of issue-oriented playwright David Hare’s play Stuff Happens (2004). Hare decribes his play as a “history play, which happens to centre on very recent history” (Hare 2004, quoted from the Author’s Note). A play he claims is not a documentary. Likewise, Stoppard’s play engages the audience’s mind in a speculation on recent historical events. It addresses the following question: “was freedom as defined by the free trade union Solidarity reconcilable with Socialism as defined by the Eastern European Communist bloc?” (Stoppard 1987, 10). A question that, according to the playwright, can only imply a negative answer hence the title of the play. The play thus clearly emphasizes the author’s bias on the subject.

  • 4 Although Stoppard was to impersonate the narrator, for financial reasons the play was produced by M (...)
  • 5 Director Mike Hodges suggested that “this character ought to be five different characters” (Stoppar (...)

6Stoppard believes that the difference between fact and what he calls “myth” (Stoppard 1987, 10) would probably be a source of confusion for the audience when interpreting the events. As a consequence, this “led [him] to the idea of having a narrator with acknowledged fallibility” (Stoppard 1987, 10). As a result, the “fallible narrator” (Stoppard 1987, 10) whether on or off camera “expressed opinions, purported to know the facts, and evidently had a thesis about freedom and socialism. In an obvious sense he was myself” (Stoppard 1987, 10-11)4. Consequently, he fulfills throughout the play the functions of an authorial narrator. The so-called fallible narrator was in the script’s third draft flanked by a character, referred to as Witness5, “who in different guises periodically interrupted and corrected the narrator” (Stoppard 1987, 12) when the latter veered off-piste, mediating the events through a narrative discourse. Stoppard’s television play muses therefore with the idea that a play is by definition “stories with multiple narrators [that] open up the perspective” (Farris & Morlan 2013, 247) of the audience. Stoppard’s observations call for the analysis of point of view. The “metadramatic ‘frame narrator’” (Fludernik 2008, 357) plays a central role in the play’s unfolding as he focalises events and settings, while keeping up a running commentary on the action of the play itself. This self-reflexive dramatic strategy is close to cinematic narration which seems rather normal as we are considering a television play. The narrator’s role is, as in Hare’s play, to present the setting. Yet, as I previously mentioned, contrary to the one in Hare’s play, Stoppard’s narrator is regularly interrupted by a Pole – referred to as Witness – who corrects some of his mistakes and explains to the audience the most important aspects of everyday life, history and politics in Poland. The narrator introduces the play’s setting as follows:

Towards the end of July 1980 Edward Giriek, First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party, which is to say the boss of Communist Poland, left Warsaw for his annual holiday in the Soviet Union by the Black Sea. There he met […] Leonid Brezhnev, First secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR.” (Stoppard 1987, 19)

7At the outset of the play, he immediately warns the audience, in a rather humorous manner, that they are watching the reconstruction of historical events that a large swathe of the audience was familiar with at the time. As a result, the play’s metadramatic inflection involves the audience in the action unfolding before their eyes:

  • 6 A sentence the narrator will repeat at the end of the play as, to put in Joycean terms, he circles (...)

That isn’t them, of course – and this isn’t the Black Sea. Everything is true except the words and the pictures. If there was a beach, Brezhnev and Giriek probably didn’t talk on it, and if they did, they would probably wouldn’t have been wearing, on a beach in July, those hats and coats and lace-up shoes which you get for being a Communist leader […] (my emphasis, Stoppard 1987, 27-28)6

  • 7 Narrator: (To camera) see pages 27, 30, 31, 40, 57…

8The staging also includes direct addresses to the audience which enhance their willingness to see the actors as real people which is, after all, a critical part of the ritual experience of theatre. The narrator repeatedly breaks the fourth wall as he talks directly to the audience7. Stoppard’s recourse to this narrative strategy serves not only to focus the audience’s attention but also to show that the author is not treading neutral grounds. Moreover, direct addresses to the audience disrupt the theatrical illusion as they result in direct encounters between the characters and the spectators. Consequently, direct addresses, which are of great importance in docudramas, open up a breach between the realms of fiction and reality awakening the spectators’ political and moral consciousness. As a result, the audiences’ political consciousness is poised against the bleak reality of the events taking place behind the Iron Curtain, enabling the playwright to elicit a greater emotional response from the spectators.

Performing History and Politics

9I now wish to dwell on the significance and relevance of historical events in the context of dramatic arts and the way in which the playwright performs history in his play. Stoppard’s history plays on the Cold War try to capture the Zeitgeist of the world we live in and say something relevant about it. They may therefore be viewed as a form of resistance to and critique of the official perception of historical events. Performing history – the metatheatrical awareness regarding the stage as representation of history – is central to Stoppard’s history plays as they show directly “on stage how performances about history are constructed” (Rokem 2000, 7). It is also a means for the playwright to present the audience with events that have actually taken place. Hence, like the actors performing historical figures, the spectators become in turn the witnesses of history as it unwinds before their eyes on stage. The theatrical performance that constructs its own meaning provides the viewers with a means to imagine what the lives of those living behind the Iron Curtain were like. The playwright’s purpose is clearly to awaken the spectator’s political and historical consciousness.

  • 8 Shipwreck is the second play in Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia trilogy about the exiled political and p (...)

10Since the spectrum of issues and events in the play are very broad, I will briefly examine three aspects that reflect Stoppard’s views on totalitarianism and its consequences. While the play offers a snapshot of Polish history, it brings into stark relief the historical importance of geography. History is not intelligible without geography which explains why Stoppard incorporates the map motif to explain the past. The motif is recurrent throughout his history plays. The playwright insists on the power of maps as instruments that serve political and strategic interests, as the character of Sazonov reminds Herzen in Shipwreck8: “History is being made right across the map” (Stoppard, 2002 167). In his Cold War plays, maps add another perspective to the historical context, as they convey a sense of spatial reality to the unfolding of chronological events, helping the viewers to visualize the historical context as the map externalizes the consequences of the Soviet repression making present a physical and human reality that bears on the viewer’s perception of things. The play also throws into relief the role played by the dissenting intellectuals in the unfolding of the events, while shedding light on the corruption and cynicism of the apparatchiks and the yawning credibility gap between the rulers and the Polish people.

  • 9 The play is divided into four parts: Part One: The First Secretary; Part Two: Solidarity; Part Thre (...)
  • 10 While Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is clearly not a history play, it nevertheless highligh (...)

11In the eleventh scene of Part I (“The First Secretary”)9, the witness reminds the audience about Poland’s troubled relationship with Russia, a relation which dates back to the eighteenth century. Until then, Poland had been “for 300 years […] the biggest and freest country in the Middle Europe, spanning the continent from the Baltic almost to the Black Sea and reaching hundreds of miles east into modern Russia” (Stoppard 1987, 35). The witness then goes on to describe how the country has been dismantled by Austria, Prussia and Russia (“dismember[ed] the country” (Stoppard 1987, 36)). As a result of which “Poland disappeared” (Stoppard 1987, 36). Stoppard had previously addressed the consequences of States disappearing from maps as they were erased by Soviet cartographers. As a consequence, they passed into oblivion, literally vanishing from History itself. Whatever is not visible on the map disappears, has no means of representation and therefore simply does not exist. Interestingly, time and space collide here creating a kind of spatialization of time. In one of his earlier television plays – Neutral Ground (1968) – the character of Philo refers to the Soviets’ cartographical practices of falsifying maps that were filled with military secrets. The purpose of this falsification was to induce a sense of confusion among their Western “enemies”. This geographical scheming, which erased or displaced names on maps, was the result of what the character of Guildenstern refers to as “a conspiracy of cartographers” in Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Stoppard 2000 [1967], 99)10. A conspiracy that had dramatic consequences on both historical and human planes. Needless to remind one that the questions of identity and individual freedom are central to Stoppard’s œuvre, and his Cold War plays take on a truly political dimension by providing a direct critique of Marxism and the Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. But more than the ideological aspect of the situation it is, I believe, the totalitarian nature of the regime that the playwright wishes to denounce.

  • 11 In the opening chapter (Where Are You Central Europe?) of his book entitled Any Souvenirs? Central (...)

PHILO: We’re not on the maps anymore. The Russians, you know… They saved us in the war, that’s how it started, and now they have saved us out of existence.
Now my country doesn’t even show on your maps. The tanks have been followed by the map-makers […] (Stoppard 1993, 90 and 93)11

12By erasing names of places, the Soviets deprived hundreds of thousands of people from their own personal and cultural identities. When depicting the consequences of the Soviet intervention after the Summer of Prague in 1968, the character of Jan observes in Rock’n’Roll (2006):

JAN: There are no stories in Czechoslovakia. […] We’ve had no history since ’68, only pseudo-history. (Stoppard 2006, 71-72)

13Jan pinpoints here the take-over of history by the Soviet regime after the Summer of Prague. As a result, the Soviets presented a distorted view of the past that dispossessed the inhabitants of the so-called satellite countries of their own history, by presenting an official narrative which expressed the facticity of Socialist “reality” in Iron Curtain Europe, preventing the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe from connecting with their past and, as a result, depriving them of an identity.

14In Squaring the Circle, maps are alluded to in the stage directions. They are more than mere inert representations of places or events, whose meanings are fixed. The maps clearly stand in this scene as symbols of State authority and control:

There is a map table and maps and city plans on the walls. Half a dozen high-ranking MILITARY OFFICERS are crowded round the table. JARUZELSKI is among them, using a pointer to indicate different parts of the map. (Stoppard 1987, 85)

15Having considered Stoppard’s spatial representation of historical events and the way in which maps become sites in which the viewers confront the past, I shall now consider how Stoppard deals with the political sense of the event by making use of documentary to embrace the “real” (Reinelt, 2009 21) when depicting how the dissenters challenged totalitarian power in an effective and meaningful way, while staging the corruption of the apparatchiks.

16The focus on intellectuals illustrates the change that had taken place in Stoppard’s approach to drama from the late 1970s onwards. His plays “were seen”, as Joan Juliet Buck observes, “as harbingers of a new political Stoppard” (Buck 1994, 167). Sociologist Helena Flam claims that “[i]ntellect and dissent usually go together” (Flam 1999, 19). The role of the dissenting intellectuals as a force to be dealt with by the authorities is alluded to by Narrator, who refers to their growing importance:

[Jacek] Kuron and fourteen others were arrested on August 20th. For Gierek the subversive influence of the intellectual mavericks was the single most important factor underlying the Polish crisis. (Stoppard 1987, 41)

17They progressively came into existence by names which in turn morphed unobtrusively into faces, and eventually into real people:

Narrator (Voice over): The names and faces multiply, and there were many more than these. (Stoppard 1987, 51)

18The intellectuals’ activities were multifaceted as they assisted the persecuted and mobilized domestic and foreign opinions. By revealing the political situation, which the Communist regimes had kept under wraps for years, the intellectuals demonstrated that it was finally possible not only to break the Communist party’s information monopoly, but also to disrupt its repressive system. They had become visible in the West even though, as Narrator observes, “the outside world never did get [their names] right” (Stoppard 1987, 52). They had grown as a political force over the years and their role was crucial in the wide range of burning social and political issues that were emerging in Poland at the dawn of the eighties:

Narrator: The Polish intellectuals played no part in the rebellion in 1970 which brought Edward Giriek to power. But in ’76, when Giriek had to survive the first rebellion of his own, Kuron and others, shocked by the brutal police repression, formed the Workers Defence Committee. (Stoppard 1987, 40)

19The play also voices critiques against the Communist regime as it shifts focus on the corruption of the elites highlighting once more the play’s political nature. The dignitaries and bureaucrats are depicted as living in a world of their own, where they are constantly discussing real-world events in a rather abstract manner. The topic of corruption is alluded to in the discussion between Edward Giriek and Maciej Szczepanski concerning the privileges granted to the Chairman of the State Committee for Radio and Television. Giriek ironically remarks: “How many houses? An aeroplane. A yacht. A health club staffed by young women with unusual qualifications” (Stoppard 1987, 39).

20The play then goes on to show how the leaders have completely lost touch with the reality of everyday life, when Walesa observes:

Do you think they’re on strike because they want to overthrow the Party? No, they’re on strike because work brings no reward, and it doesn’t look as if the Government knows what to do about it. They get up in the dark to stand in line for hours to buy a pair of shoes the wrong size so that they may have something to barter for a piece of meat – which turns out to be rotten. They appeal to you, and you say – oh, we can’t help it, these anarchists are making life impossible. (Stoppard 1987, 85-86)

21As the play unfolds, the crumbling of the system becomes more and more obvious, while the people’s demand for more democracy is building up:

BARCIKOWSKI: In Szczecin they make thirty-six demands, beginning with free independent parties.
GIEREK: You mean unions.
BARCIKOWSKI: No. Parties. Political parties.
GIEREK: This is becoming grotesque. (Stoppard 1987, 44)

The Tell-Tale Eye of History

22With hindsight, the Polish events depicted in Stoppard’s play reveal not only the general instability and fragmentation of the Party’s own internal instability but they also throw light on the first cracks in the Soviet empire and foreshadow the break-up of the empire that will occur at the end of the 1980s. The playwright’s documentary-based drama exposes the reality of the situation in Poland, a “reality [that] is understood as ideological” (Tomlin, 2016 4). As a consequence, the theatrical fiction raises the audience’s historical and political awareness.

23The play clearly brings to light the fact that the system is based on “a sham society built on propaganda” (Stoppard 1987, 56), a point made in an earlier scene of the play when Giriek is giving a television speech sitting in front of a snug office bookcase. When the transmission ends, Giriek is seen sliding his chair back. The chair knocks over the mock bookcases signaling that everything in the television play is merely a façade, like the Polish regime itself.

KURON: I said it was a revolution. The trick is to make it a self-limiting revolution. The Party must keep the leading role

[BOGDAN] LIS: I’m still a Party member. Lenin said the unions were the connection between the Party and the workers.

KURON: And with a union controlled by the Party there’s no problem. (Stoppard 1987, 54-55)

24The signing of the Gdansk agreement had thrown into light the flaws of the system, while paradoxically signaling the end of the “revolution”:

NARRATOR: The usual ventriloquist act had fallen apart. The dummy had come to life. (Stoppard 1987, 56)

25The citizens, who were subjected to ventriloquial monitoring, were trying to regain control of their own voice. The act of illusion was showing its limits as the play progressively unveiled the reality that lay behind the system, by deconstructing the official history. Consequently, the theatrical performance engages the audience in the historical reality, by recreating something which has been irretrievably lost, providing them with a unique and evanescent experience during which, for the time of the play, the spectator of the 1980s could become a witness of his/her own life. As the character of Tsescha observes in the very closing lines of Hanoch Levin’s play Shitz (1975): “If I didn’t know we were living through history, I wouldn’t be able to hold on.” (Levin 2020, 140). Theatre is, according to Marvin Carlson, a simulacrum of the history process (Carlson 2001, 2). Consequently, the spectators become involved in the events they see unfolding on stage. It is as if “[the events they see on stage] were directly connected to their own lives” (Reinelt 2009, 11).

26Stoppard’s play provides the viewers with a sense of historicity. As the playwright unravels the complex and ambiguous nature of historical facts by shedding light on the regime’s political machination, he contributes to the expansion of public participation in the ideological and political debate. The spectators are drawn into the events that are unfolding on stage before their eyes. Consequently, the playwright manages somehow to establish a dialectical relationship between History and the spectators’ own personal stories. As they are drawn into the play, the audience find themselves in a situation in which they are compelled to take sides.

  • 12 The doctrine, which was a response to the Prague Spring, called on the Soviet Union to intervene mi (...)

27The regime is losing control as it is finally confronted with reality, while the Party’s inadequacies are revealed in broad daylight. Yet, the system is still able to react one last time and manages to preserve itself from the people’s will. Gierek has disappeared (Narrator: “The other odd thing was that the First Secretary, Edward Giriek, was missing, and there was no news of him” Stoppard 1987, 56) and has been replaced by Stanisław Kania, whose intervention on television marked the end of the revolution as the letter Brezhnev addresses to him attests to “Dear Kania get things back to normal or we’ll be down on you as a ton of bricks” (Stoppard 1987, 57). While the darkly humorous tone of the letter clearly refers to the Brezhnev Doctrine12, it also serves as an “instructive scene” (Piscator, 1980 91) whose purpose is to educate and inform the audience on the bleak reality of Poland’s situation.

  • 13 In the play, Stoppard often uses the song titles as a means of expressing an atmosphere or describi (...)

28At the end of the play, Kuron’s analysis of the situation points to the end of the Cold War – “Ideology is as dead as Lenin” (Stoppard 1987, 95) – and announces the themes Stoppard will be exploring in his latest play on the Cold War: Rock’n’Roll (2006), a play that may well be viewed as the playwright’s afterthought on the conflict. At the end of the play, a year after the Velvet Revolution (16 December – 29 December 1989), which marked the fall of 41 years of Communism, Jan, Esme, Ferdinand and Magda – the play’s main characters – are at a Rolling Stones’ concert in Prague in August 1990. The stage directions indicate that “[t]he present concert noise starts on the first track of the Rolling Stones’ live album No Security” (Stoppard 2006, 111)13. The Communist Bloc had disappeared, and the bipolar world that had existed since 1945 was giving way to a multipolar one, in which people were having trouble to find their place. Despite the global tensions and local conflicts due to the Cold War, if one could not really talk about a feeling of safety, one at least had the impression of knowing were things stood. By contrast, today’s world conveys a sense of growing insecurity.


  • 14 My translation from the French: “une autre prise de vue du monde lui-même” (Sartre 1972 103).

29In Berlin (2009), David Hare wonders “What do we do about the past?” (Hare 2009, 5) What place is more appropriate than the theatron to watch, examine and reflect upon the past? A place that implies a view, a space for thinking. Critics such as Niloufer Harben have observed that the spectators believe in an illusion and forget that, in order to maintain it, they must always remain outsiders who are fixed in a position of created distance. The directness of the stage performance being more potent, we may therefore assume that the message conveyed in the play was far more effective than if the audience had merely read about these events in the newspapers, heard about them on the radio or saw them on television. The ubiquity of the authorial voice clearly indicates Stoppard’s self-implication in the ideological debate that was taking place at the time, playing his part as an intellectual in the Sartrian sense of the word, namely someone offering “another view of the world itself” (Sartre 1972, 103)14.

30The characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Stoppard’s first major play, which is by no means a history play, are caught up in the play’s web, and are portrayed as helplessly witnessing events within the text/story, events they are unable to really comprehend because they lack a sense of distance, which is constantly preventing them from reaching the margins of the play. They are unable to distance themselves from the unfolding events. By contrast, Stoppard’s history plays highlight the critical importance of history in modern and post-modern drama and convey a sense of perspective to the reader-spectator. As the character of Herzen observes in the second play (Shipwreck) of the The Coast of Utopia’s trilogy (2002):

HERZEN: History itself is the main character of the drama, and also its author. We are all in the history which proceeds by zigzags, or, as we say, dialectically […]. (Stoppard, 2002 173)

  • 15 Carol Martin observes that “documentary theatre is about truth” (Martin, 2009 75).

31Stoppard’s dialectics combined with the playwriting strategies he deploys throughout the play create a meaningful synthesis between the spectator’s identity as a citizen and a world of institutionalized oppression, “the world beyond the theatre” (Tomlin, 2016 141), beyond the Iron Curtain. While exposing the situation of the Poles under Communist rule, Stoppard offers the viewers not only a theatrical representation of the “real”, but he also provides his own theatrical version of truth15. As we read or watch the play today, the past reappears through the historical figures of Leonid Brezhnev, Lech Walesa, or General Jaruzelski. As a consequence, there is clear sense that history is being performed once more as we watch the events unfolding before our eyes. Though the events depicted in the play have gradually whittled away with time, the stage becomes a site for remembering and reassessing the past. It “represents the site and the occasion for the transformation of memory into history, the individual into the collective, the particular into the universal” (Savran, 2000 589).

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Bull, John. New British Political Dramatists: Howard Brenton, David Hare, Trevor Griffiths and David Edgar. London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd, 1984.

Carlson, Marvin. The Haunted House. The Theatre as Memory Machine. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001.

Farris Madelyn and Morlan Anna. “Bring on the Velvet Revolution: The Politics of Individual Subjectivity in Tom Stoppard’s Rock’N’Roll”. In The Many Facets of Storytelling: Global Reflections on Narrative Complexity. Eds Melanie Roshe, Jennifer Jean Infanti, Nina Sabnani and Mahesh Nivargi, Leiden: Brill, 2013. 243-250.

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1 This article is greatly indebted to Niloufer Harben’s compelling study on history plays.

2 Although one should probably not overstate the influence of the Cold War on British literature and drama, the conflict nevertheless played an important role in shaping cultural and philosophical expression in the period. From the late fifties to the mid-sixties, Lawrence Durrell had published a trilogy of collected satirical pieces. These “Memoirs” of a senior diplomat who goes by the name of “Antrobus” – Esprit de Corps (1957), Stiff Upper Lip (1958) and Sauve Qui Peut (1966) – offer a humorous, yet condescending vision of Central and Eastern Europe as seen from an English diplomat’s point of view. While poking fun at diplomats and the diplomatic corps, Durrell’s stories take place in the fictional Central European country of Vulgaria (Bulgaria) which is described as a rather backward country to say the least. The Cold War was also a guiding influence for authors such as John Le Carré, whose novels inspired a certain number of Stoppard’s plays – The Dog It Was That Died (1982) or Hapgood (1988) – or George Mikes who, like Stoppard, was born in Central Europe.

3 The term was coined by Derek Paget in 1987 when describing a form of documentary theatre thats uses/makes use of tape-recorded material from the “real life” originals of the characters and events to which it gives dramatic shape. Verbatim theatre was also termed a theatre of public dialogue and democracy (Heddon 2009, 128).

4 Although Stoppard was to impersonate the narrator, for financial reasons the play was produced by Metromedia network that wanted a figure (Richard Crenna) the American public could relate to.

5 Director Mike Hodges suggested that “this character ought to be five different characters” (Stoppard 1987, 12).

6 A sentence the narrator will repeat at the end of the play as, to put in Joycean terms, he circles the square. Narrator: (Voice over) “Everything is true except the words and pictures” (Stoppard 1987, 90).

7 Narrator: (To camera) see pages 27, 30, 31, 40, 57…

8 Shipwreck is the second play in Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia trilogy about the exiled political and philosophical forerunners of the Russian Revolution.

9 The play is divided into four parts: Part One: The First Secretary; Part Two: Solidarity; Part Three: Congress and Part Four: The General.

10 While Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is clearly not a history play, it nevertheless highlights Stoppard’s interest in the dramatic use of maps and mapping.

11 In the opening chapter (Where Are You Central Europe?) of his book entitled Any Souvenirs? Central Europe Revisited (1971), George Mikes, who was an English writer of Hungarian origin, also expressed his concern about countries being erased out of existence: “When the Iron Curtain descended, Central Europe ceased to exist. People go on talking of Western and Eastern Europe but the Centre has gone. […] Central Europe seems to be unlamented, even forgotten, except by me.”, George Mikes, Any Souvenirs? Central Europe Revisited, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973, 9.

12 The doctrine, which was a response to the Prague Spring, called on the Soviet Union to intervene militarily or otherwise in satellite countries where socialist rule was deemed under threat. The doctrine is explained a little later on in the play by Brezhnev as he addresses a German Minister from the German Democratic Republic: “[…] You see, a Communist Party which cannot defend itself is no damn use, that is the problem. If it cannot defend itself, it must be defended” (Stoppard 1987, 66).

13 In the play, Stoppard often uses the song titles as a means of expressing an atmosphere or describing a situation within the play’s diegesis.

14 My translation from the French: “une autre prise de vue du monde lui-même” (Sartre 1972 103).

15 Carol Martin observes that “documentary theatre is about truth” (Martin, 2009 75).

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Jean Du Verger, « Writing, rewriting and revisiting the Cold War in Tom Stoppard’s Squaring the Circle. Poland 1980-81 (1984) »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 31 | 2021, mis en ligne le 15 janvier 2022, consulté le 01 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Jean Du Verger

ENSMM (Besançon)

Jean Du Verger is currently teaching English for Engineering at ENSMM in Besançon. He was a course lecturer at the Sorbonne. He defended his doctoral thesis on Tom Stoppard at the Sorbonne University under Professor Élisabeth Angel-Perez’s supervision. He has authored articles on Shakespeare’s works and published three articles in Moreana, as well as various articles on TV series and the countercultural movement in the United States. His latest publications deal with popular music (David Bowie and Bob Dylan).

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