Tom Stoppard: Still Fooling With Us After All These Years

In the Daily Mail this morning, I came across this headline: Sir Tom Stoppard admits inventing a quote from a fake professor to go in the programme for one of his most famous plays. Stoppard is one of my favorite playwrights, so I followed the link, even though the idea of Stoppard inventing a quote by a fake professor is not exactly a shock. This was the story:

Playwright Sir Tom Stoppard has admitted making up a quote in the programme of one of his most famous plays, and then making up a professor to say it.

Sir Stoppard – the man behind Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and The Real Thing – made the revelation while speaking at the Althorp Literary Festival this week.

While writing the programme for the play Arcadia – which premiered at the National Theatre in 1993 – the playwright couldn’t find a quote that adequately expressed what he wanted to say.

So he made one up instead.

‘In the end I couldn’t find a quotation which quite said what I meant,’ he said. ‘So then I made it up and attributed it to a professor whom I also made up.

‘And then I kind of sat back and waited for somebody to [notice], but it hasn’t happened to this day.

Here is the program:


DM explains:

It reads: ‘Romanticism is an idea which needed a classical mind to have it.’

Sir Stoppard attributes it to the fictional J.F. Shade, who he claims lived between 1898 and 1959.

Well: Stoppard may have made up the quote, but he didn’t make up the professor. J.F. Shade is John Francis Shade, the poet in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Shade, the fictional author of the poem “Pale Fire,” was born on July 5, 1898, and was murdered on July 21, 1959, in an apparent case of mistaken identity.

How about the quote? It isn’t in Pale Fire, but Nabokov may have said it somewhere. If so, I haven’t readily been able to find it. Be that as it may, Stoppard evidently borrowed the identity of J.F. Shade as a tribute to Nabokov, one of the few literary figures who is as much a trickster as Stoppard himself.

I haven’t seen Arcadia performed, but having read a bit about the play, it has some similarities to Pale Fire. Then there are these lines from Arcadia:

He says his aim is poetry. One does not aim at poetry with pistols. At poets, perhaps.

At the Althorp Literary Festival, Stoppard expressed frustration that “to this day,” he has “waited for somebody to notice” his joke. If anyone out there knows Stoppard, you can let him know that someone finally got it.

The opening lines of John Shade's most famous poem, "Pale Fire"

The opening lines of John Shade’s most famous poem, “Pale Fire”


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