Artist Descending A Staircase
by Tom Stoppard

Gordon House's introduction to his new production of Tom Stoppard's famous 1972 play, Radio 3, 10 Jan 2016; transcribed from the broadcast by ND.

Tom Stoppard's "Artist Descending A Staircase" was written for radio in 1972. It was directed by Tom's friend John Tydeman, the former Head of Radio Drama, who considered it to be one of the finest plays in Tom's long and distinguished career. The title is inspired by the title of Marcel Duchamp's painting "Nude Descending A Staircase, no. 2", which is widely regarded as a modernist classic, and the structure of the play mirrors the advancing repeated image of Duchamp's cubist futurist nude.

We meet the characters in a progression of scenes which freeze them in isolated moments of time, for this is a play constructed in an elegant palindrome; its first six scenes descend in intervals of hours and finally years, from 1972 to 1914, and the remaining five scenes return back up the chronological staircase to 1972, so we finish where we started, with an elderly artist lying dead on the floor, and his only two friends, themselves artists, each convinced that the other has murdered him.

If all that sounds intellectually intimidating, let me say that the reason I wanted to make a new production of 'Artist Descending' is that it completely gives the lie to the idea that Tom Stoppard is all cerebral fireworks with no real heart, for this is a play which, while very funny in places, is also very harrowing and heart-rending, with a failed love affairthat reverberates through the lives of all three of our central characters.

Artist Descending A Staircase is very much written for and as a tribute to the meaning of radio, the medium for which Tom Stoppard first started writing drama. There have been subsequent stage productions, but there are elements of the play which can only fully work in a sound-only medium. The 'virtual' horse we hear in one scene is a real one as far as the radio audience is concerned until we realise we're listening to coconut shells, although our coconut shells are so realistic they sound just like a horse, but on the stage, this is apparent from the outset.

This is a play which is steeped in paradox and misunderstanding. Nothing is quite what it appears to be. Our three artists constantly misinterpret what they see, what they hear and what they remember, and the one character with real insight into their lives is blind ...

12 Jan 2016


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