I write plays in order to contradict myself in public,’ said Sir Tom Stoppard epigrammatically as he delivered the 21st Richard Hillary Memorial Lecture. Stoppard was introduced as a ‘national treasure’, a title which, despite sounding stickily sweet, cannot be shrugged off: the playwright’s work in writing for radio, theatre, and film have produced classics such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1966), Travesties (1974), Arcadia (1993), and The Coast of Utopia (2002), plays which have been intellectually stimulating and verbally pyrotechnical, but also popular.
Hailed by the president of Trinity, Sir Ivor Roberts, as an internationally acclaimed playwright, Stoppard modestly assured his audience that he was not an ‘internationally acclaimed lecturer’. Speaking anecdotally on ‘The Pragmatic Art’, Stoppard read a conversation from his play Travesties, during which the historical figure Henry Carr wonders at the fact that ‘artists are members of a privileged class. Art is absurdly overrated by artists, which is understandable, but what is strange is that it is absurdly overrated by everyone else.’ Stoppard quoted his character Carr’s statement that out of 1000 people, there are 900 who do the work, 90 who do well, nine who do good, and one ‘lucky bastard’ who gets to be the artist.
What does an artist do? Stoppard asked. How does one justify being an artist? What does it mean to be an artist during a moment of war? (Here he was playing tribute to Richard Hillary, author of The Last Enemy, who was a pilot killed during the Battle of Britain.) Stoppard did not answer these questions, but did admit – in his acknowledged role as Great British Playwright and Great Artist – his unease with the generous socio-cultural assumption that his role is worth preserving. Stoppard meandered into a weighing-in on the moral role of the artist, and the theatre as ‘event’, without losing his audience. His lecture resembled a self-conscious and knowing conversational monologue rather than oration, and was all the better for it.
In her conclusion to the lecture, Professor Hermione Lee, president of Wolfson College, read Isaiah Berlin’s tribute to Aleksandr Herzen (who was appropriately a character in Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia) and praised Stoppard’s ‘opulence of intellect’.
For a man whose plays are poised between moral drama and farce, which comfortably pairs Beckett and Shakespeare, Romantic poetry and thermodynamics, dandies and Dadaists, secret agents and the laws of probability, Stoppard embodies his belief that intellectual generosity is a moral necessity.