Epistemology and Ethics in Tom Stoppard's Professional Foul


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

In his television play Professional Foul Tom Stoppard achieves one of his most satisfying marriages of ·c omedy and ideas. Although much ado has been made about the new, politicized Tom Stoppard of Professional Foul, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, and Cahoot's Macbeth, Stoppard's unions of farce and philosophy have usually been played against backgrounds of political intrigue and theory in such plays as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Jumpers, and Travesties. The structure of Professional Foul is similar to the structure of these earlier plays in that the issues of Prague politics provide a background for the philosophy colloquium which occupies the foreground; moreover, the play's theme continues to reflect Stoppard's earlier priorities and illustrates his previous assertion that "all political acts must be judged in moral terms."1 Much more than a forum for Czechoslovakian dissident politics, Professional Foul is a culmination and clarification of the episte. mological and ethical issues that have always dominated Stoppard's important work. By using the moral crisis of a philosophy professor to explore the nature of categorical and hypothetical imperatives, Stoppard presents the problems encountered when man attempts to develop absolute moral principles in his desire to order knowledge and experience. Professor Anderson-like such earlier Stoppard characters as Rosencrantz, Guildenstem, and Lenin-allows his obsession with order to lead him to a disregard of human suffering and freedom. Through his experience with Prague politics, however, Anderson learns that the secure order provided by absolute moral principles must be sacrificed when the principles conflict with human rights and emotions.

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