Article Title

Tom Stoppard's Artist Descending A Staircase: Outdoing the 'Dada' Duchamp


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

The title of Tom Stoppard's 1972 radio mystery Artist Descending A Staircase openly declares its kinship with Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending A Staircase, iconoclastic cause célèbre of the 1913 New York Armory Show. But the relationship is a little more than kin and less than kind, as might be expected of a playwright customarily given to parody, pastiche, and textual poaching of various kinds.1 Stoppard's wry style of borrowing from the visual arts surfaced one year earlier when he stole the jokes if not the iconographic fire from surrealist Magritte in the ambiguously titled farce After Magritte. The "afterness" or secondariness of Stoppard's play refers, it has been argued, not only to the narrative ordering of events that places the Harris family's appearance on stage after their visit to a Magritte exhibit but also to the playwright's taking after the "perceptual hermeneutics" of Magritte, according to which, in a nutshell, the Harrises are at once the subject and object of a perceptual mirage.2 But Stoppard's affinity with the hijinks of some Dada and Surrealist ·a rtists (and I am here presupposing the widely accepted view that Duchamp was one of the innocent grandfathers of Dada) does not prevent him from ridiculing their assumptions about the nature of art and the merits of anti-art.3 Stoppard's sense of coming after Duchamp, I would argue, entails the dual obligation to outplay him at his own game, to outjoke his jokes, while flattering the art that preceded his. Stoppard argues metaphorically in this play for a return to a particular moment in the art historical past when he believes a wrong turn was taken. Like his second-string philosopher George Moore of Jumpers, who wants to tum British philosophy back forty years when it "went off the rails," the post-pop Pre- Raphaelite Sophie of this play would like to tum art back to Turner and Constable and to the Pre-Raphaelites' portraits of idealized 'beauty ( also admired, incidentally, by Duchamp). Neither Moore nor Sophie, themselves vigorously parodied, speaks for implied playwright Stoppard. But they do dramatize one of the contradictions central to his plays: a conservative impulse to locate value in the past as this conflicts with a profound commitment to the ethics and aesthetics of the present. This contradiction may explain Stoppard's ambivalent attraction to the elusive Duchamp, whose own wish to supplant the "merely" visual painting called for by nineteenth-century realists earned him the name of a great experimenter.

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