Tom Stoppard and Andre Previn on Every Good Boy Deserves Favour

Posted: 8 Ιανουαρίου, 2009 in Previn André, Stoppard Tom


When the playwright Tom Stoppard and the conductor André Previn joined forces in 1977 to create a show called Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, no one knew quite what to expect. They weren’t even sure themselves. Stoppard, then 40, had enjoyed huge success with comedies such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. At 47, Previn was the most famous classical musician in the country, and was nearing the end of a triumphant 12-year stint as the principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.Stoppard’s reputation was as a comic writer, but his vision was darkening. Like Previn, he had fled Europe as a boy with his Jewish family, leaving his native Czechoslovakia for Singapore on the day the Nazis invaded. In that same year, 1939, Previn’s family left Berlin for America. In 1977 Stoppard visited the Soviet Union and was disturbed by the treatment of dissidents.

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, which is being revived at the National Theatre in January, came out of this experience. It had its premiere at the Royal Festival Hall in London, with a cast that included Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. It concerns two cellmates in a mental hospital in the former Soviet Union, both called Ivanov. One has been locked up for dissidence, the other for a schizophrenic condition that leads him to believe that he controls a symphony orchestra. It is a haunting and bleakly funny piece of work.

Alan Franks: It’s more than 30 years since Every Good Boy Deserves Favour was first performed. It was an unusual notion, wasn’t it – a play for six actors and a 95-piece symphony orchestra? Whose idea was it?

André Previn: It was mine. Well, it is true that I approached Tom, although my idea was only to do some kind of theatre evening in which the entire London Symphony Orchestra would play music, which I would construct, to Tom’s play. So I called him and, by God, he said yes. After that there were…

Tom Stoppard: Yes, after that there was a long pause because I said yes to the opportunity without having any way of using it.

AP: But you did have a wonderful joke for it.

TS: Did I?

AP: About the millionaire who owned an orchestra.

TS: Well, I did have enough nous to know it would have to be about an orchestra in some way. Simply to have 95 musicians accompanying one of my deathless pieces would be somewhat hubristic. So I was trying to think of a story that necessitated an orchestra, rather than simply having this orchestra as the most amazing luxury. It got to a point where I thought the orchestra could be in the millionaire’s imagination – and perhaps he wasn’t entirely stable. At which point he didn’t actually have to be a millionaire either. Except in his imagination.

AP: But you did have that one idea, about the orchestra having been brainwashed so that every time he said “grapefruit” they started playing.

TS: Oh crikey, yes, he was a grapefruit millionaire. I don’t know why, but you’re right, he was. It was a whimsical piece which never got as far as being written down.

AF: Did you [Previn] have any idea of what you wanted him to come up with?

AP: No, no, I wouldn’t presume. I just liked the way he wrote and I thought he would come up with something that would enable me to come up with something.

AF: And this turned out to be the case, In the end. This was because of your [Stoppard’s] growing concern for the plight of dissidents in the Soviet Union.

TS: Well, they [that issue and Previn’s proposal] coincided. And then Every Good Boy Deserves Favour began to be about something the moment I met a man called Victor Fainberg [in April 1976]. He had been declared insane, and two years earlier had come out of five years in the Soviet prison-hospital system. He was a friend of Vladimir Bukovsky [then still a psychiatric prisoner], and his main concern was to try to secure his release as well. I connected these things with André’s idea and then it got written fairly quickly.

AF: And you made a trip to Eastern Europe, with someone from Amnesty?

TS: Yes, I went to Moscow and Leningrad. I met a Russian dissident who scared the life out of me by taking me out into the snowy suburbs to an asylum and attracting the attention of the prisoners behind the bars, and I thought: ‘God, we’ll end up in jail.’ Shortly after that I went to Prague and met Vaclav Havel [fellow dramatist and President of the Czech Republic 1993-2003] for the first time. He was under house arrest.

AF: There is an anger that comes through the writing in EGBDF.

TS: I don’t quite remember how angry I was. I was certainly emotional about it. The whole thing upset me very much. One’s impotence.

AF: Did your feelings have anything to do with Czechoslovakia being your place of birth?

TS: It’s hard to answer that. I wasn’t consciously thinking: “I come from there, I must do something about it,” but I did have some kind of sentimental feel for that part of the world. But that was local. I didn’t feel remotely connected with Russia.

AF: When the play was written, what was the initial response?

AP: I remember I was worried that the orchestra, the focal point of the play, would be sitting on stage and not knowing what the hell was going on. So, if you recall, you had the cast play directly to the orchestra, and then they understood it.

TS: Yes. Because, rightly or wrongly, I was frightened of musicians, and remain frightened to this day. I thought they would be irritated by the demands one might make of them. You know, “Can you move your chair a little to the right.” I think it was your idea, André, or Trevor’s [Trevor Nunn, who directed EGBDF], to sit the orchestra down as our first audience. Anyway, it transformed everything, because after that they were all saying: “Shall I move the chair a little.”

AF: Are you frightened of Previn?

TS: A little.

AF: Why?

TS: For one thing there is a gulf between what he and I know about music.

AP: But also, a whole orchestra is always going to have a certain basis in cruelty.

AF: Does Previn have a reciprocal fear of Stoppard’s profession?

AP: The point is that [with orchestras] you’re coping with the reaction of 90 people all at once. Sure, if my music had struck the cast as poor or trivial, my feelings would have been hurt. But the loathing that a whole symphony orchestra has for a non-musician is pretty startling.

AF: The world looks different now than when the play was first performed. Will this affect your own, and the public’s reaction?

TS: One felt a certain futility about the whole exercise, this endless attempt to change the way people should be treated behind the Iron Curtain. When 1985 came, with glasnost and perestroika, and then 1989 and 1990, it seemed beyond anything I might have hoped or expected. I don’t think there was anyone in 1983 saying: “Don’t worry, in seven years none of this will be left.”

AP: They didn’t even think of it. One of my close friends is Vladimir Ashkenazy [the Russian pianist]. I asked him if he thought it would ever fall apart and he said: “Oh yes, but not in my lifetime.”

TS: Yes, where were the signs of dissolution in the Communist Party of the USSR?

AP: We went to a performance [of EGBDF] in Vienna. This must have been about 1978. At the end of it there was a hell of a row, with half of the audience in favour, and half against it. The director said to us, you have to come up on the stage. So we did, and as we appeared, there was vicious loud booing from 50 per cent of the crowd, while the other 50 per cent were getting wildly enthusiastic. I said: “Jesus, Tom, this is like a football match.” And he said: “Yes, but we are the football.”

TS: I have always been a bit defensive about my reflex being a comedic one all the time.

AP: What floored me about the play, and the orchestra too when they first heard it, was the way the most tragic moments have a joke in them.

TS: I think that if I had any conscious thought about idiom [for the play], I might have thought it’s a good thing that at last I’ve got a subject about which I can’t be funny, can’t keep on making jokes and puns.

AP: And yet you like that, because after the opening we went out to supper and I said: “Are you happy?” And you said: “Yes, very, because I have never been in a situation where 2,000 people at once are laughing at something I’ve written.”

AP: That is rather how I felt about Tennessee Williams [whose play A Streetcar Named Desire he made into an opera in 1997], because he could be very funny, but in the middle of the most breathtaking drama. You know, I asked Tom if he wanted to do the libretto, and there was a three-second pause, and he said no. I asked why and he said: “Because I don’t want to write words that won’t be heard.”

TS: It’s true. One thing I do want to say is that, as we sit here, the appalling phenomenon of people who have made themselves unpopular with a government being incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals is going on in exactly the same way, and in the same countries. I’ve been asked more than once, how does this play stack up now that the subject matter has dissappeared. But it hasn’t.

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour runs at the National Theatre, SE1 (020-7452 3000;, from Jan 12

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