Monday, January 14, 2013

One false move and we could have a farce on our hands. - Tom Stoppard on the razzle in Vienna

On the Razzle, a 1981 Tom Stoppard play, is efficient.  We are only fifteen pages in, a half hour at most, when Stoppard clears the stage of everyone but Zangler, a Viennese shopkeeper, who delivers a monologue:

ZANGLER:  Well, that seems all right.  Just the ticket.  First class.  Why do I have a sense of impending disaster?  (He reflects.)  Sonders is after my niece and has discovered the secret address where I am sending her to the safe keeping of my sister-in-law Miss Blumenblatt, who has never laid eyes on him, or, for that matter, on Marie either since she was a baby – while I have to leave my business in the charge of my assistant and an apprentice, and follow my new servant, whom I haven’t had time to introduce to anyone, to town to join the parade and take my fiancée to dinner in a fashionable restaurant in a uniform I can’t sit down in.

One false move and we could have a farce on our hands.  (He exits.)  (84)

I regard this as the height of courtesy, an author summarizing his own work, not only the plot but the method.  What else is a farce built of but this kind of needless complication?  Needless but comically potent, thus essential.

That assistant and apprentice use the absence of the owner to knock off early and hit the town, to go on the razzle, and somehow end up in the same restaurant as their boss, in the company of a woman who is, unknown to anyone, the above-mentioned boss’s fiancée, leading to – well, the usual stuff.  Leading to a scene where all of the characters flee a room “by different routes but with identical timing,” through every door and window and even “by the chimney, if possible.”

On the Razzle is full of puns ("I won't feel married until we've had the consommé") and spoonerisms and other gibberish, which I am told are a low form of humor.  The merchant has particular trouble with his cant phrases and can always use a little help:

ZANGLER:  Everything’s arranged…  He’s emptied my seal but his lips are pursed.  No – he pursed to suppose – no –

MELCHIOR:  Supper is served –

ZANGLER:  No! – Oh, supper is served! (121)

On stage the speed of the patter must make some high proportion of the jokes blast by, but as long as someone hears it and someone is laughing, soon enough everyone is laughing.  Since, I was reading, though, I had the privilege of laughing at every single joke, such as this one, where Melchior is applying for a job as Zangler’s servant:

ZANGLER:  You strike me as highly impertinent.

MELCHIOR:  I was just talking shop.  Please disregard it as the inexperience of blushful youth, as the poet said.

ZANGLER:  Do you have a reference?

MELCHIOR:  No, I just read it somewhere.  (78)

Foyle’s War fans will enjoy imagining Melchior as Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle, since Michael Kitchen originated the role.

The play is an adaptation but not at all a translation, Stoppard insists, of Johann Nestroy’s mid-19th century Austrian play Einen Jux will er sich machen, which means that I am kicking off my look at Austrian literature with a work that feels like cheating.


  1. The consommé line and the reference gag were both top notch yanks from Stoppard's faux-Austrian effort. If you have more of this sort of stuff lying around, feel free to continue to cheat away on your (non-) Austrian non-challenge hijinks.

  2. Sounds very good.

    Though I do read plays that are comical, sometimes I have trouble reading works like this as much of the humor really works best when performed.

  3. Maybe after reading enough gloomy, dreary, neurotic Austrian literature I will take a Stoppard vacation. Now that would be a good time.

    Brian, while reading a play, imagine that you are going to direct it, and design the set, and act in it, all the parts. The humor will work just fine. Reading is performance.