Inspiration, and some of the places it can be found

Tom Stoppard. Sir Tom. Knighted by The Queen. The first play I saw of his was “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” It is a take on the two minor characters in “Hamlet” who try to lure the Prince to his death, but the luring goes awry. Hamlet finds their note sentencing him. He changes the names and they, when they land in England are toast. Hamlet doesn’t die: R and G do.

So what is Sir Tom’s take? The story is that when he was a young journalist in England, someone suggested to him that he write a play about these minors R and G.

That is what got him going. 

My theory is that there are only a few prompts, to use that recent education word, that get you going.

That suggestion to Sir Tom set him off on his career, and in fact, once he heard it, the whole play was written for him. Tumbled out. Every exit; another entrance. Over but the typing.

I think every playwright worth his balsamic has had that experience. A passing suggestion, perhaps meaningless to the expresser, and off one goes.

The Watergate hearings. Senator Sam Ervin (“I’m just a simple country lawyer.”, Chair; Sen. Howard Baker (“What did the President know and when did he know it?”, Vice-Chair.

I’m in New York by Lincoln Center.  I see my friend Michael Feingold, for 30 years plus the chief critic for the now defunct Village Voice, about to go into the subway.  Over his shoulder he says, “We’re doing a Watergate show at the Yale Rep.  Maybe you want to get involved.”

(Feingold, the smartest critic writing, never got the job with the Times b/c he’s just a tad too prickly. The Paper of Record’s loss, bigtime. Then after those 30 years plus, The Voice fires him and then they go under. The Voice which reviewed my first plays in New York at the Old Reliable Theater Tavern and Grille, on East 3rd between B and C, before they were even called Alphabet City, directed by M. Feingold, called my work “the worst of off-off-Broadway.” For years I could not even walk on the same side of the street where the Voice was being sold.  Allow me to say, Good riddance.) 

I went back to the Northwest Corner where I was living in an abandoned chicken coop near the Interlaken Inn.  No TV, but a radio set up in the window so I could lounge and take in the proceedings. I devoured every word, then wrote five skits, the most audacious called “Waiting for G,” a take on the Lucky speech from Becket’s GODot, transmogrified for Richard Nixon. Alvin Epstein, who had been the original Lucky on Broadway with Bert Lahr, did the 10-minute monologue. Alvin, one of the great actors of anyone’s lifetime, was out of his mind every night.

I felt a part of theater history, all because of an over-the-shoulder remark.

Philip Roth wrote the final segment of “Watergate Classics,” for Nixon who having been defeated refuses to leave office. The house lights came up and soldiers with guns came from the back. You think that didn’t come back around when Schlumpf was floating those rumors about not leaving? Hey, Pillow Guy, how’s about some Martial Law?

Back to Sir Tom. The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Sir Tom is holding forth for about 500 of us. Some smartass is grilling him on why he has had a sushi-fused meal backstage while the rest of us are munching Cheetos. And what does he do to prepare for these events? He, the torrent of words that he had poured forth for decades, is suddenly silent. After a long Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pause, he exhales “Silk Cut.” The English cigarette.

“ ‘The Sovereign State of Boogedy Boogedy’ is a wildly inventive celebration of language, modeled on Tom Stoppard, but grounded in jive vernacular.”  

About a play of mine in Chicago.  In the Trib. I have not smoked in more than 30 years, but a Silk Cut sounds pretty good right about now. Thank you, Sir Tom.

Lonnie Carter is a writer who lives in Falls Village. Email him at lonniety@comcast.net.

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