Sir Tom Stoppard, the Early Plays – Albert’s Bridge

Sir Tom Stoppard, the early plays.

5. Albert’s Bridge

Sir Tom Stoppard’s play Albert’s Bridge (Radio, 1967), develops similar themes to those of his earlier plays, concentrating specifically on the opposition between chaos and order. Like John Brown of A Separate Peace (1960), Albert cannot stand the chaos of everyday life, and seeks an escape into a more ordered existence. In A Separate Peace the problem was presented largely in terms of physical circumstances, the hospital being a world more ordered than the outside world. In Albert’s Bridge, the physical circumstances are equated with conceptual, or psychological factors, which belong to the subjective world of individual perception. Hence the peace of mind Albert finds high up among the geometrically ordered bridge girders, away from the human demands of his wife and child, is equated with the concept of seeing life from a distance, as opposed to seeing it close up.

Albert: ‘The banks are littered with various bricks, kiddiblocks with windows; dinky toys move through the gaps, dodged by moving dots that have no colour … It’s the most expensive toytown in the store – the detail is remarkable.’

Kate: I saw you today … coming out of the hairdressers. Six and six, I had it cut.

Albert: Just goes to show – if you get far enough away, six and sixpence doesn’t show, and nor does anything, at a distance.

Kate: Well, life is all close up isn’t it?

Albert: Yes, it hits you when you come back down. (pp. 22-23.)

This concept of varying perspective is reinforced by Frazer, a potential suicide who climbs the bridge in order to jump off. But from the heights of the bridge he escapes the pressure which caused his despair and therefore no longer wants to jump. Back on the ground the pressure builds up again and he climbs the bridge again, so he spends his time repeatedly ascending and descending the bridge. He explains:-

‘I can’t help it. I’m forced up and coaxed down. I’m a victim of perspective.’ (p.35.)

Albert becomes entirely dependent on his job and eventually abandons his wife and child in favour of the bridge. His family life is ruined by his hankering for order. His situation does not last though, the bridge finally collapses when 1,800 painters march on to it without breaking step; an excess of order on a physical level. The authorities have called in the army of painters because in planning the most economical way to paint the bridge they have, like George Riley of Enter a Free Man, relied entirely on logic and forgotten common sense; an excess of order on a mental level. Thus the play illustrates, on a number of levels, the thesis that an excess of order causes collapse due to the upsetting of some kind of natural balance.

The four plays discussed so far (A Separate Peace, Enter a Free Man, If You’re Glad I’ll be Frank) have a unity as a group, or cycle of works. They are unified by the themes they explore, and the methods by which they explore them. It is worth summarising the observations made so far, as a basis for approaching Stoppard’s major works. Each of the ‘heroes’ is an individual struggling to establish some kind of relationship with the rest of the world. They all ultimately fail to achieve what they were striving for; ‘the world’ asserts its superior strength over the individual The struggle is seen in terms of a series of dialectical oppositions, and the failure arises not because one side of the argument is ‘wrong but because one side has been asserted to the exclusion of the other. The opposing principles take on a number of guises; Chaos versus Order, Freedom versus Responsibility, Illusion versus Reality, Logic versus Common Sense, the Individual versus ‘The Establishment’, etc.

The key for dealing with these apparently irreconcilable opposites is the concept of perspective. The world is too chaotic for John Brown and Albert, and too rigidly ordered for Gladys and Frank. But it is the same world. The way we see the world depends upon the way we look at it; reality is relative. This is the heart of the ‘world picture’ established by Stoppard in his early minor works. He goes on to expand and elaborate this view in his longer works Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Jumpers, and arrives at a definitive statement with Travesties.

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