The Real Thing

Plays (and Players) Within Plays


IMG_20140927_141732The Real Thing can be seen within a tradition of plays about theatre artists, and it uses the device of the “play-within-a-play" to raise questions about the nature of "reality." What better way to explore the relationships between a playwright and the two actresses with whom he shares his life?

Perhaps the first use of the play-within-a-play device was Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, performed in the 1580s. An enraged nobleman takes revenge against his enemies by casting them in a play and, during that play’s climax, he kills them with real swords while the onstage “audience” watches, unaware of what is really happening. Kyd used multiple levels of theatricality and challenges his audience to question what is “real” onstage.

Anton Chekhov based the characters of The Seagull (1895) on people he knew in Moscow theatre. A young playwright, Konstantin, struggles under the shadow of his actress mother and loses his love, also an aspiring actress, to his mother’s lover. These characters worry about work and success, but the plot focuses on the four interlocking romances and unrequited love. We see only a few minutes from Konstantin's play, and its symbolic style differs from Chekhov's realism. Still, Chekhov suggests the conflation of art and life through the novelist character Trigorin, who incorporates events and details from the play we see into the stories he is "writing."

Noel Coward's 1942 farce Present Laughter centers on the antics of philandering actor Gary Essendine in the midst of a midlife crisis. The action takes place in Gary's home, and we never see him "onstage,” but his offstage life resembles a French farce. Many of the characters are theatre professionals, most notably a sycophantic playwright who tries to win Gary's attention. Coward drew upon his own friends and relationships for this semi-autobiographical comedy of (bad) manners amongst theatre people.

Jean Anouilh's 1950 drama The Rehearsal examines the power of artifice in 20th-century society. A jaded group of aristocratic friends sets out to hurt an idealistic young woman who comes into their circle. These relationships unfold around rehearsals for an amateur production of Marivaux's The Double Inconstancy. Marivaux's 1723 play features a Prince who kidnaps a bourgeois maiden and reflects on the behavior of Anouilh’s characters. By having his modern characters rehearse in 18th century costumes, Anouilh suggests that aristocrats of his own time still treat each other as viciously as those who lived centuries before.


Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Real Thing. Photo by Joan Marcus.


In the course of The Real Thing, Annie plays two demanding roles. First, we see her rehearsing the title role in August Strindberg’s 1888 play Miss Julie. Julie is a headstrong, sexually curious young woman who seduces her father’s manservant and then commits suicide. Next, Annie plays Annabella in John Ford’s 1763 tragedy Tis Pity She’s A Whore. Writing about 50 years after Shakespeare’s death, Ford sought new ways to shock Renaissance audiences. Here, he depicted an incestuous brother-sister love story that culminates in one of the goriest death scenes of its day, with Annabella’s bloody heart displayed on stage!

The Real Thing plays on Broadway through January 4, 2015. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.


Related Categories:
2014-2015 Season, Education @ Roundabout, The Real Thing, Upstage

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The Real Thing: Cricket Bat Speech


IMG_20140927_141732Likely the most famous passage in The Real Thing, protagonist Henry’s “cricket bat speech” is a superb example of writing about writing. Henry and Annie have been arguing about the writing talent of Brodie, a political-prisoner-turned-playwright. Annie, who wants to renew public interest in his case, has encouraged him to write a play and plans to perform in it. She asks Henry for his advice on the script, hoping that he’ll help Brodie with rewrites. When Henry scoffs at the writing, Annie attacks his pretension, insisting that his writing style is an empty intellectual exercise and that Brodie’s, by contrast, is less polished but more passionate. After asking Annie to bring him his cricket bat, Henry defends his disgust by illustrating an extended metaphor. Using his bat as a prop, he argues that a writer with a facility for language (a well-sprung bat) can hit and propel an idea forward effortlessly, so that the moment resonates beyond the mechanics of the scene. By contrast, the unskilled writer (brandishing a hunk of wood) will attempt the same hit, but though the motion may look identical, the tool is insufficient, and the idea falls with a dull thud. To Henry, the latter kind of writing is as painful to listen to as a harshly reverberating bat is painful to the hands (thus his “Ouch!”).


Maggie Gyllenhaal & Ewan McGregor in The Real Thing.

HENRY: Shut up and listen. This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It’s for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you’ve done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly… (He clucks his tongue to make the noise.) What we’re trying to do is to write cricket  bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might… travel… (He clucks his tongue again and picks up the script.) Now, what we’ve got here is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting ‘Ouch!’ with your hands stuck into your armpits. (indicating the cricket bat) This isn’t better because someone says it’s better, or because there’s a conspiracy by the MCC¹ to keep cudgels out of Lords². It’s better because it’s better. You don’t believe me, so I suggest you go out to bat with this and see how you get on. ‘You’re a strange boy, Billy, how old are you?’ ‘Twenty, but I’ve lived more than you’ll ever live.’³ Ooh, ouch! He drops the script and hops about with his hands in his armpits, going ‘Ouch!’ Annie watches him expressionlessly until he desists.


¹Marylebone Cricket Club, a famous London cricket club and the authority on the Laws of Cricket. Founded in 1787, the club holds matches, hosts youth cricket programs, owns a museum and library, and runs the World Cricket committee.
² “Lord’s Cricket Ground,” located in St. John’s Wood, London. The home of the Marylebone Cricket Club since 1814.
³ Henry is quoting a bit of dialogue from Brodie’s new (and first) play. The scene he’s referencing is a stilted, heavy-handed set-up of Brodie’s political beliefs. Henry cringes at both the bald self-righteousness of the ideas and the clumsiness of the language. Earlier in Henry and Annie’s conversation, Annie says, “I know it’s raw, but he’s got something to say.” Henry replies, “He’s got something to say. It happens to be something extremely silly and bigoted. But leaving that aside, there is still the problem that he can’t write. He can burn things down, but he can’t write.”

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2014-2015 Season, Education @ Roundabout, The Real Thing, Upstage


Writers Writing About Writers


IMG_20140927_141732To write a play in which the first scene was written by a character in the second scene, Stoppard’s protaganist would necessarily have to be a playwright, a fact that left Stoppard in a state of dread. “I didn’t want to write a play about a playwright. That seemed to be the end of the rope: you write a play about someone who’s trying to write a play.”

And so, Stoppard didn’t write a play about writing a play. Instead, he wrote about the intersection of life and art, demonstrating the ways in which the characters’ onstage worlds repeat in their lives.

Though The Real Thing isn’t about the act of writing, it is filled with discussions about the craft of writing: What makes it quality and what makes it hackneyed? Who gets to be a writer and for whom should they write?

Stoppard is not the first nor the last to ask these fascinating questions. Below are some examples of the many other plays, musicals, and movies that explore the craft of writing, some daringly tackling the premise Stoppard so dreaded: a writer trying to write.


Ewan McGregor (Henry) in The Real Thing. Photo by Joan Marcus.


Written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, this film follows a screenwriter (played by Nicholas Cage) struggling to adapt a non-fiction book, The Orchid Thief, for the screen. Cage’s character is, in fact, a fictionalized version of screenwriter Kaufman. When (the real) Kaufman was hired to adapt The Orchid Thief, he found the task nearly impossible and decided to instead dramatize his herculean adaptation effort. The fantastical result features Kaufman’s (fictional) twin brother, Donald (who is credited as a co-writer on the actual screenplay), a love affair between The Orchid Thief’s writer and subject, a deluge of writing angst, and an unlikely chase scene.

“Writing is a journey into the unknown, not building a model airplane.”
-Charlie to Donald, Adaptation


Theresa Rebeck’s 2011 play delves into a fiction master class presided over by a cynical literary icon, Leonard (Alan Rickman in the Broadway premiere). As his four students vie for his attention and approval, Leonard ruthlessly attacks their talent. An examination of success, ambition, and ego -- and the need that underlies all -- the play unmasks the desires of both the overeager students and their callous teacher.

“What else do you have? And don’t tell me nothing, I’ll know you’re lying. How
much writing have you got stuffed in drawers and jamming up the circuits on your
computer. How many pages do you have that you haven’t shown a fucking soul.”

-Leonard to Martin, Seminar



Written by Zach Helm and directed by Marc Forster, the movie follows IRS agent Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) who realizes he is the main character in a novel by Karen Eiffel, a writer who tends to kill off her protagonists. Luckily, Eiffel is suffering from writer’s block, giving Harold time to find her -- and try to convince her to keep his character alive.

Nurse: “Are you suffering from anything?”
Karen: “Just writer’s block.”
-Stranger than Fiction



Woody Allen and Glen Kelly’s 2014 musical (based on Allen’s 1994 film) follows David Shayne, an earnest and ambitious playwright whose Broadway debut spirals out of his hands thanks to a coercive producer, a talented hit-man/dramaturg named Cheech, and an overbearing star.

Cheech: “My father used to listen to the Opera. He loved the Opera. If a guy stunk… “
David: “What, he'd kill him?”
Cheech: “Once. In Palermo.”
-Bullets Over Broadway



Writer-director Lena Dunham’s take on millennial life in Brooklyn centers on the travails of Hannah Horvath (Dunham), an aspiring novelist who struggles with both finding the material to write about and finding the discipline to write. In the show’s second season, after a few years of low-paying, post-college angst, she lands an e-book deal, but her exultation quickly turns to dread at the thought of delivering on the deadline.

“I don’t want to freak you out, but I think I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice. Of a generation.”
-Hannah to her parents, Girls


The Real Thing plays on Broadway through January 4, 2015. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2014-2015 Season, Education @ Roundabout, The Real Thing, Upstage

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