Tonight at the Writers Guild Awards, the acclaimed English playwright Tom Stoppard received the Laurel Award for Screen. This honors lifetime achievement in writing for motion pictures. Among his many screen credits (written or co-written) are the Best Picture Oscar-winner Shakespeare in Love, Brazil, Empire of the Sun (for director Steven Spielberg), last year's Anna Karenina, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (from his award-winning play that made him famous), Billy Bathgate and many more. (Not to mention all of his stage plays).
For all his acclaimed writing, however, I always think of two very funny comments I saw him make during an interview on PBS with Charlie Rose in 1998. Both related to the same rare honor. That year, you see, he had become the first non-French writer while still alive to have one of his plays performed at the famed Comedie Francaise theater. This was Moliere's theater, which had been open for over 300 years, so the event was considered an extraordinary feat.
Stoppard acknowledged being apprehensive as the Big Night approached -- but it wasn't due to nerves over how his play, Arcadia, would be received by French audiences. Rather, it was for a very different reason. The achievement, after all, was for the first-ever living writer. "I knew that I had to stay alive until the play opened for this to really count," Stoppard said. "So, for the weeks leading up to it, I found myself crossing the street with extreme caution."
Later in the interview, Stoppard mentioned the remarkable poster for the Comedie Francaise that year, which promoted that season's full repertoire. It included the names of such historic playwrights as Moliere, Racine, Gogol, Feydeau, Corneille and Goethe -- and Tom Stoppard amid them. With sort of an awkward laugh, since he knew Stoppard had long-since dealt with great fame himself and might well be immune to such seeming trivialities, Rose asked Stoppard if he had perhaps gotten at least one of the posters with his name among all those historic legends, simply as a keepsake. "Oh, no," Stoppard answered, in great seriousness, and then his eyes brightened. "I got six of them."
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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