The Real Inspector Hound

Tom Stoppard, The Real Inspector Hound
(New York: Samuel French, 1968)
First performed: 1968

(The phone starts to ring on the empty stage. MOON tries hard to ignore it.)

MOON. Harder still—Harder still if possible—Harder still if it is possible to be—Neither do I find it easy—Dante and Dorothy L. Sayers. Harder still—(For BIRDBOOT has lost patience and is bearing down on the ringing phone. He is frankly irritated. MOON watches him go. He looks round and smiles weakly, expiating himself.)

BIRDBOOT. (Into phone) Hello. . . . (Explosion.) Oh, for God’s sake, Myrtle—I’ve told you never to phone me at work!

In July 2015, an audience member climbed onstage at the Broadway production of Hand to God. He wasn’t trying to disrupt the show or to make a spectacle of himself; he simply wanted to charge his dying phone. When asked later about his motivations, the nineteen-year-old said, ‘Girls were calling all day. What would you do?’ This scene conveys one of theatre’s distinctions among the arts. Unlike in a novel or a film, on stage there are real bodies and real objects. One gains real sustenance from eating food on stage, experiences real pain from an inflicted wound. On stage, there are real telephones and (in this case, only deceptively) real power outlets.

In The Real Inspector Hound (1968), Tom Stoppard enlists a phone to similarly trouble the difference between the representational and the real in theatre, while pulling a presumptive audience member across the stage’s threshold. Moon and Birdboot are two critics watching and cynically commenting on a play within the play. When the lights go down between scenes of this whodunnit?, the onstage telephone starts to ring and no one seems to be answering it. Birdboot, who happens to be pursuing an affair with the play’s actress, steps on to the darkened set to answer the phone, only to find that it is his suspicious wife, calling from beyond the theatre. By the time he hangs up, however, the lights are up and—in a characteristically Stoppard move—the play plunges ahead, the critic now playing both himself and one Simon Gascoyne. Before the play is out he (or they) will be shot by what may or may not be a real gun, having been pulled into this play by what may or may not be a real telephone.

by Kevin Riordan