Sir Tom Stoppard, the Early Plays – Dogg’s Our Pet

Sir Tom Stoppard, the early plays.

8. Dogg’s Our Pet

Before looking at one of Sir Tom Stoppard’s major plays, Travesties (1974), it is worth glancing at his short play Dogg’s Our Pet (1971) (Revived to support Cahoots Macbeth 1979) in which the basic idea of Travesties is illustrated. Although a very short and simple play Dogg’s Our Pet is a useful landmark in the evolution of Stoppard’s ideas about language. His interest in the way different forms of language have implicit meanings of their own, distinct from their content, was evident in earlier works, for example, the contrast between poetry and the speaking clock in If You’re Glad I’ll be Frank (1966), and the contrast between Shakespearean and modern language in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1966). In these cases the different languages reflected different ‘mentalities’ or different approaches to life, and this is the starting point for Travesties. At the same time Stoppard has an interest in the philosophy of the relationship between language and meaning, which is the subject matter of Dogg’s Our Pet, indicated, for example, by this speech of George’s from Jumpers (1972):

‘This confusion, which indicates only that language is an approximation of meaning, and not a logical symbolism for it.’ (p.24.)

This is the kind of problem Wittgenstein deals with in the first part of his Philosophical Investigations, and Dogg’s Our Pet is virtually a dramatisation of the opening paragraph of Philosophical Investigations.

Wittgenstein starts by distinguishing between the meaning of a word, and the way a word is used. One of the examples he uses to illustrate his theory is a builder who is constructing a platform and calls out to his mate, “brick”, “block”, “plank” etc. Stoppard lifts this example straight out of Wittgenstein and puts it on stage. The builder is working at a school, his assistant being one of the schoolboys who have a private language of their own. (The boys are public school types, and the builder is working class, so they are people who ‘do not speak the same language in more ways than one. This social theme is not developed in this play, but is taken up again and expanded in Professional Foul).

Sometimes when the builder calls out, “plank”, “brick” etc. the appropriate items are thrown to him, but sometimes an unexpected item is thrown. It is evident that the boys have the same words in their vocabulary, but they use them in a different way. Hayman (R. Hayman: Tom Stoppard: Heinemann) provides a translation: Plank = Here, Slab = Ready, Cube = Thank you etc.

The play is essentially an entertaining puzzle to stimulate the audience into thought about the way we use language. But it also has a significant meaning in that the boys and the builder, working together, do actually manage to construct a platform. Hence although each has a language of his own and is therefore, to an extent, living in a world of his own, their languages and worlds overlap enough for them to communicate and work in an intermediary ‘real world’. This is the central concept for understanding Stoppard’s major play Travesties.

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