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Sir Tom Stoppard, the Early Plays – Jumpers

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Sir Tom Stoppard, the early plays.

7. Jumpers

One of Sir Tom Stoppard’s most successful early plays, Jumpers (1972), is structured on roughly the same lines as his earlier play Enter a Free Man (1963). George Moore of Jumpers, like George Riley of Enter a Free Man, holds convictions which put him in conflict with the society around him. And like George Riley his standpoint is partially discredited by his being somewhat ‘out of touch with reality’. George Moore is a professor of moral philosophy engaged in preparing a speech about the existence of God.

George is unique in his university department in that he believes in God, and it is evident that in this respect he is virtually unique in the whole society; a policeman is bribed with the chair of divinity, churches are converted into gymnasiums, murder is regarded as an inconvenience, and an atheist is appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. The play is full of evidence that the institutions of law, politics, and religion have been debased to serve the self-interest of those in power.

Against this background George is struggling to find convincing arguments to support his intuitive belief that God exists and that moral standards are absolute. To do so he has to tackle the philosophical questions of ‘knowledge’ and ‘belief’, and it is on this theme that Jumpers functions as a play, with the intellectual concepts being paralleled on a dramatic level.

Jumpers is, basically, a domestic farce, and Stoppard uses some of the traditional elements of farce; misunderstanding, deception and ambiguity, to highlight the problem of ‘knowledge’, with its dependence on perception and interpretation of ‘reality’. George’s wife Dotty may or may not be having an affair with Archie, the university vice-chancellor, who also happens to be a psychiatrist, doctor, lawyer, and ladies’ man. The scenes in which we see Dotty and Archie together are presented ambiguously, not only to George, but also to us:

‘(He opens the Bedroom door. In the Bedroom, no one is in view. The drapes – or screens – are round the bed. The ambiguous machine – the dermatograph – is set up so that it peers with its lens through the drapes. The camera-lights are in position round the bed, shining down over the drapes into the bed. The TV set is connected by a lead to the dermatograph. George pauses in the doorway.)’

Further ambiguous events occur, but Archie insists that he was only making a dermatographical examination. Failing to find evidence George still has faith in intuition, the starting point for his faith in God.

‘There are many things I know which are not verifiable but nobody can tell me I don’t know them, and I think that I know that something happened to poor Dotty and she somehow killed McFee, as sure as she killed my poor Thumper.’ (p.73.)

We soon find out, however, that Dotty did not kill George’s pet rabbit Thumper, George himself killed the rabbit accidentally and unknowingly, and so, logically, George’s arguments are totally undermined.

Another of George’s arguments is that the universe must have had a ‘First Cause’; this is also paralleled dramatically In the opening scene an acrobat is mysteriously shot and killed; this is the ‘first cause’ of one of the main strands in the plot, the murder enquiry, which remains completely unresolved. The policeman conducting the case is far more concerned with pursuing his personal interests than with looking for the truth,

In spite of his domestic and professional failings we sympathise with George because he stands for values which give life meaning beyond logic and self-interest. Dotty’s role parallels George’s in this respect. She is a singer with a repertoire of songs referring to the Moon as an agent of love and romance. Her ‘belief’ in these songs is shattered by news of the first British moon landing, and she is unable to continue singing. Modern technology has made the moon accessible to man and thereby banished the romantic associations.

George and Dotty are Stoppard’s representatives of human beings trying to remain ‘human’ in this world of rationalism and self-interest.

The Jumpers themselves symbolise the mentality of the new age. The metaphor has a number of meanings; they ‘jump through the vice-chancellor’s hoop’, they jump to the conclusion that there is no God, and in general they are automatons whose gymnastics represent the soul-less process of reason which has replaced religious faith. Acting as a team they are able to form the impressive display of a human pyramid. But, as the spectacular opening of the play demonstrates it only takes the removal of one man to cause the collapse of the whole structure. This represents the idea that the philosophical standpoint taken by the university and the society as a whole, though impressive and convincing, is a series of ‘intellectual jumps’ starting from a dubious first premise:

‘That knowledge is only a possibility in matters that can be demonstrated as true or false.’ (p.87.)

No conclusion is reached, but by the end of the play Stoppard has presented us, in his own way, with a picture of his perception of trends in modern society. Belief in God and the validity of moral values has become the exception rather than the rule, and without any viable replacement for religion the whole concept of the ‘value’ of human life is being eroded.

Read the full version of this essay at:


Source by Ian Mackean

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