Procol Harum

the Pale

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The Real Thing

Tom Stoppard on AWSoP and Bach

Any Paler in London in between late May and early August 1999 will be surely be interested in catching the play at The Donmar Warehouse – booking details here and reviews here and here; and a US review from 2007 here (thanks, Sam).

British writer Tom Stoppard, long before the Oscar-winning success of Shakespeare in Love, made poignant and telling use of a very well-known record in his play The Real Thing (1982). Either go and see the revival of this show, or read on, or both: whichever way, decide for yourself where Sir Tom stands on the 'AWSoP stolen from Bach' question:

Scene Twelve
Henry, 40-ish; Annie, 30-ish

HENRY is alone listening to the radio, which is playing Bach's Air on a G String. ANNIE enters from the bedroom, dressed to go out, and she is in a hurry.

HENRY: (Urgently, on seeing her) Listen.

ANNIE: I can't. I'm going to be late now.

HENRY: It's important. Listen.

ANNIE: What?

HENRY: Listen.

(She realizes that he means the radio. She listens for a few moments.) What is it?

ANNIE: (Pleased) Do you like it?

HENRY: I love it.

ANNIE: (Congratulating him) It's Bach.

HENRY: The cheeky beggar.

ANNIE: What?

HENRY: He's stolen it.

ANNIE: Bach?

HENRY: Note for note. Practically a straight lift from Procul [sic] Harum. And he can't even get it right. Hang on. I'll play you the original. (He moves to get the record. She, pleased by him but going, moves to him.)

ANNIE: Work well.

(She kisses him quickly and lightly but he forces the kiss into a less casual one. His voice, however, keeps its detachment.)

HENRY: You too.

ANNIE: First run-through. I'm bound to dry.

HENRY: When in doubt say, 'Oh God, oh God, if only we could get to Moscow!' (So they separate in good spirits as she moves to leave. The phone rings. ANNIE is nearer the phone. She hesitates.) Just go. (ANNIE picks up the phone.) ANNIE: (Into phone) Hello. No, it's all right.

Hang on. (To Henry.) Do you mind? (HENRY shakes his head. ANNIE Puts the phone on the table and goes back into the bedroom. HENRY picks up the phone and when the extension is lifted he replaces the receiver. He places the record on the record player. He goes back and turns the radio off. He pauses, standing still in the silence. The telephone tinkles. HENRY picks it up and starts to dial. ANNIE re-enters from the bedroom. She stands watching him.)

HENRY: (Into phone) Josh? It's Henry. Listen, will you tell them Annie's on her way? She'll be about twenty minutes late. Somebody ran into the back of her taxi ... Yeah, she couldn't get through to the stage door. She's phoned from a box. No, she's fine ... Oh, good – typical – thanks – bye ... (He replaces the phone.)

HENRY: They're miles behind, you'll be early.

ANNIE: Thank you. (He nods at her.) Thank you for being like this. I'm sorry if it's difficult. It's quite separate, you know. You're not replaceable. I love you. Do you understand?


ANNIE: Do you think it's unfair?

HENRY: No. It's as though I've been careless, left a door open somewhere while preoccupied.

ANNIE: Tell me to stop and I'll stop.

HENRY: I can't. I'd just be the person who stopped you. I can't be that. When I got upset you said you'd stop so I try not to get upset. I don't get pathetic because when I got pathetic I could feel how tedious it was, how unattractive. I don't ask questions because that feels intrusive and a little vulgar. So. Dignified cuckoldry is a difficult trick, but it can be done. Think of it as modern marriage. We have got beyond hypocrisy, you and I. Exclusive rights isn't love, it's colonisation.

ANNIE: Stop it – please stop it. (Pause)

HENRY: The trouble is, I can't find a part of myself where you're not important. I write in order to be worth your while and to finance the way I want to live with you. Not the way you want to live. The way I want to live with you. Without you I wouldn't care. I'd eat tinned spaghetti and put on yesterday's clothes. But as it is I change my socks, and make money, and tart up Brodie's unspeakable drivel into speakable drivel so he can be an author too, like me. Not that it seems to have done him much good. Perhaps the authorities saw that it was a touch meretricious. Meretrix, meretricis. Harlot.

ANNIE: You shouldn't have done it if you didn't think it was right.

HENRY: You think it's right. I can't cope with more than one moral system at a time. Mine is that what you think is right is right. What you do is right. What you want is right. There was a tribe, wasn't there, which worshipped Charlie Chaplin. It worked just as well as any other theology, apparently. They loved Charlie Chaplin. I love you. Come on, you'll be late again.

ANNIE: It's just ... time. Billy's not a threat. But I didn't start it casually, and I can't stop it casually. I can't, and I don't want to go. I go around all the time saying 'Thank you' like a child because I can't behave well towards you both, and you allow me to behave well towards him without having to be furtive, so I'm grateful and I say thank you. I need you. Please don't let it wear away what you feel for me. It won't, will it?

HENRY: No, not like that. It'll go on or it will flip into its opposite. What time will you be back?

ANNIE: I don't think I'll be late. (He nods at her. She nods back and leaves. HENRY sits down in his chair. Then he gets up and starts the record playing – Procul [sic] Harum's A Whiter Shade of Pale, which is indeed a version of Air on a G String. He stands listening to it, smiling at its Bach, until the vocals start. Then the smile gets overtaken.)

HENRY: Oh, please, please, please, please, don't. (Then blackout, but the music continues.)

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