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Jumpers by Tom Stoppard

Warren Allen Smith took at trip to Times Square to see a musical whodunnit about philosophical acrobats debating the existence of God. What else could it be but Jumpers by the profound and playful Tom Stoppard.

Jumpers, Tom Stoppard's 1972 comedy, opened on 25 April 2004 at the Brooks Atkinson Theater in Times Square. Inasmuch as I am but a neophyte in philosophy, I played it safe by taking a live philosopher along with me. At the very start, Dr Timothy Madigan and I began laughing at different parts of the dialogue. Not surprising, for I was the only one laughing when he tried to explain to me the view of epistemologist William K. Clifford, about whom he has written extensively, that what is ontogenetically innate may be phylogenetically learned.

I was able to figure out that the clumsy gymnasts who formed a human pyramid early on in the drama were logical-positivist philosophers: jumpers. I was taken aback, however, when, during a boisterous party a secretary (Eliza Lumley) did a striptease on a swing, and an unidentified hand shot McFee, one of the gymnasts who was a professor of logic, and apparently a lover of George's wife, Dorothy (Australian actor Essie Davis, making a dazzling Broadway debut). I had not expected this to be a murder mystery, and even at the end it appeared that no one knew for sure who the murderer was.

Within minutes, however, I realized that Stoppard had written a farce, one replete with puns, parodies, and paradoxes. The secretary's boss, George Moore, a professor of moral philosophy (played beautifully by English actor Simon Russell Beale), started by preparing notes for a debate in which he would argue for the existence of God, his proposed opponent being McFee, a professor of logic and a skeptic. George's much younger wife, Dorothy, appears about to be having a mental breakdown as she lies stunningly nude, calling her husband “the last of the metaphysical egotists” – her lines, I logically posited, were verifiably smooth from my vantage point – as the corpse of the dead logic professor lies on her unclothed lap.

George discusses relativism with Archie Jumper (a slick and glib Nicky Henson), the ‘radical liberal' Vice Chancellor who appears to be cuckolding George's wife under the pretense of giving her therapy. And at Dorothy's noisy party, two British astronauts are shown on television inhumanistically fighting to gain the single space on a space capsule that had crashed. Meanwhile, George is trying valiantly to dictate his lecture, jumping from one idea to questioning what he has just stated as fact, not knowing about the murder and speaking to his secretary, who says not a word throughout. Somewhat to my annoyance, Tim with little effort appeared to be understanding everything. But appearances can be deceiving, as all philosophers know.

To investigate the murder of McFee, an interestingly inept police inspector by the name of Bones arrived. McFee? But he was the very one George was to have debated, so all the words George was rehearsing were for a debate with a man now dead.

Bones is shown to be entranced by Dorothy, to the point that he somehow is willing to take the blame for the murder, and Act 1 ends with the jumpers removing McFee's corpse in a big plastic bag. Poor McFee, having been troubled by seeing astronauts fighting on the moon, was said to have turned to altruism but now would not be able to enter a monastery.

In one memorable scene, George uses his pet hare and tortoise to disprove Zeno's paradox, following which he practices shooting an arrow with his bow toward a dartboard. Suspecting that his secretary might have been involved in the murder, he notices blood dripping above the dartboard. To his dismay it is blood from the hare that he had accidentally shot. Worse, as he steps off a ladder his foot lands heavily on his pet tortoise. CRUNCH! The audience roars with laughter!

“Ah, but what does it all mean!” At intermission I dared not ask Tim questions about the play's eccentric couple: the wife who could not remember the words to songs that once had made her a famous musical comedy star and the husband who could not come up with satisfactory clinchers to explain his theistic views. Fortunately, Dr Madigan was less interested in discussing plot than in making a pragmatic move to rush out and find libations at the nearest bar.

Act 2, and now in a dream Archie gives his speech, astronauts discuss mankind's selfish nature, the Archbishop of Canterbury speaks but is shot because of his testimony, Dorothy sings about philosophical relativism, George opines that relativists are really intuitionists, and Archie expresses his cynicism about the great events that have happened. Methinks this is a veritable farce, one in which the vast universe serves as the theater. Wasn't it Hegel who thought that all great events reappear, with Marx adding that the first time they reappear as tragedy, the second as farce? But of course: Tom Stoppard! Curtain. Loud applause. Standing ovation! Exit, the audience little convinced as to whether God really does or does not exist, sad that the tortoise got squished, but happy with the parody of British detective dramas.

“You should know,” Tim said as we departed – guessing, because I appeared to be cogitating, that I probably had not gotten the full meaning of the play, if such was even possible – “that there was another George Moore: George E. Moore (1873-1958)”.

“Yes”, I replied, mischievously. “G.E. had written me on 5 August 1954, Tim, before you were born.” I explained that I had written him to verify that he was an atheist. He had once written that he was an infidel but considered himself a Protestant for reasons of Irish politics, that along with his blasphemies about Jesus he was expressing his abhorrence of the Roman Church. I wondered about his once having written, “I do not deny that God exists. My arguments will only urge that there is no reason for thinking that he does: they will not urge that there is reason for thinking he does not. I do not believe that he does exist, but also I do not believe that he does not exist.”

So, I had asked G.E. Moore in a letter, “Are you perhaps (a) a theistic humanist [Jacques Maritain knew what true humanism was]; (b) an atheistic humanist [the 5' 4” Jean-Paul Sartre espoused a humanistic existentialism]; (c) a communistic humanist [Karl Marx, according to Raya Dunayevskaya, was a naturalist who first had called his outlook ‘a new humanism' and Fidel Castro had declared, “Liberty without terror – that is, Humanism”]; or (d) a naturalistic humanist [Corliss Lamont and his followers in the American Humanist Association, or some such]?”

And George Moore's namesake had responded, as quoted in my handbook on humanism, Who's Who in Hell (Barricade Books, 2000, 1,268 pages, $125.), “I am sorry to say that none of the four titles you mention seems to me suitable to cover my philosophical position. I should say that my position cannot properly be called a ‘Humanism’ at all, since I regard philosophy as not dealing specially with mankind at all, but with the whole universe.”

So does the Stoppard play still hold up thirty two years after its origin? I found that, yes, he convinced me that philosophy must not sink to being just a gymnastic game that verbally-acrobatic Archie Jumper-types play with a dictionary. As to whether Stoppard meant some connection between his George Moore and the real George E. Moore, I remain agnostic.

© Warren Allen Smith 2005

Warren Allen Smith is the New York City author of Celebrities in Hell (Barricade 2002).

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