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Reductive laughter: the reception of Stoppard's every good boy deserves favour

conference contribution
posted on 2023-05-24, 21:51 authored by Fergus EdwardsFergus Edwards

André Previn and Tom Stoppard were both born in Czechoslovakia, but they first met in England. Previn mentioned that if Stoppard ever wanted to write something which needed an orchestra, he, Previn, had one. Specifically: he had the London Symphony Orchestra.

A few years later, Stoppard met a Russian dissident who had been arrested for protesting peacefully in Red Square against the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Victor Fainberg had been pronounced insane and incarcerated for five years; he was now in exile. Stoppard subsequently wrote a play that put the entire London Symphony Orchestra on stage, playing music written and conducted by Previn. The play is dedicated to Fainberg, and is explicitly about human rights.

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour is both textually witty (Q: What is the longest distance between two points? A: A trombone) and a structurally traditional comedy. A case of mistaken identity helps our protagonists to overcome a blocking agent and be together. It is just that the mix-up is between a dissident and a lunatic, the heroes are father and son, and the blocking agent is the entire Soviet prison-hospital system.

My paper will address the play’s discordant reception. In its major productions of 1977 and 2009 (it’s tough to get hold of symphony orchestras), audiences and critics enjoyed the performance, but refused to accept that the comedy’s resolution does not involve the blocking agent’s degradation. The play’s heroes have won, but its villains have not lost. My paper will analyse where and wherefore audiences have responded to Stoppard’s complex text with reductive laughter. It will make clear how the play asks us to recognise that we seek to simplify problems of human rights for our own benefit, not for those we would ostensibly help.


Publication title

Proceedings of the 9th Australasian Humour Studies Network (AHSN) Annual Conference




1 piece- abstract


School of Humanities



Place of publication


Event title

Australasian Humour Studies Network (AHSN) Annual Conference

Event Venue

University of Sydney

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  • Restricted

Socio-economic Objectives

Literature; Expanding knowledge in language, communication and culture; Expanding knowledge in creative arts and writing studies

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