Summarizing Jumpers (play) for April 2019 Classics

I took notes, but probably can’t do all this justice! Consider also checking the Wikipedia article for more information. You can also read the opening scenes at Google Books, where it can also be downloaded for $10. —Sally

In our first of five sessions reviewing western value systems, Dr. Bob Darling provided an outline of the play Jumpers, by Tom Stoppard. A jumping-off point for our next four weeks of discussion, the play is “high philosophy and vaudevillian comedy,” and sounds complex, with an abundance of unusual characters. It is set in Britain, following the election triumph of the radical liberal party and the first Moon landing, also made by the British. The Moon landing sets a moral argument in motion, as one member of the crew of astronauts has been forcibly left behind because of technical issues. (This invites, Dr. Darling explained, comparison to Scott’s tragic expedition to the Antarctic, in which Lawrence Oates sacrificed himself rather than slow down the expedition.)

In celebration, a huge party is held at the house of a university philosopher. The “jumpers” in the title are acrobats at the party and a symbol of Logical Positivism, a philosophy popular in the 1930s-40s in which “all claims to knowledge have to be supported by facts, and all else, including poetry, is non-sense.” Dr. Darling explained that statements of value, e.g. “you are a good person,” are not factual, but are statements of opinion only. Thus, all ethical and aesthetic judgments are opinion.

George Moore, philosopher and host of the party, must soon debate a colleague, taking the opposite position that statements of right and wrong are facts of reality. His argument comes down to the idea that recognizing wrong or right depends on whether or not a statement or action matches the moral code of God. Therefore, he must justify the existence of God, especially God as a First Cause, that which sets all other things in motion. This philosophy, Deism, was the religious view of intellectuals of that period.

Unfortunately, the colleague George is to debate, Duncan McFee, is shot dead in the opening scene of the play, although George is unaware of this for a time. This launches a moral discussion. University Chancellor Archie Jumper, who may or may not be having an affair with the unhinged “Dotty” (George’s wife), takes the position of Logical Positivism that murder is “inconvenient,” or “antisocial,” but cannot be said to be “wrong” as such, as inconvenient is not the same as wrong. George’s position is that, because language can conceal as well as reveal, it may not be the best way to arrive at the truth. “Atheism,” he says, “is a crutch for those who can’t bear the idea of God.” Much of the play consists of long philosophical discussions arguing these points, as suspicion falls on several people and the identity of the murderer is left in question.

Under Dr. Darling’s guidance, this complicated play will surely stimulate a range of intriguing discussions for us throughout April.

Consider: “I think therefore God exists.” vs DesCartes’s “I think therefore I exist.”
Or “All miracle is coincidence.” And vice versa, Dr. Darling adds. (love this one!)

General Westmoreland’s comment of causing “maximum consternation” (cited as a goal of the enemy during the Tet Offensive/Vietnam) was also mentioned, but I’m not sure where that fits in. The murder causes maximum consternation??

See also About Jumpers Broadway production, 2004 at Playbill.

The book reviews at Goodreads are also fascinating!

One thought on “Summarizing Jumpers (play) for April 2019 Classics

  1. Pingback: Ethics and Values in Western Thought – Cobblestone Springs Retreat Center

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