NEW YORK — Playwright Tom Stoppard said he will accept PEN’s highest award next month in New York to help put a spotlight on a “frightening time” for free expression.
Stoppard is to accept the PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award, the highest honor bestowed by the American chapter of the global human-rights organization of writers and editors.
“People like me are chosen, in a sense, to represent what PEN and other organizations are doing 24/7. So I can say I’m proud to represent them,” the playwright said.
Charlie Hebdo, the Parisian satirical magazine that was a target of a deadly shooting in January, also will be honored. Staff member Jean-Baptiste Thoret, who barely escaped the attack that killed eight of his co-workers and four others, will receive the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award.
Stoppard, who has campaigned for oppressed artists and political dissidents in Eastern and Central Europe, said threats to free speech are worse now than ever, from radical Islam to U.S. government surveillance.
“The problem is deeper and, really, much more complicated. I think it’s quite a frightening time,” said the playwright, who scripted the Oscar-winning film “Shakespeare in Love” and has written plays including “Arcadia” and “The Real Thing.”
“You kind of stand there in your Western idea of what morality is and what amorality is and suddenly you’re not quite sure. You thought you’d always known what was which and suddenly, you’re not sure. This is the fate of thoughtful people as the century unfolds.”
In addition to the Paris attack, PEN Executive Director Suzanne Nossel pointed to other moves against writers, including a gunman who opened fire on a Copenhagen cultural center in March and a South African novelist confined for comments she made in appreciation of Salman Rushdie.
“It is a climate of hair-trigger sensitivity to certain kinds of speech and a very dangerous moment for writers who are seated in the crosshairs,” said Nossel. “It is a tough moment on many fronts.”
Stoppard said he and fellow artists have lately found it difficult to tread the line between a desire for absolute right of free expression and the hope of being respectful to those with different beliefs and creeds.
“The Charlie Hebdo massacre was an appalling body shock to anybody who cares about life, let alone literature. You are left thinking, ‘Well, if it comes to making a choice here, clearly one has to choose that one should be allowed and entitled to offend without being murdered for it,’ ” he said.
“That seems self-evident. That doesn’t mean that one is in harmony with the attitude or the particular instances of what is being said and written and drawn.”
Also at the gala at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle will be cited for “his leadership role in the global literary community.” And the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award is going to jailed Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova.