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"I don't think writers are sacred," Tom Stoppard told an interviewer, "but words are. They deserve respect."

Stoppard's statement may have come, in part, from his first experience as a playwright. A student company, the Oxford Players, was staging an early version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, August 24, 1966.

Stoppard arrived on the 22nd and, in the words of Diana Cornforth, the stage manager, what remained of the company was "mutinous."

The director quit the day before. As did his leading lady/girlfriend, who broke up with him, rumor had it, because he wouldn't let her play Rosencrantz, just Ophelia.

Others fled as well, Cornforth told Stoppard, because the script made no sense. It had all these non sequiturs and sections that repeated other sections almost word for word.

Janet Watts, the Ophelia-replacement: "the company was camping in an old Freemason's Hall just below Edinburgh Castle." As they were eating breakfast, "which was served in a dungeon, there he was: he wore a grey tweed suit of a sort we had never seen. There wasn't a man or woman who didn't like that suit."

When he saw "the fruits of rehearsal," Stoppard realized something was gravely wrong.

"The actors were using scripts typed by somebody who knew somebody who could type."

So Shakespeare's "Glean what afflicts him" became "Clean what afflicts him."

Stoppard: "It turned out that such was the Oxford Theatre Group's touching faith in my play that they were faithfully rehearsing typographical errors."

Hundreds of them. The script, in fact, was "a massive typing error."

Stoppard made copies of his text and worked the actors almost non-stop, one said, "trying to get it to sound the way he heard it in his head."

The space on Cranston Street was another matter: the church hall had a flat floor, no scenery, folding chairs, and blind sightlines. The stage was so small the cast couldn't perform the final scene.

The first audience had maybe 20 people. The play went on, says Stoppard, "in some kind of state or another."

Few reviewers caught the show. All but one expressed confusion ("What's It All About, Tom?" asked the Scottish Daily). Only Ronald Bryden of the Observer looked beyond the amateur acting and primitive stage. He called R &G an "erudite comedy...leaping from depth to dizziness" and concluded that it was "the most brilliant debut by a young playwright since John Arden's."

That one notice made Stoppard an overnight success. The prestigious National Theatre grabbed the rights, it opened in April, 1967, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Well, almost.

To this day Stoppard is haunted by how close he came to being "history" - i.e. non-existent - as a playwright. Without Bryden's rave, "I would have been said to have failed as a writer, with the same text! It's a nonsense!"

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