A radio play
by Tom Stoppard
, first broadcast on BBC Radio 3
on 14 November 1972. The title of course refers to Marcel Duchamp
's cubist painting Nude Descending a Staircase
; and the characters are three artist
s called Martello
, and Donner
It is set at three times in the present day and three times many years ago. The artists are old now, but still experimenting and changing styles; back in 1914, 1920, and 1922, they were young and at the heart of avant-garde movements. Action moves unannounced between periods; the listener is left to pick up the switch by context.
When they were young they held an exhibition together. A girl Sophie saw it with what little remained of her sight. She became friends with them, and loved one, but when she became completely blind she could not say for sure which had first engaged her love.
Her memory and her tragedy still linger in their work in different ways in the present day. They still share a studio. One of them falls or is pushed down the staircase. Another happens to catch the fatal moment on a tape loop. They accuse each other of disrespect for Sophie, and the remaining two accuse each other of killing the third.
The play imitates the structure of the Duchamp painting, which is static and kinetic at the same time: it shows different scenes hours, weeks, years apart, but captured in the same frame.