- Title: Tom Stoppard: A Life
- Author: Hermione Lee
- Genre: Non-fiction
- Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
- Pages: 896
Tom Stoppard, for six decades now one of the world’s most consistently celebrated and successful playwrights, used to speak regularly about his “good luck” and “charmed life” – and it was hard to disagree with the humblebrag.
The Czech-born English writer has won twice as many Tony Awards for best new play on Broadway as anyone else, living or dead – even though he centres subjects such as quantum mechanics and consciousness, or long-dead and little-known philosophers and classicists, in his comedies of ideas. His four wins are impressively spread out, too – one each in the 1960s (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead), 1970s (Travesties), 1980s (The Real Thing) and 2000s (for The Coast of Utopia trilogy).
The 1990s, meanwhile, were hardly a fallow period in American approbation for Stoppard: Arcadia, largely acknowledged as his masterpiece, may have gone over the heads of Tony voters in 1995, but a few years later he won an Academy Award for Shakespeare in Love.
The fear, then, in embarking on reading a biography of such a figure is that it will be like watching the opening of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – in which Rosencrantz flips a coin, calls heads and wins 92 times in a row – on repeat.
But, as Hermione Lee puts it most succinctly near the end of her whopping new biography Tom Stoppard: A Life, Stoppard’s claims of a charmed existence have endured “even though he was taken from his home as a baby in wartime, his father was killed and many members of his family, as he later discovered, were murdered by the Nazis.”
Born Tomas Straussler to a Jewish family in 1937 in what’s now the Czech Republic, Stoppard fled the German occupation to Singapore with his parents and older brother Peter in 1939. Then, in 1942, his mother and the two boys fled again as the Japanese invaded – a last-minute escape by boat to, as it turned out, India. In attempting to follow them, his father was not as lucky, the coin finally landing tails for him at sea.
A third and final dislocation, to England, was at the root of Stoppard’s long-time insistence that chance was on his side – though, in reality, it was a choice that changed his life that time. In 1946, his mother Marta married British army officer Kenneth Stoppard – and a new Stoppard family was formed in a place Tom would grow up to revere as “the land of tolerance, fair play and autonomous liberty, of habeas corpus, of the mother of parliaments, of freedom of speech, worship and assembly, of the English language.”
For most of his life, Stoppard treated his Straussler past as prologue – a compartmentalization abetted by his mother Marta’s reluctance to speak of that time or her family. He blithely called himself a “bounced Czech,” and his Jewish roots (which he did not know the full extent of until the 1990s) an “exotic fact.”
He celebrated Englishness in his writings as it is often said only an immigrant could (though the critic Kenneth Tynan suggested, curiously, he should be viewed as an “émigré”) without being accused of English chauvinism.
In very recent years, however, Lee writes, “what once had been obliterated came back to haunt him,” and Stoppard began to feel he had erased his own family – and other victims of the Holocaust – by using words like “lucky” and “charmed” to describe his unrepresentative survival.
In the summer of 2018, after reading Nicholaus Waschmass’s history of Nazi concentration camps, K.L, he started having insomnia and nightmares. “He couldn’t stop thinking about what happened, when he was a child, to his family and to millions of others,” Lee writes.
Back in the 1970s, and onward, Stoppard hadn’t been able to stop contemplating what would have happened to him as a writer if his mother had returned to (what was then) Czechoslovakia after the war. This fueled his activism on behalf of Soviet dissidents, his close relationship with the Czech playwright – and later president – Vaclav Havel (who he saw as a kind of a double) and the occasional play, from Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977) to Rock ’n’ Roll (2006). It also partially accounts for why he was “gung ho” for the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch in the 1980s.
In his 80s at the end of the 2010s, however, Stoppard began to examine the actual tragedy long hidden in plain sight in his life as his short-term memory declined and the long term came back into focus. He decided to write about it, from a certain angle.
Leopoldstadt opened in London on January, 2020 – a three-act drama about an assimilated Jewish family in Vienna, set in the same apartment in 1924, 1938 and 1955 (just as Arcadia had been set in the same English country house, but in 1812 in 1993 – a safe temporal distance on either side of his childhood).
It features a character named Leo, who escapes the Holocaust, grows up in England after his mother’s second marriage, and is very smug about it all. A relative admonishes him (which is to say, Stoppard admonishes Stoppard): “No one is born eight years old. … But you live as if without history, as if you throw no shadow behind you.”
You couldn’t ask, really, for a better arc than the one Stoppard’s actual life, art – and his shifting viewpoints on both – provides a biographer, and Lee has not messed with that. In Tom Stoppard: A Life, she first writes her subject’s early years – as he did until the 1990s – almost like a boy’s adventure tale, and only lets the readers feel the full the weight of these traumas when Stoppard himself begins to do so, ending her book with Leopoldstadt’s sell-out run – interrupted, or on pause at least, due to the pandemic.
In between that beginning and end, there’s over a dozen stylish, cerebral plays to sum up and connect to Stoppard’s life, myriad screenplays written or rewritten for credit (Brazil, Empire of the Sun) or cash (Beethoven, 102 Dalmatians, an unproduced cartoon of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats) to document, and a new wife or significant other to introduce every decade or two.
Lee doesn’t neglect Stoppard’s radio dramas or his translations and adaptations, mostly of Central and Eastern European plays. Briefly dissecting his version of Chekhov’s The Seagull, she highlights a line he has put in Nina’s mouth about the artist’s life: “What really counts is not dreaming about fame and glory… but stamina.”
Stoppard certainly has had stamina, but children (four in total) and alimony also have had a role to play in keeping him so productive. Lee paints a picture of a man who seems to almost enjoy living on the edge of his financial means – with a fondness for first editions, country estates and throwing very expensive parties. Even as a young writer in 1960s London, he was selling his blood – or worse, reviewing theatre – to pay back the friend or agent he had borrowed from to pay the bills.
Bumbling biographers turn up in many of Stoppard’s plays alongside withering witticisms such as, from 1995′s Indian Ink: “Biography is the worst possible excuse for getting people wrong.” Lee quotes these digs at her profession almost with pleasure, and seems inspired by them to leave no stone unturned in a 750-page tome that is exhaustive – and only occasionally exhausting.
The eminent British biographer’s previous subjects such as Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf are, as a New York Times profile put it, “all novelists, all female and all dead.” And though her take on Stoppard rarely seems hampered by him being male or alive (indeed, he was the one who requested her services), it is occasionally evident that show business is not her primary area of expertise. Lee seems more interested in print runs of plays than box-office revenue, for instance – and, in a groaner for Canadian readers, mistakenly refers to prominent father-and-son theatre producers Ed and David Mirvish as the “Mirvish brothers.”
Lee does write with authority about the plays, if not always about the theatre. At one point, she brilliantly connects Rosencrantz, with its glimpses of Hamlet from two doomed sidelined characters, and The Coast of Utopia trilogy, which is about pre-revolutionary Russians and their philosophical debates at home and in exile. She calls them plays about “people caught up in processes which they can’t control, who can’t find their way back home, and who spend their time trying to understand how best to play their parts in history.”
She engages too (as she must) with that strange old debate about whether Stoppard’s plays, for all their obvious intelligence and humour, are too aloof.
Lee documents how this view of his work grew partly out of the image the playwright had of himself early in his life, expressed privately (in a letter to an early, unrequited love: “All my inclinations – artistic, personal, ethic and moral – prefer reticence to over-explicitness”), and a dandyism cultivated in a brash way publicly (“I burn with no causes. I cannot say that I write with any social objective,” he declared in a 1968 interview).
A degree of emotional containment in Stoppard’s private life seems to spring form the survival mechanisms he learned from his mother (rather than the stereotypical English manifestation of that sensibility) – just as his dramatized digs at biographers may stem from his own long-time reluctance to look too closely at his own past.
But Lee makes the argument that his plays are not as standoffish as they are sometimes portrayed. She insists that emotions, those of grief in particular, swim beneath all of Stoppard’s work – starting with Rosencrantz, who speaks of being “born with an intuition of morality.” As objective proof, she relishes pointing out how often theatre critics have declared that this new Stoppard play (The Real Thing or Arcadia or The Coast of Utopia), or that revival (of Jumpers or Arcadia), finally showed that he had “heart.”
Occasionally Lee can seem overly protective of Stoppard, however. In writing about his early work, for instance, she’ll sometimes note that his depiction of a female character or tackling of an issue was “very much of its time” – without unpacking the euphemism.
Later, cataloguing the less-than-enthusiastic reviews for 2015′s The Hard Problem, she turns downright defensive, writing: “It was as though critics had forgotten, over nine years [without a new Stoppard play], what a Stoppard play might demand of them or how to react to it, or even as though they were enjoying having a kick at the ‘greatest living playwright.’”
This spurred me to read the play – which immediately made clear to me why it remains as yet unproduced here in Canada.
Perhaps it’s a testament to the likelihood that Stoppard’s importance will endure, that upon finishing a 750-page book about his life and work, I was left thinking that Lee’s biography was likely far from the final word on this guy.
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