Homage to Tom Stoppard
What more is there to say?
—W. B. Yeats, “Nineteen Hundred
If you’re going to enthuse about a writer, it helps if that writer is a genius. Tom Stoppard fits the bill. “Every atom is a cathedral,” he once wrote. I can’t help feeling the same about his brain. In plays for stage, radio and television, he has been an architect of vision and entertainment from the start, finding the poetry in science, inspired goofiness and the grief of history. And now he has chosen the ideal biographer in Hermione Lee. Tom Stoppard: A Life might be premature, since Stoppard is alive and writing at nearly eighty-four, but the book is shrewdly judged and (aside from a few redundant details) well written, with the gossip of a celebrity biography and sympathy for what a life’s work really means. Professor Lee has written books on Elizabeth Bowen, Philip Roth, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf and Penelope Fitzgerald. Stoppard is her only living subject, and she muses on the problem of summing him up, the very predicament of her genre:
You try to bring the person to life as fully as you can on your page, your stage of written words. But in the end, this person, Tom Stoppard, will vanish into the darkness, and all those things that made this person who he was will vanish with him. He will live on in his work: you will find him there, as he has always wanted you to. Once he vanishes, he becomes his admirers. His life turns into the work he has left behind, and into other people’s stories, legends, anecdotes and versions of him—of which this book is one. What I have tried to capture will only ever be one aspect of him. The relation of the written to the lived life can only be partial.
The biographer’s modesty is becoming, but her book presents a commanding case for Stoppard’s greatness as a man and an artist. The book is long but not too long, elegantly shaped and verbally astute, even at times poetic in its evocations of theatre’s evanescence. And such evanescence is Stoppard’s very subject, making the glimmer of life beautiful even as it disappears. He believes a play is an event, proves it by his tireless revision during rehearsal. Even the published versions of his scripts are considered provisional, nearly as fleeting as an actor’s delivery.
Stoppard emerges in this book not only as a good man, but as a person interested in goodness yet undeceived about human folly. Lee only briefly allows for perceived flaws in his character: “One grand old woman of the world, an old friend of his, said to me: ‘Beware of the charm.’ A theatre director noted that he used his politeness to get what he wanted from people. . . . Another described him as completely, icily alone, a solitary.” In short, a man of some reserve, an artist who has had to pursue his art among other people even when his personal inclinations are to remain private. But it’s what he has given us in spite of everything that matters, Lee concludes: “A famous writer, who loves him dearly, said: ‘He is one of the most important people in the world.’”
Lee offers superb readings of Stoppard’s many works with stories of how they came into being and the talented personalities involved in mounting any play—these amount to a Who’s Who of modern theatre, actors, directors, moneymen, technicians. Even people who have never seen a play might have enjoyed the movie roles he has created for the likes of Sean Connery, Michelle Pfeiffer and Gwyneth Paltrow—Stoppard has made a good living as a Hollywood script doctor and author of screenplays like Brazil, Empire of the Sun, The Russia House and Shakespeare in Love. Lee reads his writings for television and radio as seriously as the rest. But it’s in the works for the stage, from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) to Leopoldstadt (2020), that he has built his true cathedral out of air, thin air. Well, not really out of air, but out of the language and much of the literature, science and history it carries. Hermione Lee appears to know her subject right down to his bones but does not overburden the book with psychological speculation beyond essential facts. Her sympathies extend to the primal wound it has taken Stoppard much of a lifetime to discover, the disappearance of his own Jewish family in the Holocaust, a truth he learned only in his fifties.
If science provides Stoppard some of his most intriguing metaphors, history and art deepen his sensibility and enlarge his range. But all of these subjects are concerned with that evanescence, memory and experience and the meaning of time, those human vanishings.
I remember wandering through Brno, in the Czech Republic, in 1997, seeing a street violinist performing in front of a building pockmarked with bullet holes. Even the cemeteries appeared to have been battlefields. History had not been kind to such places, and this was where Tom Stoppard’s father, Eugen Sträussler, grew up. Tom was born Tomáš nearby in Zlín, hometown of his mother, Marta.
Hermione Lee’s biography never gets bogged down in begats but runs succinctly through Stoppard’s birth in 1937, his childhood in India and England as, in his words, a “bounced Czech.” There is grief inside the joke. Hitler’s invasion had sent the family into exile in Singapore, cut off from any news about their home.
While Eugen and Marta were together in Singapore, Eugen’s parents, Julius and Hildegard Sträussler, both in their sixties, were evicted from their house in Brno and, early in 1941, were put on the transport of Moravian Jews to the Theresienstadt concentration camp at Terezin. On 9 January 1942, a month before their son Eugen’s death, they were transported to the ghetto in Riga, Latvia, where they died. . . . In 1944, Marta’s parents, Rudolf Beck, aged seventy, and Regina, a chronic invalid at sixty-nine, died at Auschwitz. So did two of her four sisters, Wilma and Berta.
Stoppard was four years old when the Japanese attack on Singapore forced his family to flee again, this time by chance to India. His father was to follow but died in Singapore, perhaps in one of the many sunken ships or strafed from the air. After five years in Darjeeling, his widowed mother married an Englishman, Major Kenneth Stoppard. Tom and his brother, Peter, “came to see their stepfather as a bitter, disappointed man, bigoted, xenophobic and anti-Semitic.” Marta avoided all mention of their Jewish heritage, and the boys were raised in an England that might itself have been a theatrical set, complete with cricket pitches and schoolboy uniforms. Stoppard felt entirely English and loved what England seemed to stand for: reason and right in a world of warring maniacs.
Stoppard is also among the many great writers who never received a university degree. He left school at seventeen, earning his living on Grub Street until his first successes as a playwright. Working at first for newspapers in Bristol, he befriended Peter O’Toole, who was making his name as an actor at the Bristol Old Vic. The two became drinking buddies and fellow cricket buffs. Eventually, Stoppard would play on Harold Pinter’s cricket team. The love of sport (he has fished with the likes of Ted Hughes), combined with his early years as a reporter, gave him a highly-developed awareness of real world troubles and a healthy sense of fun. He’s the autodidact’s autodidact. When he stumbled into entertainment criticism, reviewing movies as well as plays, he learned about dramatic structure and how to make a line “land” on an audience—his chief aesthetic criterion.
I was a Pinter fan before a Stoppard one. Like many people, I at first found the younger playwright’s work merely clever, but in my wise old age, I’ve seen the error. His breakthrough play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, is not merely an exercise in absurdist clown-show theatrics, but a tragicomedy of real power. The theme of chance underlies the grim fact that his two protagonists, minor players in Hamlet, are soon to be disappeared. One is tempted to link these vanishings to that of Stoppard’s own father, but Lee’s biography generally avoids needless psychologizing. She quotes an interview in which he said, “When you take away everything plays think they’re about, what’s left is what all plays—all stories—are really about, and what they’re really about is time. Events, things happening—Ophelia drowns! Camille coughs! Somebody has bought the Cherry Orchard!—are different manifestations of what governs the narrative we make up, just as it governs the narrative we live in: the unceasing ticktock of the universe.” All the intellectual curiosity, the way he has of putting physics and mathematics comprehensibly onstage, belies what Auden called “a simple enormous grief.” Or as Yeats put it, “Man is in love and loves what vanishes.” Now you see it, now you don’t.
If there’s an overarching political argument to Stoppard’s life work, it is in opposition to the world’s destroyers, in celebration of the makers, thinkers and lovers with all their flaws. Late in The Coast of Utopia, Stoppard’s 2002 trilogy of plays about nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia, Alexander Herzen, whose idealism has been tempered by experience, argues, “History has no purpose! History knocks at a thousand gates at every moment, and the gatekeeper is chance. It takes wit and courage to make our way while our way is making us, with no consolation to count on but art and the summer lightning of personal happiness.” He says this to his friends Karl Marx and Ivan Turgenev, who “ignore him and stroll away.” Stoppard’s politics is consistently skeptical of idealism, to put it mildly. Herzen concludes as follows:
To go on, and to know there is no landfall on the paradisal shore, and still to go on. To open men’s eyes and not tear them out. To bring what’s good along with them. The people won’t forgive when the future custodian of a broken statue, a stripped wall, a desecrated grave, tells everyone who passes by, “Yes—yes, all this was destroyed by the revolution.” The destroyers wear nihilism like a cockade—they think they destroy because they’re radicals. But they destroy because they’re disappointed conservatives—let down by the ancient dream of a perfect society where circles are squared and conflict is cancelled out. But there is no such place and Utopia is its name. So until we stop killing our way towards it, we won’t be grown up as human beings. Our meaning is in how we live in an imperfect world, in our time. We have no other.
He is, of course, speaking directly to us, whether or not the drama’s fourth wall is broken. Ideologues of Left and Right should heed such words, but they will not because they are ideologues. We’ve had enough of them.
The new biography provides a very good introduction to the plays, but Lee knows there is no substitute for reading the scripts or seeing them performed. Again and again, I’m struck by how often vanishings occur: the premature death of Thomasina in Arcadia (1993) and the madness of Septimus; the suicide of Konstantin in Chekhov’s The Seagull (1997), one of Stoppard’s many translations; the death by cancer of Eleanor in Rock ‘n’ Roll (2006); the way the Holocaust has diminished the cast by the end of Leopoldstadt. His script for the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love (1996) ends with “tears and a journey.” The film is less about Shakespeare than it is about the near-miraculous anarchy of theatre, the pleasures of performance. Historical inaccuracies in the movie infuriate some scholars but are part of the fun, just as Stoppard’s portrayals of academics in such works as Professional Foul (1977, for BBC television), Arcadia and Rock ‘n’ Roll prove both satirical and oddly affectionate. He puts his faith in art with Belinksy’s delightful ravings about Russian literature in Utopia, the resonant Sappho scholarship in Rock ‘n’ Roll and Henry’s great cricket speech from The Real Thing (1982). Like Stoppard, Henry is a playwright of definite aesthetic beliefs who also loves the sport because, like writing, it requires precision of performance. A cricket bat is a thing made to functional specifications, which are themselves a kind of art. “This isn’t better because someone says it’s better,” Henry says, “or because there’s a conspiracy by the MCC to keep cudgels out of Lords. It’s better because it’s better.” Stoppard and his protagonist would sympathize with Auden, who wrote, “Every high C accurately struck demolishes the theory that we are irresponsible puppets of fate or chance.” Henry’s aesthetic faith sets him against the political art of the Scottish nationalist, Brodie, yet Stoppard leaves room for both points of view. He doesn’t have to resolve the divide between politics and art because he’s writing drama, and he writes every point of view with conviction. When Henry says, “I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are,” he wins me over entirely, even when I can see that nobody’s motives in the play are pure.
Like all great drama, Stoppard’s plays hold a mirror (sometimes a funhouse mirror) up to the human situation. “We act on scraps of information,” says Guildenstern before his disappearance, “sifting half-remembered directions that we can hardly separate from instinct.” If quantum physics and chaos theory guide such plays as Hapgood (1988) and Arcadia, it’s partly because Stoppard loved the voices of people like Richard Feynman who wrote beautifully about science. His modern character, Valentine, in Arcadia, a play that juxtaposes two different historical periods and sets them dancing together, says, “It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.” Stoppard’s ideas are animated by the people who express them as part of their temperament.
“Dramatists become essayists at their peril,” he wrote in the introduction to Rock ‘n’ Roll, his play about the life he might have led if he had remained in Czechoslovakia. The dissident Jan, who has lived on both sides of the Iron Curtain, says in Act One, “Heroic acts don’t spring from your beliefs. . . . They spring from your character.” Jan’s friend and teacher, Max, is an aging academic who clings to his Marxist ideals but never really acts upon them. Their friendship survives political betrayal, rather like the friendship of the two men in Athol Fugard’s A Lesson from Aloes. Fugard made his moving drama from only three characters, while Stoppard populates his plays, making a more complicated vocal music, which invites chaos even as it finds equipoise. Character matters. Max’s dying wife, Eleanor, becomes one of the most moving and powerful figures in all of Stoppard because of her own acute vision. A classicist who understands that human nature has never really changed, she is outraged by her husband’s dialectical materialism, which he stubbornly sees as a kind of integrity:
Eleanor They’ve cut, cauterized and zapped away my breasts, my ovaries, my womb, half my bowel, and a nutmeg out of my brain, and I’m undiminished, I’m exactly who I’ve always been. I am not my body. My body is nothing without me, that’s the truth of it.
She tears open her dress.
Look at it, what’s left of it. It does classics. It does half-arsed feminism, it does love, desire, jealousy and fear—Christ, does it do fear!—so who’s the me who’s still in one piece?
Max I know that—I know your mind is everything.
Eleanor (furious) Don’t you dare, Max—don’t you dare reclaim that word now. I don’t want your “mind” which you can make out of beer cans. Don’t bring it to my funeral. I want your grieving soul or nothing. I do not want your amazing biological machine—I want what you love me with.
Even back when I thought Stoppard was merely clever, I might have seen that his was not only a theatre of ideas. In 1975, a young hitchhiker in England, I bought for ninety pence an upper circle ticket to the original production of Travesties at the Aldwych, with the great John Wood as Henry Carr, John Hurt as Tristan Tzara, Tom Bell as James Joyce and Frank Windsor as Lenin. Stoppard’s inspiration, allowing very different artists like Tzara and Joyce to meet Vladimir Lenin, is by itself enough to make one smile. His critique of the Russian Revolution happens here with a good deal less of the grief one finds in the later plays. Instead, we have the comedy of eccentricity, art and revolution seen through the faulty eyes of an old man losing his memory. Act Two of the play begins with a long discourse called “Cecily’s Lecture,” in which an attractive young librarian offers a potted history of Marxism. The speech seldom “landed” with early audiences, so Stoppard trimmed it and even cut the whole thing. Stoppard tells a lovely story, which Lee repeats in the biography, about a successful production of the play in Paris: “he spoke to the director and told him he didn’t have to do the whole of that speech. ‘Mais pourquoi pas? C’est magnifique,’ the director said. . . . After the play opened, they spoke again. How did Cecily’s speech go? Stoppard asked him. ‘Formidable, superbe,’ the director replied. ‘I was thinking, God, this is the sort of audience I deserve. So I go to Paris to see it . . . and he was right. She did every word and you could have heard a pin drop. But she was stark naked!”
Stoppard is no snob. He understands what it means to be funny and why fun has meaning, why human beings need it. He came of age when commercial and subsidized theatre were learning to work together. His plays have usually made money, sometimes piles of it, and he has also done plenty of writing for such popular entertainers as Steven Spielberg. He understands that in some ways art is a compensation for life as well as an illumination of it. Henry Carr’s memories of Switzerland in 1917 may be unreliable, but that does not prevent him from seeing through the folly of his friends. Again, character is everything. You might say this is the theme of Lee’s biography: the character of Tom Stoppard, even while he climbs socially and works relentlessly at his art.
I haven’t begun to touch on the breadth and variety of Stoppard’s work, from the acrobatic electrons of Jumpers (1972), to his return to a childhood home in Indian Ink (1995), his use of the London Symphony Orchestra in Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977), his classicism in The Invention of Love (1997), his collaborations with other playwrights like Vaclav Havel, who became a close friend. One of the joys of Stoppard’s life, as recounted by Hermione Lee, is his many and varied friendships: Mike Nichols, David Cornwell (John le Carré), Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser, the Duchess of Devonshire, etc. The fact that he was very good friends with conservatives like Paul Johnson and Margaret Thatcher has sometimes been held against him, and Lee takes pains to clarify his political beliefs. His plays may perform experiments, but they are not revolutionary or avant-garde. In fact, he seems to mistrust revolutionaries of all types, with the possible exception of the global eruption we call Rock ‘n’ Roll—his play on that subject runs a gamut from Sappho to the Rolling Stones. Yet Stoppard’s kind of conservatism does not prevent him from casting a cold eye on things as they are. He has for much of his life been actively involved, through organizations like PEN and Amnesty International, with the problem of censorship and the plight of oppressed artists, scientists and journalists all over the world. In a critique of contemporary British society, Lee notes, “he offered a random list: ‘Surveillance. Mis-selling pensions and insurance. Phone hacking. Celebrity culture. Premiership football. Dodgy dossier. Health and Safety. MPs expenses. Political correctness. Internet porn. Targets as in the NHS. Managers as in the BBC. Bankers’ bonuses.’” Plenty to agree with there. Most writers’ lives appear to be entirely sedentary. Stoppard’s is not. He is an active participant, not only in the theatre of his time, but in the larger community. He has tried to be a good man.
That “simple enormous grief” I mentioned earlier underlies all of this effort, this kindness and generosity. More than once he has quoted a favorite speech from a play by James Saunders, Next Time I’ll Sing to You (1962):
There lies behind everything . . . a certain quality which we may call grief. It’s always there below the surface, just behind the façade. Sometimes . . . you can see dimly the shape of it as you can see sometimes through the surface of an ornamental lake the outline of a carp . . . It bides its time, this quality . . . you may pretend not to notice . . . the name of this quality is grief.
Hermione Lee writes of all this with such skill that it never becomes maudlin, never seems to pry more than necessary into the man’s privacy, never tries to sell us a psychological bill of goods. Her book contributes to the best writing about world theatre since World War II, a kind of Elizabethan Age in which a vital theatre shows civilization to itself.
Now you see it, now you don’t. The very word theatre comes from vision or spectacle. We have these things in movies, of course, but to sit in some kind of theatre, shoulder to shoulder with our fellow citizens, watching living bodies act, is its own justification. Live theatre has suffered in a time of pandemic and the advent of online streaming services, but I hope its magic will be returned to us. Are we losing the audience that could get all of Stoppard’s jokes? Perhaps, but I suspect his plays will not vanish when he does.
 TOM STOPPARD: A Life, by Hermione Lee. Alfred A. Knopf. $37.50.