Tom Stoppard has long been averse to weaving explicitly autobiographical material into his plays, so it’s only appropriate that one of his more revealing lines about himself would be voiced by a 19th-century liberal literary critic. The speech, which appears in Voyage, the first of Stoppard’s trilogy on the Russian intelligentsia, is delivered by Vissarion Belinsky to a small gathering of friends that includes a young “Michael” Bakunin and his aristocratic father. “I am not an artist,” Belinsky says.
My play was no good. I am not a poet. A poem can’t be written by an act of will. When the rest of us are trying to be present, a real poet goes absent. We can watch him in the moment of creation, there he sits with the pen in his hand, not moving. When it moves, we’ve missed it. Where did he go in that moment? The meaning of art lies in the answer to that question.
Except for the part about never writing a good play, Belinsky’s description of artistic inspiration can be read as self-portraiture. This retreat into the enigmas and ambiguities of imagination can be found in nearly all of Stoppard’s plays. Stoppard has garnered a reputation as the canny “ideas guy” of British theater, someone who will stage an argument between James Joyce and Tristan Tzara (Travesties), or a spy thriller inspired by the laws of quantum physics (Hapgood), or an existential deep dive into minor Shakespearean characters (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), but he’s also not above highbrow high jinks either.
In Hermione Lee’s excellent and exhaustive, but sometimes too spellbound, biography of Stoppard, we see time and again how his plays begin with a concept—chaos theory or the lure of dead languages—and then go hunting for a story entertaining enough to animate it. It’s not uncommon for him to read and consult meticulously for years before a play’s narrative coheres (as research for his 2015 play The Hard Problem, about the mysteries of consciousness and ethics, he consulted the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins as to “whether ‘virtue’ can always be reduced to Darwinian utility”). But Stoppard wants to entertain as well as elucidate: Through his characters, he plays poet and intellectual, playwright and historian, artist and biographer. His strongest and most magnetic impulse as a writer, which at its best bridges these lofty identities, is to put his audiences in the same rooms with bards and the belletrists, academics and theorists of whirring light particles, just as a revelation and humor and storytelling click into place.
Critics have sometimes accused him of laying his soaring insights on a creaky scaffolding of character and plot. Kenneth Tynan, in his 1977 review of Travesties, dismissed it as “a triple-decker bus that isn’t going anywhere.” Generally, though, Stoppard’s plays do have straightforward arcs, and they are meant to be literally intelligible. His view of theater is above all slyly pragmatic, like a magician who takes 50 steps to do one obvious thing.
The creation of Tom Stoppard, the man as well as the artist, began with a kind of extraordinary disappearing act. The formidable British playwright was born Tomáš Sträussler in the Czech city of Zlín in 1937. His father, Eugen, worked in various capacities (writer, doctor, public speaker) for the shoemaking conglomerate Bata, which employed much of the local population, and his mother, Marta, cared for Tomáš and his older brother, Peter. Both of his parents were Jewish, and in 1939 he, Peter, and Marta lucked into visas that got them to Singapore, and then on to India, as war loomed over Europe. Eugen would never join them: The family were in India when they learned he was dead, and they later discovered that he had perished in a bombing off the coast of Indonesia.
A short time later, Marta met Kenneth Stoppard, a British Army officer who was enjoying an evening off-duty in Darjeeling, where the Sträussler family had landed. The two married, and in 1946, when Tom was 8, the family settled in Derbyshire and joined the Church of England. Tom forgot the language in which he’d uttered his first words and was henceforth the eternal English schoolboy besotted with his new country’s reigning cultural sensibilities, chief among them Shakespeare, cricket, and the queen.
It wasn’t until 1993, on a lunch break from the rehearsals of Arcadia at the National, that Stoppard learned that he was Jewish and that eight members of his immediate family had been murdered in the Holocaust. His mother, long reluctant to speak about their lives before England, had recently struck up a correspondence with her great-niece Sarka Gauglitz. When they met in London with Sarka’s partner Jirek, Tom recorded a conversation in which he asked Sarka, “How Jewish were we?” To which she replied, “You were completely Jewish.” The revelation shocked Stoppard. As Lee observes, “It was as if his past was beginning, as he neared sixty, to be reinvented in his mind.” The remark echoes one that Marta communicated to Sarka in their letters: “that their life”—hers and the boys’—“would begin at the beginning in 1946,” when they immigrated to England, and that she didn’t want her sons’ lives to be consumed by the past, as she felt hers had been.
Marta’s reluctance to speak of the intimate past is alluded to throughout the biography and appears to have been passed on to Tom. This reticence is of course one of Lee’s challenge and presents her with considerable difficulties in personalizing the legacy of an artist with an expressed dread of his own biography and a desire for privacy on and off the page.
Lee, a premier literary biographer, has previously tackled subjects—Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, and Penelope Fitzgerald—who very much felt they belonged to the places where they were born, however complicated that kinship may have been for them. With this book, she takes great advantage of the story of Stoppard’s misattributed beginnings in her critical approach to his plays, reading many of them with the themes of exile and displacement in mind. The reader’s attention is often being drawn toward doubles (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), mistaken identities (Hapgood), broken family trees (Leopoldstadt), and Czech guys named Jan (Rock ‘n’ Roll). Lee posits that “the luck of the draw, the road not taken, the alternative possible path to the one chosen was not something he thought about as a child. But it came to haunt him as an adult. What would the other Tom have been, the one who didn’t become an Englishman?”
Even as Lee casts Stoppard as a figure conflicted about his Czech and Jewish identities, his self-conscious triumph as a born-again Englishman (or, as he wryly put it, a “bounced Czech”) is far more pronounced throughout most of his life.As Stoppard wrote in his diary sometime in the late ’70s, “The spiritual advantage is that success gives you identity and it is nice to be relieved of that search.” We have here the makings of identity as a high art, or an act, that one disappears into—as opposed to, say, a communal, political, or experiential process. In his work, there is a heavy sense of art aspiring to perfectibility and completion in a social landscape riven with disappointment and compromise.
The man who ultimately comes to the fore in the biography is one who is overwhelmingly unmoored from his past, who is most at home in a lineage of artists and scholars whose flashing insights suggest a way of being in the world that is respectful, passionate, and optimistic. For the most part, Stoppard relishes the freedom to live among them, conferred on him once by childhood accident and again by celebrity.
Stoppard was an outsider by birth, but by Lee’s account he charmed everyone and alienated no one: He’s well-mannered, people-pleasing, and even on good terms with nearly all his ex-wives and girlfriends. Lee notes that a female colleague once complimented him on his “complete absence (unlike many male playwrights) of condescension to women.” This respectfulness extends to the rest of his professional relationships: “In rehearsal he was dedicated, analytical and without ego,” Lee writes. “Actors trusted and liked him.” Broadway producer Manny Azenberg put it succinctly: “Tom Stoppard writes well and behaves well.”
Who could ask for more? His plays are not only blockbuster events, largely beloved by the critical establishments of London and New York; he is also a darling of Hollywood. In 1999 he won an Academy Award for cowriting Shakespeare in Love, a feel-good nostalgia trap with a mesmerizing premise: What if William Shakespeare were the hottest man in Stratford? For decades he’s been on friendly terms with the British royal family (technically you can call him “Sir Tom”). He once told a reporter that his ideal death would be getting squashed by a giant bookshelf while reading.
But Stoppard’s life as an Englishman hasn’t been without its own twists and turns, especially during his early years of writing. After an agreeable but unsatisfying stint at a boarding school in the Yorkshire countryside (bad at geometry and, as one teacher noted, “he writes a very pleasant boyish style”), he left the school system for good at the age of 17 and worked as a journalist and critic. In the mid-’50s, when he was just starting out, Stoppard wrote unbylined pieces for the Western Daily Press, Bristol’s morning paper, and a few years later began to write under a pair of bylines: one a pseudonym, Brennus, the other his own. The two would occasionally squabble on the page—in a meta disagreement over the power of satire, Brennus referred to Stoppard as a “dilettante who writes in his own blood on handmade papyrus.” In the midst of all this self-referential play, Stoppard was also working on a novel and, increasingly, plays, since those were faster to write.
Lee emphasizes that Stoppard badly wanted to be famous as he labored on hundreds of reviews and jaunty bits of local journalism throughout his 20s. In this period, his artistic pursuits tended toward abstraction; he wrote in letters to his friends of the difficulty in marrying absurdity to pathos. At the same time, his vision of great art enduring as a sort of Olympian order unto itself began to cohere, as in his review of Arnold Wesker’s Centre 42, where he wrote, “Art is not withheld from anyone. Like Mount Everest, it is there…. The best will rise to the top, whether in power, or in appreciation of beauty. Standards depend on comparisons, or a variety of levels.” Stoppard added, “The identification between socialism and art is a false one.”
When, at the tail end of his 20s, Stoppard did find astounding success with his 1966 play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, he took immense pleasure in his newfound fortune. At the time, he was in the process of extricating himself from an unhappy marriage to his first wife, Jose, and moving in with his second, Miriam. It was a turbulent moment but not a thrifty one. Lee spares no detail in outlining his lavish new lifestyle: The family estate just outside London was splendidly furnished and received a host of luminaries. The biography is bloated with celebrity appearances—Mick Jagger, André Previn, Princess Margaret, David Hockney, Anthony Powell, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, and Harold Pinter, among others—perhaps in part because Stoppard diligently noted his encounters with famous people in his diaries. “I’m getting quite impressed by some of our friends,” he confided to his little black book. In 1967 Antony Armstrong-Jones photographed Stoppard for Vogue in all the typically irreverent poses of a fashion magazine spread: riding a bike with no wheels, camping in a graveyard, wearing an oversize shirt.
If Stoppard was right at home hobnobbing with elites and drafting major theatrical events, he was notably less assured when caught in public expressing his political commitments. He may have burst onto the scene at a ripe young age with a reputation for ripping up the rule book (or at least Shakespeare’s Hamlet) during a high point for countercultural movements across the world, but Stoppard has a strong conservative bent. In interviews he’s tended to cast his allegiance as a preference for exploring his “enormous love of language” over social concerns, and Lee describes him at one point as “a playwright without a cause, except the cause of good language and good art.” She also spends a long while filling in the gaps—for instance, he cosigned an open letter in The New York Times supporting the United States’ invasion of Grenada and sat on the board of directors of the conservative think tank Committee for the Free World. Around this time, he declined to sign a letter calling for a ban on shows played to segregated audiences in apartheid South Africa (he himself violated the boycott with a 1978 production of Dirty Linen, possibly his worst play), and he wrote an anti-trade-union drama (Night and Day, also not his finest work), which he dedicated to a friend, the conservative historian Paul Johnson.
In a speech delivered by Jake Milne, one of the journalist characters in Night and Day, which Lee posits “sums up the author’s views,” Stoppard argues that “Junk journalism is the evidence of a society that has got at least one thing right, that there should be nobody with the power to dictate where responsible journalism begins.” Alongside the play’s denunciation of unions during the rise of Thatcherism, what we have here is standard libertarian fare. (Stoppard got on well with Thatcher, and she is said to have enjoyed his plays.) Somehow, getting his start in newspapers instilled in Stoppard a lifelong love of the industry, to the point where he perceived a hallmark difference between capitalist and communist countries to be a free press.
Later in life, Stoppard has become more liberal. However, his advocacy, and the political content of his later plays, remain largely confined to the promotion of free expression. In Rock ‘n’ Roll this point of view is rehashed as the dramatization of creeping censorship in Cold War–era Prague and the slow crushing of the socialist idealism of its protagonist, Jan. As the play progresses, we witness Jan’s situation deteriorate: He’s interrogated and imprisoned, and the state smashes his cherished record collection. Lee rightly points out that Stoppard’s sympathies here are in part born from a personal thankfulness for having been raised English rather than Czech. (“Stoppard’s distaste for Marxism in the West was entangled with his loathing of Communism in the East,” Lee writes.) In any case, the political positions, while important to Stoppard and deeply felt, are not placed at the dramatic heart of his work, which is ruled by aesthetic passion.
Given his professional fixation on distant and parallel lives, one might imagine that Stoppard has lived a few too. But the more one reads of his biography, the more it sinks in that most of his adventures have been confined to his plays, in which self-discovery is of little concern. What is expressed in his plays tends to conform to a few core principles: Great art can transcend political difference, the quest for knowledge is ennobling, and catharsis is what happens when we discover a crucial detail of our biography that had been misplaced. These sorts of principles get dressed up in the dramatis personae but are otherwise rinsed of identity—the intellectual gambits are the stars of the show. The simultaneous expansiveness and blankness of his dramatic contraptions, delivered in silken, quick-witted prose, are fabulous scrims for the audience’s projections.
Take, for example, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, one of his most enjoyable and formally exciting works. Its setting is Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which these two minor characters try to guess at what roles they’re meant to play and how best to avoid getting killed off. The duo lack a backstory but retain a strong sense that there is something significant in store for them. The play opens on the two in ambient discussion about their lived lacunae while flipping a coin that always comes up heads. It’s the unlikely consistency of the enigmatic coin that draws the audience to the characters’ faint but indomitable cause.
Lee suggests that Stoppard divides himself between the slapstick pair: “Guildenstern seeking information, examining scientific solutions, wanting logical answers, and in the end grimly facing reality…Rosencrantz dreamy, vulnerable, childish, frightened.” These alter egos could also be read as qualities of Hamlet, who stalks Stoppard’s script with the gravitas of a young god, inspiration personified. Hamlet’s “incidents” of personality, self-address, and agency build to a drama so expansive it includes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s own anxiety of influence. Part of their dilemma is working out how he pulled it off (reminding us of Belinsky’s poet gone missing). Perhaps if they knew what a man with destiny looked like, they could determine their own.
Instead, they go in beautiful circles like a pair of flat-footed waltzers. As we learn from Lee, Stoppard wrote in his notebook that the play is about “the principle that every man is the centre of the world—and there are as many worlds as there are men.” Not included is whether Stoppard believes this principle has a moral valence or in what ways it affects the play. Hamlet (the man, the text, the cultural signifier) determines the duo’s experience of the play they’re in, and they in turn overdetermine the audience’s experience of the one they’re watching.
Stoppard’s next big hit, The Real Thing, another staging of rhetorical counterparts, is structurally and ideologically informed by the desire to get the balance he explored in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead—between art and life—just right. Considered one of his most personal plays, The Real Thing is one part romantic comedy of marital betrayal, one part dramatized writing workshop. Its protagonist, Henry, is a playwright who Stoppard has said in interviews more or less reflects his own writing philosophy. The first scene, another play within a play, introduces us to a character named Max, who appears to be confronting his wife, Charlotte, over her affair with another man. The next scene clarifies that this has been an act from one of Henry’s plays; that Charlotte, the actress, is Henry’s wife; and that they are both friends with Max and his wife, Annie, who is also an actor. As in the first scene, this picture of fidelity falls apart quickly as Henry and Annie confess (but only for the audience’s benefit) that they’ve been having an affair. They decide to break off from their spouses and formalize their relationship. Annie later has an affair with another writer, Brodie, whom the audience is led to understand is an inferior writer to Henry.
The theory behind Henry’s superiority is summed up in an extended cricket metaphor. It comes by way of a conversation between Henry and Annie, who are now living together, about the quality of Brodie’s prose. Unlike Henry, Brodie is not a seasoned playwright, but a former soldier taking his first crack at writing drama. He’s an anti-war activist, and his plays are overtly political. Annie has given Brodie’s play to Henry in the hope that he will nurture the young playwright, but he uses the opportunity to lecture her, and the audience, instead. Henry likens his own writing to a cricket bat that looks like a lump of wood but “is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor.” Of course, the bat is for hitting balls, Henry tells us, but the point is that it had better be well-crafted: “If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you’ve done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly.”
In this metaphor the ball is the idea, the bat is the good play, and Brodie’s play is just a lump of wood. Annie mounts a valiant defense (“To you, he can’t write. To him, write is all you can do”), but none of it breaches Henry’s sanctum of zingers. He describes Brodie’s draft as “half as long as Das Kapital and only twice as funny.” All these motives offend him because, in his view, words are “innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos.” One could imagine Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as characterizations of this inexperienced, unbridled language, lily-padding across the void. Lee is right to note that in the end Stoppard tips this careful, conspiratorial equilibrium too far in revealing that Brodie’s motives aren’t even noble: He’s lied about the nature of his dissident activity. It’s an open-and-shut case for cricket bats.
Within the context of the play, irresistibly quotable lines about the pleading innocence of words and the supremacy of cricket bats do more than advance a worldview—they establish a basis for belonging in the world. As Lee writes, such a stance “comes out of the English traditions that Stoppard loves. Every word increases our sense of the cultural security of Henry and the alien inadequacy of Brodie, the working-class Scottish prisoner of consciousness.” The Real Thing doesn’t fuss with a particular text the way Rosencrantz and Guildenstern does, but literary tradition is its law of gravity, which has the power to pull all ideological players down to earth.
Stoppard’s latest play, Leopoldstadt, which ran for a month on London’s West End before the Covid-19 pandemic caused it to close (it reopened for a 12-week run this past August), is an intriguing departure from writing about writing and plays within plays. It conforms somewhat to Stoppard’s late style, which favors family epics set in Eastern Europe and characters in the throes of state repression. In nine brisk scenes, Leopoldstadt features dozens of characters and spans half a century, beginning in 1899. It centers on a family of assimilated Viennese Jews living in a prosperous period bordered by two historical ghettos. As the play advances we get light episodes with faintly serious undertones—the failure of some family members to make inroads at the goys’ social clubs or to seamlessly orchestrate a bris—which don’t alert the family, or the audience, to the bloody denouement that looms. Then, in November of 1938, a Nazi “civilian” shows up at the Merz property and informs them they no longer have a home.
The material is new for Stoppard, but then his plays always look wildly different in terms of setting and subject matter. The treatment of the material is more familiar. Here, too, Stoppard deploys a metaphor that might be read—like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s cursed coin and The Real Thing’s cricket bat—as a map of the play’s structure. Toward the end of the play, Ludwig, the family mathematician and eminently reasonable moral compass, explains the game of cat’s cradle to his grandson, Leo, and his grandnephew, Nathan. “There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the way the knots change their address…. But, as it happens, we do know, like God, that everything unfolded from our game of cat’s cradle. Each state came out of the previous one. So there is order underneath!”
The image appears again in the final scene, set in 1955, when Leo, now 24, meets with members of his Viennese family for the first time since he escaped to England with his mother when he was 8 and, like Stoppard, was bequeathed a surname change, from Rosenbaum (inherited from his socialist father, who was killed in 1934) to Chamberlain (the Englishman his mother marries as they flee Austria). Here the play becomes uncharacteristically biographical, though Stoppard has insisted it should not be read that way. For the first time in his life, Leo, a writer of “funny books,” hears from his relatives Rosa and Nathan (a survivor of Auschwitz) that nearly his entire family died in the Holocaust. “No one is born eight years old,” Nathan tells Leo, who in his own comic fashion has been striving to make light of these revelations. “Leonard Chamberlain’s life as Leo Rosenbaum’s life continued. His family is your family. But you live as if without history, as if you throw no shadow behind you.”
Lee shrewdly identifies the biographical elements here, linking some of the dialogue directly back to the tapes of Stoppard’s conversation with Sarka in 1993. As several critics noted, it’s the first of his plays to deal explicitly with Jewishness, and Stoppard told Lee the entire play was written for the sake of Nathan delivering this speech, which causes Leo to remember the cat’s cradle and burst into tears.
Lee, whose biography nears its end with a chapter on Leopoldstadt, warns against interpreting the cat’s cradle as a metaphor for the characters’ fate, arguing instead that it’s an image of “something pure, beautiful and harmless, set against the harmfulness of history.” But like the trout taking the fly, I simply can’t resist. Here is the familiar yearning to bind together player and play in a moment of inspiration—in this case, the retrieval of a part of Leo that had been lost to him. In a way, all the suffering and love of the past hours has been arching toward this heroic absorption of tragedy, thoughtfully hung upon 10 beseeching fingers for the audience’s benefit.
The inducement is to mourn lives not led: those taken through violence (the play ends with a recitation of the names of the dead), but also those set on an irreversible change of course. It’s an ending that points to the limits of the kinds of tragedy that Stoppard’s sentimentality can bear.
The spell may work, but it risks alienating the viewer if it doesn’t, for there’s a blatantly mawkish quality to this theater of empathy, in which the choicest moment is handed to a man who hardly remembers anything the audience has just witnessed. One doesn’t feel this way about Lee’s book, however, for though she may also wish to garland Stoppard’s life and legacy with a sense of resolution, it’s not her prerogative to prop him up as a sympathetic or romantic figure. Not all brilliant lives thrill and seduce their audiences in a matter of minutes; some are long, guarded, and appropriately dull.