Tom Stoppard: "Every time I blink, there's a play waiting to be written." Photo: David Corio/Redferns Via Getty Images

Tom Stoppard's heartfelt high jinks

The playwright's works might be dazzlingly cerebral, but they are surprisingly moving
July 20, 2017

Interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme in July, Tom Stoppard admitted he was stuck for what to write next. Brexit, Donald Trump, the election result, the Grenfell Tower fire: it was too much to process. “Art is somehow so overshadowed by real events,” he sighed. “Every time I blink, there’s a play begging to be written. But not always does it feel like a play by me.”

It is a tantalising question of how this most inventive of writers might respond to the events of the last 12 months. But one of the striking things about Stoppard’s career—now, as he begins his eighties, nearly 60 years long—is that inspiration strikes him in unlikely ways. It’s hard to think of another playwright who would write a spy thriller based on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (1988’s Hapgood) or a drama that calls for a symphony orchestra (1977’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour). Had anyone else pitched a two-act comedy about logical positivism, the script would most likely have ended up in the slush pile rather than at the National Theatre. Yet in 1972, with Jumpers, Stoppard not only pulled off the trick, but took it triumphantly to Broadway.

It is sometimes said of Stoppard’s work that it is all head and no heart; that his fascination with verbal high jinks and conceptual fireworks doesn’t mine the deepest truths about human existence. Yet few writers have engaged so passionately with the big issues of our time—faith, politics, revolution—or pushed the boundaries of theatre so far. And in a period of nervy global uncertainty, perhaps a few high jinks are what we need.

Later in that BBC interview, Stoppard recovered his old wit. Maybe his response to the surreal absurdities of the current moment might be a farce, he added—“several vicars dropping their trousers in walk-in wardrobes.” Somehow, you wouldn’t put it past him.

Asked what  Rosencrantz was really about, Stoppard coolly replied, “it’s about to make me very rich.”
Stoppard’s life story is as unlikely as anything he has put on stage. Born Tomás Straüssler in July 1937 in Zlín in what was then Czechoslovakia, his father was a company doctor for a firm that made shoes. Forced to flee two years later by the Nazi invasion, the family ended up in Singapore, before fleeing again, this time from the Japanese. Tomás’s father remained behind, and was killed; on reaching India, his mother remarried a major in the British Army, Kenneth Stoppard, who gave her two boys his surname and brought the family to England in 1946. Thomas—as he now was—had only learned to speak English a short while before.

Stoppard has pooh-poohed suggestions that he found this peripatetic childhood—or his later discovery that his family was Jewish, a fact concealed from him for many years by his mother—traumatic, but a restlessness clearly remained. He left school without taking A-levels and got a job at the Western Daily Press in Bristol. There he displayed a disarming ability to improvise: for a time he managed to hold down a motoring column despite being unable to drive (“I used to review the upholstery,” he later claimed).

More significant was a stint as a drama critic, which later furnished material for one of his smartest early scripts, The Real Inspector Hound (1968)—a knowing satire on the English murder mystery in which a critic watching the play-within-the-play ends up being sucked into the action.

But his ambitions lay beyond journalism. After moving to London in 1962, he worked for Scene, a now-defunct magazine, and got an agent, Kenneth Ewing. Although his first full work for the stage, A Walk on the Water, sank more or less without trace, Stoppard appears to have had little doubt that his time would come. One story relates how he once borrowed £40 off Ewing to make his rent, then promptly hailed a taxi home.

Awarded a grant to work on his writing in 1964, Stoppard went to Berlin and busied himself with an idea Ewing had come up with: a one-act play about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s former college pals, who in Shakespeare’s play are co-opted by the scheming Claudius and then double-crossed by Hamlet. The idea was also a riff on Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: Ros and Guil stand anxiously by, waiting for their cues, little realising that they are doomed.

Rosencrantz, too, looked like it would be a dead end. The Royal Shakespeare Company bought the script but then failed to produce it, and it ended up at the 1965 Edinburgh fringe in the hands of a rag-tag student troupe. When the playwright arrived in town, he later recalled, the director and female lead had just walked out. Humiliation seemed certain.

What happened next has become the stuff of theatrical legend. On the train back to London, Stoppard opened the Observer to find Rosencrantz declared “the most brilliant debut by a young playwright since John Arden’s.” By the time he got back home, there was a message waiting for him from Kenneth Tynan, the critic who was helping out Laurence Olivier at the National Theatre. A year later, the play was on stage in London, and soon after that on Broadway, where its author became the youngest playwright ever to win a Tony award. Asked what Rosencrantz was really about, the 29-year-old Stoppard coolly replied, “it’s about to make me very rich.”

As was obvious in an anniversary production at the Old Vic in London earlier this year, Rosencrantz forged what would become Stoppard’s singular style. Full of diamond-sharp dialogue and casual philosophical references, while also sending up Shakespeare, the play still finds genuine pathos in the story of two humans reduced to being bit-players in someone else’s drama. Despite its debts to Beckett and Eugene Ionesco—and nods to the “new social history,” focusing on how history could be retold from the perspective of commoners—it could also be by no one else.

The playwright Nick Payne, whose fascination with issues of consciousness and science has seen him compared to Stoppard, says of Rosencrantz: “Even if it’s a little mannered, it’s remarkable how Stoppardian it is. You can certainly feel that the same sort of brain is reaching to merge the big ideas with the story and trying to find a form.”

Five years later, in 1972, Stoppard produced the even bolder Jumpers—full of knowing nods to Whitehall farce and the theatre of the absurd. Three years after that, he wrote Travesties, an audacious drama that took inspiration from the historical fact that James Joyce, the Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara and Lenin all lived in Zurich in 1917. In reality they never met, but Stoppard teasingly imagines what might have happened if they had. The results—which touch on the improbable but true story that while in the city, Joyce directed a production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest—are even more wildly surreal than in Jumpers.

The playwright Patrick Marber, who recently directed a successful revival of Travesties, says that the play was the most ambitious thing Stoppard had yet done: “It’s his prog-rock album, I think; he’s the genius playing every instrument. You’re allowed to go from a sonnet scene to a love scene to a bit of Joyce to a scene entirely composed of limericks. It’s an awesome achievement.”

Not everyone has been persuaded by Stoppard’s virtuosity. Travesties was accused of lacking substance (Tynan observed that “cake, as Marie Antoinette discovered too late, is no substitute for bread”), and for a playwright often ranked with the greats, he has had his share of failures (Hapgood was panned when it first appeared, and 1995’s Indian Ink was accused of cultural insensitivity). For a while, he was stalked by the soubriquet “Clever Tom” and the suspicion that he was too caught up in webs of his own brilliant artifice.

Another question began to surface in the bullishly left-wing environment of late-1970s British theatre: whether Stoppard was enough of a fellow traveller. A number of his plays skewer leftist pieties, particularly Marxist ones, and his taste for a certain kind of society high-life—in June, a pre-birthday celebration was hosted at Clarence House by Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall—has fed suspicions that this self-described “bounced Czech” has seemed overly keen to join the British establishment.

How this intersects with the playwright’s actual politics, though, is harder to fathom. In 1977, Stoppard declared he was in favour of “western liberal democracy, favouring an intellectual elite and a progressive middle class and based on a moral order derived from Christian absolutes.” Soon afterwards, he threw in his lot with Margaret Thatcher. But for Stoppard politics has always been a moral issue as much as a political one: enthusiastically English he might be, but he has never forgotten his Eastern European origins, nor what happened to writers of his generation who grew up under Communism.

In the late 1970s, Stoppard travelled to Moscow with Amnesty, and later met Václav Havel, becoming a passionate supporter of dissident writers and arts groups. Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, created in collaboration with the composer and conductor André Previn, features two inmates in a Soviet-style psychiatric system—one is genuinely ill and given to conducting an imaginary orchestra, the other imprisoned for political reasons. The delicate Stoppardian irony is that the second prisoner can only be released if he admits he is mad.

When I interviewed him earlier this year, this “timid libertarian” conceded that he was bamboozled by party-political arguments: “I feel a bit sheepish about it, but I’m not politically engaged enough to have a political position. I tend to get interested in specific issues and boil them down in some version of a moral issue and then take a stand on that.” And, like so many of his characters, perhaps the playwright enjoys arguing too much. As he once expressed it, “dialogue is the most respectable way of contradicting myself.”

The work is adept at handling contradictions, too. Take his sprawling three-part epic The Coast of Utopia (2002), which dramatised the origins of the Russian revolution in the mid- to late-19th century. Despite being freighted with dramatic irony about where the starry-eyed ambitions of idealists such as Mikhail Bakunin and Alexander Herzen would lead (one character observes: “if we can’t arrange our own happiness, it’s a conceit beyond vulgarity to arrange the happiness of those who come after us”), the play teems with spirit and youthful joie de vivre. It does what the best historical drama should do: work through arguments but let us feel their emotional heft too.

For a writer sometimes accused of being too cold, that emotional power can take audiences by surprise. For many Arcadia (1993) is his masterpiece—one of the finest plays written in the last half-century. Set simultaneously in the 18th century and the present day, it is as fiercely intellectual as ever: part historical thriller, part disquisition on Romanticism, part exploration of mathematical biology. Yet there is genuine yearning in the love story between the precocious teenage mathematician Thomasina and her tutor as they spar over definitions of entropy. Newton’s second law of thermodynamics has rarely seemed of such human consequence.
"For a while, Stoppard was stalked by the soubriquet 'Clever Tom' and the suspicion that he was too caught up in webs of his own brilliant artifice"
Will Stoppard’s works endure? They have been enormously influential, even for writers who would hesitate to consider themselves Stoppardian. “When people become canonised, they seem to become part of the furniture,” argues Nick Payne. “But you look back at the plays—Hapgood, Indian Ink, Arcadia—and at how experimental they are. They’re so daring. Maybe we take him for granted.”

Another answer, suggests FT critic Sarah Hemming, is the sheer range of the plays—their full-blooded conviction that the stage is large enough to contain entire worlds. “Stoppard tackles huge and difficult subjects. Like Michael Frayn, he has demonstrated how live theatre can animate and discuss challenging and abstract issues.”

Not just abstractions, too. Watching Travesties late last year, a few months after the Brexit vote and a few weeks before Trump’s election, I was struck by how oddly topical this dark, helter-skelter comedy felt, set against the collapse of an old European order and in a world where nothing seemed certain. Carnivalesque it may have been, but lacking substance it was not.

To ask a question often asked of Stoppard—will there be another great play? The praise for Rock’n’Roll (2006), an autobiographical drama that drew on Stoppard’s reverence for bands such as Pink Floyd and linked it to the struggle of Czech dissidents, was warm but more muted than for his soaring triumphs. His most recent full stage work, The Hard Problem (2015), about the mystery of consciousness, left some wondering whether he was running out of steam.

Perhaps understandably, Stoppard is sensitive on the subject, and keen to point out that his work on screen—often neglected by theatre critics—has absorbed plenty of his time. He wrote for television steadily through the 1970s and 80s, and has latterly returned to the form, shepherding a multipart adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End for the BBC in 2012. Film work he has found more challenging: having struggled with Terry Gilliam’s dystopian 1985 film Brazil—the two men repeatedly clashed over the script—Stoppard has since learned to play the Hollywood game. His blissfully funny rewrite of Marc Norman’s script for Shakespeare in Love (1998) allowed him to reprise some of the themes that so captivated him 30 years earlier in Rosencrantz, (not to mention winning him an Oscar). More recently, his work on Joe Wright’s glossy 2012 adaptation of Anna Karenina was praised. Another movie adaptation, of Deborah Moggach’s novel Tulip Fever, will finally be released in the US this summer.

When we spoke in the spring, the playwright politely ducked the question about what might come next, saying that he was eternally on the hunt for material—in magazines, newspapers, science journals, monographs—but hadn’t yet located something that felt like a script. Brexit fascinated him, he added, as did the rise of Trump. He’d also considered writing a drama about cloning, and another on the Leveson inquiry. So far, though, nothing has quite stuck. “I like to think that something is marinating. I read out of a combination of normal interest and the hope that there will be a play in there, or the half-notion of a play.”

Anyway, he added, he was so busy with other projects—rehearsals, work for Amnesty, script consultancy, a trip to the US to bring The Hard Problem to the Lincoln Centre in New York. He was struggling to find a moment to sit at his desk.

“If I’m not careful, I’ll be sitting somewhere telling somebody I’m going to be 81 in a minute,” he said. “That’s pretty alarming.”