Hermione Lee's new authorised biography of the playwright ruminates on the importance of mystery—and introspectionby Lyn Gardner / November 12, 2020 / Leave a comment
Hermione Lee’s 977-page authorised biography of Tom Stoppard comes sandwiched between two photographs. They are a clue to the dual identity of one of the country’s most celebrated playwrights. The front cover photograph depicts the urbane English writer, whose plays—from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to The Invention of Love and beyond, by way of Travesties and Hapgood—have made him a heavyweight of mainstream British theatre for over 50 years. The photograph on the back shows a chubby toddler, a lost Jewish Czech boy, happily engrossed in pulling pictures from a book. The question at the heart of Lee’s book is how Tomáš Sträussler, the son of a middle European doctor, became Sir Tom Stoppard OM. How did that transformation impact on his plays and screenplays—and what got lost along the way?
Stoppard is that rare theatrical beast, one who has enjoyed success in both the subsidised and commercial theatre sectors. His job, he says, is very simple: “To prevent people leaving their seats before the entertainment is over.” Although widely liked, he has not always been fully embraced by theatre’s left-leaning community. Most British playwrights do not praise the policies of Margaret Thatcher as Stoppard did in the 1980s. (He liked what she was doing to the unions as well as her anti-communist stance.) Nor do they have Princess Michael of Kent pop round for tea. When a young David Hare asked William Gaskill, the legendary Royal Court director, about the theatre’s policy, Gaskill growled: “Never to put on a play by Tom Stoppard.”
So full acceptance has taken a long time. It wasn’t until 2006 that the Royal Court finally reconciled with Stoppard when it staged Rock ‘n’ Roll, a play that spans 22 years from the Prague Spring of 1968 to the retreat of communism in 1990—from the Velvet Underground to the Velvet Revolution. Stoppard is the master of unexpected connections: his 1974 play Travesties, successfully revived by Patrick Marber in 2016, is a dazzling confection spun around the fact that in 1917 Lenin, Tristan Tzara and Joyce all happened to be in Zürich.
That cover photograph shows us Stoppard as every inch the confident, successful…