The playwright's works might be dazzlingly cerebral, but they are surprisingly movingby Andrew Dickson / July 20, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.