“It appears to have been a sense that it was all becoming too easy that prompted Tom Stoppard to resolve, on his 23rd birthday, to give up journalism and write a play”
Early in Hermione Lee’s Life of Tom Stoppard we are offered a neatly Stoppardian detail in passing: when he, his brother and his mother escaped from Singapore in January 1942, the ship they left port on was called The Empress of Japan. By the time it arrived in Colombo, several weeks later, it had been renamed The Empress of Scotland. Why Stoppardian? Well, it’s darkly funny, for one thing, the kind of joke that might well have made it into one of his plays. But it also prefigures a far more significant renaming—the transformation of Tomáš Strässler, thorny with alien diacriticals, into the staunchly English Tom Stoppard. Born in a geographical palimpsest—a place where you could go to sleep as an Austrian and wake up Czech—the playwright’s life and work has been shaped, Lee argues, by his lifelong awareness that everything might have been otherwise.
Stoppard persistently frames his achievements as luck. He was fond of citing (without irony) Cecil Rhodes’ claim that to have been born an Englishman was to have “won first prize in the lottery of life”. Writing of his second wife, Miriam Stoppard, to a friend the same word crops up: “she really should have been a lottery prize”, he writes. “Perhaps she was.” And to his mother—in one of the letters he wrote to her weekly or more until her death: “I’ve been lucky all my life. . . and the way I can live. . . really begins with that fate making me an ‘English’ writer instead of a Czech one.” This is partly English self-deprecation, one senses, but it is also what lies behind the repeated coin toss at the beginning of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a sense of potential losses defied against the odds.
He was precociously good with words and his letters home from boarding school fizz with a delight in linguistic pastiche. When Stoppard chose not to go to university, but to launch into life as a journalist in Bristol, the same quality was evident in his journalism—“indefatigably facetious” is the phrase Stoppard uses in disapproving retrospect. And it appears to have been a sense that it was all becoming too easy that prompted him to resolve, on his 23rd birthday, to give up journalism and write a play. He’d been lucky in choosing Bristol, a relatively small pond in which he could easily make a noticeable splash but his move to London still felt to him like an escape. “I am drowning with the panache of someone walking on water,” he wrote in a short story at the time.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern follows soon after, the famous turning point—dismissed by most critics on its first performance at the Edinburgh Festival but rescued for a London transfer by praise from the Observer’s reviewer. Its success there transformed his fortunes. It’s a mark of Lee’s attention to detail that she can put a precise monetary figure on this change. On July 11, 1967, his bank balance was £36 19s 6d (roughly £651 in modern terms); by May 28 the following year it was £2,857 10s 10d (£50,344).
If it made life easier for Stoppard, it doesn’t particularly for his biographer. The life before this moment will be less familiar for most readers; the life after is that of a celebrated writer, much in demand, and largely lived at a desk. Lee is excellent on the plays, their intellectual context and their production history. But Stoppard’s reticence about his private life make it close to impossible to break the texture of the working life, of meetings and redraftings and rehearsals, with the textures of a private one that was not always straightforward. “Somewhere in that time, he would say, he ‘got upset about something’. But that something was not anything he would tell his biographer,” she writes of the period when his marriage to Miriam Stoppard was coming to an end. She quotes too a journal entry at the time, “I am in terrible trouble”, but either could not discover from her subject what the trouble was or chooses not to share it.
The book is longer than it needs to be, listing far too many distracting details from his appointments diaries. And even theatrical scholars may feel that her accounts of what went into the programme notes for various productions is a little too much of a good thing. It’s a pity because the slightly exhausting thoroughness of the research blurs the art of Lee’s own narrative and the care with which she weaves its most important themes through the book. One of these is Stoppard’s politics—always suspect to those who valued persuasion over dramatic exploration and even more so after it became clear that he admired Mrs Thatcher rather than detested her.
Lee is good too on the question of Stoppard’s supposed superficiality, a criticism the playwright all but invited. “The iceberg is all tip”, he once said of himself, a judgement Lee rightly declines to accept. She makes a convincing argument that the emotional depth critics announce as having finally arrived in later work was there from the beginning, even if the dazzle of the surface sometimes made it hard to see.
The final chapters—coloured by Stoppard’s belated understanding of his Jewish heritage and the writing of his most personal play, Leopoldstadt, are very fine—almost elegiac in tone (Stoppard is now 83). And Lee ends with a beautifully chosen anecdote about a production of The Tempest that Stoppard saw in an Oxford college garden, in which the stage direction “Exit Ariel” was transformed by the director into a heart-stopping moment of theatrical magic, as the actor apparently ran across a lake and disappeared into a burst of fireworks. It is presented as a story about Stoppard’s humility as a theatre practitioner—his recognition that a playtext is the start of a process, not the last word on what is to happen. It is also a fine final image of the subject as Ariel, supernaturally light on his feet, and, perhaps, a tacit acknowledgement that there are things beneath the surface that we have not been allowed to see.
Tom Stoppard: A Life
By Hermione Lee
Faber, 992pp, £30
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