Books

The Bard Problem

Tom Stoppard doesn’t trust biographies. Now he’s the subject of one.

Tom Stoppard smoking a cigarette
Tom Stoppard, being photographed for Radio Times magazine, on Jan. 13, 1972. Clive Barda/Radio Times/Getty Images

In 2013, the playwright Tom Stoppard chose his biographer: Hermione Lee, an esteemed scholar who’d previously written on Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, and Penelope Fitzgerald. “What’s the first thing you remember?” she asked him—a fine place to start. That same year, perhaps as a warning, the 76-year-old Stoppard gave a speech in which he noted that biographers are forced to stay truthful to “irrefutable” facts. But the imaginative writer, Stoppard added with relish—the one who “makes things up”—can create a more “persuasive” story out of history. There’s “a relative instability of truth in history,” he said, “as opposed to the unchallengeable truth of fiction.”

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Stoppard has long been suspicious of biography, Lee writes in Tom Stoppard: A Life. That’s evident in his plays; in Arcadia, the audience cheers the comeuppance of the peacocking literary scholar Bernard Nightingale, who’s humiliated when his spectacular theory about Lord Byron comes up against the hard wall of evidence. In Stoppard’s view, what gets left out when a biographer sifts through the record is “the fallibility of the person producing this evidence.” Lee does her best to scour Stoppard’s life and 50-year career for that human fallibility, and while at 750 pages (plus notes) Tom Stoppard can feel as daunting as one of the master’s more vexing theatrical works, it never treats (as so many biographies do) the fame and accomplishment of its subject as foregone conclusions. Instead, Tom Stoppard remains alive to the unlikeliness of Tom Stoppard’s career from the very beginning, when little Tomáš Sträussler escapes Czechoslovakia just ahead of the Nazis and becomes a happy English schoolboy. (Much of his extended family died in the Holocaust.) Though the playwright long downplayed his origins, wryly calling himself a “blank Czech,” he came to realize later in life that his homeland and his long-hidden Jewishness were, in fact, “ineradicable.” Lee makes it clear that even when Stoppard didn’t think of himself as Tomáš Sträussler, Tomáš Sträussler was waiting for him.

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Stoppard was an overnight success after a decade and a half of scribbling and dreaming. He worked as a journalist and critic in Bristol and London, jealous of other writers’ fame, trying to find the fastest way to his own. “It was much easier and more exciting to start out as a playwright than as a novelist,” Lee writes in one of the many moments where she seems to be channeling Stoppard’s consciousness directly. “A playwright could write a hundred pages in a few weeks, most of which were white space, and it would last two hours on stage, and on Sunday Kenneth Tynan would devote a quarter of a page of the Observer to it, even if you were a completely unknown person and the play had no scenery. There you would be, with one bound, in the posh Sunday papers and literary weeklies.”

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Essentially, that’s what happened. Stoppard burst on the scene in 1966 when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, his witty, gloomy, absurdist spin on two minor characters in Hamlet, took the Edinburgh Festival Fringe by storm. It was a different Observer writer who delivered a rave of the play because by then Tynan, the legendary critic, was the literary manager for the National Theatre in London. In 1967 Stoppard became the youngest playwright yet produced at the National with Ros and Guil, which would run for over three years. (Tynan partly persuaded a dubious Sir Laurence Olivier, director of the National, to put it on by reminding him the theatre could reuse costumes from Peter O’Toole’s Hamlet.)

By the 1970s, Stoppard was writing feverishly for television, theater, radio, and film, and was already a flashpoint for political and aesthetic argument. William Gaskill, artistic director for the left-leaning Royal Court, told David Hare that the theatre’s ethos and policy could be summed up as “Never put on a play by Tom Stoppard.” Some of the most vivid chapters of Lee’s book paint a picture of that decade’s battles and Stoppard’s complicated place within his intellectual cohort. Much later, Stoppard would write The Coast of Utopia, a mammoth trilogy about 19th century Russian dissidents, and Lee, in her discussion of the plays, quotes Isaiah Berlin on the specifically Russian notion of the “intelligentsia”: They “thought of themselves as united by something more than mere interest in ideas; they conceived of themselves as being a dedicated order, almost a secular priesthood.” What they were devoted to was not ideas but ideals, and thus they argued endlessly with one another. Through Lee’s telling it’s impossible not to view Utopia as a kind of skewed memoir of Stoppard’s experience in the London intelligentsia of the 1970s.

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The richness of this ideological stew is reflected in Stoppard’s plays, where science bumps up against philosophy and each side of a debate gets its own eloquent mouthpiece—often so eloquent that the audience walks away convinced of a point opposite the one Stoppard holds. Though his politics at the time trended conservative, Stoppard did his best to present himself as an apolitical artist, his view being that the only goal of the playwright was to keep butts in seats ’til the end. He was great friends both with eventual Thatcher adviser Paul Johnson and the ultra-left-wing Harold Pinter. The book’s asides on Pinter, a fiercely competitive cricketer who organized matches against the Guardian team with Stoppard as his wicketkeeper, are worth the price of admission. (After his death, Pinter’s wife Antonia Fraser found saved among his possessions a note she’d written to him during some dinner party imbroglio: “Darling—You are right. So SHUT UP.”)

For a certain kind of reader, knowing that you never got to see Tom Stoppard, in huge red gloves, keeping Harold Pinter’s team’s wicket in a West London park will be almost unbearable, and Tom Stoppard is full of such regret-over-missing-out moments. There are the productions, of course: I’m bereft at Ian McKellen and John Wood in Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, with André Previn directing a full orchestra, in 1977, or the jaw-dropping 1984 Broadway cast of The Real Thing, directed by Mike Nichols: Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons, Christine Baranski, Cynthia Nixon, and Peter Gallagher. Did you know there was a Daniel Radcliffe–led Ros & Guil revival at the National in 2017? I missed it by a month. I reserve my greatest regret for the legendary garden parties Stoppard has hosted biennially since 1997, at which Mick Jagger rubs elbows with Stoppard’s hairdresser, stilt-walkers roam, and children run wild across the Chelsea Physic Garden. According to Lee, Stoppard spent 118,000 pounds on the 2013 festivities, and boy do I wish I’d been there, eating barbecue and chatting up Michael Gambon.

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But for all the ROMO Tom Stoppard induces, it also encourages the reader to return to Stoppard’s work in ways that are richly rewarding. Lee gives wise, learned readings to each major play (and a number of minor ones), teasing apart their themes, interpreting their theatrical gestures, and placing them cleverly in the context of their author’s life and work. While reading Tom Stoppard I found myself going back to plays I hadn’t read in years, seeing them anew thanks to Lee’s critical acumen. I’m a renewed fan of The Real Inspector Hound and Indian Ink, and a new fan of Professional Foul, a grimly entertaining television play about dissidents in Czechoslovakia that someone should reboot in 2021. From Ros & Guil to Leopoldstadt—Stoppard’s modest masterpiece about Czech Jews before and after the war, the London premiere of which was cut short by COVID—Lee’s book expertly tracks Stoppard’s work, the actual written record. She’s as sharp on the successes as she is on the failures, like Hapgood, a perhaps-overcomplicated play that fell flat on its premiere in 1988. “I’m not trying to make the plays difficult, God help me,” Stoppard said. Lee counters, “He was a playwright of ideas who also wanted his audiences to love him.”

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Lee is particularly brilliant on Stoppard’s 1974 Travesties, a smorgasbord of historical farce I’ve never warmed to, explaining its myriad references and connecting it to Stoppard’s odd mix of elan and aloof. “I was writing the play,” Stoppard said, “to make the kind of exhibition of myself I was too shy to make in real life.” Lee helped me see the way that the play’s travesty of history, of Zurich in 1917, finds its mirrors in Lenin’s Moscow and James Joyce’s Dublin. She quotes the play’s hero, real-life minor functionary Henry Carr, in an invented exchange with Joyce:

JOYCE: Dublin, don’t tell me you know it?

CARR: Only from the guidebook, and I gather you are in the process of revising that.

JOYCE: Yes.

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“This,” Lee sums up, “is what writers do with history.”

I thought often of Stoppard’s distrust of biography during some of the book’s dry stretches, when Lee seemed a prisoner of comprehensiveness: long disquisitions on Stoppard’s work on the board of the London Library or a dull run of pages about his speaking career. She’s much better on applying just the right amount of attention to Stoppard’s screenwriting, which involves triumphs like Shakespeare in Love but also plenty of well-paid uncredited script doctoring, including on Beethoven and 102 Dalmatians. “His agents’ view was that he was pragmatic about his film work and idealistic about his plays,” Lee writes, and explores the intersections between them fruitfully. (Sometimes those intersections are literal, as when he wrote his first drafts of Shakespeare on the backs of Arcadia typescripts he had lying around the house.)

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But the body of work Stoppard already has behind him is voluminous, and the mass can obscure the man. It is hard even for long acquaintances and friends to get a handle on Stoppard. One tells Lee, “I’ve known him for forty-five years and I don’t know him at all.” At times Stoppard’s unwillingness to share, and the lack of material in the record, creates odd blank patches: The playwright was romantically involved for nearly a decade with the Irish actress Sinéad Cusack, though Cusack remained married to her husband, Jeremy Irons, throughout. Lee is at a loss to explain much about this amicable odd throuple of sorts, offering what she can using Cusack’s appearances in Stoppard’s appointment diaries. Lee does make terrific use of the hundreds of letters Stoppard wrote to his mother over his adult life. At Marta’s death in 1996, those letters dry up, and so do their candid, funny, revealing details in Lee’s account. A telling aside during Stoppard’s boarding school days reads like the lament of the exasperated biographer: “From school Tom wrote Vera lots of funny letters, which she hugely enjoyed, and then threw away.”

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This is fitting, for a writer whose work has grappled playfully with the lost letter, the forgotten work, the ellipsis in the biography. Lenin and Joyce are brought to life in 1917 Zurich; Rock ’n’ Roll is suffused with fragments of Sappho; in Arcadia Septimus burns a letter from Lord Byron, even as the historians in our present dig through the archives, certain there will always be another letter to learn from. Thomasina in Arcadia, herself about to disappear from history, laments the great works of Sophocles and Aeschylus lost in the fire at Alexandria. Stoppard, like Thomasina, is inclined to grieve the loss, yet he gives Septimus a typically convincing rebuttal, one of the most moving speeches in all his work:

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We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again.

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Lee is scrupulous and fair toward her subject, but I must admit that Stoppard’s view of the biographer’s shortcomings makes me hope that some playwright, somewhere in the future, might be less scrupulous and less fair. Perhaps he’ll be a diaspora writer drafting a comedy about Stoppard’s exploration of India, or maybe a woman writing a sharp satire of the meetings Stoppard must have spent casting the secretary in Jumpers, who never speaks but does perform a striptease on a swing. “Biography is the mesh through which our real life escapes,” Oscar Wilde says in Stoppard’s The Invention of Love—an imagined Oscar Wilde, speaking Tom Stoppard’s words. I want some future Oscar Wilde to turn the tables and write Tom Stoppard into a play, to make full use of the delicious quote Stoppard gives Lee toward the end of the book about himself: “He is good at performing niceness, but he is not as nice as people think.”

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Yet I came to the end of Tom Stoppard as impressed by the biographer’s craft as Stoppard has always made me of the playwright’s art. Much as the drawing of Septimus and Plautus is like a little emotional bulb planted near the beginning of Arcadia, blooming only at the very end, so Lee finds vivid details in Stoppard’s life and lets them grow quietly over decades. When they flower, the effect is startling. The book opens with Lee asking Stoppard the first thing he remembers, an echo of a line played to comic effect in Ros & Guil. Hundreds of pages later, in 1999, Stoppard meets a woman who shows him the scar on her hand where his father, a doctor at a Czech hospital before the war, stitched a cut when she was only six—one of her first memories. And then those ideas come together, like a magic trick, in Lee’s description of Leopoldstadt. In its climactic moment, a man—who like Stoppard escaped the Nazis and became a happy English schoolboy with no memory of the past—is asked, “What’s the first thing you can remember?” On his hand he bears a childhood scar, from the last day he spent with the relatives who would eventually be devoured by the Holocaust. I expect it’s a moving moment onstage, but it’s even more moving at the end of this monumental biography, where life and art—Tomáš Sträussler, Tom Stoppard, his unknown past, his first great play, his last one (maybe)—come together beautifully. This is what biographers do with history.