“I’m a bounced Czech.” So Tom Stoppard has jauntily summarised his origins in Czechoslovakia where he was born Tomáš Straussler in 1937. His family moved to Singapore, Darjeeling and then England, after his father died on board a ship bombed by Japanese forces while Stoppard/Straussler was four. What Hermione Lee’s monumental, epic biography — probably the longest and most detailed book, at nearly a thousand pages, ever produced about a living writer — sets out to do is to delve beneath the wit and explore the decades of turmoil and incident that have followed since.
Stoppard is probably the greatest British writer alive today, and certainly the greatest living playwright. From his first success with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in 1968, to his triumphant (and currently suspended) recent play, Leopoldstadt, where he attempted to examine his Jewish heritage for the first time, his work has been consistently dazzling linguistically and intellectually. It has also, especially in the past few decades, been imbued with a deep emotional core that gives the verbal pyrotechnics a beating heart.
Hermione Lee has approached her task with enormous care and attention, and the result is a testament to detailed analysis and intelligent insight
He is a distinguished screenwriter and script doctor, winning an Oscar for his screenplay of Shakespeare in Love (which was nominally co-written with Marc Norman, but nobody has argued that the final work is not quintessentially Stoppardian) and one of the few serious intellectuals in Britain today whose work has managed to connect with the public. Any appearance that he makes is a guaranteed sell-out, and he is as sought-after an interviewee as he is a dinner guest at the finest tables in the country. But who is the “real” Tom Stoppard, or Tomáš Straussler?
Lee is Stoppard’s authorised biographer, and hers is only the second to attempt to make some sense of his extraordinary life, after an academic, Ira Nadel, produced a workmanlike but unexciting unauthorised book in 2002. Stoppard’s only public comment on it was to hope that it was as “inaccurate as possible”. But now this famously private and reserved man has agreed to have his remarkable life dissected and made public. He chose Lee himself. She is a distinguished biographer, not least of Virginia Woolf, but not, by her own admission, an obvious fit for Stoppard, having never written about a man, a living subject or a playwright before.
She has approached her task with enormous care and attention, and the result is a testament to detailed analysis and intelligent insight. The early chapters, in which Lee analyses how his oft-overlooked career as a journalist in Bristol taught him the value of writing quickly, wittily and disingenuously, are especially enthralling, and there are some telling details, such as how his friendship with Peter O’Toole, then beginning his career with the RSC, led him to tell his devoted mother in 1960 that “I’d like to be famous!”
His wish was granted while he was still relatively young, and nothing has really interfered with what has been a consistently stellar career over the past half-century. One pervasive feature of the book is Stoppard’s extraordinary, apparently unquenchable supply of luck, which has sustained him in both his work and life. Yet, as Lee also observes, his father had been killed in wartime and his mother’s family murdered in the Holocaust, which leads to an ambiguity, carefully and sympathetically explored here, about how fortunate he really has been.
Stoppard has been the toast of the West End and Broadway for decades, as well as moving smoothly between the commercial and subsidised sectors. Even the Royal Court, once a hotbed of theatrical Marxism that loathed him for his alternately apolitical and right-wing stances, eventually hosted him with his successful 2006 play Rock ‘n’ Roll.
The only flop of any significance that he has had, his 1988 spy and physics drama Hapgood, swiftly became a footnote, although Lee includes a couple of piquant anecdotes, such as its star Nigel Hawthorne writing to him during the increasingly disastrous rehearsals, “I love you as a man and puzzle that the warmth you give out so constantly and effortlessly is excluded from your plays,” and Stoppard himself being observed in tears after the opening night, crying, “I can’t remember how to write plays any more.” The success of his greatest works, Arcadia and The Invention of Love, the following decade would dispel any sense that he had lost his touch.
Lee is no fan of all of his oeuvre, saying of his postmodern sex farce Dirty Linen that it “reads a bit embarrassingly” today, and she has an eye for a telling juxtaposition in both his personal and professional spheres. Writing of Stoppard’s life at his country mansion Ivor Grove with his second wife Miriam and his four sons, she notes that “everyone was awed by Miriam’s style and management”, before caustically observing, “Visitors noted that the boys were mainly fed on microwaved frozen food and left to their own devices.”
Stoppard comes across as possessed of enormous kindness and decency. One hard-nosed Broadway producer admiringly says of him that “He’s a mensch,” but he also has an ability to retreat and make himself inaccessible, even to those nearest to him. Lee talks of “deep” rather than superficial charm, but also writes of how he could be “completely, icily alone”, able to move between relationships with apparent ease.
His first wife, Josie Ingle was, we learn, a depressed alcoholic whom he successfully fought to obtain custody of their children, and one of his greatest plays, the 1982 adultery drama The Real Thing, was widely believed to be at least semi-autobiographical. Lee reveals that, after his much-publicised association with Felicity Kendal concluded, he also engaged in a long fling with Sinéad Cusack while she remained married to Jeremy Irons.
Stoppard spent most of his career in awe of Harold Pinter, whom he regarded as a greater and more complex playwright than himself, but Lee devotes a good amount of space to Pinter’s eruptions of rage, usually in expensive restaurants, if he felt that his integrity had been impugned.
She pays much attention to Stoppard’s parallel career in film, including some surprising details about films that he script-doctored without credit, ranging from the sublime (Schindler’s List) to the utterly ridiculous (Beethoven, the Nineties family comedy about a St Bernard dog). His great uncredited work on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which deservedly made him a vast amount of money, is discussed fully, as are the vanity and double-dealing of its star Sean Connery, one of the few figures to emerge badly here.
Another is Stoppard’s stepfather Kenneth, who comes across as petty, showily unimpressed by his stepson’s fame and, finally, antisemitic in his ridiculous desire that Tom should relinquish his adopted British surname after his mother’s death. (“Sorry Dad, it’s not practical,” he responded, with heroic understatement.)
Throughout his career, Stoppard has been scathing about biography and its practitioners
Throughout his career, Stoppard has been scathing about biography and its practitioners. His remarks to Ira Nadel were not entirely frivolous: he has stated that biographical fiction, as he has written in The Invention of Love, Travesties and The Coast of Utopia, is often more revealing than fact. Such characters as the lecherous media don Bernard Nightingale in Arcadia are usually portrayed as frauds and opportunists, sniffing around the dirty laundry of posterity in search of some juicy titbit of gossip. He has written, “Biography is the worst possible excuse for getting people wrong.” It is therefore surprising that he has given his consent, and cooperation, to such a lengthy and penetrating work. Lee refers to the existence of a journal which she has drawn on sparingly, and to letters contained in his ever-growing archive in the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, tantalisingly raising the possibility that they may yet be published posthumously.
Lee’s biography is extremely thorough, but could have done with a more rigorous edit; at times, it turns into a series of lists about countries visited and accolades received. However, she has provided the definitive and mainly fascinating life of a great man.
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