Tom Stoppard: A Life 
by Hermione Lee.
Faber, 977 pp., £14.99, September, 978 0 571 31444 7
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Tom Stoppard wrote​  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead while listening to ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. He would like to have written Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. Threaded into each of his plays is a coded tribute: an MP in Dirty Linen, a clerk in The Invention of Love and two characters in Leopoldstadt are all called Chamberlain, doffing their caps to Stoppard’s long-term assistant, Jacky Chamberlain. He has often thought of writing ‘an autobiography in a parallel world’, imagining his life as it would have been had he not come to England as a boy but grown up in Communist Czechoslovakia.

On nearly every page of Hermione Lee’s biography – the life as it has been, not as re-imagined – there is something arresting. In one instance it is a teasing secret: we are told that while he was writing The Real Thing, and married to his second wife, there was something Stoppard ‘got upset about’ – something he would not disclose to his biographer. Sometimes it is a twinkling adornment: when Felicity Kendal was appearing in Jumpers, she sent him Kendal mint cakes, asking if he fancied one. Often it is an apparently incidental thing that turns out to be a depth charge. The Dylan soundtrack reveals how much Stoppard is a child of his generation, how much the boy from Eastern Europe belongs to the West, but Lee excavates from it something of more particular interest, pointing out that the word ‘home’ rings through the play that made Stoppard famous. The two main characters are homesick. In escalating, hall-of-mirrors, Chinese-dolls Stoppardian fashion, this observation throws light on the drama from which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern springs, and which turns from being the main thing to a subplot, becoming a play within a play. The echo of ‘home’ in the title of Hamlet begins to boom.

These things alone would be enough to make Lee’s account reverberate. In fact, her reach is longer and more surprising. Some writers would have gone in for frisky ventriloquy: firework phrases, overarching philosophical questions, a jostle of jokes, rug-pulling, slippage between time schemes. Lee has none of that. She is assured enough to seem ‘trad’ (a word Stoppard has used about himself), arranging her giant mass of facts chronologically over 977 pages, with no muddy sentences. Yet though the prose is free of theatrical frissons, the structure works like a play. The evidence is in the action. Arguments are thrown up by juxtaposition and contrast. Room is left for doubt – again in Stoppardian fashion.

Hundreds of articles about Stoppard have created a journalistic holograph of his life. The landmarks are familiar. His birth in Czechoslovakia and escape to England, the three marriages, the admiration of Margaret Thatcher, the support for political detainees in Eastern European and for writers in prison. His plays have been tirelessly sifted for biographical inflections: The Real Thing to prove that the intellectual gymnast had a heart; Rock ’n’ Roll to show his undiminished regard for free speech; Leopoldstadt for his interest in what it has meant to be Jewish in the last century.

There are enough personal trails in the plays to stir an appetite for a Life – in the first draft of Rock ’n’ Roll, the central character was called Tomas – but Lee does not have to contend with a mountain of autobiographical writing that risks overshadowing her own research. Think how knee-capped biographers of Stoppard’s contemporaries Alan Bennett or Simon Gray might feel, faced with the life told in the dazzling diaries. Which is not to say that Stoppard has been costive about discussing his work. His speaking voice is familiar – so familiar that you hear the snag of his blurred ‘R’ while reading the name ‘Rosencrantz’.

Few dramatists have been so often photographed. (Lee gains from this, though not as much as if the pictures in her book had been distributed throughout, matched to the text. Faber has taken the clumps-of-shiny-pictures route, which gives an otherwise handsome volume too stiff a feel: better for a theatre book to have image and word easing each other along.) Lee allows herself some unbridled enthusiasm on the subject of Stoppard’s ‘elegantly ruffled’ appearance: his hair is ‘a shaggy grey mane’; his face is ‘a great lined map of thinking’. Meanwhile her record of his clothes becomes a brief chronicle of the times – and an indicator of success. In the 1950s: long raincoats, dangling scarves and trilby hats. Some time later: elephant-cord trousers and seersucker shirts with flower patterns. His Cuban heel canvas shoes from Mr Sid were splashed with stars. Celebrity comes at a cost: in the black mink given to him by his wife Miriam in the 1970s, he felt ‘like a villain in a Brecht musical’. Maturity is less glossy: he arrived at rehearsals for The Hard Problem in a green tweed jacket and orange socks.

Stoppard has talked of putting on Englishness ‘like a coat’ when he arrived as an eight-year-old. A more sentimental biographer might have colluded in the suggestion that the coat could be shrugged off: that only underneath was the real thing, a Middle European, a Jewish boy, obliged to take flight, wrapped in secrets. The mantle has stayed on, but Stoppard dramatised the idea of facing off an authentic and an assumed self towards the end of Leopoldstadt, when two young men face each other for the first time since Kristallnacht: one is ‘a writer of funny books’ who was taken to England as a child; the other is a mathematician whose family stayed in Vienna. For one, being Jewish has been crucial; for the other, it has been an exotic tinge. The encounter, coming just before the final scene with its roll call of the family’s deaths, many in Auschwitz, pulses with personal feeling. The play opened two years ago: at a time of renewed alarm about the rise of antisemitism in this country, it focuses a history of forgetting. As did last year’s Radio 4 version of The Voyage of the St Louis – a terrific example of the broadcast drama, now being slashed, in which Stoppard has excelled and which he considers ‘a national treasure’.

Lee writes intensely about the way Stoppard’s late recovery of his family history disturbed his view of himself and what surrounded him. The significance of her book is more than theatrical: it is a chronicle of secrets, of refugees – and of England when it was a refuge. Tom Stoppard was born Tomáš Sträussler in 1937, the younger son of Marta Becková and Eugen Sträussler, both Jewish Czechs. His father was a doctor employed by BATA, the shoe company that built the Moravian town of Zlín and largely controlled the lives of its inhabitants; his mother trained as a nurse. When Stoppard was one, the Munich Agreement enabled the Third Reich to annex parts of Czechosl0vakia and the family left for Singapore. When Singapore fell to the Japanese, they set off again. The two boys accompanied their mother, intending to go to Australia but in fact landing in India; their father was to follow separately. The diminished family eventually settled in Darjeeling. Here the boys went to a boarding school (which had been founded in a house called Arcadia); here Marta Sträussler learned that her husband’s boat had been bombed and he had been killed. Here too she met the man who became her second husband and gave Tomáš a new name: Major Kenneth Stoppard, a reliable provider, a xenophobe and antisemite, who towards the end of his life suggested his stepson stop using his surname. ‘Sorry Dad,’ was the reply. ‘It’s not practical.’ The new family left for England in 1946. Large numbers of Marta Sträussler’s family, including her parents and sisters, had been murdered in the Holocaust. She did not tell her sons this; she did not tell them she was Jewish.

Becoming ‘English’ meant, as it usually does, paying: first for a prep school with stable block, ivy-covered church and corporal punishment, and then for boarding school at Pocklington in Yorkshire. Stoppard’s teachers considered him ‘effervescent’, but ‘far too abstract’. Asked by a careers advisor if he wanted a job that required a university education, he answered ‘doubtful’, and went into journalism. In Bristol, with brio. He reported on vintage car rallies, flower shows and beatniks; he wrote film reviews; he subedited. The dash and insight – no less penetrating for being neon-lit – was there early on. In 1962, in an article called ‘The Tense Present’, he characterised a talk given by Harold Pinter to drama students in the city as ‘an erratic staccato of grudging self-exposure’. He started to write plays.

Lee, whose previous biographies, none of them about living writers, have established her as a demon archivist, underpins the landmarks on the road to production, esteem and celebrity with details which, since they often concern the no longer fashionable, don’t come up routinely in cuttings. It is good to see the Observer theatre critic Ronald Bryden being given his due for supporting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at the 1966 Edinburgh Festival: the play had been rejected by the BBC as ‘long, wordy and rambling’; Bryden has had a hundredth of the coverage that Kenneth Tynan got for championing the more socially explosive but not self-evidently better ironing-board drama. ‘Bryden’s review single-handedly triggered off a huge reaction,’ Stoppard wrote to his parents. Eight months after the review was published the play was on at the National.

Once Stoppard’s reputation is on the up, some paragraphs groan with the weight of material and social success. The flights on Concorde, the Porsche, the ‘this white burgundy comes from Mick’ (from Julian Barnes’s diary). He records meeting, in the same week, Princess Margaret, Ionesco and David Hockney. David Bowie offers to take over a part in The Real Thing; the Duchess of Devonshire appears as ‘Debo’ on page 33. Stoppard is not unaware of the effect: ‘I’m getting quite impressed by some of our friends.’

The Miriam Stoppard years are particularly shiny: holidays in Montego Bay and Gstaad, presents of a chess computer, first editions (he collects Hemingway) and a portable desk with original leather fittings for ink and quills. Glynn Boyd Harte designs a bookplate with the couple’s initials entwined above a sketch of their house in Berkshire. They are snapped sharing a whopping study, with two enormous desks, a massive ashtray and a Swiss cheese plant. Miriam Stoppard – who while working as a TV doctor managed to line up long shelves of home-made jam as well as hundreds of rows of shoes – seems to have been subjected to more than the usual amount of sniping from ‘friends’. She is sneered at when the couple fail to join a sightseeing group on a Swan Hellenic cruise, preferring to book a hotel room ‘so they could go and snuggle together’, and again for the instructions left on a kitchen blackboard for the boys’ lunch – nearly always ‘Fish fingers. Peas.’ Yet it takes two to snuggle, and that kitchen also belonged to the husband, as did the children. Not for the first time, a man gets marks for turning up; his wife gets deductions for not being there all the time. Lee coolly lets these comments float, leaving it to Antonia Fraser, a provider of several sharp anecdotes, to bring another perspective. Looking around one of Miriam Stoppard’s houses, she remarked: ‘I’m going to be guilty of one of the seven deadly sins, envy.’

No one seems much to have envied Stoppard’s first wife, Josie, the mother of two of his sons, encountered in the 1960s in fur hat and pale make-up, describing herself as looking like ‘a giant fly’. In the arc of Stoppard’s success she is seen dwindling into a wife occluded by terrible unhappiness: her alarms and depressions are recorded as ruptures, a pregnancy as full of ‘crises, scenes, medical emergencies’. In one of the saddest of Lee’s juxtapositions, Chapter 30 (of 35) opens with Josie’s sudden death at 62 of a heart attack. The next paragraph describes Stoppard as ‘hugely in demand, happy in his personal life and full of undiminished energy’.

Lovers get as good a shout as wives in Lee’s pages. They manage frank arrangements during marriages, and remain friends after romance. Sinéad Cusack, with whom Stoppard shared a house in the Vaucluse, describes the way her feelings shifted from friendship into love, ‘a different shade’ of the same colour. Companionship with women has lit up Stoppard’s plays. With Felicity Kendal in mind, he wrote Indian Ink (and a version of The Seagull), as well as Arcadia, whose heroine has her name embedded in the title – she is usually assumed to be a tribute to Ada Lovelace. He created a double role for Cusack in Rock ’n’ Roll. His female characters don’t appear with ‘strong’ hung around their necks, but he has been determined to put vivid female presences on stage. The theatre doesn’t only talk: it embodies. For most of Stoppard’s writing life the vast majority of directors, heads of theatres and dramatists have been men; so too have the critics.

Feminist assumptions in his work (something for which he has rarely been praised) disrupt the notion of Stoppard as a right-winger. Resistant to the idea of the ‘apolitical’, I go pale when reading his declaration in the 1980s that ‘Thatcher and Murdoch saved the day.’ Yet I have not once felt sickened or stultified by his work onstage: rather more by William Gaskill’s statement, when artistic director of the Royal Court, that he would never put on a Stoppard play. When in his twenties Stoppard turned Hamlet inside out, the ground-breaking effect went beyond formal innovation and linguistic dazzle, and I think beyond the theatre: it suggested new ways of approaching literature and biography. In summoning characters from the wings into the spotlight, he toppled statues.

It would be hard​ to read this Life and think less of Stoppard. This is despite rather than because of the shortage of adversarial criticism. Lee’s book, fuelled by unprecedented access to archives and knowledgeable tongues, is of course grounded in admiration: Stoppard approached her to write his biography (you hanker for more detail about this conversation but she deadpans it) and there are a few off the peg plaudits. We are told Stoppard remembers his agents at Christmas, and that during the shooting of Parade’s End he always ‘stood for the writer’s integrity … aesthetic values against financial imperatives’. Really, what would be the point of him if he did not? Some examples of his sensitivity cut two ways. At a tea given by Mark Damazer at St Peter’s College, Stoppard is reported to have ‘made a point of talking the most to the least well established people in the room’. Let’s hope not too much of a point. But who wouldn’t reconsider their own practices on learning that Stoppard gives big tips to programme sellers because he knows they are probably out of work actors? Simon Gray coruscates: ‘It is actually one of Tom’s achievements that one envies him nothing, except possibly his looks, his talents, his money and his luck. To be so enviable without being envied is pretty enviable, when you think about it.’

Lee is not inclined to wrestle with the objections of critics: the choppiest notice she quotes comes from Stoppard himself, which doesn’t really count (he calls his Rough Crossing ‘almost tosh’). One of the achievements of her book – that of wiring the reader into Stoppard’s intentions – entails a limitation. It is almost impossible not to read the aim into the finished work: it has the same effect as reading a script just before seeing a play. Her account of the impetus, sources and arguments that fuelled the trilogy The Coast of Utopia, written between 1998 and 2002, is intricate, compelling. The ambition – both intellectual and visual – steams off the page. Yet on stage the brilliance was intermittent; there were planes of exposition between the fervent peaks. I am also not ready to collapse under the notion that the muted critical response to The Hard Problem was because of the play’s difficulty. Rather the contrary: the play wasn’t stringent enough in measuring up to the exhilarating questions it raised. Lee suggests that critics have forgotten ‘what a Stoppard play might demand of them or how to react to it’. But he can’t be entitled to an entirely different critical apparatus from other playwrights.

It’s true that some complaints about his output are pretty putrid. Lack of heart comes up from time to time, often from a critic who regards the height of his trade as evisceration. Allied to this is the too-clever-by-half accusation, where ‘above my head’ usually means ‘beneath my contempt’. I don’t think, though, that Stoppard has particularly been the victim of tall-poppy syndrome. Vilification may still be considered the quickest way for any reviewer to make a name, but theatre critics, not being in the same line of business as those they are reviewing, don’t suffer from the routine jealousy of those book reviewers inclined to behave as if an author has pinched their own material.

Writing about the stage has long been squeezed between two snobberies: many novelists and poets don’t count drama (apart from Shakespeare’s) as literature, while a rage for the screen leads to theatre being referred to as if it were an awkward halfway point in the evolution of celluloid. I have stopped counting the people who tell me that their boredom threshold isn’t high enough for them to do what I do for a living. Lee leaps over all this. Crucially, she shows – without underlining that she is doing so – why it was plays Stoppard had to write. In one passage, he is observed delivering a speech at the London Library in which he explains that he is not as nice as he seems – thus, of course, rendering himself more disarming. He knew the effect he had on people, he said, realising that he left ‘an impression of vivid attention’ even when he was on the verge of forgetting to whom he was talking. That might be a description of the spell worked by a play. He is – or is sometimes – a performance of himself.

He is also his own elucidator, talking as if he has escaped from one of his plays. He gives one of the best descriptions I have read of what it feels like to have an idea: ‘When you write a play it makes a certain kind of noise in your head, and the rehearsal and staging is an attempt to persuade the actors to reproduce this noise.’ He talks eloquently about the half-glimpsed, barely felt gaps between impression and expression, the hesitations and obstacles. To be stuck on starting a new play is ‘like trying to pick a lock without thinking about the lock’.

Lee vividly lays open various manoeuvres between brain and stage. Here are Stoppard’s notes of keywords for Rock ’n’ Roll, among them ‘Sweet Bitter/Sappho, Vera/Mrs Thatcher, TS parallels’. Here is the dramatist in action at rehearsals for The Hard Problem, with zip-up pencil case, cracking peanuts, clipping nails (fingers presumably), eating diabetic sweets, urging the actors towards understatement. Concise and springy in summing up Stoppard’s slippery plots – the book will be an essential crib – Lee also animates his essential argument, that a play is not a text but a ‘simple event’. Which involves the puzzle of how much any play is actually the work of its playwright. Looking back on the 1979 production of his Arthur Schnitzler adaptation, Undiscovered Country, Stoppard said that people most often congratulated him on the moment when, with the help of sheathing mists of dry ice, William Dudley’s design transformed a mountain into a hotel lobby. ‘I say: “Yeah, I wrote that.”’

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