Tom Stoppard: A Life by Hermione Lee

There are two narratives nestling against each other in this exceedingly long, conscientious, but overstuffed biography. If you want to read about Sir Tom Stoppard’s ascent to the pinnacle of polite society, you will be able to linger over no end of detail.

On page 434 (which is, I should warn you, only the halfway point) Stoppard’s marriage to the scientist and TV presenter Miriam Stoppard takes another upwardly mobile turn: “In 1986, the family discovered grouse-shooting.” Now it may be true that the moorland pastime later found its way into the script of his metaphysical extravaganza Arcadia, but, here as elsewhere, Hermione Lee tells us more than we need to know.

There are endless passages about the couple’s taste in interior design at their grand home in Buckinghamshire, not to mention the joint portraits they commission from artists. To be fair, the book also contains a delicious apocryphal tale about Stoppard, friend to everyone from the Duchess of Devonshire to Harold Pinter, booking a table in a restaurant across the street from where one of his plays was running. The manager asks him to spell his name. Stoppard duly obliges, only to hear the response: “Oh, you mean as in Miriam!”

The Invention of Stoppard

The other, much more interesting story here is how a Jewish boy escaped the Holocaust and adopted a new, very English identity and then began to investigate his origins in earnest late in life. Once upon a time, you see, Tom Stoppard was Tomas Straussler. Leopoldstadt, the lavish dynastic drama about well-to-do Austrian Jews that premiered at Wyndham’s Theatre in London at the beginning of last year (in the days when theaters were open for business) was the work of a playwright who had belatedly decided to burrow into his family history.

Lee tells that particular story well. It’s just a pity that it is overwhelmed by the domestic bric-a-brac and the interminable, dusty summaries of plays big and small. It’s certainly interesting to learn that, as a young writer trying to make the transition from journalism to the stage (he didn’t go to university and spent his formative years as a journalist in Bristol) Stoppard had a go at writing scripts for the BBC radio soap The Dales. But do we need his translation of a Baudelaire poem that was unsuccessfully entered for a Sunday Times competition in 1968? That, and a lot more flotsam, creeps into these pages.

What we get in this book, then, is a trawl through the archives that comes up with far too much material. Lee has had access to the many self-deprecating letters that Stoppard wrote to his mother over the decades, yet even if they give us a glimpse of the dutiful son hiding behind the dandy’s mask, they aren’t enough to compensate for the longueurs. Nor does it help that the biographer’s prose is workmanlike and anonymous. She dutifully chronicles year after year. The awards pile up; so do the checks from Stoppard’s script assignments in Hollywood (his uncredited work for just one of Steven Spielberg’s films, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, appears to have earned him a seven-figure sum).

The awards pile up; so do the checks from Stoppard’s script assignments in Hollywood.

His labors on another Spielberg project — the adaptation of JG Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun — evoke echoes of his own fractured childhood. Born into a secure, middle-class family in Czechoslovakia in 1937 — his father worked for the Bata shoe company — young Tomas had the good fortune to flee the country with his family shortly before the Germans took control in 1939. Bata transferred the family to a factory in Singapore, but when the Japanese invaded in 1941, Tomas, his mother, Marta, and older brother, Petr, were evacuated to another company outpost in India. The boys’ father did not survive; he is thought to have been killed on a ship that was trying to escape to Australia.

Tomas’s new life began in Darjeeling, where his mother met and married a British Army officer, Major Kenneth Stoppard. After they traveled to Britain in 1946, the boys were renamed Thomas and Peter and sent to boarding school. Ken Stoppard was not the most loving of fathers. Distant and severe, he grew more xenophobic and even anti-Semitic over the decades. Tom and his dandyish ways were a mystery to him. Marta — henceforth known as “Bobby” — was all too grateful to be granted a fresh chapter in a new country. In the years that followed she appeared to turn her back on the past as she watched her sons (Peter turned to accountancy) become authentic Englishmen.

After Tom achieved success as a playwright — Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was an overnight success in 1966, and enjoyed a run on Broadway — he showed little interest in looking backward. Although he became a champion of Eastern European dissidents in the 1970s — fellow playwright Václav Havel was a close friend — he insulated himself from his origins. Lee quotes a revealing letter written to his mother in 1980: “I feel English and love England and have not an iota of feeling transplanted (although I have an enormous nostalgia for India) — it’s odd really. I have no emotional feeling for Europe at all, and it’s almost arbitrary that I involved myself a bit in Czechs and Russia etc — except that I do think Communism is anti-human. I know it intellectually not emotionally.”

It wasn’t until a distant relative met him in London to fill in the blanks in his family’s past in 1993 that his diffidence began to crumble. Leopoldstadt was ultimately the result, although its portrait of Mitteleuropa Jews turned out to be surprisingly one-dimensional. (Most of my theater-reviewing colleagues, I’ll admit, were much more enthusiastic.)

A playwright who had belatedly decided to burrow into his family history.

Elsewhere, some of the most intriguing sections turn on Stoppard’s unwillingness to toe the political line — a brave policy in what is, for all intents and purposes, theater’s one-party state. Where his good friend Pinter grew more zealously left-wing with each passing year, Stoppard was suspicious of fashionable causes. He had a grudging admiration for Margaret Thatcher, at least in her early years in government, and in 1976 even declined to sign a letter condemning capital punishment (“I think that I do want execution for someone who, say, leaves a bomb in a public place and kills, for advertising purposes, innocent people chosen by fate”).

Not that he followed a predictably reactionary trajectory. After his Thatcherite spell in the 1980s he supported Tony Blair’s New Labour in 1997 and later cast his vote for the Greens and Liberal Democrats. As his politics changed, so did his domestic circumstances. After leaving Miriam, he embarked on a much-publicized relationship with that national pinup Felicity Kendal. Another thespian, Sinéad Cusack, entered the picture later, and in 2014 Stoppard married the well-connected Sabrina Guinness.

Where his good friend Pinter grew more zealously left-wing with each passing year, Stoppard was suspicious of fashionable causes.

Will Lee convert skeptics to Stoppard’s brand of cerebral wordplay? I doubt it. She documents the intellectual origins of plays such as Travesties and Jumpers, but displays little in the way of passion. It’s to her credit, though, that she also makes room for an angry letter that the actor Nigel Hawthorne wrote to the playwright during the troubled West End run of Hapgood, a convoluted blend of espionage and quantum mechanics.

An exasperated Hawthorne described the rehearsals as “the least creative” he had attended. “They were dominated by you and Peter [Wood, the director] who were playing games with the cast to see how much of the play they understood … I love you as a man and puzzle that the warmth you give out so constantly and effortlessly is excluded from your plays.” Many a Stoppard skeptic would echo those words.

Clive Davis is the chief theater critic for The Times of London