In the early 1990s, Tom Stoppard had his first conversation with his mother about being Jewish. All four of his grandparents had died in the Holocaust. His mother, Martha, had never wished to talk about those times. But finally she did. They spoke, and she drew a family tree for him. That scene appears almost word for word in his new play, Leopoldstadt. Never before has he transcribed from life.
“There’s a conversation about acknowledging that you’re Jewish, even if you thought you weren’t. So finally, just in the last section, the line of my consciousness crossed the play’s consciousness.”
In fact, he is even, sort of, a character in the play — Leo. But, pressed, he distances himself from all this talk about autobiography. “Leo arrived in England in 1939. I arrived in 1946. Furthermore, I arrived speaking English. So it’s not even close to being autobiographical. And I deliberately chose a Viennese family to distance myself from them.”
His own family, the Strausslers, were Czech. They fled when the Germans arrived. They went to Singapore, then to Australia, leaving, fatally, the father, Eugen, behind. A Japanese bomb killed Eugen. His mother married Kenneth Stoppard, an army major. They settled in England and, encouraged by patriotic Kenneth, Thomas became the man he is today, the most droll, witty and charming Englishman imaginable. To this day, he still feels a little odd when the Jewishness comes up.
“I’m an English Writer”
“When I’m asked to go to a meeting, or join a committee or something or other, in the role of a Jewish writer, I kind of bridle at that and I think, ‘Wait a minute, I’m an English writer. That’s the language I use, and I don’t write particularly about Jews or Jewishness, so why would I be a Jewish writer?’ I’m afraid I’ve always reacted like that whenever this has come up.”
With the Jewishness and the Holocaust lost behind the veil of his mother’s reticence, he became one of the greatest playwrights of his age, perhaps the greatest. And now, the veil torn, there is Leopoldstadt. It may be his greatest play. I am not sure; I am not rational on the matter. By the time I reached the end of the script, I was sobbing convulsively. Stoppard nods appreciatively when I tell him. “It’s having that effect in the rehearsal room.”
Writing about the Holocaust at all seems impossible. The critic George Steiner asked how there could be poetry after Auschwitz. Stoppard tentatively agrees with the spirit of the question.
Leopoldstadt may be Stoppard’s greatest play.... By the time I reached the end of the script, I was sobbing convulsively.
“Something enormous happens, and in the modern world there hasn’t been anything more enormous than the Holocaust, but there have been other events, like 9/11. I mean in the aftermath, in the terrible silence after 9/11, before the noise came back in a different form. And writers start thinking, ‘Well, what is the point of writing stuff any more? What possible relevance could one’s next play or television drama or sitcom or movie have? What the hell difference does it make to anything now?’ Of course, the feeling doesn’t last.”
The artists recover, but having, if they are any good, lost their innocence. Stoppard often calls on a remark of WH Auden’s: he said his poetry didn’t save one Jew from the gas chamber. He also wrote: “Poetry makes nothing happen.”
Somehow, though, art keeps getting made. “We just go downstream like a cork,” he murmurs, “downstream of the Niagara Falls.”
Yet, after Leopoldstadt, will he keep bobbing downstream? Given that he’s now 82, and it takes him four to five years to dream up, write, rewrite and rehearse a play, I can’t help feeling this harrowing confrontation with the most wicked event in human history is some kind of valediction.
“At my age, are you kidding?”
You mean it is your last play?
“Well, not determinedly so. It took longer to write, and it was harder to maintain the energy to write it than even the previous play and the one before that. I was thinking, ‘I can’t go through this again’ — but, on the other hand, once it’s out of the way, what else will I be doing?”
So maybe this is his last play. How does he feel about being this grand old man, knighted, OM-ed, universally honoured? He grimaces.
“I was thinking, ‘I can’t go through this again’ — but, on the other hand, once it’s out of the way, what else will I be doing?”
“As Isaiah Berlin said — something that has haunted me ever since I read it — I have always felt overestimated. When it comes to art, I’m terribly aware that estimation goes up and down over the years, and there’s no accounting for where it will go. It’s like a photograph of where reputation lies at a given moment. And it doesn’t mean anything more than that.”
He has always carried a treasury of great lines in his head. One of his favourites is by Lytton Strachey: “What has posterity ever done for me?” Posterity will happen in spite of, not because of, us. (His favourite funny line is from See How They Run, a farce by Philip King: “Arrest several of these vicars!” In fact, the line is “Arrest most of these vicars!”, but Stoppard’s is better.)
At some point I am startled to discover he had no idea of the topicality of Leopoldstadt. Anti-semitism was, after all, crucial to the destruction of Corbynism and has been spreading across the world.
“The Story Has Got to Work Emotionally”
“I’m faintly embarrassed by the fact that I didn’t know there was any anti-semitism in the Labour Party or out of it. I’ve never personally been attacked or abused or anything knowingly. I remember telling the producer about the play, and she said that would be fantastic because, apart from anything else, it is so about now.” I remind him of the blatantly anti-semitic mural that Corbyn defended. “Yes, I was horrified by that. But it didn’t seem so noteworthy, you know.”
How does he think the play will be received in the present climate? “It’s hard to tell. And actually I’m quite encouraged by your personal reaction, because I think it’s got to work on these emotional terms, not as a position taken on any particular issue, political or otherwise. I mean, it’s the one thing I feel I’ve learnt over the years, that the story has got to work emotionally, not simply as an exercise in ingenuity.”
That remark sounds casual, but it isn’t. Stoppard’s plays are full of fireworks — great lines, high comedy, scintillating dialogue, intellectual conceits — but even as they thrill you, they move you. This is not done by defending or advocating an opinion or position, it is done by telling the truth: that we are funny, frequently absurd creatures; that we struggle for a meaning that always eludes us; and that this is, finally, moving and consoling in the highest sense of the word. We are relative creatures in a relative world, but we aspire to absolutes. Again, Berlin comes up.
“I’m a believer in pluralism, as was Isaiah Berlin, who wrote about it that the virtues don’t have to be commensurate with each other. They don’t have to fit seamlessly together so nothing is contradicted. Especially in the world of ideology and philosophy. There are so many different routes to this person’s view, as opposed to another person’s view.
Darwin’s Strange Problem
“So, although I’ve always been deeply suspicious of relativism, with absolutism one keeps stubbing one’s toe against things that don’t fit together. This isn’t exactly relevant, but there’s a line about the Austrians. I forget which Viennese person said, ‘The Austrian nature is towards absolutism, tempered’ — excellent verb — ‘tempered by indolence.’ And I keep thinking, ‘Is it too late to find some way to get it into my play?’ So far I haven’t succeeded.”
One absolute that does prey on his mind is God. His original family consisted of non-practising Jews, and he was never seriously exposed to religion, but he sees the point.
“The idea of the irreducible immaterial attracts me. I think about God a lot. Suddenly, out of the woodwork, out he pops. We were watching an amazing film about wildlife on Madagascar or somewhere, that big island. It was showing us these absolutely completely amazing mammals, and indeed insects. There’s an unbelievable variety of very exotic, amazing creatures. I’ve always thought that is a strange problem for Darwin. Why the variety? And at the same time, it clearly isn’t a good fit with a creator, either. They are so strange and so various that, in a way, it would make nonsense of any possible theory of any kind, whether creationist or strictly scientific.”
Returning to the “grand old man” theme, I ask if there is anything he regrets not having written.
There is a long pause.
I ask if there is anything he regrets not having written. “Good question.”
“There isn’t a subject that I started and abandoned and never got back to. In that sense, there isn’t anything. Writing a poem would be satisfying. Speaking of which, it’s Sabrina’s [his wife’s] birthday tomorrow, and I said, ‘I’ve got to take this seriously, I’ve got to find a nice present for your birthday.’ She said, ‘You don’t have to get anything — write me a poem if you like.’ So I said, ‘OK, I’ll do that.’ But I haven’t actually done it.
“My friend Clive James would very often send me a poem hot off the typewriter. I read these poems — I mean, Clive wrote all sorts of poems, and I never felt I could write one as good as any of his. So I didn’t try.”
He has been married to Sabrina Guinness for nearly six years. She was preceded by marriages to Miriam Stern and Josie Ingle, and, most famously, a long romance with Felicity Kendal. He has four sons and eight grandchildren, and now lives in Dorset.
Does he like being married? “I do, it’s very restful. I lived alone for 20 years. Having then decided I wasn’t going to carry on living alone, we got married. Of course, it depends on who you are married to — that is quite important. In my case, I’ve been very fortunate, so I’m very happy.”
Everything Becomes Stoppardian
I ask him whether, like everybody else these days, he suffers from apocalyptic anxieties. “Well, I think it’s the same syndrome as averting my gaze from the Middle East and being a Jew and all this. I keep asking my wife what’s going on and what it means. And she sort of tells me, and she really worries about it.”
When with Stoppard, I have noticed before that everything becomes Stoppardian. It has been a peculiar, faintly farcical interview, conducted at multiple locations — we were in and around Portobello Road, in west London, and had to keep moving to avoid the noise of music and traffic. He apologises repeatedly because the location had been his idea.
Finally he asks me to accompany him to a nearby bookshop. I feel self-conscious in the street. Here he is, the great Tom Stoppard, the hair still long and flowing, the face not craggy but smooth and hyper-alert, the clothes a touch bohemian. We may be mobbed at any moment. But he says he does not get recognised: “I’m not on television.”
He disappears into the bookshop. I don’t go in, assuming he is buying a present for Sabrina. But no, it’s a book for me — a guide to walks in Notting Hill, half in English, half in Japanese. I point this out to him. “Ah so,” he says.
Finally, don’t despair, Leopoldstadt may not be his last play. He wants to write one about journalism.
“That’s been on my mind for at least 10 years. I became a student of Hacked Off, Leveson and that entire area. So I’ve ended up with a repository of a lot of disconnected knowledge about that period in British journalism. I think journalism is incredibly important, and I think rubbish journalism is terribly deplorable.”
Live for ever, Tom, we need you.