“Since we cannot hope for order, let us withdraw with style from chaos,” Tom Stoppard wrote in his only novel, Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon (1966). Stoppard’s piquant sense of chaos and comedy have made him rich and renowned. In his dozens of plays, including Travesties, Jumpers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and Arcadia, his masterpiece, Stoppard has established himself as Great Britain’s dandy of doubt. (His favorite line in modern drama, he says, is from Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist: “I’m a man of no convictions—at least, I think I am.”) With their vivacious combination of learning and lampoon, Stoppard’s best plays are both intellectual high-wire acts and spectacular, playful displays of neutrality. Their irony signals his refusal to suffer, the theatrical embodiment of that most familiar British posture: the stiff upper lip.
Stoppard, a Czech émigré who arrived in England as Tomáš Straussler via Singapore and Darjeeling with his mother and brother in 1946, adopted his military stepfather’s surname as well as the pukka major’s faith in all things English. “Until I went to the bad, and the first sign of that was when I turned out to be arty,” Stoppard said of his disenchanted stepfather, who latterly wanted to take back his surname, “I was coming on well as an honorary Englishman.”