Tom Stoppard: A Life by Hermione Lee review – an exceptional biography | Books

In The Invention of Love, Tom Stoppard has his Oscar Wilde character describe biography as “the mesh through which our real life escapes”. Quoting that line in his biography (twice) is a nice touch. Almost 1,000 pages is a lot of mesh, and it’s best not to press too hard on what might be meant by “our real life”: in Stoppardia, such questions tend to lead to long speeches about chaos theory.

How our experience in the theatre during one of his plays relates to our lives outside is a question that has nagged at discussions of Stoppard’s standing as a writer. His kind of quantum dramatics messes with our minds and our understanding of time and we love it, but when we get home we still have to set the alarm for work the next day. Does this mean that his plays are little more than a diverting display of verbal fireworks, clever but of no significance, or are deeper themes about our experience of life being addressed? At the very least, his work reveals a constant endeavour to decipher the puzzles of existence. As Hannah, a character in one of his best-loved plays, Arcadia, says: “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter. Otherwise we’re going out the way we came in.” She’s not just referring to the exit from the theatre.

There have also been repeated grumbles that his are the kinds of play you can only see once. Rather like certain kinds of crime fiction, it is argued, the action is bound to seem a little lame the second time around when you know how the trick is done. To set against this, there have been numerous revivals of his best plays where critics, depending on the production, have raved all over again, sometimes claiming to see depths that they missed on a first viewing. It is striking that a writer who has been so popular and who has been showered with almost every imaginable kind of honour, from the Oscars to the Order of Merit, can still attract such mixed notices.

The fact that his plays are so immediately recognisable, so unmistakably Stoppardian, may contribute to both sides of his reputation. The blood-line of Stoppard’s early hits might be described as “out of Beckett by The Goon Show”, though “Pinter meets Beyond the Fringe” catches something, too. One of the main lessons Stoppard learned from Beckett and Pinter was the dramatic effectiveness of withholding information. Audiences become puzzled, discomfited, but also engaged. “I like them to sit with their backs to the engine, and only later to find out where they were going.” In plays famed for their wordsmithery, there can be a surprising amount of silence. At other times nothing happens, though as Beckett might have said, it does that sometimes. It all makes the audience pay attention; occasionally it makes them pay dearly. John Wood, an actor who seemed to have been put on earth for the express purpose of incarnating some of Stoppard’s wittiest characters, is reputed to have turned to a somnolent matinee audience once during a performance of Travesties and snapped: “Oh, do keep up!” Congratulating oneself on keeping up has been one of the major pleasures of spending an evening in Stoppardia.








From left: Wilf Scolding (Septimus Hodge), Larrington Walker (Richard Noakes), Dakota Blue Richards (Thomasina Coverly) and Kirsty Besterman (Lady Croom) in
Arcadia by Tom Stoppard at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, 2015. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The life of the man behind the plays is familiar from countless interviews and profiles, but Hermione Lee has been allowed to go backstage, enabling her to tell the story in unmatchable detail. Tomáš Sträussler was born in Zlín in what was then Czechoslovakia in 1937. When Hitler invaded in March 1939, the Sträusslers and other professional-class Jewish families (his father was a doctor) were advised to leave as soon as possible. They left hurriedly that April, travelling to Singapore, where Dr Sträussler had been offered a post in a hospital. When the Japanese army arrived in February 1942, the family had to take flight once more.

The mother and two young children were rushed on to a ship that was about to leave; they ended up in Bombay. The father was to follow, but he never did: the Japanese sank the ship he was on. After further peregrinations around India, Marta Sträussler and her two young sons wound up in Darjeeling, where the boys went to an English school. There their mother met and later married an English officer, Major Kenneth Stoppard, who brought the whole family to England in February 1946. The boys went to school in Derbyshire, and “Tom”, identifying passionately with his new country, grew up an Englishman, playing cricket and playing the part. Marta told her sons very little about the family background and the circumstances of their flight from Czechoslovakia; Stoppard was in his late 50s before he fully understood that he was Jewish and that many of his relatives had been murdered by the Nazis.

Although Stoppard’s plays can seem like the distillation of several course-loads of reading lists, he didn’t go to university. Instead, at 17 he started work as a reporter on a local newspaper in Bristol. What he lacked in experience he seems to have made up for in chutzpah: he got himself made the paper’s motoring correspondent without revealing that he couldn’t drive. Increasingly, he wrote theatre reviews, and then followed his dream by giving up his job, moving to London, and writing plays.





Tim Roth, left, and Gary Oldman in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, 1990.



Tim Roth, left, and Gary Oldman in
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, 1990. Photograph: Cinecom Pictures/Everett Collection/Alamy

“Tom Stoppard: The Years of Struggle” would be quite a short one-act piece: he was not yet 28 when the RSC bought an option on his idea for a play about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of the minor characters in Hamlet. Things soon went from good to better. Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Tynan at the National Theatre decided to take a gamble on the unknown young playwright, with the result that, as Lee puts it with a proper sense of drama, on Tuesday 11 April 1967 at the Old Vic, “the lights went up on two men in Elizabethan costume, betting on the toss of a coin”.

It was a runaway success of extraordinary proportions. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead ran for three years in that production; there have been countless revivals, translations and adaptations. Faber reprinted the text 23 times in the next 30 years, going on to sell a further half a million copies between 2001 and 2008 alone. A woman coming out of the first New York production bumped into its author and asked “What’s it about?” According to legend, he replied: “It’s about to make me very rich.”

Along with its successors, it certainly did that: Jumpers (1972), Travesties (1974), The Real Thing (1982), Arcadia (1993), The Invention of Love (1997), The Coast of Utopia (2002), Rock’n’Roll (2006). The list goes on, right up to his latest play, Leopoldstadt, whose successful opening run was cut short by the lockdown. Writing the screenplay for Shakespeare in Love brought in the odd penny, too (plus an Oscar), as did a lot of other film work and adaptations. It all helped to sustain a life filled with country houses and Concorde flights, marriages and not-marriages, lots of parties and an awful lot of cigarettes.

Stoppard emerges from this deeply sympathetic, even forgiving, biography as a shy man who has found a way to show off; a man who can’t quite believe his luck but can’t quite believe anything else, either. Simon Gray nicely caught this when he wrote: “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.”

It is tempting to see “Hermione Lee” as one of his greatest creations – a professor who knows more about a playwright who writes about professors than he knows about himself, a narrator who understands about unreliable narrators and isn’t fazed by them, a reader who always gets the joke. And she appreciates the theatre and its lore without being a luvvie. She understands the pride Stoppard felt when in 1993 he had two major plays running concurrently at the RSC and the National, “the first playwright ever to have done so”, and she gives us glimpses behind the scenes, such as one actor coming off the stage when a play seemed to be going badly, saying “It’s like Stonehenge out there.” It seems unfair that a man of such outrageous gifts should also have been allowed to magic up the perfect biographer to write his life.

Not all readers will take quite as indulgent a view of Stoppard as Lee does. His politics have been a particular sticking-point. He has been described, perhaps inaccurately, as “England’s most rightwing playwright”. Certainly, “all through the 1980s he would be a whole-hearted supporter and admirer of Thatcher”. In 1984 he signed a letter of support for the US invasion of Grenada: being in the company of such co-signatories as Paul Johnson, Kingsley Amis, Roger Scruton, and Peregrine Worsthorne just isn’t a good look. In truth, he seems always to have been more maverick than doctrinaire.

Lee’s biography is perceptive, knowledgeable, stylish and very long. The only times I found my mind wandering to the prospect of interval drinks were during the slightly breathless (and hugely detailed) descriptions of Stoppard’s social life once he became a celebrity. A lot of pages could have been saved by just saying there was no famous person he didn’t meet (he has invited 650 of his closest friends to his biennial party). We also learn not just which actors got awards for stage and film versions of his work, but even who presented them with their awards. It may be that gilded lilies just aren’t my thing, but I would admire this at times brilliant portrait even more without these showbiz equivalents of the Court Circular.





Sinead Cusack, left, and Alice Eve in Rock’n’ Roll at the Royal Court, London, 2006.



Sinead Cusack, left, and Alice Eve in
Rock’n’ Roll at the Royal Court, London, 2006. Photograph: Elliott Franks/WireImage.com

Readers who, by contrast, like their biographies to romp along from lunch party to lunch party may find that Lee’s long analyses of the plays clog the action, but for my money her astute and unfailingly clear accounts of Stoppard’s complex creations are among the great strengths of this exceptional biography. Her attentive exposition of the themes and intricate plot of Arcadia is almost worth the price of admission by itself; Stoppard has often been criticised for being “heartless” or too purely “cerebral”, but it is one of Lee’s several literary-critical triumphs to identify the emotions that drive so much of his work, especially his middle-period masterpieces such as Arcadia and The Invention of Love. (We learn, interestingly, that he thinks the former is possibly his best play but the latter is his favourite, though that view may have pre-dated the writing of Leopoldstadt.)

Stoppard revised and cut ruthlessly as his plays were in rehearsal and even during their run. He has always thought of a play as an event, not a text: the script is just a partly failed attempt to transcribe the most recent version of the event. It would be interesting see him at work on this script of his life: as a master of concision, he would probably cut a good deal, while revising the ending right up to the penultimate performance. But he seems, admirably, to have decided to put his trust in the “mesh” and to allow his biographer a completely free hand.

It’s hard to know how literary history will treat Stoppard. Lee concludes that “people feel” he “has made a difference to our culture”, but it’s not easy to say what that difference might be. Wilde channelled a whole cultural movement into gorgeous excess while writing a handful of plays that could be put on in the local church hall with a reasonable chance of success. Pinter permanently enlarged our sense of what a play can be. Stoppard has given us wonderful nights out in the theatre, occasions that make us think as well as laugh (and sometimes cry). Perhaps that’s more than enough: what higher praise could a playwright want? Yet, even so, his reputation may never quite shake off that lingering reservation that has dogged him throughout his career: “It’s all very clever, but …”

Tom Stoppard: A Life is published by Faber (£30). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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