Tom Stoppard: A Life by Hermione Lee - review by Jeremy Treglown

Jeremy Treglown

The Long Road to Leopoldstadt

Tom Stoppard: A Life


Faber & Faber 977pp £30

Until I read Hermione Lee’s life of Tom Stoppard, I didn’t know it was possible to bask in envy. As if being handsome, funny and a dazzling writer (and good at cricket and fly-fishing) weren’t enough, Stoppard is immensely rich – not just in money but also, Lee shows, in family, lovers, friends and even, which may sound pompous, moral qualities. ‘What is the Good?’ Emily asks in his 2013 radio play Darkside. ‘It is nothing but a contest of kindness.’ We learn of his devotion to his mother, brother, sons and grandchildren, his ability to stay friends with his exes and his work on behalf of good causes, beneficiaries of which include the opposition in Belarus, which he has supported since before Lukashenko came to power, and refugees encamped at Calais. There are a couple of brilliant paragraphs late in the book about the meanings and pitfalls of charm, and also of luck. A small part of Stoppard’s good luck is that, unlike the subjects of most worthwhile biographies, he’s alive to enjoy this one.

It’s the book itself, though, that made me most happily jealous. The research couldn’t be more thorough. Stoppard’s decade in provincial journalism in Bristol is perfectly evoked, for example: jazz clubs, coffee bars, kids chain-smoking in polo-necked black jerseys. I was one of them and went to some of the productions at the Old Vic that Stoppard reviewed, such as Look Back in Anger with Peter O’Toole as Jimmy Porter, so I know. The narrative moves fluently between the raffish, impoverished life he was living there, his main love affair and friendships – most of them kept up for a lifetime – and his journalism. Lee is fascinating on his early pieces, including an irreverent one on the ‘workers’ theatre’ pretensions of Arnold Wesker’s Centre 42:

Art is not withheld from anyone. Like Mount Everest, it is there. The slopes are sprinkled with people shouting ‘Come on up, it’s marvellous!’ but … The millions aren’t dissatisfied … What it has got is football, films, telly, bingo and pools – and it likes them very much, thanks.

Lee is terrific on other places and times too: the Darjeeling of his early childhood, or Iver Grove, the 18th-century brick mansion and garden restored by his second wife, Miriam, the subsequent dilapidation of which is described in a paragraph worthy of Elizabeth Bowen. And she’s wonderful at people, being warmly perceptive but not without sharpness. Her accounts of the waning of love affairs are sophisticated, never cynical. She lets in occasional flashes of gossip: Marigold Johnson, for example, saying that Miriam’s kitchen-blackboard instructions for her sons’ and stepsons’ lunch invariably said, ‘Fish fingers. Peas.’ And so it goes on for 850 pages, until the shrewdly delayed moment very near the end when Lee lets herself in to speak of her experience of being Stoppard’s biographer and his complicated reactions to the process. Then she slips away again into the famous story – a favourite of Stoppard’s – of the last seconds of Nevill Coghill’s open-air production of The Tempest, where Ariel skipped along duckboards just submerged in the lake of Worcester College, Oxford, and up a concealed ramp before disappearing into a firework.

It’s worth registering, though she doesn’t say it, that the teenage Lee was a prodigious, prizewinning, theatre-struck undergraduate in 1966, when Oxford’s annual Edinburgh Fringe offerings included the first production of Stoppard’s breakthrough masterpiece, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Coghill, meanwhile, a don who had a West End musical hit around this time, isn’t mentioned. Naming him might have cluttered the beautiful final sentences but a footnote would have fitted in well with a tendency, as Stoppard, his friends and those he works with become more and more famous, for the book to read like a supercharged ‘Jennifer’s Diary’. Forty or so famous names appear in two pages about Trevor Nunn’s Royal Court production of Rock ’n’ Roll, among them Kim Cattrall, Václav Havel, Eric Hobsbawm and Yoko Ono. If one of Lee’s anecdotes is any guide, Stoppard himself is not above telling his guests that Mick Jagger sent him this white burgundy and Philippine de Rothschild (‘I don’t know why’) three bottles of claret – ‘98 Mouton’. So the twenty-eight-page, two-column index in seven-point type is an essential tool. From the point of view of a fan, student or scholar wanting to know the history of any individual work (radio plays and screenplays included – everyone knows about Shakespeare in Love but it was a surprise to me how much lucrative script-doctoring Stoppard has done anonymously for Steven Spielberg), this book will be indispensable. The ideas he mobilises are fully explained, along with the personal, cultural and political circumstances in which each of sixty or so plays was written, what the plot is (the summary of Arcadia runs to nine pages), how and by whom it was first directed and performed, what Stoppard’s own input to the staging was, how critics reacted to both the first production and revivals and how much money it made. It’s broadly chronological, sympathetic, sensitive, often moving and, as we would expect of its author and hope of any book about Stoppard, stylishly written. The ‘human’ aspects – particularly the passages about his half-dozen most important love affairs – are tenderly done, though it has to be admitted that the more encyclopedic parts can be a bit of a slog.

Not unlike the more teacherly of his plays, in fact. Rescuing the work that came after Travesties (1974) from that reputation is a big part of what Lee sets out to do, and while some of her assessments may strike readers as overfriendly, they’re also persuasive. Her dismissals of negative opinions, on the other hand (John Gross writing ‘sniffily’ and Sheridan Morley ‘rudely’ about Arcadia; David Sexton’s ‘vicious attack’ on The Invention of Love), feel excessively loyal. It’s permissible, surely, for a theatregoer, professional or otherwise, not to collapse in awe and wonder in front of anything by Stoppard. During the first run of Arcadia, Isaiah Berlin – the influence of whose work on Stoppard is discussed in absorbing detail by Lee – told me that he and his wife ‘could barely sit through’ it: ‘clever, clever, clever’.

Clever, too, but in a good sense, are Lee’s own observations: on Stoppard’s earliest work, or on Havel’s influence on him, or on Leopoldstadt. There are vivid remarks about the ‘autodidactic excitement’ he gets from research and about little-remembered pieces such as Another Moon Called Earth and the ‘little bursts of pain and exasperation’ with which its hopeless married couple ‘blunder about … in a practice run for Dotty and George in Jumpers’. She’s exceptionally interesting on Stoppard’s Jewishness, his feelings about it and his researches into it. It’s well known that he was born Tomáš Sträussler in Czechoslovakia in 1937. When Germany invaded, his mother, Marta, got him and his brother out to India via Singapore – hence in part his attraction to J G Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, for the film adaptation of which he wrote the screenplay, and also to Felicity Kendal, whose early life as part of an English family troupe performing in India was captured in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Shakespeare Wallah. Tomáš’s father, a doctor, escaped from Czechoslovakia separately but died when the ship he was on was sunk. Marta later met a distinctly old-fashioned Englishman, Major Kenneth Stoppard, who, when the war ended, took them all back to Bristol and sent the boys to boarding school. Like many immigrants, they adopted English names, and like many Jewish immigrants, Marta concealed much of her past, even from her sons. Stoppard wrote enthrallingly about his belated discovery of her – and therefore his own – Jewishness in a 1999 article, ‘On Turning Out to Be Jewish’ (had he read Christopher Hitchens’s account of his similar experience, ‘On Not Knowing the Half of It’, published a decade earlier?). This and his mother’s secretive investigations into what had happened to her family – especially the Nazi murders of her parents and three of her sisters – prompted investigations of his own, which in turn led to Leopoldstadt.

In a period as well as a country where it ran against the artistic grain to have conservative sympathies – in the political form of anti-communism or the aesthetic one of believing in art as its own justification – the Stoppard of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Jumpers was often found ‘uncommitted’, certainly not left-wing enough. Antonia Fraser said she and Harold Pinter (a big figure in the book) found their friend ‘surprisingly right-wing by our standards … we vaguely expect writers to be on the left’. And since much of the art he admires and makes is partly composed of other art, it’s inevitable that he should have been accused, too, of parasitism. The word was used at the time of the first New York production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by Robert Brustein, who saw the play as a trivialising version of Waiting for Godot. It was a trivialising opinion, as Lee has little difficulty in showing, but there are moments in Stoppard’s plays when it has been possible for even his keenest admirers to ask where, amid the allusive brio, the author’s own voice is to be found. It would be hard, after all, to name a better living parodist and pasticheur.

Among the myriad fascinations of Tom Stoppard: A Life is that it suggests ways in which his work has been affected by criticism. Stoppard can’t write women? He gives us Night and Day. Emotion? The Real Thing. Competitiveness is evidently one of the many sources of his creativity, albeit competitiveness of a patient, five-day-test-match kind. He worries quite a lot about the amount of time he spends writing and revising a play. ‘If the next gap is as long as the last one,’ he said in 2017, ‘I will be 103 and no doubt ready with blue pencil and blue-black ink as usual.’ Let’s hope so.

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