The Elusive Tom Stoppard

Even after reading 800+ pages of biography there remains a hidden core to Tom Stoppard. That a person is not entirely captured on paper is true of any biography, the map is not the territory and all that, but the reader feels it especially keenly with Hermione Lee’s exploration of Stoppard’s life and work (I really enjoyed her previous biography of Penelope Fitzgerald). Part of it is that formidable page count, which at times feels slightly padded out with lists of the celebrity attendees at Stoppard’s annual parties and descriptions of home decorating choices. It seems that part of the way Lee chose to address her subject’s reticence was to aim for an exhaustive comprehensiveness, but I couldn’t help but feel as though the book might have been improved if she had adopted some of Stoppard’s own love of speed and concision. The exhaustiveness can become exhausting.

At the same time, the reason a certain elusiveness becomes noticeable over the course of the book is that it does seem to be essential to who Stoppard is. A through line of Lee’s biography is the way in which Stoppard is something of a mystery to himself and it tells a story of how he slowly discovers and (re)claims his own Czech, Jewish identity over time (he was born Tomáš Sträussler in Czechoslovakia). This exploration of identity culminates in his most recent play (I will not say last, because there’s always reason to hope for more), Leopoldstadt, which I have not yet had a chance to read, and very few have had a chance to see, due to the pandemic. This sense of reticence and concealment extends to Stoppard’s relationships with others: “‘Solitary’ and ‘private’ are frequent adjectives. Many people who know him have said they don’t feel they know him well. They don’t know who his close friends are and they aren’t even sure if he has any. One playwright said, I’ve known him for forty-five years and I don’t know him at all.” It does seem that if we did not get this sense of hiddenness from Lee’s biography, if we felt that Stoppard was entirely explained, then she would have failed at her biographical task.

To be clear, Stoppard is not some sort of mysterious recluse, he is Sir Tom Stoppard, friend of Mick Jagger and the Duchess of Something-or-rather, whose romantic relationships have provided tabloid-fodder in the UK press. We still get to see plenty of Stoppard in those eight hundred pages. Lee had access to personal letters and papers, and we learn about early struggles, working methods (he was almost always working on multiple things at once, smoking like a chimney), his tremendous energy, a deep curiosity (he reads as much as he can when beginning work on a play, does interviews with experts), a desire to be liked. His friends and acquaintances describe him as charming and kind, to which Stoppard responds, “he repeats to me something he has often said before: he is good at performing niceness, but he is not as nice as people think.” But while the fact that Stoppard punched up the dialogue for 102 Dalmatians as an uncredited script writer is a nice little bit of trivia, I find that it is the reticence, the way Stoppard has managed to make an escape, even after 800 pages, that sticks with me.

Stoppard described himself once in an interview in 1988 as “a very emotional person. People wish to perceive me as someone who works out ideas in a cool, dispassionate way but I don’t think that’s my personality at all.” This aspect of Stoppard’s personality does not come as a surprise. It is on display in his work and Lee does a nice job of drawing it out. She mentions that there is a stereotypical line of criticism of Stoppard’s plays as clever and cool, but lacking an emotional core, such that 1982’s The Real Thing was treated as some sort of departure. But, to me, someone is always getting their heart broken in Stoppard’s work – right from Rosencrantz onwards. Sure, Arcadia serves up a larger dose of mathematics than one tends to get on a typical trip to the theater, but it ends with dancing in candlelight. I do sometimes find myself struggling to keep up (I remain, like everyone, slightly confused about what exactly happened in Hapgood), but amid the wit and the dazzle there is always a beating heart. If you’re willing to pay attention, that attention will be rewarded emotionally as well as intellectually, which is part of the reason I enjoy Stoppard as much as I do.