This article was published online on February 7, 2021. Updated at 11:33 a.m. ET on February 8, 2021.
In a short book about biography, Hermione Lee, literary life-writer par excellence, offered two metaphors for the art at which she excels. One was an autopsy. The other was a portrait. “Whereas autopsy suggests clinical investigation and, even, violation,” she wrote, “portrait suggests empathy, bringing to life, capturing the character.” She argued that these contrasting approaches had something in common. They “both make an investigation of the subject which will shape how posterity views them.”
Lee is clearly no coroner, even when writing about the dead. Tom Stoppard is her first living biographical subject—on a roster that includes Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf, and, most recently, Penelope Fitzgerald—and she concludes her portrait by lobbying posterity on his behalf. Stoppard “matters,” she writes; “he will be remembered.” His significance seems a strange thing to feel in need of proving. Surely if Stoppard’s reputation in postwar British theater weren’t secure, this giant biography—nearly twice the length of Lee’s last—would never have been undertaken.
Stoppard is the alchemist who turned Shakespeare into Beckett; he has held audiences rapt at that feat for half a century, and riveted by the work that has followed. “What’s it about?” an audience member once asked him of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, to which he allegedly replied: “It’s about to make me very rich.” Since that play premiered, in 1966, Stoppard’s linguistic hijinks and relish for experimenting have seemed too clever to some and thrillingly ambitious to others. The dichotomy was perhaps inevitable, given the scope of his intellectual appetite: He has fused philosophers with acrobats (Jumpers) and dissidents with footballers (Professional Foul), devised poetic plots from the laws of physics (Arcadia), and rewritten 19th- and 20th-century history until it was antic or aslant (Travesties, The Coast of Utopia). But his virtuosity has been more than gymnastics. The restless author of more than 20 plays for the stage, as many for radio and TV, and several Hollywood screenplays, he has spun more serious ideas into silly jokes than Charlie Chaplin and Richard Feynman combined. He has also said as much about literature and love as Ivan Turgenev.
Still, nothing reputational is certain (“I have a theory that plays go off, like fruit,” Stoppard told a friend), and he would know, because uncertainty itself is one of his subjects. A story he once heard became a favorite refrain, a way to convey this abiding theme: Two men in a car drive so quickly past something improbable that they can’t quite decipher it. Was it a man in pajamas carrying a football, or a tortoise, or a peacock? Stoppard positions himself with the flummoxed witnesses.
Unlike his friend Harold Pinter, Stoppard doesn’t believe in a “definitive” text, and Lee proceeds accordingly, documenting changes, in draft or revival, alive to his provisional spirit. A self-described “tinkerer,” he’ll revise or reinvestigate in collaboration with others. The actors in Patrick Marber’s 2016 kinetic production of Travesties—in which a minor character in Ulysses reminisces about meeting James Joyce, Tristan Tzara, and Vladimir Lenin during the First World War—were excited, Lee reports, that Stoppard was willing to make changes to a 42-year-old play last produced in 1993.
What’s more, Lee found herself extending her deadline in order to write about Leopoldstadt, Stoppard’s first new play in five years, a moving exploration of history, memory, and family that is his most explicitly autobiographical work. It opened in London in January 2020, and was forced by the pandemic to close two months later. In writing about Stoppard while he’s alive, Lee is not just keeping up with new output. She’s conveying the ways in which his past work remains potentially in progress—and the ways in which his own life, as becomes clear in his latest play, is a window onto the vagaries of history. Lee has said more than once that there is no such thing as a “definitive” biography. In Tom Stoppard: A Life, she proves that in the extreme.
Stoppard was born Tomáš Sträussler in Zlín, Czechoslovakia, in July 1937. The son of Jewish parents—his father was a doctor; his mother had trained to be a nurse—he fled with them to Singapore after the Nazis invaded in March 1939. He was 4 when the Japanese occupation of Singapore began. His father enlisted in a British volunteer defense corps. Tomáš as well as his older brother, Petr, and their mother were evacuated on a boat they thought was bound for Australia. They arrived in India instead—on what may have been the same day that his father’s ship was blown up off the coast of Sumatra. Marta Sträussler spent four years in India with the boys before marrying an Englishman, Ken Stoppard, whose name they all took. They moved to England, and never spoke Czech again.
The young Tom Stoppard embraced Englishness—country landscapes, cricket—as he began his boarding-school life. He did not particularly excel as a student, and never attended university. Instead, he became a local reporter in Bristol. His eight years as a journalist—during which he reviewed plays at the Bristol Old Vic, wrote about film, honed his literary sarcasm, and became friendly with the actor Peter O’Toole—were the making of him. He wrote nonstop: letters, journal entries, columns, short stories, and eventually plays. Success came early, at 29. With Rosencrantz, Stoppard became the youngest writer to have a play put on at London’s National Theatre. “Fame was very satisfying and he took to it with ease,” Lee notes.
Stoppard describes himself as having led “a charmed life,” and that is indeed the feeling the reader gets through much of the book. Nonetheless, the unfolding luck is set against an unremembered past, and a single midlife switchback gives Stoppard’s existence an extraordinary shape. It’s as if, as his stage directions say of characters in Arcadia, he has been “doubled by time.” Until he was in his 50s, Stoppard knew nothing about his family from Zlín. He knew enough about his migrant early years to refer to himself as a “bounced Czech,” but when asked if he was Jewish, Stoppard would joke, “Well, I’m Jew-ish.” He knew that his father—of whom he had no memory—had been Jewish. He didn’t realize that his mother was too.
In 1993, Stoppard met his aunt’s granddaughter, Sarka, with whom his mother had embarked on a semi-clandestine correspondence (after keeping her past quiet for more than half a century). In an exchange that would be echoed in Leopoldstadt 27 years later, he asked what had happened to his aunts. “Auschwitz,” came the reply, several times over. He delved deeper during the 1990s, surprised by “all the grief I owe,” he wrote at one point, and a decade and a half later, a charge made by a Croatian writer, Daša Drndić, hit a nerve. Working the actual Tom Stoppard into her novel Trieste, she called him out as a “blind observer.” Having learned of his exterminated relatives (including all four grandparents), she contended, he then returned to “his lovely English language and his one and only royal homeland” as if those relatives had never lived. “She was clearly saying,” Lee writes, “Well, fuck you and your ‘charmed life.’ ”
If Stoppard’s “lovely English language” was a place to hide, though, he was hiding in plain sight. The playwright in The Real Thing—a poignant play about love and marriage produced in 1982—is given to say, of words, that “if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos.” Long before he was told about his relatives, Stoppard had been preoccupied with divided selves and uncertain identities; with doubles and disorder. He had traveled to Czechoslovakia several times, and worked with the playwright (and later president) Václav Havel. Mortality, and historical unpredictability, had always been central to his work. You might say that everything he didn’t think he knew had haunted it for decades. Stoppard had been fond of quoting a passage from a play by his near-contemporary James Saunders, about grief lying behind everything, dimly discernible, “as you can see sometimes through the surface of an ornamental lake the outline of a carp.” But possibly more fundamental than these thematic echoes is his virtuosic way with language itself. Was his becoming a writer in some crucial way due to the precariousness of his past? What could strike some as overwrought cleverness was perhaps care, that need to “look after” words—a bridge across incomprehension in a language not his first.
One of the pleasures of Lee’s book is the glimpse it offers into Stoppard’s working practice. He had trouble with plot from the start, she tells us, but he could find the comic clockwork in a “situation”: Hamlet gets turned inside out; a man in a lunatic asylum imagines he’s conducting an orchestra; a single room is seen in two different centuries. Conceits whiz by, as Lee describes Stoppard writing like mad, at one point gluing to his desk the sandpaper strip from the side of a matchbox, so he doesn’t have to stop writing to light a cigarette. He “toyed with the idea of a five-minute War and Peace, but that came to nothing.”
The jokes, though, like the metaphysics and the math, have to serve him. As one of his characters explains, writing is like a well-made cricket bat: It exists so that “when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might … travel.” And one of Stoppard’s favorite ideas is an unsolved problem: Fermat’s last theorem (Arcadia), the seven bridges of Königsberg (Hapgood), the Riemann hypothesis (Leopoldstadt). These cerebral propositions may have baffled many (Hapgood, which opened in 1988 and starred his then-lover, Felicity Kendal, was a feebly received spy thriller based on quantum physics). Yet an unsolved problem offers at least two ways to convey Stoppard’s guiding preoccupations. First, it is a message left for the future by the past. And second—like the recitation in Leopoldstadt of relatives killed in the camps—it is seemingly impossible yet palpably true.
In Patrick Marber’s elegant, respectful production of Leopoldstadt (“You treat a new play like a classic and a classic like a new play,” he has said of his approach), two young boys sit at the front of the stage playing cat’s cradle with an old man. It’s November 1938, the room in Vienna is full of relatives, and in a moment a Nazi official will burst into their apartment. The boys, Leo and Nathan, are second cousins; Ludwig is Leo’s grandfather, a mathematician. Ludwig has made knots in the string. As the cat’s cradle changes shape between Leo’s fingers, the knots “change their address.” There seems to be no logic to the switch except, as Ludwig explains, the cat’s cradlers know that “each state came out of the previous one. So there is order underneath.” Nathan guesses something further—the knots always stay the same distance from one another. He goes on to become a mathematician too. Yet what Nathan has described is not just math. It’s family.
In 1955, the cousins meet again, in the same apartment. Leo—now an Englishman—remembers nothing. Then Nathan calls attention to a scar on his hand, and Leo is reminded of the wound he received in that very room, on the day they were taught about chaos and relatedness. “Cat’s cradle,” he whispers, and then repeats it for Nathan through tears: “Cat’s cradle.” Beneath the unthinkable disorder lie unbreakable bonds. Stoppard, Lee says, “wrote into Leopoldstadt his remorse.”
Lee has had access to boundless sources—letters, appointment diaries, notebooks, and drafts, as well as friends, family members, and the subject himself, who spoke with her over several years and allowed her to sit in on rehearsals. Yet I don’t think—I could be wrong in tracing this—that Lee ever quotes directly from her own interviews with Stoppard. She quotes other people, and we hear from Stoppard in his own words, in published interviews, private letters, and journals. But what he tells Lee directly she adopts as part of her narrative voice—a lighter, closer tone than she has taken in her posthumous biographies, in tune with Stoppard’s own blend of irreverent seriousness:
It was much easier and more exciting to start out as a playwright than as a novelist. A playwright could write a hundred pages in a few weeks, most of which were white space, and it would last two hours on stage, and on Sunday Kenneth Tynan would devote a quarter of a page of the Observer to it, even if you were a completely unknown person and the play had no scenery.
The view isn’t invented—Lee’s endnotes are scrupulous—yet it sometimes amounts to a kind of inhabiting: more like acting, perhaps, than traditional scholarship.
Sir Tom occasionally shades into Saint Tom, thanks to a notably ample collection of friends who remark on his generosity and kindness. He remembers birthdays, he lends money when others are in need, his wit always beguiles. He is an unstoppable correspondent, keeping in touch with everyone, including long-ago landladies, and for 50 years he wrote once or twice a week to his mother. But Lee astutely observes that his charm can be a form of concealment, a means of detachment. Overall, a “familial feel” characterizes his working relationships, yet his four sons encountered a frazzled man at breakfast who’d worked half the night. About his three marriages—to Jose Ingle, Miriam Moore-Robinson, and Sabrina Guinness—and his long relationships with Felicity Kendal and Sinéad Cusack, Lee is as circumspect as the women themselves. When Stoppard read this biography, he told Lee that “he is good at performing niceness, but he is not as nice as people think.” For all Lee’s evident affection, she leaves that unwritten self just visible at the perimeter, living its part of the undefinitive life.
* This caption originally misidentified Tom Stoppard’s location. In fact, he is pictured outside the National Theatre, in London.