Picture a Chinese ginger jar filled with jellybeans. The good kind, each tiny egg eye-catchingly colored and exotically flavored. How many are there? Thousands, each singular yet in the aggregate filling out the container’s shapely, tapering form. Does the ginger jar make the jellybeans, or do the jellybeans comprise the jar?
At 896 pages, Tom Stoppard: A Life is jam-full of beans. Many thousands of them, assiduously conforming to the shape of a life begun in shadows but later performed mostly before an admiring, if frequently bemused, public for well over half a century.
Hermione Lee’s exhaustively researched and detailed biography of the litterateur is empathic and intimate without trafficking in voyeurism, a consequence, no doubt, of having the cooperation of its celebrated subject. Within its pages are everything you could possibly want to know about the playwright who seemed to launch, full-blown, into upper atmosphere with the August 24, 1966 world premiere of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
That premiere, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, was at first inauspicious. Stoppard’s wordy comedy about two aimless characters from Hamlet so minor even they can’t remember which is which, struck critics as “inexplicable throughout,” Lee reports, and, even worse, “sub-Beckett” and “sub-Pinter.”
One critic took exception: In the London Observer, Ronald Bryden praised its “ironic invention, metaphysical jokes and linguistic acrobatics,” and went on to announce “the most brilliant debut by a young playwright since John Arden’s” a decade earlier. (Perhaps this was meant to throw shade on Kenneth Tynan’s double-negative pronunciamento in the same paper, a decade before that, that he could love no-one who did not want to see John Osborne’s i.e.d. of a play, Look Back in Anger.)
So, what did the rubes know? R&G was soon running at the Old Vic and then on Broadway, where accolades, doctoral theses, and very handsome royalty checks ensued Not bad for a script composed, according to Lee, while Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues” played repeatedly in the background. It didn’t hurt that Stoppard would be embraced by the self-same Pinter, that he had the rakish looks of a rock star and the ingratiating, self-deprecating manner of Hugh Grant but with a more refined sartorial sensibility.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would soon be followed by brain-teasing, audience-challenging vaudevilles (Jumpers and Travesties, notably) that had detractors complaining – as they had with Bernard Shaw and would with Stephen Sondheim – that Stoppard was a heartless smarty-pants who made up in wit what he lacked in heart. Then came The Real Thing – dismissed in London in 1982 but rewritten and freshly staged by Mike Nichols for Broadway – to prove his critics wrong. As it happened, The Real Thing was not Stoppard’s turnaround play; that would be Arcadia, ten years later and now widely regarded as his masterpiece.
At the same time that he was producing head-scratchers for itchy theater patrons, falling in and out of love, frequenting Soho hotspots and hobnobbing with rock and reigning royalty, Stoppard was also heeding Hollywood’s call and, especially, the siren song of Steven Spielberg. The playwright was accruing enormous paychecks for his valued script doctoring, often uncredited. He wrote the screenplays for The Human Factor, Brazil, Empire of the Sun and, most famously, Shakespeare In Love, earning two Oscars along the way.
Many more plays and much screen work followed (Hapgood, The Invention of Love, The Coast of Utopia, and Rock’n’Roll among the plays). Along the way, Stoppard had the anomalous life of a double agent in the intelligentsia, his politics growing more right-wing (he was an enthusiastic Thatcherite) even as he championed such endangered colleagues as Vaclav Havel and Salman Rushdie. He was often cited in news columns that printed his name in bold face, as he seemed to morph from enfant terrible to old fart.
In the late 1990s, however, a revelation would upend Stoppard’s world view once again. This time it was personal, not political. Lee traces his childhood from Vlin, in Czechoslovakia, where he was born Tomas Straussler in 1937. Two years later, following Hitler’s invasion, the family moved, first to Singapore and later, to India. His father having been killed during the war, Stoppard’s mother in India married British Major Kenneth Stoppard (she hadn’t bothered to tell the children), and the family resettled in England in 1946.
Thus Tomas Straussler became Tom Stoppard, the quintessential Brit, with his love of language, tea, cricket and crumpet. That he was Jewish had been kept from him, only to be discovered when he was in his late fifties – along with the fact that all four of his grandparents, three aunts and his great grandmother had been murdered by the Nazis.
The result of his discovery was a deep dive, as Lee makes clear is his wont, into his family history and his most recent, and possibly final, play, Leopoldstadt. The name refers to the Vienna Jewish quarter, a thriving, vital center of culture before the Anschluss. The play tells the story of the generations of a family modeled on his own, and the London production, shut down after the emergence of Covid-19, featured the author’s son Ed playing a fictionalized version of his father. Dialogue in the play, especially the shattering final scene in which the fate of each character is spelled out mostly in the citing of one concentration camp name or another, is taken verbatim from Stoppard’s meetings with family members as Lee records them.
Lee has written acclaimed biographies of Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton and Penelope Fitzgerald, as well as appreciations of Philip Roth, Willa Cather and Elizabeth Bowen. Tom Stoppard: A Life is thorough to a fare-thee-well, charmingly forgiving of its subject’s foibles and idiosyncracies, and unmistakably the work of an academic; hence the jellybeans. If any fact of Stoppard’s story seems missing, you’d be hard-pressed to know it in this packed ginger jar of a biography. Lee takes a graduate student’s delight in laying out the dense plots of every play, their influences, and the research Stoppard took on in his quest for authenticity. This is all admirable and not a little, well, dry; take away the summaries and the book would be thinner by a third or more.
More critically, it lacks a sensibility that ultimately transforms a very good biography into a great one: there is no poetry in it (as there is, in say, John Lahr’s recent biography of Tennessee Williams). But rare is the biographer equal to the subject, and this, in the end, does tell a definitive tale. Tom Stoppard: A Life is an invaluable skeleton key, opening the works of one of the great literary geniuses of our generation to deeper interpretation than ever before.
The plays’ complexities – the ambivalence, the unknowing selves, the chameleonic lives and ultimately the lesson first revealed in Arcadia’s lightning flash of knowledge that the search for scientific truth must embrace human inconsistency, especially in matters of the heart – are no longer, to cite a Stoppard title, undiscovered country. The truths, if not the facts, were all there, all along.