Hermione Lee: Tom Stoppard A Life

I’m humbled reading Hermione Lee’s biography of Tom Stoppard.

The cover of the version I obtained

I was exalted by Alex Ross’s colossal Wagnerism study because I’m a typical grandiose Wagnerian, thinking I know something about the topic. Its 784 pages flew by, the book flattering my ego by gently touching on a great many subjects, a few done in depth. But I guess Wagner makes one’s head swell.

Lee’s work, and Stoppard though? Different story, not just because at 896 pages her biography far exceeds Ross’s in size.

Hermione Lee (photo: Jeremy Read)

While Ross took readers on a tour visiting the many ways, topics, subject areas where Wagner touched modern life, its scope inevitable because of the subject, it might get me laughs to say such a thing about Tom Stoppard. Ross’s book is long, resembling the view from an orbiting satellite camera looking at the big wide modernist world, whereas Lee’s microscope takes us into Stoppard’s head.

I thought I knew something about Stoppard, because I did a production of one of his plays, studied some in an undergraduate course, have seen a few produced, enjoyed a couple of his screenplays. Yet I realize how little that amounts to, looking at Stoppard’s total output, because I didn’t realize how much there is. How much? He was born in 1937. From 1963 (when he had his 26th birthday) until 1991 (when he reached 54) inclusive, there’s at least one item per year in Lee’s chronology of his work. Many of those years show multiple projects. Amazing to say her huge list has omissions, if IMDB is to be believed. I saw mention of two items in Hungarian namely Szabad, mint a madár(“Free as a bird”) and the London instalment of a Magyar miniseries titled Ésszerü magyarázat (“reasonable explanation”), plus perhaps as many as three more that might be Czech (guessing, I don’t speak that language). No I don’t mention this to hold it against the author, so much as to suggest what a daunting mountain of work this man has built. The only years without an entry are 1992 (the first time), alongside 1996, 1999, 2010, 2011, 2016 and 2018. There’s even something in each of 2019 and 2020, when the playwright in his eighties still seems to still be going strong, working at an advanced age. Stoppard also wrote screenplays for Shakespeare in Love (1998: and no wonder nothing is reported in 1999, celebrating or hung over from 1998), Empire of the Sun, Billy Bathgate, The Russia House, Enigma, The Romantic Englishwoman, Anna Karenina plus co-writing Brazil,… plus other items on the IMDB list that didn’t make it onto Lee’s list. No he’s not Shakespeare but his output is massive, and need I add, often significant.

Lee is not writing a critical study of that immense body of work. But we’re taken deeply into details of his life: which only highlights her herculean achievement. At times I was not so much daunted as surprised at the effort Lee made reporting on relationships, parenting, the minutiae of a long life. But for the most part we’re getting close to the builder of that mountain of scripts & plays & TV movies & screenplays & the occasional opera libretto. Sometimes we get very close to the creative process. It gets to be a bit like A Hard Day’s Night, where we hang on her every word because—as with the Beatles—there’s something indescribably glamorous about the topic. Stoppard rubs elbows with all sorts of celebrities, from Peter O’Toole in his early days, to Diana Rigg, Paul Newman, and so many more, as I resist the urge to name-drop. I wonder how Lee possibly found so much interesting material, sorting through & separating facts from celebrity puffery. I’m intrigued that Lee didn’t give us tons about the Oscar, possibly because she figures it’s been done, covered already. I don’t know. But the massive volume she does choose to include tends to be remarkable, readable, as she slowly assembles her colossal portrait in three dimensions.

It’s wonderful.

If you love Stoppard you will love this book. You’ll get a good look at the sensibility of the playwright who gave us Jumpers, Rosenkrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, Travesties, The Real Inspector Hound. I love those plays so it’s exciting to see the personality taking shape that would give rise to these works. It’s thrilling to see a young Robin Phillips (before he had come to Stratford) or Ron Bryden (before he came to University of Toronto at the Drama Centre) in his days with the Royal Shakespeare Company spotting Stoppard’s talent very early on, getting behind him in support, a key ally in Stoppard’s early years.

Stoppard’s childhood is an unexpected adventure story that is perhaps a key to the playwright’s personality, and his relentlessly absurd dramaturgy. Arbitrary forces disrupted his life so of course they sometimes exert control in his plays. Dr Eugen Sträussler worked at the hospital in Zlin for the Bata shoe corporation. Dr Eugen and his wife Marta Sträussler had two children, Petr born August 21st 1935, Tomáš born July 3rd 1937. If you haven’t guessed already young Tomáš Sträussler would become the great English playwright. When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, (when Tomáš was less than two years old) Bata offered their Jewish employees (including family) such as the Sträusslers help, getting them out of the country & offering them work elsewhere. The options Lee reports for the Sträusslers were Nairobi or Singapore. While their best friends the Gellerts took the African option, the Sträusslers opted for Singapore.

Lee closes the opening chapter by subtly alluding to something that seems central to Stoppard’’s style, possibly the subtext for his penchant for metadrama.

ROCK ’N’ ROLL, staged in 2006, nearly seventy years after that journey, has as its central character a young man called Jan, who was born in Zlin and whose family left Czechoslovakia before the German occupation because they were Jewish, but returned—to what was then Gottwaldov—in 1948. In the 1960s, Jan has the chance of staying in Cambridge as a student but chooses to go back to Prague under Communism. The play has the vestigial trace of something Stoppard has often thought of writing, an “autobiography in a parallel world,” in which his family has returned “home” after the war and he has grown up in Communist Czechoslovakia, through the middle of the twentieth century. In the first draft of the play, “Jan” was called “Tomas,” “my given name” Stoppard writes, adding, a little doubtfully, “which I suppose, is still my name.
(Lee 17)

So far in the life story, there’s been no reason to expect that Tomas will ever speak English let alone become a prolific playwright in the language. Singapore however is trouble, given the relentless advance of Japanese forces in the Pacific. This time although the boys and Marta escape, they never see their father again. The ending of Dr Eugen Sträussler is a sad series of speculations rather than facts, as he probably goes down with one of the crowded ships hitting mines or torpedoed. It seems especially apt that Stoppard will write the screenplay adaptation of JG Ballard’s novel Empire of the Sun, a story of a boy separated from his parents by the horrors of invasions & desperate escapes: even though Stoppard himself had been spared such horror: being too young to remember.

A ship takes Marta & the boys to India, where they might be understood as safe. There would be several moves around India, their existence impermanent. Major Kenneth Stoppard comes into the picture, courting Marta in Darjeeling. In short order they were married and soon going back to England, Marta downplaying any of the Czech or Jewish family history. Tom didn’t remember the tears of his mother when his father went missing, only finding out Dr Eugen Sträussler’s fate (or attempts to figure out how he died) in 1999. Under the circumstances his plot-lines make a great deal of sense, even if I’m projecting from what I’ve just read about his life story, especially the mysteries & abrupt changes to his living situation.

The cover from Lee’s website

I need to find the text of Leopoldstadt (2020), a play that was perhaps meant to be the final work: but let’s wait & see if he lives on & continues to write. Stoppard is the real deal, perhaps the greatest playwright in the English language since Shakespeare, certainly the most successful since Shaw. One of the glories of Lee’s bio, en passant, is her implicit advocacy for Stoppard. No, she doesn’t digress into assessment of his importance and place in the canon (whatever that might mean). The book speaks for itself, beginning with its size, as de facto cultural history with testimony as to Stoppard’s place in our culture. It makes me want to read everything the man wrote. Is Stoppard important? I can’t answer objectively, as I’m aware of how glamor & popularity distort the question.

I’m gratefully intrigued by what Lee has stirred up in my encounter with her biography, which is the best testimony I can offer as to her achievement. Stoppard is a fascinating creature, especially as revealed in the pages of Lee’s book.

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