Pinning Down the Elusive StoppardDate: 15 July 2002
As Tom Stoppard's epic new trilogy The Coast of Utopia prepares for its world premiere, biographer Ira Nadel investigates the myths, misconceptions & motivations behind one of the UK's greatest living playwrights.
He glanced from the train as it cut across the countryside. He had just left the Pinkas Synagogue in the Jewish ghetto of Prague, its walls filigreed with nearly 80,000 names of Czech Jews killed in the Holocaust - including those of his paternal and maternal grandparents. He unfolded a gazetteer of 'Jewish monuments in Moravia and Silesia'. Zlin, his destination, merited three lines, two of interest: one of the cemeteries had a small Jewish section, and it was the birthplace of the English playwright Tom Stoppard 'in proper name Tomas Straussler (born 1937)'.
Stoppard's surprise at seeing his name - both of his names - was immediate. Spontaneously, he decided to revisit the family home to duplicate a photograph he had just been shown of his parents sitting on a bench against the wall of their house. Having his picture taken in the same spot would connect him to his past. But, try as he might, he could not find the right angle or perspective. In the end, he left in frustration and bewilderment.
Scepticism & Comic Confusion
Stoppard's scepticism of biography's ability to recreate the past - expressed often in his work - now matched his own inability to re-create his parents' picture. Such an attitude has made the job of writing his biography doubly challenging: not only must it be as accurate as possible, but it must also construct a narrative that convincingly relates the nature of the events outlined by such 'facts'.
The playwright complicates the matter by taking pleasure in dramatising both sides of any situation, enjoying the double perspective of renouncing and yet succumbing to biography. Over the years, he has often hampered biographers' efforts, while simultaneously offering limited glimpses of his early life in India, his arrival in England and, most recently, the discovery of his Jewish past. Yet he resists any biographical reading of his works, and closely guards any private details about his life.
Comic confusion often results. Rumours abound: was the dialogue in the original version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead actually a massive typing error? Did he actually submit an A Level essay on one of his plays for one of his sons? Did he have a romance with Mia Farrow in the summer of 1998? These and other stories are untrue, yet the contradictions become the very centre of the biographical undertaking. Stoppard, of course, celebrates the very confusion, telling a reporter that he wants his biography 'to be as inaccurate as possible'.
A Lack of Self-Analysis
In many ways, he resists biography. 'I told you. I'm not self-analytical,' he declared to a Boston Globe reporter. Nevertheless, the absence of self-analysis or introspection does not limit audiences from identifying autobiographical elements in his work. From his understanding of journalism in Night and Day to the situation of the dramatist Henry in The Real Thing and his involvement with an actress, there are similarities. And, like his characters, Stoppard is driven, intelligent and ferociously articulate.
Beneath his geniality and image of a dandy resides a figure engaged in trying to understand himself as well as others. Yet he has long been accustomed to disguising his identity and concealing his emotions. Several around him have sensed this emotional reserve and his unwillingness to reveal personal feelings or doubts. One friend told a story of how, after he felt a certain frostiness from Stoppard, the playwright unexpectedly phoned him to apologise for his rudeness, recalling a book he had seen at the friend's home entitled Absent Friends. 'That's what I've been,' he confided. But while he has numerous professional friends and acquaintances, they remain just that.
Until recently, he was at ease in his self-protective garb, buttressed by the kind of domestic stability that defined his private life for some 18 years. Between 1972 and 1990, his years with his second wife, Miriam Stoppard, he repeatedly showed the world an accomplished, ingenious writer who regularly had projects on the go. His public life mirrored his private happiness as he moved from one grand home to another with a wife who had an equally successful career as a physician, TV host and writer. But the period preceding his arrival in England (1937-46) and the period after his second marriage (1992 to the present) have provided less internal assurance and outward balance, although he has achieved unmatched triumphs which include the international success of Arcadia, a knighthood and an Oscar for the screenplay of Shakespeare in Love.
A biographer of Stoppard knows that he hasn't quite pinned him down. Stoppard's own admission that he often misleads, misdates and misconstrues the past generates this doubt. His wilful, but not malicious, encouragement that he hopes his biographer will misinterpret many details of his life is both a lively challenge and a warning. But would one expect otherwise? No, because, as his plays repeatedly display, it is not so much the possession of fixed knowledge that matters but the truth such knowledge reveals. 'Mere untruth is a very poor reason for restraint,' he once quipped.
"The Rails" Since 1946...
Personal and theatrical contradictions dominate Stoppard's life, with one fuelling the other as he incorporates strategies that address the displacements he has encountered. His display of intellect masks the intensity of his feelings, while he discards autobiography yet constantly explores identity. 'Who am I?' is a question repeatedly posed not only by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but by the playwright himself.
Complicating the process of Stoppard's own efforts to understand his past was his mother's reticence in discussing it, especially after they arrived in England. It was preferable to keep the past distant, partly because she believed it might put Stoppard and his brother at risk as they began their English life. As a result, a protective screen descended which until recently Stoppard was happy to keep in place. Adopting a new name and country forced a certain self-protection. Instead of the displaced refugee beginning again in a new country, he became a fully realised English schoolboy who made the First XI in cricket and went off to investigate English life as a provincial journalist rather than to a classroom, as a university student. Absorbed by English moral life as well as social manners, Stoppard substituted England for his original home, which was at best unclear, although his accent, which he did not lose (nor did his mother, who spoke English with a Czech accent throughout her life), identified him as 'other'.
Even the unexpected discovery in Prague in 1994 that his mother had several older siblings, a number of whom had died in concentration camps, did not fundamentally alter his identity. However, the information, coinciding with new details about the Strausslers in Zlin, resulted in a return to the city in the spring of 1998 with his brother after a 59-year absence. But the return and confirmation of his Jewish identity did not change his outlook: 'I was vaguely pleased when I found out. But it's too late to pretend that somehow you're different because you've learned something.' The experience left him, he said, 'with a combination of feeling detached or engaged'. The statement typically contradicts and reveals Stoppard's awkward relationship to his past. His reserve and privacy on such matters battles with his desire to know. 'the fact that my past is largely missing from my consciousness is something that doesn't bother me ... Maybe I'm undisturbed by the past because I jumped the rails. The rails I'm on only began in 1946,' he once explained.
The Freedom to Create
The paradox of Stoppard, however, has another dimension, since it is this very freedom from, or absence of, home which has allowed him to create. Released from a fixed past and allowed to invent a fluid history, he has constructed a special marginality which has permitted him to accept antithesis, critically and culturally.
But the question remains: why, from his mid-fifties to the present, has Stoppard been so keen to recover his past? What has occurred to overcome his resistance to the past and his determination to certify its reality? Psychologically, the answer may lie in the freedom to do so, now that his mother and stepfather have died. Historically, it might be that the past is catching up with him. 'The older I get, the less I care about self-concealment,' he admitted in 1997. Returning to his parents' home in Zlin to duplicate their photo was not an, act of nostalgia but of reclaiming and acknowledging his origins.
Biography, as Virginia Woolf once noted, should be 'the record of things that change rather than of the things that happen'. Housman incisively summarises this view at the end of Act One of The Invention of Love when, to a student who tells him she doesn't mind being chastised, he exclaims -'but life is in the minding'. Biography is the narrative of such 'minding' and for one involved with constructing, rather than inventing, Stoppard's life, the challenge is to display that activity, while remaining aware of what biography can - and cannot - do.
Ira Nadel is the author of Double Act: A Life of Tom Stoppard, published in Methuen hardback (priced £25). For further information and to order a copy, visit the Methuen website.
Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia trilogy, comprising three sequential but self-contained plays - Voyage, Shipwreck and Salvage - receives its world premiere at the National's Olivier Theatre on 3 August 2002, following previews from 27 June.