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Tom Stoppard: A Life
by Hermione Lee

Book Review by Wendy Caster

Also see Mark Dundas Wood's recent review of I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby: Dorothy Fields and Her Life in the American Theater

Hermione Lee's Tom Stoppard: A Life is a formidable achievement. Not only does Lee cover the story of Stoppard's life in great detail, but she also examines the genesis of each of his plays, offers social and political context, and provides thumbnail bios for dozens of the people in Stoppard's life. The result is 872 pages long, including copious notes; it is simultaneously fascinating and a bit of a slog.

Stoppard was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937 as Tomáš Sträussler. World War II chased him, his brother, and his mother to Singapore and then India. Stoppard grew up with no memory of his father, who was killed in 1942 when the ship he was traveling on was bombed and sunk. Stoppard's mother eventually married Ken Stoppard, an Englishman, and in 1946 they moved to Britain, where Tom took his father's last name and nationality.

Stoppard was a mediocre student (but a good cricket player), and he stopped school after 17, becoming a reporter. While, on one hand, it is astonishing that Stoppard had so little schooling, on the other it is clear that formal education could not have taught him even 10% of what he taught himself. Anyone who has seen his plays knows that he has educated himself on science and math and history and gardening and rock and roll and Shakespeare and love and sex and poetry and art and language and the meaning of life.

Tom Stoppard: A Life could be the bio of, oh, four or five people. It's hard to tell if Stoppard never sleeps or has a few clones helping him out, but between his writing, his family life, his hundreds of fabulous friends, his kajillion awards and honors, his endless travel, and his serious commitment to various political causes, there is no doubt that he has made good use of every second of his existence.

As I read Tom Stoppard: A Life, I jotted down dozens of fascinating things about him. Here's a sample:

  • Stoppard is amazingly generous.
  • He works on more than one project at a time.
  • He fishes (in his free time?).
  • He supported Margaret Thatcher throughout the 1980s.
  • He believes that the job of a play is to entertain and to keep audiences in their seats.
  • He has trouble coming up with plots.
  • He is a hugely willing collaborator, open to comments from even neophyte actors. (Interestingly, this is also true of Stephen Sondheim.)
  • He wrote one or two letters a week to his mother until she died.
  • He kept up a correspondence for 50 years with one of his landladies from his younger days.
  • He keeps/kept two journals: one for himself and one for his youngest son.
  • At one point, he had a gorgeous 40-foot-long studio/office, but he wrote at the kitchen table.
  • He views plays as events rather than written items, and he is always tinkering with his work, including rewriting days—or years—after opening night.
  • In the 1970s, he traveled to Russia and participated in clandestine meetings with dissidents and persecuted people. He smuggled their letters out of Russia at definite risk to himself.
  • When the movie of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead beat out Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas at the Venice Film Festival, Stoppard told Scorsese that he would have voted for Goodfellas.
  • Stoppard worked as an uncredited writer or script doctor on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Hook, Schindler's List, Mom, Beethoven, Chaplin, Sleep Hollow, 102 Dalmatians, Robin Hood, and The Bourne Ultimatum. He even worked on a script for an animated version of Cats.
  • He is tone deaf. (It was kind of a relief to read about something he couldn't do.)
  • Stoppard has traveled prodigiously, back and forth to Sydney, Los Angeles, Brazil, etc., etc., etc. In one period of a few months, he flew from England to New York five times for weekend meetings.
  • He hates traveling.
  • Stoppard says that he hasn't written enough because he's too busy.
  • He has been known to use words such as "thence" in texts.
  • He periodically gets speeding tickets. How could he not?
  • He has smoked continuously for some 60 or 70 years, but he only smokes three puffs per cigarette.
  • A particularly interesting part of the book follows Stoppard's growing recognition of himself as a Jew with a Jewish family history. For much of his life, Stoppard jokingly called himself a "canceled Czech" and announced himself endlessly grateful and fortunate to be British. It wasn't until the mid 1990s that he found out that his mother was Jewish and that many of her relatives—his relatives—had died in the Holocaust. Over time, he realized that exulting in his own luck was unseemly when so many others had suffered so horribly. Being as he's Tom Stoppard, this led to a play, Leopoldstadt, which was shuttered early in its run by COVID-19. From Lee's description, it sounds like a major and important work. It may also be his final play, he has suggested, since he is 83 and it takes him years per project to do the research and writing.

    For me, the most important part of a biography is getting a sense of who a person is. In Tom Stoppard: A Life, Lee provides that sense, at least as much as possible. When interviewing people for the book, Lee asked them to give three adjectives that describe Stoppard. The most frequent were loyal, kind, considerate, glamorous, generous and intelligent. While Lee does an excellent job of showing those traits in action, the book feels somewhat distant from Stoppard. This isn't surprising, as Stoppard has also frequently been described as private and solitary. In fact, many of the people who know him say that you can't really know him.

    But we can know things about him. For example, his friends run from very left wing to very right wing with every level and type of belief in between. They include "regular people" as well as the rich and famous and brilliant. He remembers birthdays, shows up for celebrations (even from two continents away), provides emotional and/or professional support when appropriate, and lends money if needed. But even here there is a sense of distance. While these seem to be the traits of a very nice man, he says he isn't really that nice. Rather, he says, he is good at "performing niceness." However, if someone spends a lifetime "performing niceness," isn't he then, well, nice?

    On the other hand, he can definitely have an edge. For example, he once wrote to Ethan Hawke that, while on the previous day Hawke's delivery of a particular speech had been gorgeous, "This afternoon it was as if we opened the door to 10th Avenue and anybody walked on stage and did it."

    When discussing Tom Stoppard: A Life and its portrait of its subject, there are two important points to keep in mind. (1) He asked Lee to write the book. (2) He was given the opportunity to review the manuscript before it went to press.

    Lee points out that Stoppard only asked her to make one change (to remove the name of someone who had been fired from a play). She clearly sees this as a sign of Stoppard's openness and integrity, but there is little that is critical of him in the entire book.

    So, is Stoppard truly that splendid? Or did Lee, consciously or unconsciously, skew her writing? It seems likely that some self-censorship did occur on Lee's part, but I also suspect Stoppard really is an amazing individual.

    I had the great pleasure of interacting with Stoppard for, oh, two minutes some years ago. My friends and I had just seen Indian Ink at the Laura Pels, and he was there with Mike Nichols (who died a few weeks later), Diane Sawyer, and a woman who I imagine was likely his third wife, Sabrina. We waited outside while the four of them talked. After a while, there was pretty much no one else around. Stoppard noticed us and came over. And he was charming. He paid us his full attention, gave us autographs (none of us generally collects autographs, but, hey, Tom Stoppard), and left us feeling elated.

    A few last words on the book itself. It has its share of mistakes. For example, Lee refers to the Helen Hayes as a "huge New York theatre." Suffice to say that the venue's previous name was the Little Theatre. Also, Lee uses pronouns far too casually. For example, following a paragraph that mentions three men, she will begin a sentence with "he." Which he? There were instances where I never did figure out who she was talking about. Sometimes the book is badly organized, with information that should have been in chapter two showing up in chapter seven—and vice versa. For example, after writing about dozens of trips that Stoppard had taken through the years, on page 616 she finally mentions that he dislikes planes and traveling! I only hold Lee partially responsible for these goofs, however, as I know that publishers don't provide fact-checking or sufficient editing these days and, really, they should. And, last, the book assumes a certain level of knowledge going in. The more you know, the better off you will be. (You know, like when you watch a play by Tom Stoppard.)

    The bottom line, however, is that Tom Stoppard: A Life is an impressive book about an astounding man and artist and a must-read for anyone interested in him and his work.

    Tom Stoppard: A Life
    By Hermione Lee
    896 Pages
    Publication Date February 23, 2021
    ISBN: 978-0451493224
    Available in Hardcover, Kindle Edition, and Audible Audiobook (narrated by Stephen Crossley) formats