Peter Lawson reviews Hermione Lee’s newly published authorised biography of Tom Stoppard
It’s a long haul reading Hermione Lee’s authorised biography of Tom Stoppard, Tom Stoppard: A Life (Faber & Faber, 2020). There are 865 pages of text, excluding the bibliography and endnotes. It has to be said Lee has done a thorough job.
This is both a literary biography, which takes us from Stoppard’s sensationally successful début Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1966) to his Holocaust drama Leopoldstadt (2020) and a personal biography tracing Tom Stoppard’s amatory life, including his three marriages to Jose Ingle, Miriam Stern and Sabrina Guinness and his relationships with the actresses Felicity Kendal and Sinéad Cusack.
Unlike his contemporaries Arnold Wesker and Harold Pinter who respectively wrote explicitly and implicitly ‘Jewish’ plays, Stoppard’s plays appeared to be devoid of Jewish characters until Leopoldstadt. So, how can he be considered a ‘Jewish’ playwright?
This was the aim of a previous biography of Stoppard, Ira Nadel’s Double Act: A Life of Tom Stoppard that was published in 2002. Lee describes it as ‘a thoroughly researched, detailed coverage of his public and professional life, with an emphasis on his Jewish history and on the double identities in his plays,’ before pointedly adding that Stoppard ‘did not read it’. Clearly, Stoppard felt that Nadel’s approach was too reductively ‘Jewish’.
Yet Nadel may have had a point. Several of Stoppard’s plays feature doubles, including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Real Thing (1982), Hapgood (1988), Arcadia (1993), Rock ‘n’ Roll (2006) and The Hard problem (2015). Such doubles might relate to Stoppard’s own sense of doubleness as a ‘Jew’ and an ‘Englishman’ but that is another question altogether.
Stoppard’s relationship to his ‘Jewishness’ is complex. Growing up in England with an antisemitic English stepfather, Ken Stoppard, and a Czech-Jewish mother, Marta Becková, Tom was aware that his real father, the Czech doctor Eugen Sträussler, came from a Jewish family. However, his mother kept her own ‘Jewishness’ a secret; and so, Tom grew up with a safe sense that his relationship to Jewishness was past, distant and patrilineal. It wasn’t until 1993, when Stoppard was 55 years, that his second cousin Sarka Gauglitz visited London from her home in Hanover and informed Tom that he was ‘completely Jewish’. He also learnt what became of much of his matrilineal family, including his aunts Wilma, Berta and Anny:
So, Stoppard’s understanding of Jewishness after 1993 implicated him in a European, family and Holocaust history which his plays did not explicitly address until his European family Holocaust drama Leopoldstadt.
Lee is astute in noting themes of exile, anxiety and untimely death which haunt Stoppard’s oeuvre. During rehearsals for the fiftieth-anniversary revival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Old Vic in 2017, the director David Leveaux emphasised the ‘fear, anguish and mortality’ in what was usually seen as a play of ‘wit and youthful comedy’. Leveaux understood ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as bewildered and afraid, characters made up of “watchfulness, neutrality and fatalism.”‘ He told the cast that ‘once they [Rosencrantz and Guildenstern] have left the court and are on the boat, any “domestic” or safe reality is gone. The boat is a move into an even stranger place: “We’re in another world, we’ve broken through”’.
Stoppard stressed this powerlessness before the force of the dominant narrative of Hamlet. The actors Josh McGuire and Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame) questioned why this powerlessness of minor characters from Hamlet was matched by aggression towards ‘the Player’. As though describing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as exilic Jews, Stoppard told McGuire and Radcliffe that the characters ‘suspect they are his playthings…it’s a sense of insecurity about how solid the ground is under their feet.’ Perhaps this sense of insecurity is key to reading Stoppard’s plays as ‘Jewish’. Lee mentions Stoppard admitting to ‘a lack of security in his own views. He tended to agree with the last person who spoke.’
Yet Stoppard’s life and work are also very much those of a secure, Establishment insider. His plays have been huge successes at the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Old Vic and in the West End. They have transferred to Broadway in New York and across the United States to great acclaim. Stoppard has been knighted and awarded the Order of Merit; was President of the London Library; is a member of the Royal Society of Literature, and has honorary degrees from many universities, including Oxford and Cambridge.
Further, Lee is at pains to suggest that Stoppard is fundamentally ‘English’ in his championing of ‘England’ as a land of ‘tolerance, fair play and autonomous liberty, of habeas corpus, of the mother of parliaments, of freedom of speech, worship and assembly, of the English language’. Stoppard’s ‘England’ comes across as a utopian ideal befitting an exile from Nazi Europe. It is surely no coincidence that the playwright explores various utopias in plays such as Arcadia and The Coast of Utopia (2002).
Israel gets a fleeting mention here, when Stoppard visits Tel Aviv University in 2008 to accept a prize from the Dan David Foundation. Lee begins the subsequent paragraph with ‘At home’, referring to England, thus consolidating her anglicised construction of Stoppard. In Israel, Stoppard speaks of ‘feeling Czech’ rather than ‘Jewish’.
Antisemitism is conspicuous by its absence. The tenor of this biography is about how ‘lucky’ and ‘charmed’ Tom Stoppard’s life has been. Overall, Lee’s narrative resembles a picaresque novel, as Stoppard progresses from one adventurous success to the next. Even the Holocaust becomes transmogrified into another success in the form of his latest play Leopoldstadt.
As President of Wolfson College (2008-2017), Lee knows Stoppard personally. She was invited by him to write this biography in 2012 when Stoppard was awarded his honorary degree from Oxford University. Perhaps Tom Stoppard: A Life suffers from being too eulogistic and positive to be wholly believable, particularly regarding its depiction of ‘Jews’ and ‘England’. Nonetheless, Lee’s biography presents an informative and critically astute overview of a brilliant European-Jewish playwright.
Tom Stoppard: A Life is published by Faber & Faber, priced £30.