Tom Stoppard's Double Life
The Atlantic|March 2021
For Britain’s leading postwar playwright, virtuosity and uncertainty go hand in hand.
By Gaby Wood

In a short book about biography, Hermione Lee, literary life-writer par excellence, offered two metaphors for the art at which she excels. One was an autopsy. The other was a portrait. “Whereas autopsy suggests clinical investigation and, even, violation,” she wrote, “portrait suggests empathy, bringing to life, capturing the character.” She argued that these contrasting approaches had something in common. They “both make an investigation of the subject which will shape how posterity views them.”

Lee is clearly no coroner, even when writing about the dead. Tom Stoppard is her first living biographical subject—on a roster that includes Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf, and, most recently, Penelope Fitzgerald—and she concludes her portrait by lobbying posterity on his behalf. Stoppard “matters,” she writes; “he will be remembered.” His significance seems a strange thing to feel in need of proving. Surely if Stoppard’s reputation in postwar British theater weren’t secure, this giant biography—nearly twice the length of Lee’s last—would never have been undertaken.

Stoppard is the alchemist who turned Shakespeare into Beckett; he has held audiences rapt at that feat for half a century, and riveted by the work that has followed. “What’s it about?” an audience member once asked him of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, to which he allegedly replied: “It’s about to make me very rich.” Since that play premiered, in 1966, Stoppard’s linguistic hijinks and relish for experimenting have seemed too clever to some and thrillingly ambitious to others. The dichotomy was perhaps inevitable, given the scope of his intellectual appetite: He has fused philosophers with acrobats (Jumpers) and dissidents with footballers (Professional Foul), devised poetic plots from the laws of physics (Arcadia), and rewritten 19th- and 20th-century history until it was antic or aslant (Travesties, The Coast of Utopia). But his virtuosity has been more than gymnastics. The restless author of more than 20 plays for the stage, as many for radio and TV, and several Hollywood screenplays, he has spun more serious ideas into silly jokes than Charlie Chaplin and Richard Feynman combined. He has also said as much about literature and love as Ivan Turgenev.

Still, nothing reputational is certain (“I have a theory that plays go off, like fruit,” Stoppard told a friend), and he would know, because uncertainty itself is one of his subjects. A story he once heard became a favorite refrain, a way to convey this abiding theme: Two men in a car drive so quickly past something improbable that they can’t quite decipher it. Was it a man in pajamas carrying a football, or a tortoise, or a peacock? Stoppard positions himself with the flummoxed witnesses.

Unlike his friend Harold Pinter, Stoppard doesn’t believe in a “definitive” text, and Lee proceeds accordingly, documenting changes, in draft or revival, alive to his provisional spirit. A self-described “tinkerer,” he’ll revise or reinvestigate in collaboration with others. The actors in Patrick Marber’s 2016 kinetic production of Travesties—in which a minor character in Ulysses reminisces about meeting James Joyce, Tristan Tzara, and Vladimir Lenin during the First World War—were excited, Lee reports, that Stoppard was willing to make changes to a 42-year-old play last produced in 1993.

What’s more, Lee found herself extending her deadline in order to write about Leopoldstadt, Stoppard’s first new play in five years, a moving exploration of history, memory, and family that is his most explicitly auto biographical work. It opened in London in January 2020, and was forced by the pandemic to close two months later. In writing about Stoppard while he’s alive, Lee is not just keeping up with new output. She’s conveying the ways in which his past work remains potentially in progress—and the ways in which his own life, as becomes clear in his latest play, is a window onto the vagaries of history. Lee has said more than once that there is no such thing as a “definitive” biography. In Tom Stoppard: A Life, she proves that in the extreme.

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