Tom Stoppard was born Tomas Straussler in Zlín, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) on July 3, 1937. His family was jewish, and in order to avoid persecution, they fled Czechoslovakia to Singapore on March 15, 1939, the day the Nazis invaded. Only two years later, the Strausslers would be forced to flee again when the Japanese invaded Singapore. This time, Tom relocated to India with his mother and brother. His father, Eugene Straussler, remained behind, was taken to a Japanese prison camp, and was killed. His mother eventually married a British army major named Kenneth Stoppard who gave Tom his English surname, and the family settled in England in 1946 where the boy would attend boarding schools in Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire, and for the first time in his young life, enjoy relative stability. Stoppard himself has summed up this period of his life as consisting mainly of "a privileged education, a lovely house, acres of parkland."
Although Stoppard is generally considered one of the most intellectual of modern playwrights, he never went to university. In fact, he left school at the age of seventeen after completing his "O" levels and began work as a journalist for the Western Daily Press (1954-58) and the Bristol Evening World (1959-60). "I really wanted to be a great journalist," he says, "but I wasn't much use as a reporter. I felt I didn't have the right to ask people questions." (Tom Stoppard in Conversation) in 1960, while celebrating his 23rd birthday in Capri, he decided to quit his newspaper job and become a playwright. Three months later, he had written his first full-length play, A Walk on the Water. This first effort owed so much to Robert Bolt's Flowering Cherry and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman that Stoppard has since felt obliged to dub it "Flowering Death of a Cherry Salesman." Still, the play was good enough to earn him a literary agent, Kenneth Ewing, who managed to get the play optioned within a few weeks by H.M. Tennents, a prestigious producing agency. Although that particular option would expire with the play still unproduced, A Walk on the Water was eventually staged as Enter a Free Man and also aired on British Independent Television.
Stoppard continued to live in Bristol until August 1962 when, realizing that he really ought to be in London if he wanted to be a dramatist, he relocated. From September 1962 until April 1963, he worked in London as a drama critic for Scene, a new arts magazine, writing reviews and interviews, both under his name and under the pseudonym William Boot which was taken from the protagonist in Evelyn Waugh's novel Scoop. Stoppard says he was drawn to this character because he was "a journalist who brought a kind of innocent incompetence and contempt to what he was doing.... I used it, and got quite fond of Boot as a name." He liked it so much in fact, that his early tv and radio plays frequently feature characters with the name Boot.
Scene went out of business in April 1963, and, according to Stoppard, he spent the next four years mostly unemployed. During this period of poverty, he scraped by with a bit of writing for TV and radio, an occasional freelance article or review, and a few short stories. He also wrote a number of plays which, at the time, remained unpublished and unproduced. In 1964, a Ford Foundation grant gave Stoppard the opportunity to live in a Berlin mansion for five months and devote himself to writing. The result was a one-act verse play entitled Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Meet King Lear. This short piece would eventually evolve into Stoppard's first big hit--Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, an absurd retelling of Shakespeare's Hamlet from the perspective of two of its most insignificant characters.
Originally produced in August 1966 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it was performed by a group of Oxford undergraduates, Stoppard initially felt Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was received "politely rather than with hilarity." But the play was praised by critics such as Ronald Bryden, and, as a result, came to the attention of Kenneth Tynan of the National Theatre Company at the Old Vic who soon contacted the young playwright. With the production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in 1967, Stoppard became the youngest playwright ever to have a play produced at this prestigious theatre. The play was equally well-received in America, where The New Yorker called it "a dazzling compassionate fantasy." It won both the Tony and the Drama Critics' Circle awards for best play of 1967-68. Before the Broadway premiere, an interviewer asked Stoppard what his play was about. His response: "It's about to make me very rich."
From the beginning, Stoppard's plays have been described as "plays of ideas," philosophical deliberations made entertaining mostly by their wordplay, jokes, innuendo and sense of fun. "In general terms," Stoppard admits, "I'm not a playwright who is interested in character with a capital K and psychology with a capital S. I'm a playwright interested in ideas and forced to invent characters who express those ideas. All my people speak the same way, with the same cadences and sentence structures. They speak as I do. When I write an African president into a play, I have to contrive to have him the only African president who speaks like me." (Conversations with Stoppard) "To his detractors," Jane Montgomery notes, "his plays are devoid of feeling and sensibility: improbably shallow people saying improbably deep things in an emotionally sterile context. But, to his supporters, his passion for theatrical conundrums has created a new dramatic style which melds the moral questioning of Shaw with the incongruity of Ionesco." (Times Literary Supplement, Sep. 29, 1995) David Guaspari defends Stoppard's style: "In Tom Stoppard's plays, ideas can just as much be objects of aesthetic perception and delight as can sunsets or roses. Ideas can be elegant; they can seduce, tease, or strike comic poses; they can rhyme and be set ringing at selected overtones. From ideas thus at play we ask what we ask of any imaginative use of language: inevitability and surprise." (The Antioch Review, Spring, 1996) While some early critics described Stoppard's early work as derivative, Anthony Jenkins believes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern transcends even one of the masterpieces that inspired it. "The games they play," he says, "while waiting for that end are not simply a means to fill time, and here Stoppard resolves a problem that Waiting for Godot fails to answer. While, from a superior viewpoint, our little lives may seem purposeless as we busy ourselves between birth and death, from our own point of view that busyness seems both purposeful and genuinely diverting. Consequently, Ros and Guil are far more articulate and intelligent than their counterparts in Godot. Admittedly the two lords have been to the right school, but they also reflect our idea of the joys we find between womb and tomb." (The Theatre of Tom Stoppard)
Stoppard spent the next few years enjoying his success and overseeing productions of Enter a Free Man (the reworked version of A Walk on the Water) and several one-act plays, including The Real Inspector Hound (in which two theatre critics watching a Murder Mystery are drawn into the action of the play) and After Magritte (a surreal piece which manages to place the characters, through perfectly rational means, into situations worthy of a Magritte painting). During this period, he also wrote a few pieces for radio and TV, but he did not produce another full-length play until Jumpers appeared in 1972. This play, set in an alternate reality in which British astronauts have landed on the moon and "Radical Liberals" have taken over the British government, took two years to write and cemented Stoppard's reputation as an elite dramatist. It also marked a new period in his development as he began to dabble his feet in the pool of politics. He would confirm this new direction in his next play Travesties (1974), in parody of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest in which Tristan Tzara, Vladimir Lenin, and James Joyce come together in a Zürich library. Here, Stoppard addresses the role of politics in art. Although each of these historical figures did visit Switzerland in 1917, they were not there at precisely the same time. Stoppard gets around this, however, by relating the story through the eyes of a somewhat senile old man, Henry Carr, who had performed in Wilde's famous comedy.
In 1977, Stoppard traveled to the Soviet Union, as well as several other Eastern European countries with a member of Amnesty International, and what he saw there deeply affected him. In Czechoslovakia (then under Communist control), he met playwright and future President Vaclav Havel, who had been imprisoned for nonconformism. After this visit, Stoppard began to work with Index on Censorship, Amnesty International, and the Committee Against Psychiatric Abuse, and he began to write newspaper articles and editorials about human rights. Stoppard was also instrumental in translating Havel's works into English. In 1988, fellow dramatist and activist Harold Pinter had this to say of Stoppard's political activities: "I like Tom Stoppard enormously. I respect and admire him. He made one of the most brilliant speeches I've ever heard, about censorship and freedom in England. This was seven or eight years ago. It was a wonderful speech and I wonder what he would say now. I haven't seen him for a while, but we're very attached. I believe that he's a conservative man. He's quite entitled. Not everyone who votes Conservative in England is representative of an Evil Empire." (Conversations with Pinter).
Stoppard himself discusses the role of politics in art, saying, "I'm not impressed by art because it's political, I believe in art being good art of bad art, not relevant art or irrelevant art. The plain truth is that if you are angered or disgusted by a particular injustice or immorality, and you want to do something about it, now, at once, then you can hardly do worse than write a play about it. That's what art is bad at. But the less plain truth is that without that play and plays like it, without artists, the injustice will never be eradicated." (Tom Stoppard in Conversation)
Some of Stoppard's other important works for the stage include The Real Thing (1982), which takes on love, commitment, and the place of art in society; Hapgood (1988), which mixes the themes of espionage and quantum mechanics, especially exploring the idea that in both fields, observing an event changes the nature of the event; Arcadia (1993), which alternates between a pair of present day researchers investigating an early 19th century literary mystery and the real incident they are investigating; The Invention of Love (1997), which explores the life and death of homosexual poet and classicist A.E. Housman, who died never having allowed himself to fulfill the unrequited love of his youth; The Coast of Utopia (2002), a trilogy about the origins of modern political radicalism in 19th-century Russia; Rock 'n' Roll (2006), which spans the years from 1968 to 1990 from the double perspective of Prague, where a rock 'n' roll band comes to symbolize resistance to the Communist regime, and of Cambridge where the verities of love and death are shaping the lives of three generations in the family of a Marxist philosopher.
Stoppard has also written extensively for film and TV. His credits include the screenplays for Brazil (1985) and Shakespeare in Love (1998) for which he won an Academy Award. He is also rumored to have helped George Lucas "polish" the dialogue for Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005).
"Whether on stage, screen or simply page," Amy Reiter declares in Salon Magazine, "Stoppard questions everything from the nature of love to the nature of the universe, from the compulsion to act to the compulsion to act out, from the impulse to create to the impulse to procreate. And while absolutes are scant in Stoppard's work, interrogatives and insights abound. 'What a fine persecution -- to be kept intrigued without ever quite being enlightened,' observes Guildenstern in Stoppard's 1966 breakthrough effort Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." However, Stoppard is not without his critics. John McGrath argues: "That is why Tom Stoppard is so successful, because of his specious ability to mildly stir the intellect of the middle classes. I can't believe what I see when I go to a Stoppard show, in a sense that the audience think they are being intellectual listening to this vapid sixth-form philosophy, or rather references to philosophy, not even philosophising." (Naked Thoughts That Roam About) But the dramatist's supporters counter that he does, in fact, clearly deal with meaningful issues and real philosophical questions. "Man's confrontation with his world is a recurring theme in Stoppard's plays," says June Schlueter. "Whether rendered in the form of two minor characters from a Shakespearean play assuming heroic status (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), a professor of moral philosophy discoursing on God while his ex-showgirl wife plays surrealistic games (Jumpers, 1972), or a pseudohistorical meeting in a Zurich library of three radically different revolutionaries (Travesties, 1974), the theme of man's relationship to reality--his insignificance, exile, and search for self--is manifest." (Metafictional Characters in Modern Drama) "How serious is Stoppard?" asks John Carrington. "Where is he coming from? There are 'issues' in the plays, such as free will, the meaning of meaning, the intersection of art and politics, and the nature of human rights, but overall if there is a central earnestness in Stoppard's plays it seems to be simply the excitement of thinking. As he has written: 'The truth is always a compound of two half-truths, and you never reach it, because there is always something more to say.'" (Our Greatest Writers)
Tom Stoppard was appointed CBE in 1978 and knighted in 1997. He has been married twice: to Josie Ingle (196572) and to Miriam Stoppard (née Miriam Moore-Robinson) (197292). He has two sons from each marriage, including the actor Ed Stoppard.
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