- Writing Tom Stoppard
The historian . . . wants more documents than he can really use; the dramatist only wants more liberties than he can really take.—Henry James, "Preface," The Aspern Papers
In writing the life of Tom Stoppard, I have discovered two subjects: the "Practical Stoppard," an empirically minded dramatist, and the man of uncertain identity who might be labelled "Practically Stoppard." This latter phrase can mean several things: an admission that the biographer has nearly, but not quite, pinned down his subject, the adverb marking the incomplete nature of the work matching Stoppard's own view of the limitations of biography. Or, it can mean that Stoppard in person is almost, but not exactly, "Stoppard" the dramatist, the persona of the writer as a dazzling wordsmith differing from the individual who emerged from a series of personal identities: Tomáš Straüssler in the Czech Republic where he was born in 1937; Tomik in Singapore where he escaped from the Nazis with his parents only to be attacked by the Japanese in 1942; Tommy Staüssler in Darjeeling where the family (minus their father, killed escaping Singapore) found refuge; Stoppard Two at his British public school (his brother was Stoppard One) after his mother's remarriage and emigration to England; Tommy in his Bristol home with his stepfather; and "Big Tom" to his first Bristol landlord. Of course, all of these names validate Stoppard's multiple identities, although in the last decade or so he has had to adjust his identity as he clarified his origins, while documenting his past.
How to register such changes is only one of the challenges for the biographer. Where to begin is another and in Tom Stoppard, A Life, I began in 1999 when Stoppard impulsively returned to his family home in Zlín to recreate a photograph he had just seen in Prague of his parents sitting in their garden. But try as he might, Stoppard could not reproduce the scene. He left frustrated and confirmed in his view that one can invent but not reproduce the past.
For Stoppard, this event corroborated his skepticism of the past, matched by Oscar Wilde's critical view of biography stated at the end of The Invention of Love: "biography is the mesh [End Page 19] through which our real life escapes."1 Biography can never recapture a person or an event. It can only approximate it, perhaps truthfully. Biography, as a variety of Stoppard's characters from Eldon Pike in Indian Ink to Bernard in Arcadia remind us, is always a fiction more to be mistrusted than believed. But this does not lessen our desire to reclaim our historical or even spiritual past. Yet given Stoppard's own reticence and disbelief in the past, how could one legitimately and accurately tell his story? Should it be a factual narrative treating his dramatic works incidentally and without interpretation? Or should it be primarily the evolution of his literary achievements with biographical intervals? And how does one tell the story of a living subject, when friends might be reticent, sources inaccessible?
The initial decision was to separate the life from the work, dividing biography from criticism: the former concentrates on the life and its gaps, the latter on the works and, in the case of a dramatist, their production. There was initially no attempt to link the two, although one wanted to avoid the blatant separation of the kind Richard Ellmann presented in his life of Joyce, where individual chapters which analyze the works disrupt the narrative of the life. But as Ellmann later explained, he saw Joyce's works as biographical clues to the life and hoped for readers to unite the two, although as narrator he avoided doing that job. I took the opposite position: the life might illuminate the works despite Stoppard's disavowal of connections. My goal was not to analyze the plays but to use them as signposts marking stages in the subject's personal and artistic growth. They became steps in his progress as an individual and writer, fulfilling Virginia Woolf's declaration that biography should be "the record of things that change rather than of the things...