- Fear and Loathing in Prague:Tom Stoppard's Cahoot's Macbeth
I Love Prague in the Springtime
Famously, Tom Stoppard referred to himself as a "bounced Czech."1 In a typical exercise of understatement, this self-definition was intended to jokingly summarize the tragic events that took him from being a Jewish child in a small Czechoslovakian town to starting a new life as a schoolboy in England, losing his father along the way. For most of his life, Stoppard has kept this attitude, treating his Czech roots as a mere accident of history with no relevance to his life, opinions and playwriting. In his article "Another Country," published by the Sunday Telegraph on October 19, 1999, Stoppard made explicit this sense of detachment from his land of birth: "In August 1968 when the armies of the Warsaw pact put down the movement for reform in Czechoslovakia … I had no special feeling other than the general English one of impotent condemnation."2 The article mainly focused on Stoppard's discovering and coming to terms with his being Jewish, but it also included various reports of his early life by people from Zlin, his birthplace. From the fall of Communism on, Stoppard has been allowed to get more easily in touch with relatives in Czechoslovakia: these contacts sparked a process of self-discovery and soul-baring that resulted in the writing of Rock 'n' Roll (2006), a play that celebrated both the liberating power of rock music and the so-called Velvet Revolution,3 but had also interesting autobiographical undertones, particularly in one character, Jan. After fleeing with his parents to England as a Czech Jewish child following the Nazi invasion, Jan goes back to Czechoslovakia with his mother (his father died in the [End Page 123] war) in 1948: a displaced English schoolboy, constantly bewildered by life under a Communist regime, and consequently a dissident until the end of Communism. This is what might have been of Tom Stoppard if his mother, instead of marrying Kenneth Stoppard (Tom's stepfather), had been foolish enough to go back to Czechoslovakia after World War II and the seizing of power by the Communist Party. Anyway, even if Stoppard seems to have fully acknowledged his Czech roots only in his mid-fifties, he had been connected to Czechoslovakia in some ways even before then. In 1977 Kenneth Tynan devoted one chapter of his Show People to Stoppard, structuring it as a sort of Plutarch's parallel life with Vaclav Havel, Czech playwright, political dissident and then president of the newly democratic Czechoslovakia, afterward Czech Republic, from 1992 to 2003.4 Tynan recounts the first encounter between the two:
June 18, 1977: By now, Stoppard has recognized in Havel his mirror image—a Czech artist who has undergone the pressures that Stoppard escaped when his parents took him into exile. After thirty-eight years' absence (and two weeks before his fortieth birthday), Stoppard goes back to his native land. He flies to Prague, then drives ninety miles north to Havel's home, where he meets his Doppelgänger for the first time. They spend five or six hours together, conversing mainly in English. Stoppard tells me later that some of the Marxist signatories of Charter 77 regard Havel primarily as a martyr with celebrity value, and didn't want him as their spokesman in the first place. "But they didn't go to jail," Stoppard adds. "He did. He is a very brave man."5
This dislike for Socialism and socialists, libertarian as they may be, is a point of convergence between Stoppard and Havel that deserves to be stressed. As Tynan remarks: "Prague spring … was a socialist society, and, of the many artists who flourished in it, Vaclav Havel was almost alone in not being a socialist. I wonder—or, rather, I doubt—whether Stoppard would seriously have relished living in the libertarian socialist Prague."6 Stoppard and Havel remained friends from this first meeting until Havel's death in 2011 and Stoppard showed his admiration for Havel by dedicating him the TV play Professional Foul (1977)7 and the already mentioned Rock 'n' Roll. I will return to Professional...