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Reviewed by:
  • Tom Stoppard: A Life by Hermione Lee
  • Aaron Botwick (bio)
Hermione Lee. Tom Stoppard: A Life. New York: Knopf, 2021, Pp. 896. $37.50 (Hb).

When Eugen Sträussler died in 1942, his widow, Marta, withheld the information from her two sons, Tomáš and Petr. Later, she asked a friend to take them for a walk and share the news on her behalf. In 1945, Major Kenneth Stoppard proposed to Marta, and she rode the train six hundred kilometers from Darjeeling to Kolkata to meet him at St. Andrew's Church, again without informing the boys. This was, writes Hermione Lee, part of her "habit of protecting them through silence" (20). It would be almost fifty years before Tomáš and Petr learned that they were "really" Jewish and that many of their relatives had been murdered at Auschwitz.

Tom Stoppard—who eventually anglicized his first name and adopted the last name of his stepfather—is his mother's son. "Few people … got very close to Stoppard," Lee writes, quoting one unnamed friend who said, "I've known him since 1969 and I don't know him at all" (242). David Hare, whose relationship to him dates back to the 'seventies, adds, "He's unreachable," while Stoppard admits that he finds sincerity embarrassing (361). No doubt, this presents a sticky problem for a biographer, even an official biographer with access to her subject: how does one chronicle the life of someone allergic to biography, someone whose closest friends still consider him a mystery? Lee, whose Virginia Woolf (1996) is the premier biography of the premier modernist, fills the silence with an arsenal of materials: letters, notebooks, marginal notations, and interviews with over one hundred family members, friends, and colleagues. This is both the strength and the weakness of her Tom Stoppard: A Life, which offers innumerable facts about him but does little to bring the reader closer to the man himself.

Let's begin with what we learn. Early chapters document in detail Stoppard's apprenticeship as a newspaperman in Bristol, reviewing theater and film and learning the dangers of reporting that a living woman has died in a car crash. The Old Vic, and Peter O'Toole's Hamlet, transformed him into a bardolator. Laurence Olivier at first resisted staging Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) for the National Theatre but relented when he was told they could reuse costumes from the O'Toole Hamlet; he would go on to claim it was the production he was proudest of during his tenure at the National. And for decades after Empire of the Sun (1987), Stoppard worked with Steven Spielberg, reviewing and doctoring scripts, including writing most of the dialogue between Indy and his father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). This last is particularly interesting, considering their polar approaches to sentimentality: Spielberg says, "He's great at catching me when I'm trying to be quaint or cute" (430).

We are also given a meticulous portrait of Stoppard's working methods. He often struggles to find an idea for a play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are [End Page 122] Dead, for example, has its origins in his friend Kenneth Ewing, who told him he always imagined a play about the pair arriving in England. "He often said that he loved to be given something ready-made to start with," writes Lee, "and that eighty percent of his time as a writer was spent looking for something to write about" (109). Once a subject is chosen, Stoppard makes multiple pilgrimages to the London Library, devouring books on, for example, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the Vienna School of Logical Positivism, until he is ready to write. He is also an inveterate reviser, both during rehearsals and long after premieres, and Lee continues to remind us of one of his favorite lines, "There is no definitive text" (125).

But as the book progresses, this accumulation of facts is hampered by the feeling that they reveal too little about their subject; it reads like an annotated curriculum vitae. Stoppard has won a reputation for cold-bloodedness, for valuing intellectual play over human emotions—the critic Kenneth Tynan set the tone...


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pp. 122-124
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