At 83, Tom Stoppard is widely regarded as the English-speaking world’s greatest living playwright. Yet his three-dozen-odd plays elude easy categorization, and it is a further puzzlement that a writer notorious for trafficking in abstruse intellectual concepts should have won popularity on both sides of the Atlantic.
At first glance, he would appear to be a practitioner of what used to be called the “theater of ideas,” but such writers are usually issue-driven propagandists like Ibsen and Shaw. Not so Stoppard. A passionate anti-utopian, his only “cause” is unswerving opposition to totalitarianism, and he writes about it not as a political cause but as an unintended consequence of the coming of modernity. On the other hand, he really does write about ideas—they are, indeed, his preferred subject matter—and this has caused some critics to characterize him as a kind of theatrical journalist who builds his work atop the thoughts of greater men, among them Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), and Alexander Herzen in The Coast of Utopia (2002).
Call him what you will, Stoppard cuts decisively against the grain of postwar theater, above all in England, where it is now increasingly (if not universally) taken for granted that the best theater is political and that the causes its practitioners advocate must perforce be left-liberal. This attitude, heightened still further by the rise of radical identitarianism, has lately taken root in the U.S. as well. And so it will be interesting to see how a new generation of “woke” drama critics responds to Leopoldstadt, Stoppard’s latest play, a bleak story of the devastation wrought by the Holocaust on Vienna’s Jewish community. The play’s British run was cut short last year by the coronavirus pandemic.1
In the meantime, we have Tom Stoppard: A Life, Hermione Lee’s newly published biography, which has received favorable reviews in England and America, most of them from older critics to whom Stoppard is a fixed star in the theatrical firmament and who are thus disinclined to question his lasting significance.2 So, too, is Lee, a friend of the playwright’s who has written an “authorized” biography that bears the telltale marks of having been vetted by its subject. Stoppard is portrayed throughout in such a way as to suggest that he is a wholly decent and likable man—a portrayal called into question by the man himself in The Real Thing, the autobiographical 1982 play in which we see his fictional alter ego smashing up his second marriage by becoming adulterously involved with an actress.
In addition, Lee’s book is monstrously long and clogged with superfluous, unilluminating detail. Why, to pick one of innumerable examples, need we be told the precise details of Stoppard’s contract for the original West End run of The Real Thing (it evidently “specified £25 per day expenses during rehearsal”)? Moreover, Tom Stoppard: A Life is also, though other reviewers seem not to have been aware of it, the second long biography of the playwright to be published: Ira Nadel’s 654-page Double Act: A Life of Tom Stoppard came out in 2002. While the past 19 years of Stoppard’s life have certainly been productive, it is hard not to feel that Lee is mostly going over well-tilled ground.
THIS problem is compounded by the fact that what dramatists call the “reveal” of Stoppard’s life is now known to everyone with more than a passing interest in his work. Born in 1937 in the present-day Czech Republic, Tomáš Straussler and his family escaped the Nazis by making their circuitous way to Singapore, where his father was killed by the Japanese, and from there to India, where his mother remarried an Englishman. Stoppard came to England at the age of eight, and he did not learn until the ’90s that his mother was Jewish and that all but one of her relatives had been murdered in the Holocaust.
Beyond that, the rest of his story is quickly told. Instead of going to college, Stoppard went to work for a regional newspaper, becoming stage-struck as a result of serving as a second-string drama critic. Longing to write plays of his own and become famous, he started Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a black-comedy pendant to Hamlet (as well as a stealthy homage to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot) in which the faithless friends of the melancholy Dane are transformed into the new play’s central characters. Incredibly, Stoppard’s dream came true: Premiered by London’s National Theatre in 1966, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was an overnight sensation and was subsequently produced around the world. Stoppard was 29. From then on, his life has been a string of successes, both in the theater and in Hollywood, where he wrote such films as Empire of the Sun (1987) and Shakespeare in Love (1998). As for his stage plays, more than a dozen have been produced on Broadway, four of them more than once.
Regional revivals of Stoppard’s plays, however, are less common, in part because so many of them are “big machines” written for England’s government-subsidized theater and calling for large, costly casts. Regional theaters rarely produce nonmusical shows with casts larger than eight actors, whereas the first and (to date) only Broadway production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern employed 28.3 It is no coincidence that The Real Thing is the Stoppard play most frequently performed in the U.S., both because it requires only seven actors and because it is a pure love story, one written with poignant sensitivity and unencumbered by the elaborate intellectual apparatuses of his other plays.
In particular, The Real Thing steers clear of the philosophical issues posed by most of Stoppard’s major plays, most memorably in Arcadia (1993). Set in an English country house, Arcadia moves back and forth between 1809 and the present. The two principal modern-day characters are scholars who are trying to figure out what was going on in the house two centuries earlier. The answer is unbelievable but true: Thomasina, a child prodigy, has figured out the second law of thermodynamics all by herself, much to the bewilderment of Septimus, her rakish tutor.
Why does this matter? Because the second law of thermodynamics posits, broadly speaking, that the universe is running down and must someday, in Septimus’s appalled words, “cease and grow cold,” meaning that it is not kept in perpetual motion by a supreme being whose existence gives meaning to human life. Thomasina’s discovery casts a dark shadow on the blindly optimistic certitude of Septimus and his contemporaries (as well as most of us today).
For the implicit question underlying Arcadia, and by extension most of Stoppard’s work, is this: How ought we to live our lives if it turns out that they have no ultimate meaning? Hence the haunting exchange between teacher and pupil that is the play’s climax. “When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore,” Septimus says, to which the precocious Thomasina, who knows by instinct that love is the meaning of life, offers the perfect reply: “Then we will dance.”
This is the credo of Stoppard himself, a troubled agnostic who fears the destructive political consequences of the moral relativism that has followed hard upon the modern waning of belief in God and dreads as well the effects of imperfectly understood scientific discoveries on man’s fragile soul. These are concepts that many playgoers find difficult to grasp, yet Arcadia is far easier to experience than it is to explain, for Stoppard has embedded his concerns in an ingeniously structured plot studded with sharp strokes of wit. One need not be a physicist, much less a philosopher, to grasp what he is up to.
HOW LIKELY is it that any of Stoppard’s plays will continue to be performed in an ill-educated world that no longer has a common stock of literary reference and in many quarters is indifferent, even actively hostile, to high art? To take only the most obvious example, it is impossible to follow the plot of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern without having first read Hamlet. And though his plays are not “conservative” in any conventional sense of the word, the aggressive utopianism of the modern-day cultural left is surely bound to render them anathema as well.
Beyond this, the infrequency with which Stoppard’s plays are revived in the U.S. makes it difficult for even the best-disposed critics to pronounce meaningfully on their staying power. I saw the New York premiere of The Coast of Utopia, a trilogy of plays about the 19th-century Russian intellectuals who sowed the seeds of Soviet totalitarianism, and was hugely impressed—but what if it is never staged here again, as seems probable in light of the logistical and intellectual demands it poses? Such a work is far too complex to judge after only one viewing. And once the pandemic finally abates, how soon will any of Stoppard’s other plays be produced here, especially given the pressure being brought to bear on American theaters to program fewer masterpieces (even the word itself is in bad odor) and more new plays by writers of color and women? Given the circumstances, how could a regional theater justify diverting its limited resources to mounting any large-cast Stoppard play?
I have no answers to these questions, any more than Septimus can tell Thomasina what the point of life will be once humankind has “found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning.” But when she replies that “we will dance,” she is surely speaking not just of romantic love but of the beauty of art as well—and that is why I cannot bring myself to believe that the profound beauties of such masterpieces as Arcadia and The Real Thing are destined to be forever buried beneath the rubble of cultural politics. Sooner or later, they will return.
1 Wynn Wheldon wrote about Leopoldstadt in “Tom Stoppard’s Great Jewish Play” (April 2020). No American production of the play is currently under discussion.
2 Knopf, 872 pages.
3 Leopoldstadt calls for 41 actors.
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