Hermione Lee has written the definitive biography of living legend and playwright Tom Stoppard

Tom Stoppard:
Tom Stoppard: "Good at performing niceness, but he is not as nice as people think". Picture: Getty Images
  • Tom Stoppard: A Life, by Hermione Lee. Faber. $59.99.

An ANU colleague saw my copy of Hermione Lee's doorstopper biography of Sir Tom Stoppard - it's nearly 1000 pages- and said "who's he?"

But, when I mentioned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, that brought instant recognition. Stoppard's Hamlet spin-off, first performed in Edinburgh in 1966, brought Stoppard global fame and wealth.

Stoppard was born Tom Straussler in Czechoslovakia in 1937, but German persecution saw his Jewish family relocate to Singapore in 1939, only to evacuate again after the Japanese invasion. Tom, his mother and elder brother escaped to India, but Stoppard's father died when his ship was sunk by the Japanese.

In Darjeeling, Tom's mother married a British Army officer, Major Kenneth Stoppard, which saw the family travel to Britain in 1946.

Tomas became Thomas, and was packed off to a minor boarding school where Stoppard "put on Englishness like a coat".

Ken Stoppard turned out to be a severe and distant stepfather with racist views. Stoppard was in his late 50s before he realised the full extent of his Jewishness and the deaths of relatives in the Holocaust.

This family history provided material for Leopoldstadt, which had a short, critically acclaimed London run in early 2020, before COVID closed theatres.

Hermione Lee covers Stoppard's life chronologically, but with much analysis of his plays. Lee has said, "you can't think about one without the other, i.e. the person and his or her creative output".

Lee was aware of Stoppard's scathing views about biography and biographers, partly stemming from his severe dislike of an earlier unauthorised biography, Ira Nadel's Double Act (2002).

Lee thinks Stoppard, then approaching 80, wanted "to put his papers in order, as it were, have things organised". Stoppard allowed Lee considerable personal access to himself, his family, friends and archival material, including all the letters he'd written to his mother.

Lee's Stoppard marks a clear departure from her other biographies, such as Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton, in that he is a living subject. Lee appreciated the "advantage of talking to him" in-depth, with Lee occasionally staying over at Stoppard's 1790s Dorset house.

Lee sees Stoppard as "a reserved, shy and embarrassable private man", although that's not the public image that Stoppard wants to promote. He is "good at performing niceness, but he is not as nice as people think".

Lee's biography, ultimately a warm one, could have done with editorial reduction in minutiae, for example in regard to his medical history, his office routines, global travel, honours received, celebrity lifestyle and country house refurbishments.

Stoppard was 29 when the National Theatre staged Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, "two men in Elizabethan costume, betting on the toss of a coin", a play reflecting the existential absurdity of life. This, and Stoppard's later plays, led to the term "Stoppardian", a way of addressing concepts and moral issues through intellectual playfulness and textual pyrotechnics.

A woman coming out of the first New York production of Rosencrantz asked Stoppard "What's it about?", to which Stoppard replied: "It's about to make me very rich".

He became even richer from Hollywood script writing, such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which apparently earned him a seven-figure sum, and the screenplay of Shakespeare in Love, for which he won an Oscar.

Stoppard's politics have changed over the years. Lee notes, "all through the 1980s he would be a whole-hearted supporter and admirer of Thatcher", but subsequently Stoppard supported Tony Blair's New Labour and voted for the Greens and Liberal Democrats.

Stoppard's late discovery of his Jewish Czech background led him to support East European dissident movements, and Vaclav Havel became a close friend.

Stoppard's disdain for communism was essentially because it was "anti-human. I know it intellectually, not emotionally."

Lee provides much new information on Stoppard's personal life including his three marriages and affairs, notably with the actresses Felicity Kendal and Sinéad Cusack.

Lee's personal contact with Stoppard perhaps prevents her from being overly critical by using terms in the marital histories, like "the marriage was over . . . her marriage was a mistake".

Lee does, however, get as far as anyone probably can to the "real" Tom Stoppard, who once said he was. "a bounced Czech", before this term was later applied, in a different context, to Robert Maxwell.

Tom Stoppard: A Life is informative, entertaining and empathetic, perhaps overly at times, to its subject. It will, for a very long time, be the definitive biography.

This story Definitive bio of a living legend first appeared on The Canberra Times.