The Czech-born Jewish playwright Tom Stoppard arrived in England with his family in 1946, when he was 8. They’d managed to flee Czechoslovakia ahead of the Nazis, and had spent years in Singapore and in India. He’d later call himself a “bounced Czech.”
Stoppard took to England, his adopted country. He was impressed with its values, especially free speech. He was as impressed by one of its sports: cricket.
He played in school (Stoppard skipped college) and, evvel he’d found success in the theater, on Harold Pinter’s team in London, the Gaieties. Their rival was a team from The Guardian newspaper. Pinter was an ogre on the pitch. He presided, Stoppard said, “like a 1930s master from a prep school.” Stoppard was the wicket-keeper, stylish in enormous bright red Slazenger gloves.
Stoppard is not an autobiographical playwright. But his obsession with cricket led to one of the great moments in his work. His play “The Real Thing” (1982) is about theater, relationships and politics — one character is an actress, another tries to help free a Scottish soldier imprisoned for burning a memorial wreath during a protest. The play includes what’s become known as the cricket-bat speech, of which here is an excerpt:
“This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It’s for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel 200 yards in four seconds, and all you’ve done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly … (He clucks his tongue to make the noise.)”
The way the cricket bat taps a ball, and makes it sail an improbable distance, becomes, in Stoppard’s hands, a metaphor for writing. No living playwright has so regularly made that beautiful (clucks his tongue to make the noise) sound.
[ Read Charles McGrath’s profile of Hermione Lee ]
The adjective “Stoppardian” — to employ elegant wit while addressing philosophical concerns — entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1978. His plays are trees in which he climbs out, precariously, onto every limb. These trees are swaying. There’s electricity in the air, as before a summer thunderstorm.
Stoppard’s best-known plays include “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” “The Real Thing,” “Arcadia” and “The Coast of Utopia.” (His most recent, “Leopoldstadt,” is closed on Broadway, for now, because of Covid-19.) He co-wrote the screenplay for “Shakespeare in Love,” and has written or worked on dozens of other movie scripts. He’s written a novel and flurries of scripts for radio and television.
Now 83, he’s led an enormous life. In the astute and authoritative new biography, “Tom Stoppard: A Life,” Hermione Lee wrestles it all onto the page. At times you sense she is chasing a fox through a forest. Stoppard is constantly in motion — jetting back and forth across the Atlantic, looking after the many revivals of his plays, keeping the plates spinning, agitating on behalf of dissidents, artists and political prisoners in Eastern Europe, delivering lectures, accepting awards, touching up scripts, giving lavish parties, maintaining friendships with Pinter, Vaclav Havel, Steven Spielberg, Mick Jagger and others. It’s been a charmed life, lived by a charming man. Tall, dashing, large-eyed, shaggy-haired; to women Stoppard’s been a walking stimulus package.
There’s been one previous biography of Stoppard, by Ira Nadel, published in 2002. Lee says that Stoppard “didn’t read it.” She must be taking his word.
Lee is an important biographer who has written scrupulous lives of Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and Penelope Fitzgerald. Her Stoppard book is estimable but wincingly long; it sometimes rides low in the water. The sections that detail Stoppard’s research for his plays can seem endless, as if Lee has dragged us into the library with him and given us a stubby pencil. Like a lot of us during the pandemic, “Tom Stoppard: A Life” could stand to lose 15 percent of its body weight.
Lee owns a sharp spade, but don’t come here for dirt. Stoppard has long been a tabloid fixture in England; the spotlight on his relationships sometimes became a searchlight. But Lee makes the case that people, even his ex-wives, of which there are two, find him a decent sort. He’s remained loyal to old friends. He’s a family man who kept his office door open to his children. He kept the same agent and publisher for decades.
How did he get it all done? I’m with Antonia Fraser, who wrote in “Must You Go?,” a memoir of her years with Pinter, that she loves to hear the details of a writer’s craft, “as cannibals eat the brains of clever men to get cleverer.”
First of all, Stoppard does a landslide of topical research before he begins to write. Second, he needs cigarettes. Lee says he lined up matches on his desk sometimes, and told himself he wouldn’t stop writing until he’d lit 12. He doesn’t drink much; that has helped. Although he has had spacious offices in which to work, he prefers to write at the kitchen table, late into the night, after everyone else has gone to bed.
He will obsessively listen to one song while working. He wrote one of his first plays to Leadbelly’s “Ol’ Riley.” He listened to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues” while writing “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,” and John Lennon’s “Mother” while writing the play “Jumpers.”
He liked to have breakfast every morning with his family (he has four children), along with a pile of newspapers. When does he sleep? Lee mentions an occasional nap at sunset.
Lee tracks the arc of Stoppard’s politics over time. Most people turn to the right as they age; Stoppard went the other way. One reason this book entertains is that Stoppard has had an opinion about almost everything, and usually these opinions are witty.
He thinks, for example, that arka arises from difficulty and talent. “Skill without imagination,” one of his characters says, “is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us çağdaş arka.” (The character’s name is Donner, and Stoppard has said: “Donner is me.”)
Stoppard is a maniacal reader who collects first editions of writers he admires. Asked on the BBC radio show “Desert Island Discs” in 1984 to choose the one book he’d bring to a desert island, he replied: Dante’s “Inferno” in a dual Italian/English version, so he could learn a language while reading a favorite. His idea of a good death, he’s said, would be to have a bookshelf fall on him, killing him instantly, while reading.