The Magazine

The Real Tom Stoppard

Our greatest comic playwright.

Oct 7, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 04 • By JONATHAN LEAF
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Tom Stoppard
A Life
by Ira Bruce Nadel
Palgrave Macmillan, 384 pp., $29.95

TO WRITE ONE BRILLIANT and very funny play is an accomplishment. To write two or three, as Oscar Wilde did, is extraordinary. To write five or six, as George Bernard Shaw did, is prodigious.

So think what that says about Tom Stoppard, who has written eight: "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," "The Real Inspector Hound," "Jumpers," "Night and Day," "The Real Thing," "On the Razzle," "Arcadia," and "The Invention of Love." Stoppard has never--as he acknowledges--had a talent much suited to the creation of plots, nor has he ever been inclined to render characters who speak much differently from one another. But as a serious dramatist he has gradually developed and now, at age sixty-five, he surpasses Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter as our premier living writer of dramas. And, more to the point, he has climbed past Congreve, Wilde, and Shaw to become the most outstanding comic playwright in the history of the English language.

Not that he has lacked for recognition along the way. In the thirty-five years since "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" first appeared, he has remained a star. In recent years, he has won an Academy Award, become the only playwright ever to have two shows running simultaneously at Lincoln Center, been the only living playwright not writing in French to have his work performed at the Comedie-Francaise, received a knighthood, and has been the subject of innumerable studies and biographies--the latest of which is Ira Nadel's massive "Tom Stoppard: A Life."

The Nadel biography does a good job of giving us facts about Stoppard: born in Czechoslovakia in 1937 as Tomas Straussler, family forced to flee because of their Jewish ancestry, father's death on a ship bombed by the Japanese, mother's remarriage to a British major in India, rearing in England. Nadel makes a few small mistakes (misspelling the names of the director Fred Schepisi and Princeton's McCarter Theater, attributing a famous remark of Rossini's to Verdi). But he is generally thorough--indeed, at times, wearisomely so. The book is not only exhaustive, but frequently exhausting, filled with digressions about the intellectual life of Jews in nineteenth-century Czech lands, recurrent mentions of a Stoppard letter to a former Czech president, and Stoppard's friendships with celebrities.

Nadel interrupts his discussion of "Arcadia," for instance, to mention that "on his return to London, he went to see Pinter's "Moonlight"; two days later, on 28 October, he and Felicity Kendal attended an event at Buckingham Palace and the next day he was off to Auckland, New Zealand and then Australia for the opening of several of his plays and to lecture. On his return he lunched with the Prince of Wales and John Cleese on the same day. The year ended with a party at the Jaggers'."

THERE IS, of course, an irony in the appearance of a meticulous, heavily footnoted, fact-filled biography of Stoppard--a playwright who has often insisted that literal accounts of necessity tend to miss the underlying truths that fictional depictions uncover. Still, Nadel, an energetic, facile Canadian who has also published a well-received biography of the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, has written what will surely be the standard account for some years to come.

Regarding Stoppard's plays, Nadel is far better at recounting the reaction to them and explaining their often abstruse themes than he is at gauging or commenting upon their significance. It eludes him, for instance, that Stoppard's "Travesties" is overrated and itself, arguably, a travesty, or that the much-criticized "Night and Day" is among the best plays of the last half century. Stoppard's biographer also spends little time discussing perhaps the most interesting aspect of Stoppard's work: its development since "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead."

Nadel mentions several times that a poll rated the play the seventh best English-language drama of the twentieth century. "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" is so overflowing with wit that it easily and deservedly established Stoppard's reputation in one flash at its Old Vic premiere in 1967. But Nadel does not make the point that, for all its eclat, the play has dated badly. The camp elements that so appealed to 1960s audiences are weaknesses, and its lead parts lack the tragic dimension and grandeur of later Stoppard roles.

Nadel makes only an oblique reference (through a quotation from the actor Richard Dreyfuss about Stoppard's contribution to the screenplay for "Shakespeare in Love") to the question of how important a writer's work is when the bulk of it has a limited audience. But perhaps this challenge to Stoppard's reputation is a false one. His work is popular with the masses.