Thomas Stoppard

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Thomas Stoppard

One of England's most important playwrights, Tom Stoppard (born 1937) was popular in the United States as well. His two great stage successes were Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and The Real Thing.

The son of a doctor for the Bata shoe manufacturing company, Thomas Straussler (Stoppard) was born on July 3, 1937, in Zlin, Czechoslovakia. According to Nazi racial laws there was "Jewish blood" in the family, so his father was transferred to Singapore in 1939, taking the family with him. When the Japanese invaded that city in 1942, the women and children were taken to India. Dr. Straussler stayed behind and was killed.

Stoppard attended an American boarding school in Darjeeling. In 1945 his mother married Kenneth Stoppard, a British Army major, and both of her sons took his name. The Stoppards went to England, where Stoppard's stepfather worked in the machine-tool industry. Thomas continued his education at a preparatory school in Yorkshire.

At age 17 he felt that he had had enough schooling and became first a reporter and then a critic for the Western Daily Press of Bristol from 1954 to 1958. He left the Press and worked as a reporter for the Evening World, also in Bristol, from 1958 to 1960. Stoppard then worked as a free-lance reporter from 1960 to 1963. During these years he experimented with writing short stories and short plays. In 1962 he moved to London in order to be closer to the center of the publishing and theatrical worlds in the United Kingdom.

His first radio plays for the BBC (British Broadcasting Company)—The Dissolution of Dominic Boot and M Is for Moon Among Other Things—were aired in 1964, with two more, Albert's Bridge and If You're Glad I'll Be Frank, following in 1965. His first television play, A Separate Peace, appeared the next year, as did his only novel, Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon, and the stage play that established his reputation as a playwright, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead takes two minor characters in Shakespeare's Hamlet and shows us the world of the Danish prince from a different perspective. Critic Charles Marowitz dubbed the show a "play-beneaththe-play." But it was more than an oblique look at a dramatic classic. It was an examination of existentialist philosophy when the protagonists learn that they are to die and accept their fate. As Marowitz put it, the play "demonstrates a remarkable skill in juggling the donnees of existentialist philosophy…. We are summoned, we come. We are given roles, we play them. We are dismissed, we go." America's influential critic Harold Clurman wrote, "Based on a nice conceit, it is epigrammatically literate, intelligent, theatrically clever." The play earned Stoppard his first Tony award.

That same year, 1966, Stoppard produced Tango, based on a work by Slawomir Mrozek, and in 1967 he produced two television plays, Teeth and Another Moon Called Earth.

The year 1968 saw another television play, Neutral Ground, and two short works for the theater; Enter a Free Man and The Real Inspector Hound. Of the former, critic Brendan Gill wrote that it has "a plot of no very great originality … an ending too neat for its own good," while of the latter another critic, Clive Barnes, opined that it was a "spinoff" from Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern. He went on, "Here it is two critics watching a conventional murder mystery who eventually find themselves dragged into the action of the play. In a sense the same existentialist attitude…."

In 1970 Stoppard returned to the BBC with the two radio plays, Artist Descending a Staircase and Where Are They Now, and authored the television plays The Engagement and Experiment in Television as well as the stage work After Magritte. It was about this time that Stoppard became acquainted with Ed Berman from New York City's Off-Off-Broadway, who was attempting to establish an alternative theater in London. For him Stoppard composed Dogg's Our Pet, produced in 1971 at the Almost Free Theater; the feeble double bill of Dirty Linen and New-found-land in 1975; and Night and Day in 1978.

In 1972 Stoppard had presented Jumpers, his second major work, which begins with circus acts and evolves into religious and moral philosophy. As critic Victor Cahn put it, "The specific philosophical problem at the basis of George's [the protagonist's] inquiry is whether moral judgments are absolute or relative, whether their truth lies in correspondence with the facts of the world or whether they are … personal expressions of emotion." Jumpers did not enjoy the same critical acclaim that had greeted Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern. Stanley Kauffmann labeled it "fake, structurally and thematically," while John Simon wrote that "there is even something arrogant about trying to convert the history of Western culture into a series of blackout sketches, which is very nearly what Jumpers is up to." Stoppard wrote the television play One Pair of Eyes with Clive Exton the same year.

Two years later he produced his third major work, Travesties. It was based on the coincidence that Russian exile politician V. I. Lenin, Irish novelist James Joyce, and the father of the French Dadaist movement in literature and art, Tristan Tzara, were all in Zurich, Switzerland, at times during World War I. It is assumed that they never met in actuality, but their interaction in Stoppard's play illuminates the question of what constitutes art. The author's conclusion seems to be that its sole function is to make the meaninglessness of life more bearable.

In 1977 Stoppard offered Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, a tour de force premiered by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the 100-piece London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn at the Royal Festival Hall. Brought to the United States, it was presented at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York with an 81-piece orchestra. The play concerns a dissident in an Iron Curtain country who has been placed in a mental institution. Its attack on the totalitarian state was the author's strongest political statement up to that time. That same year he was named a Commander of the British Empire (CBE).

In 1979 came three plays; Undiscovered Country, based on Austrian playwright Artur Schnitzler's Das weite land; Dogg's Hamlet; and Cahoot's Macbeth. In 1982 his fourth major work was produced. The Real Thing won Stoppard his second Tony award in 1984. More psychological than his previous plays, The Real Thing concerns a literary man whose love is unfaithful to him and how he copes with his disillusionment. Again critical opinion was divided: Benedict Nightingale in the New Statesman summarized it this way: "He has maintained his humour, increased his complexity, and deepened his art." Robert Brustein, on the other hand, saw it as "another clever exercise in the Mayfair mode, where all of the characters … share the same wit, artifice and ornamental diction."

Stoppard summed up his life's work as an attempt to "make serious points by flinging a custard pie around the stage for a couple of hours."

Further Reading

There are three good biographies and studies: Tom Stoppard by Felicia Hardison Londre (1981), Tom Stoppard by Joan Fitzpatrick Dean (1981), and Beyond Absurdity: The Plays of Tom Stoppard by Victor L. Cahn (1979). Another worthwhile appreciation is the chapter on Stoppard in The Second Wave: British Drama for the Seventies by John Russell Taylor (1971). Also see Dean, Joan Fitzpatrick, Tom Stoppard: Comedy as a Moral Matrix, (University of Missouri Press, 1981). □