One of the greatest English-language playwrights of the last half-century, Tom Stoppard is known for such canonical plays as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, The Real Thing and Arcadia. He also won an Oscar for his Shakespeare in Love screenplay. Stoppard is now 83 and still creating (his play Leopoldstadt was the hottest ticket in London before theaters were shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic), so an authoritative biography of this celebrated writer may seem premature. But the highly accomplished biographer Hermione Lee, at Stoppard’s behest, has produced just that. Tom Stoppard: A Life is a capacious and exhaustive book that attempts to infiltrate his art while chronicling his life’s journey—and what a journey it has been.
Stoppard, viewed as quintessentially English and unquestionably one of the most brilliant manipulators of the English language, was not born British. Before he was 2, his family fled the Nazis from what is now the Czech Republic. First settling in Singapore, where his father was killed in a Japanese air attack, the family then sought refuge in India, where young Tom began his education in “Englishness.”
After the war, the future playwright bypassed university in England and started a hard-knock climb in journalism. Hanging with the local theater crowd in provincial Bristol—including an up-and-coming actor named Peter O’Toole—Stoppard found his true home. As the swinging ’60s unfurled, Stoppard launched his theatrical career through a singular talent for infusing esoteric ideas and experimental concepts into plays with commercial viability.
Lee, who conducted more than 100 interviews and enjoyed unrestricted access to her subject, painstakingly details Stoppard’s personal life—his troubled first marriage, his personal and working friendships, his relationships with his mother and children. By her account, Stoppard is generally congenial and well liked, so there is little in the way of scandal or fraught behind-the-scenes show business drama. Stoppard himself admits to having a charmed life.
The most absorbing parts of Stoppard’s story involve his rediscovery of his Jewish roots and the ways he has indirectly mined his own family’s experiences in his work—not to produce autobiographical plays but rather to explore the political turmoil and tragedies of the 20th century. While Stoppard has often been accused of being an overly clever or cerebral playwright who avoids the personal and the emotional in his work, Lee makes a solid case for the true depth, as well as the surface brilliance, of his enduring plays.
Mike Nichols, another émigré genius of the theatre, called Stoppard “the most expressive playwright of our time . . . the only writer I know who is completely happy.” Tom Stoppard: A Life affirms that appraisal.