Tom Stoppard: A Life by Hermione Lee

Hermione Lee
Faber and Faber
Released

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Tom Stoppard Credit: Faber and Faber

It is hard to imagine a more distinguished biographical pairing than a book on Sir Tom Stoppard written by Dame Hermione Lee.

Indeed, the only reason why the current edition might not be a definitive biography to scare off all-comers is the fact that Sir Tom is alive, well and, one hopes, still creating enough work for another chapter or two to add to just under 1,000 fascinating pages in this mighty volume.

To describe Dame Hermione Lee’s work as meticulous and comprehensive is almost understating the case. She seems to have been everywhere, read everything and spoken to everyone, including lengthy conversations with her subject.

His early life is somewhat unusual. Born in Czechoslovakia, before entering a Midlands prep school, he had been evacuated to Singapore and then India, regrettably losing his doctor father when a wartime ship sank. Rather than university, young Thomas (his name having been anglicised by mother and stepfather) embarked on a successful journalistic career in Bristol, commencing at the tender age of 17.

Younger readers, i.e. those under about 70, might not be aware that Stoppard’s early days as a playwright were difficult. He struggled for money and, apart from some minor radio work and short stories, achieved very little until Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which, after a stuttering start, became a major hit for the National Theatre, projecting its writer into instant stardom.

Clearly, despite an innate shyness, the trappings of fame and fortune suited him and life settled down well, after a difficult first marriage was terminated and he married businesswoman and media celebrity Dr Miriam Stoppard, together bringing up four sons. That marriage eventually broke down, primarily because the spouses were too busy to meet, favourite leading lady Felicity Kendal partially filling the romantic gap.

After what in public eyes is an instant debut hit, coming up with that tricky second play has foiled some of the greats but in this case Jumpers fitted the bill perfectly and established the future Sir Tom as a future Sir Tom.

While some of his forays into the world of TV and film were hit and miss, he had a solid radio career and continued to produce classic works for the stage, following up two NT successes with Travesties for the RSC. However, it was with The Real Thing that, at last, the Mick Jagger lookalike became “theatre’s equivalent of a rock star in America”.

While readers will have been aware that their hero was prolific in assorted media, it will still come as a surprise to many to discover that he has contributed anonymously to numerous films, particularly Steven Spielberg blockbusters such as parts of the Indiana Jones franchise and Schindler’s List. On the film front, despite an early success with an adaptation of J G Ballard’s Booker Prize-winning novel Empire of the Sun, the movie for which he will always be remembered is Shakespeare in Love.

This hefty tome is more than merely the portrait of an artist, since we learn a great deal about Tom Stoppard’s private life and politics, which became determinedly Thatcherite, before he rather changed tack, becoming a close friend of the future Czech President Vaclav Havel and a determined proponent of writers who are imprisoned or silenced.

Even then, nobody could deny his patrician tendencies, living the life and buying the houses of the aristocracy while collecting fine art and literary artefacts as befits that tradition, if not always pleasing his accountant-brother or the bank manager.

On the stage front, everybody will have favourites (Stoppard’s is the A E Houseman homage, The Invention of Love) but perhaps the most popular of all has been Arcadia, intelligently dealt with in the kind of detail that might normally be reserved for a thesis, a tribute repeated for the epic trilogy The Coast of Utopia. The book then moves right up to date covering the sadly curtailed Leopoldstadt in satisfying detail.

Hermione Lee is the dream biographer, as long as you enjoy reading thorough dissection of every aspect of the playwright’s life and work. She is a meticulous researcher, tracking down every piece of available information, helped by access to her subject’s journal and letters to his beloved mother and other family members. To complement the hard graft and good writing style, she also brings to bear the skills of a critic who is able to analyse and explain work but also evaluate it.

If any book beats Tom Stoppard: A Life to the theatre book prizes and quite probably some of those for more general literature, it will need to be very, very special.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher