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But Where's Tom?

Ira Nadel gives us Stoppard with all the details and none of the fun. logo

What with his erudition, quicksilver wit, and wide-ranging interests, Sir Tom Stoppard is like flypaper for scholars. The latest to set their sights on the playwright is Ira Nadel, an English instructor at the University of British Columbia, whose previous books include Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen. Nadel's Tom Stoppard: A Life is well-meaning, copiously annotated, and as uninspired as its title. The author subscribes to the theory that an effective literary biography ought to double effectively as a doorstop. At more than 600 pages, Tom Stoppard: A Life is three pounds of data, assembled higgledy-piggledy, likely to be neither useful nor entertaining to the common reader.

Under any circumstances, Stoppard would present a challenge for the biographer. His inscrutability is illustrated by the fact that he managed for most of his life to overlook the fact that his lineage, both maternal and paternal, is Jewish. This long-held genealogical secret, known to his mother (who lived until 1996) and stepfather, among others, came to Stoppard's attention in 1993, when he was 56 years old. It's an odd gap in knowledge or awareness for a European intellectual, well-traveled and acquainted with modern history, who survived the Second World War and has campaigned for human rights in Russia and Eastern Europe.

Born Tomá? Straüssler in Czechoslovakia, Stoppard was raised in Singapore and received part of his primary education in India at an institution run by American Methodists, where he fell a little in love with the United States. Later, bearing his stepfather's English surname, he plunged into an English prep school, with its distinctive traditions and rigid customs. Somehow this variegated background produced the most thoroughly British of contemporary dramatists.

On a personal level, Stoppard is a mass of contradictions. Though intensely private, he thrives on publicity and never shrinks from engaging in disputes with critics. At times, he strikes rightwing political poses suitable to a Surrey vicar; yet he agitates on behalf of human rights, railing with the liberal fervor of a Susan Sontag against censorship and the plight of the oppressed, especially oppressed writers. He's family-oriented and uxorious, but twice divorced. He's hearth-loving and homey, but has repeatedly moved from one residence to another, trading up for ever more baronial splendor. Fiercely respectful of directors and actors, he nonetheless monitors rehearsals of his plays--at least the major productions--like a jealous watchdog.

Daniel Davis and Richard Easton in
The Invention of Love on Broadway
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
In approximately 40 years, Stoppard has published more than 25 plays. Judging by the work he allows the public to see, Stoppard doesn't repeat himself; and critics haven't been able to force him into pigeon-holes. Faced with his virtuosic word play and unbridled sense of humor, many reviewers faulted the early comedies for a lack of heart. Because his plays are frequently structured as complex literary allusions--Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is built on Hamlet, Travesties on The Importance of Being Earnest--they've been termed difficult and arcane. Recent plays, like Indian Ink and The Invention of Love, show increasing emotional depth, but Stoppard (who once wrote a play called Jumpers about moral philosophy, featuring a team of acrobats) remains unrivaled among contemporary dramatists for intellectual acrobatics.

Stoppard was an unlikely candidate for greatest egghead among his generation of playwrights. Born in 1937, he left school at 17, steering clear of academia and ending up a Bristol newspaperman. While trying to break into the English theater, he sold scripts to radio and television and published a novel. Then a group of Oxford undergraduates took an early version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to the Edinburgh Festival's Fringe. What followed was a seemingly charmed series of events. Celebrity critic Kenneth Tynan, serving as dramaturg at London's National Theatre, got wind of Rosencrantz, requested a copy, and convinced his boss, Laurence Olivier, to produce it. The play was hugely successful in London and a snob hit in New York. Its author promptly became the English theater's fair-haired boy and a prominent figure of 1960s pop-culture, on a scale with his friend Mick Jagger.

Tom Stoppard: A Biography brings together information not available elsewhere in a single volume. The book provides a record of Stoppard's physical movements over the past 65 years, the major productions of his plays, and certain landmarks in his romantic and family life. It contains interesting historical sketches of the places Stoppard has lived and the eras he has witnessed: Czechoslovakia in the 1930s and '40s, Singapore during World War II, India in the final days of the Raj, and so on. Nadel has had the cooperation of Stoppard's brother, Peter; but without confidences from the subject himself or any inside information from spouses, sons or other intimates, he can't offer much insight as to what makes the playwright tick. Nadel's analysis of the individual plays is glancing, and uneven. He sheds no more light on Stoppard's oeuvre than he does on the playwright's psyche. As for Nadel's research, a measure of its reliability may be his misstatement of the premise of Garson Kanin's comedy Born Yesterday, which Stoppard directed in the early 1970s. Either he didn't read Born Yesterday carefully, or Mr. Kanin's real meaning is so deeply encrypted that Nadel is the only person who recognizes it.

Enigmatic Sir Tom
It's instructive to observe the way Nadel constructs a paragraph about Stoppard's first outing in the New York theater. The play, he tells us, was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; the time, autumn 1967. What follows (this is a single paragraph, remember) is a duke's mixture of brute facts. Nadel remarks that Rosencrantz was the first production of London's National Theatre to "transfer" to New York. He gives the premiere date, the director's name, and the names of some of the cast members (but nothing about the rationale for casting decisions). He backtracks to say that the American producer, David Merrick, contacted Stoppard immediately after learning of the London success of Rosencrantz; that producer and playwright met in May 1967; that Stoppard was "intensely nervous about the New York production"; and that Merrick sent copies of the play's text to New York critics in advance of opening night. Nadel caps the paragraph with the statement that "Lynda Bird Johnson, daughter of the President, attended one of the Washington tryouts, although her reaction is unrecorded."

That paragraph is like much of Tom Stoppard: A Life, lurching haphazardly from topic to topic. The narrative, such as it is, shifts to and fro chronologically, with no consideration of the reader's need for mooring. The dangling reference to the president's daughter at the paragraph's conclusion is typical of Nadel's writing. Never mind that Lynda Bird attended a Washington, D.C. performance, while the rest of the paragraph concerns the play's New York premiere--that's a small ambiguity when weighed against the mystery of what, if anything, Lynda Bird's patronage signifies to Nadel and why the reader should take note of it.

In order to bloat the book to the dimensions of a respectable doorstop, Nadel includes a great deal of useless information. For example, in discussing the 1967 premiere of The Real Inspector Hound, he writes: "At an October 1975 performance [of the play] in West Dorset, the acting was so convincing that one member of the audience found himself incapable of remaining in his seat. Reacting to the shooting [of Birdboot], a clergyman [in the audience] jumped up while the bodies were being removed, addressed the crowd with the words, 'I think somebody needs a clergyman back there', vaulted on to the stage and took off into the wings, to everyone's applause." Nadel offers no justification for including that peculiar item, and it's hard to imagine what justification there can be.

In The Invention of Love, Stoppard's version of Oscar Wilde quips that biography is "the mesh through which our real life escapes." Biographers are apt to find any living figure a moving target. Even the most cooperative subject may hold back information or offer, perhaps unwittingly, a few false leads. The subject's relatives and acquaintances are likely to be uneasy about telling all or even very much. Then there's the fact that the biographer is pursuing a narrative that hasn't reached its end and could take any number of surprising turns while he's still working or after he finishes.

Stoppard must have been a frustrating topic. In a long history of colorful interviews, the playwright has made a habit of offering contradictory statements; and his responses to direct questions have often been elusive. Then there are all those mystifying personal qualities, including his capacity to ignore, for more than half a century, any clues that his parents were Jews and that the Jewish culture of Eastern Europe might have influenced his own development. Inscrutable as Stoppard may be, though, he's not to blame for the unsatisfactory nature of Tom Stoppard: A Life. Ira Nadel has taken the factual detritus of his subject's experience and pressed it between the covers of a book, letting what Stoppard's Wilde calls the "real life" escape.

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