One of the few playwrights whose work is so distinctive that his name has been transformed into an adjective – Stoppardian – Tom Stoppard is among the most influential writers to have had his work presented on the London stage.
Born in Czechoslovakia in 1937, Tom Straussler, as he was originally named, spent his early years fleeing the war, moving from his homeland to Singapore, Australia and then to India. His father, a doctor who remained in Singapore to help the war effort, was killed during the invasion, and when his mother married British army major Kenneth Stoppard in 1946, the family relocated to England.
Stoppard’s early career was spent honing his writing skills as a journalist on The Western Daily Press, Bristol Evening World and literary magazine Scene. It was in the 60s that he turned his hand to playwriting, achieving his first major success with the 1967 National Theatre production of Rosencratz And Guildenstern Are Dead. The tale of the two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet saw Stoppard win the 1967 Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright. When it was staged on Broadway, it won the Tony Award for Best Play.
Stoppard followed up Rosencratz And Guildenstern Are Dead with pieces including The Real Inspector Hound (1968), Jumpers (1972), Travesties (1974), Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977), Night And Day (1978), The Real Thing (1982), Hapgood (1988), Arcadia (1993), The Invention Of Love (1997), The Coast Of Utopia (2002) and most recently Rock ‘N’ Roll (2006), raising his profile, his award count and the esteem in which he is held in the literary world.
In addition to writing his own stage work, Stoppard has translated a number of plays into English, created works for television and radio, and worked, both credited and uncredited, on movies. His script for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil received an Academy Award nomination, while his work on Shakespeare In Love went one better, collecting the Oscar for Original Screenplay.
The word Stoppardian is often used to describe witty use of comedy while examining philosophical ideas, but there is also a sense of making often lofty and testing theories and principles seem accessible, as Stoppard’s actor son Ed recounts: “He once said something like ‘Chekhov writes about very simple things and somehow makes them feel incredibly weighty and complex and important, whereas I do the opposite.’ He writes about things which are seemingly beyond the audience, but enables them to make that jump, which always makes audiences feel fantastic about themselves. He’s also very good at bringing together a variety of characters with all of whom the audience is able to empathise. The emphasis may move from this character to that character or this relationship to that relationship, but there’s still this kind of empathetic umbilical cord.”
While the West End has not seen a new piece of work from the playwright since Rock ‘N’ Roll, such is the thirst for Stoppard’s writing that London’s theatregoers have been treated to a number of revivals in recent years. The National Theatre has twice staged his collaboration with Andre Previn, Every Good Boy Deserves Favours, Arcadia was revived in 2009, receiving a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for Best Revival, and later this week, The Real Thing will open at the Old Vic, with Toby Stephens and Hattie Morahan leading the cast.
While awards are far from the best way to summarise a career, Stoppard’s count of four Tony Awards, four Critics’ Circle Awards, seven Evening Standard Awards, a Laurence Olivier Award, a BAFTA Award and an Oscar serve as a strong indication of the esteem in which the playwright is held. When the CBE, Knighthood and the Order of Merit are added, it is easy to see how, when the idea of the greatest British playwright is discussed, only Shakespeare is arguably head and shoulders above Stoppard.