Catapulted to fame in 1967 with the National Theatre’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (it was first produced in Edinburgh), Tom Stoppard (STOP-ahrd) emerged as a leading dramatist in the second of the two waves of new drama that arrived on the London stage in the mid-1950’s and the mid-1960’s. Writing high comedies of ideas with what critic Kenneth Tynan described as a hypnotized brilliance, Stoppard established a reputation almost immediately with dazzling displays of linguistic fireworks that evoked comparisons with Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and James Joyce. His reinventions of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (pr. c. 1600-1601) in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (pr. 1895) in Travesties, and August Strindberg’s Fröken Julie (pb. 1888; Miss Julie, 1912) in The Real Thing are considered masterpieces. His linguistic caprices and his creative plagiarisms join forces with a love of ideas with which his characters play as much as they do with language.
Born Tomas Straussler to Eugene and Martha Straussler of Zlín (later Gottwaldov), Czechoslovakia, Stoppard was two years old when his father, the company doctor for an international shoe company, was transferred to Singapore on the eve of Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia. Shortly before the Japanese invasion of Singapore–during which his father was killed–he, his mother, and his brother were moved to Darjeeling, India. There Martha Straussler managed a company shoe shop; she later married Major Kenneth Stoppard, who moved the family to England in 1946. Bored by school, the young Stoppard chose not to go to a university and, instead, became a news reporter in Bristol and later a drama critic for the short-lived magazine Scene. His early writing included a novel, some short stories, and a series of short radio plays.
His major early plays (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Jumpers, Travesties, Night and Day, The Real Thing, and Hapgood), although scintillating in their language, ideas, and plots, have frequently been criticized for the absence of emotionally credible characters and for their lack of social or political commitment. In other plays for stage and television–Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, which is about political prisoners in central Europe, Professional Foul, about freedoms in Czechoslovakia, and Squaring the Circle, about Poland’s Solidarity movement–Stoppard entered the political arena. Although active in the anticommunist human rights movement, he kept his distance from the many new playwrights whose political orientation was leftist, who protested economic injustices at home, and who opposed strongly the English class system and the effects of England’s colonial past.
In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Shakespeare’s two most insignificant characters take center stage and become metaphysicians of sorts as they ponder philosophical questions of existence and choice. Like Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot (pb. 1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954), Ros and Guil debate with each other and with the leader of the traveling players some of the same problems that plague Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play. In Jumpers, debates on ethics take place between the traditional philosopher George Moore (after G. E. Moore, the author of Principia Ethica, 1903), and a modern logical positivist, Archibald Jumper (patterned after the Oxford philosopher Sir Frederick Ayer). Theories of art are debated in Travesties by Lenin, James Joyce, and the dadaist Tristan Tzara. Since all three are said to have lived in Zurich about the time of the Russian Revolution, Stoppard pictures their meeting in a library in Zurich. The ingenious plot includes secretaries to Joyce and Lenin named Gwendolyn and Cecily and is structured on the kinds of confusion of identities found in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
The debate of ideas continues in The Real Thing, in which the subject of the debate is art as well as love. In Hapgood Stoppard fuses debates on modern scientific theories of waves, a spy mystery, and romance; the play shows his usual brilliance of ideas, plot inventiveness, and character identities that remain confusing even at the play’s conclusion. Stoppard is a self-educated student of physics, an interest that is reflected in both Hapgood and Arcadia. Arcadia moves back and forth in time as he explores the vast shifts in thinking that humankind has undergone in its shift from Romanticism to scientific theory. Stoppard has also written several screenplays–most notably for Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil–and he adapted and directed the film version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
Perhaps one of Stoppard’s best works is the 1991 radio play In the Native State, which he later adapted for the stage as Indian Ink. Stoppard deals here with the theme of India gaining its independence (or losing its status as a British territory). It also addresses the cultural taboo of sexual relations between British women and Indian men. The Invention of Love is a memory play again based on the life of A. E. Housman, a poet and classics scholar of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
The title of Irving Wardle’s review of The Real Thing, “Cleverness with Its Back to the Wall,” is a description that in varying degrees can be applied to all of Stoppard’s plays. To the critic, however, who applies Stoppard’s own description of his plays as “ambushes for the audience” and his own rejection of “yes” and “no” answers to questions, the literate high comedies of ideas provide a refreshing contrast to the plays of the so-called committed dramatist.
Stoppard admires Beckett, who “picks up a proposition and then dismantles and qualifies each part of its structure as he goes along, until he nullifies what he started out with.” Characterizing his play debates as a “series of conflicting statements made by conflicting characters who tend to play an infinite leapfrog,” Stoppard divides his characters into two types: Moons and Boots. The former lose themselves in their arguments, while the latter emerge victorious by means of their style, the controlling factor in their survival. Many of his early plays contain characters with the names Moon and Boot. Stoppard himself, who derives the name Boot from a character in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop (1938), can, by virtue of his own identity as inventive stylist, be categorized as a Boot character.
Stoppard is not a philosopher, however; he is definitely a playwright. He uses the world and the thought he finds around him in something of the wild, dizzy, and exhilarating manner of a metaphysical poet. With Harold Pinter, Stoppard shares a reputation as the most inventive stylist of the two waves of revolution that swept the English stage in the second half of the twentieth century.