At the behest of 'Miss Mayfly', a regular commenter here at D&N, I have managed to track down the superb article written by Mick Brown for The Telegraph on the subject of Sir Tom Stoppard. Alas, it is now behind a paywall but happily I saved it when I read it and here it is in full. It was the very least I could do for my friend, Miss Mayfly, who has on several occasions in the past pulled my theatrical nuts from the fire!
Playwright Sir Tom Stoppard speaks to The Telegraph ahead of the 50th-anniversary revival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead about his battle with writer's block, his third marriage to heiress Sabrina Guinness and the play that propelled him to stardom
For the past few weeks Tom Stoppard has been attending rehearsals for the revival of his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – starring Daniel Radcliffe, Joshua McGuire and David Haig – at the Old Vic.
It is 50 years since the play opened for the first time at this very same theatre, making Stoppard, at 29, the youngest dramatist ever to have a play performed at the National Theatre (based at that time at the Old Vic), and launching a career that would see him rise to become one of the most acclaimed playwrights of the modern age.
Stoppard has a reputation for reticence. As a young man, before he was a playwright, he worked as a journalist for a newspaper in Bristol, but he could never quite believe in his right to ask people personal questions – ‘I always expected them to throw a teapot at me or call the police.’ And it can seem that he is no more comfortable answering them.
The humorist Miles Kington once wrote a play in which Stoppard failed to turn up for an interview arranged to take place at his own home. But he is a man of enormous courtesy and consideration. Where, he asks, when we speak on the telephone, should we meet? A room at the Old Vic, or somewhere more congenial? Somewhere more congenial…
He phones back later that day. He has been scouting around, and there is a small restaurant next door to the theatre, where he has booked a table. I arrive to discover he has specified the quietest corner of the restaurant: the manager has virtually cordoned it off. As we sit down, Stoppard gestures across the room.
Stoppard's big break
In 1967, he says, this was a pub; on the opening night of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Stoppard and his then wife, Jose, left their seats in the stalls during the interval and came in here, sitting in a booth against the wall, drinking brandies – ‘Brandies!’ He laughs. (As if he could afford them!) – missing the second half of the play altogether.
They returned to the theatre after the curtain had come down, to learn the play had been a triumph. Reviewing it a few days later, Harold Hobson, the Sunday Times theatre critic, hailed it as ‘the most important event in the British professional theatre’ since Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, nine years earlier.
A brilliant theatrical conceit, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead tells the story of Hamlet through two of the play’s minor characters, friends and courtiers of the prince.
Stoppard takes up where Shakespeare leaves off. In his play, the pair appear onstage when they are offstage in Hamlet, speaking in colloquial English, with the exception of a few short scenes in which the dramatic events of both plays coincide and the text returns to the original Shakespearean.
‘We do onstage things that are supposed to happen off,’ says the character of the Player. ‘Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.’
Unaware of the drama taking shape around them, which will ultimately determine their own destinies, the pair engage in absurdist conversation about chance, life, death and eternity (‘A terrible thought. I mean, where’s it going to end?’).
‘A young man’s play,’ Stoppard observes now. But one that established his template of dazzling language, erudition and intellectual high jinks. ‘But what’s it about?’ a reporter once asked Stoppard – who has always been notoriously reluctant to submit to any definitive interpretation of his work. ‘It’s about to make me very rich,’ he reportedly joked.
(And he was right. Ten years after it opened, his agent at the time, Kenneth Ewing, estimated that with its runs in London, on Broadway – where it won a Tony award – and in Germany, Scandinavia and Japan, along with the proceeds from film rights and book sales, the play had made Stoppard about £300,000 – the equivalent of £3.5 million in today’s money.)
‘One simply has to observe,’ he now says, ‘that the play has been done continually for 50 years. Why is that? It’s not because people have an avid interest in a fictional society at Elsinore. Therefore, you step to one side of it and you look at it and you say to yourself, well it seems to be a play about two people who are told very little about what’s going on; most of what they are told is lies; and they end up dead without knowing how it happened.’
So, the human condition in a nutshell? He gives a faint smile. ‘Yeah...’ He orders sausage and mash, and a glass of wine – which will remain untouched throughout the meal.
Three years ago Stoppard was married for the third time, to Sabrina Guinness. He sold his flat in Chelsea and they bought a house in Dorset, where they now live, keeping her old flat in Notting Hill as a pied-à-terre, where Stoppard is staying tonight.
This is a busy time. As well as preparing for the opening of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, he has just seen an acclaimed revival of Travesties, his 1974 play about Lenin, Tristan Tzara and James Joyce in Vienna in 1917, transferred to the West End, and has lately been in America overseeing the production of his most recent play, The Hard Problem, which opened in London in 2015.
All well and good, but as he puts it, he is ‘too busy being the playwright to actually write a play’ – a frustration that will become more apparent later in the conversation. In his younger years, Stoppard’s appearance was often described as Byronic: the thick head of dark, untamed hair, the fleshy lips, the fondness for flowing overcoats, the passing resemblance to Mick Jagger.
The hair is now grey and thinning, but no more tamed, the demeanour venerable Oxbridge philosophy don, the manner genial. Whatever his reservations about giving interviews, he is none the less anxious to make the best of it.
‘I have nothing for you except yesterday’s mashed potatoes,’ he says at one point, glancing at his plate with an apologetic shrug, as if he is letting the side down. Stoppard is a genuinely modest man. He was born Tomáš Straüssler, in Zlín, Czechoslovakia. His father, Eugen, was a doctor working for the local Bata shoe company.
From Singapore to Yorkshire
In 1939, when Stoppard was 18 months old, the company arranged for the family to flee to Singapore in the face of the coming Nazi occupation. After three years they were forced to flee again, this time from the invading Japanese. The young Tomáš, his mother, Martha, and his elder brother Petr (now Peter) managed to escape.
Dr Straüssler stayed on, intending to follow. It was only later that the family learnt that he had been killed when the boat on which he was leaving was bombed by the Japanese.
(Stoppard’s family history has a way of revealing itself in instalments: he had always known that at least one of his grandparents was Jewish, but it was not until he was in his 50s, following the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia, that he learnt from a relative that all four of his grandparents had been Jewish and had perished in concentration camps, along with three of his mother’s sisters.)
From Singapore, the family made their way to India, eventually settling in the hill station of Darjeeling – ‘a lost domain of uninterrupted happiness’, as Stoppard would later remember it.
In 1946, his mother married an English Army officer, Major Kenneth Stoppard, and the following year, with the coming of Indian independence, the family moved to England, settling in Derbyshire.
Stoppard was sent as a boarder to Pocklington School in Yorkshire, where he excelled in cricket, was only average academically, and was often bullied. He left school at the age of 17, with ambitions to become a journalist, joining the Western Daily Press in Bristol as a junior reporter.
He harboured the usual fantasies of being a war correspondent, but he came to love the parochial round of local-news reporting – ‘the glamour of flashing a press card at flower shows’ – as well as writing humorous columns and reviewing plays and films.
Becoming a playwright
His passion for theatre was ignited by seeing a young Peter O’Toole performing at the Bristol Old Vic, and by the revolution in theatre driven by a younger generation of playwrights, John Osborne foremost among them.
He wrote his first stage play, A Walk on the Water, in 1960 (it was eventually televised in 1963) and wrote short pieces for radio before finally establishing himself with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
‘It’s perceived as an overnight alteration in my life,’ he says. ‘And in one sense, that’s so. But I’d been at it in one way or another for seven years, so it wasn’t overnight for me.’ As to whether he expected that it would still be being performed 50 years later, that is another matter.
‘I would never have put the question to myself so nakedly. But on the other hand, I was always thinking that to be a good writer entailed the next 1,000 years. Failure was always certain, but that was the deal.
‘When I was starting off, the idea of having a play performed at the Old Vic was simply beyond one’s dreams. And then when I found myself a few years later at the back of a theatre watching my play, looking around, it came to me as some form of revelation that that thing which I thought could only happen to truly extra-ordinary people – extraordinary writers and so on – it came to me that actually it happens to people like me. And it completely altered some perspective I had on who I was, in a rather healthy way.
‘It was to do with understanding that I didn’t actually need to be some sort of freak to be good enough for this to happen to me; I could just be what I was. And then you begin to realise that in every department of private and public life there’s a shortfall between the individual identity and the perception about what sort of person should be occupying that space in the world.
'You need to actually meet somebody and know them a little bit to get their dimension right, because until you do so they have almost a fictitious dimension.’ He laughs. ‘What it comes down to is that finding a good president is just as hard as finding a good plumber.’
In earlier years, Stoppard was fond of quoting a line from Christopher Hampton’s play The Philanthropist: ‘I am a man of absolutely no convictions, or at least I think I am’; and he has spoken of how one thing that attracted him to writing plays was the opportunity it presented to debate two sides of any argument.
‘Writing dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting yourself.’ He admits he has never been a playwright who was much interested in ‘character with a capital K and psychology with a capital S’; rather, a playwright interested in ideas, who has been ‘forced to invent characters to express those ideas’.
It was a truism that his characters tend to speak much as he does, with the same cadences and sentence structures (conversely, it is striking how much Stoppard speaks like a character in one of his plays). As he once put it, ‘When I write an African president into a play [as he did in Night and Day], I have to contrive to have him the only African president who speaks like me.’
Thatcher, politics and Harold Pinter
While other playwrights of his generation were engaging in politicking and polemic, Stoppard was always more concerned with employing dazzling language and wit to explore philosophical and moral concepts: Jumpers (1972) was a farce that considered the existence of God; Night and Day (1978), an exploration of journalistic ethics; Arcadia (1993), a country-house comedy that moved between Regency England and the present day, touching on classicism, sexual desire, chaos theory and landscape gardening.
His most recent play, The Hard Problem (2015), is a study of consciousness and ethics. You came out of a Stoppard play feeling not bullied or badgered but inspired and elated – and feeling much cleverer than when you went in. He has never been a man of the Left, describing himself as ‘conservative with a small c’ – ‘a conservative in politics, literature, education and theatre’.
He spoke of his admiration for Thatcher in her early years as Prime Minister. In Night and Day he attacked the closed shop, and later described himself as ‘gung-ho for Wapping’, prompting Harold Pinter to come to his defence, saying ‘not everyone who votes Conservative in England is representative of an Evil Empire’.
Despite their political differences, Stoppard and Pinter were good friends. Among other things, they shared a passion for cricket, Stoppard often turning out for Pinter’s team of literary chums.
Pinter had a long-standing association with the Comedy Theatre in London. The story goes that some years ago, before Pinter’s death, when plans to change the name to the Harold Pinter Theatre threatened to fall through, Stoppard suggested to Pinter (whose plays are not known for being a barrel of laughs) that he should change his name instead to Harold Comedy.
'My life as a grown up began rather late'
In the mid-1970s, Stoppard became actively involved in human-rights issues, particularly the plight of Soviet dissidents. In 1977 he visited the Soviet Union and met with Andrei Sakharov, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning physicist and human-rights advocate.
He also returned to his native Czechoslovakia for the first time since 1939, where he befriended the playwright Václav Havel (later the country’s president), who would be imprisoned for his political views. He wrote influential articles supporting the newly formed Czech Charter 77, and plays for the stage and television – notably Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and Professional Foul (both 1977) – dramatising the issue of human rights.
In 2013, he was awarded the PEN Pinter Prize for his work opposing abuses of human rights. ‘For most of my life as a grown-up, which began rather late,’ he says, ‘I have had very firm ideas and convictions about free societies in apposition to unfree societies of different kinds.
‘There’s no question in my mind that the idea of the autonomously free individual is how human beings ought to be living. And there is no ideology remotely persuasive enough to convert me away from such a view.’
At the time that he was visiting Russia and Czeschoslovakia in the late 1970s, he says, he would trot out ‘my Christmas-cracker mantra, which was that the things that appalled one about Britain were abuses of the system, whereas in other ideologies – and I was talking about communism at the time – they represented the system in good working order’.
He says that in Travesties there is not a phrase that he has Lenin saying that did not come from a book, speech or article that Lenin himself wrote. ‘And it gets a strange laugh in the theatre when he says that everybody will be free to write, say and think whatever they like – and then there’s a big “but”.’ He smiles.
‘And it turns out that everything ethical, honourable and permissible is defined by the tenets of Bolshevism. One can say things, and indeed write constitutions, whether in the Soviet constitution or the American constitution, that would be a model for any country if they were effected to the letter.
'But it seems that you can reduce it to human nature or to social reality and a fundamental urge to power, and these wonderful words leave a lot of room for interpretation to preserve and reinforce the status quo – of the haves.’ His stepfather, Major Stoppard, was a man who believed ‘that to have been born an Englishman was to have drawn first prize in the lottery of life’.
It is a sentiment that Stoppard readily allows might have been amended in his case to include not simply ‘to have been born an Englishman’, but ‘to have become one’.
Stoppard's early England years
He has always been passionate in his love for England, its culture, its institutions and its traditions. When his family first settled in Derbyshire, they would regularly picnic in the grounds of England’s finest country house, Chatsworth. ‘By the time I was 10 or 11,’ he once recalled, ‘I thought this was England and I loved every blade of grass.’
And he still does - up to a point. The England that ‘I really fell for’, he says, now exists only ‘as a kind of memory.
‘I got imprinted when I arrived, and probably for ten more years after that, with a picture of a kind of England. And I think of the model of a just society and a congenial society being as good as ever. But at the same time there’s a slow drift...a tendency to corruption, a vulgarisation through consumerism....’
He pauses. ‘I’ve always relied heavily on the possibility of altruism in my sense of what England is, can be and should be. A friend of mine gave me an excellent phrase a few years ago, which is that one should live as in a contest of generosity. Its something that people understand very, very well within families: “there’s one piece of fish left on the plate, you have it!” “No, no you have it!”
'People understand that instinct, and it’s always been a matter of extending that social and civilised way of thinking and behaving to include not only your family, but your neighbours, your street - the entire radius of your existence. And in Britain it is underpinned by something that is centuries old, which is the idea that law and parliament, and the distinction between them, is absolutely fundamental to be able to live in that way.
‘What I mean is that the aspiration of England that exists in the abstract, of what a society is capable of being if people behave unselfishly...that is still in place. It is still a very, very good idea, but that idea isn’t functioning very well. But, do I still love England? Yes. Would I like to live anywhere else? No.’
A reclusive man, unnerved by emotion
The novelist Derek Marlowe, with whom Stoppard shared rooms in London’s Ladbroke Grove during the penniless years, once described him as having a dual personality, like the author of Alice in Wonderland. ‘His public self is Charles Dodgson – he loves dons, philosophers, theorists of all kinds, and he’s fascinated by the language they use. But his private self is Lewis Carroll – reclusive, intimidated by women, unnerved by emotion.’
Kenneth Tynan, writing of Stoppard in The New Yorker in 1977, put it more pointedly, saying that no one would ever call Stoppard passion’s slave, or imagine him blown off course by a romantic obsession. ‘It is felt by some of his friends,’ Tynan went on, ‘that his sexual ambitions, compared with his professional ambitions, have always been modest.’
‘I think that’s fair,’ Stoppard says now. ‘I’ve always been essentially a monogamous sort of person.’ His first marriage, to Jose Ingle, foundered when she had a nervous breakdown, apparently unable to cope with his new-found success following Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
They divorced in 1972, with Stoppard taking custody of their two sons, and in the same year he married Miriam Moore-Robinson (described by Tynan as ‘a dark-haired pouter pigeon of a girl, buxom and exuberantly pretty’), who would become famous in her own right as the television personality and health expert Dr Miriam Stoppard.
The couple went on to have two more sons. But after 18 years the marriage broke down when Stoppard became involved in a very public liaison with the actress Felicity Kendal. That relationship petered out after eight years. Stoppard says he had not expected to get married again.
On marrying a Guinness
But in 2014, to the surprise of many, and at the age of 76, he married Sabrina Guinness, 17 years his junior. An heiress and television producer, Guinness is known for her friendships with Prince Charles, Mick Jagger and the Tory politician Jonathan Aitken, and was once described as the most eligible woman in Britain, but she had never married.
She and Stoppard had been friends for 20 years. I’m curious: how does such a long-standing friendship become a love affair, and then a wedding? He pauses. ‘There’s a rather nice sentence in The Sun Also Rises, when Jake says to Mike, “How did you go broke?” And Mike says, “Two ways – first slowly, then suddenly.”’ He laughs.
‘I can’t really answer your question.’ He suggests – not altogether convincingly – that when he and Sabrina first started ‘walking out’, as he puts it, he tried to persuade her that he was not the man for her. ‘My refrain was, “You really don’t want somebody like me,” because I’m very anti-social.
'I said, you need somebody who likes to go out and about, and I don’t want to go anywhere. I don’t want to go to anybody’s dinner party, book launch, gallery opening. I don’t want to do any of it. I perform sociability, but I’m seriously self-sufficient.’
Sabrina, I say, is very sociable. He looks exasperated. ‘As I kept pointing out! Which is why I concluded that she really didn’t want to have a consort that is just a curmudgeon.’ Happily, they seem to have worked it out: dinner parties at home with a small group of friends, ‘which I love’, and fewer excursions to events he doesn’t love.
‘Dinners for 200 with speeches, and award ceremonies – no, I’m not keen.’ Her effect has been civilising in other respects. Left to his own devices, he says, he turns immediately into ‘a slut, and things go to hell. Yesterday, Sabrina went home [to their house in Dorset]. We make our bed every single morning without fail; but the moment I know I’m on my own, the idea of making my bed seems to me completely absurd. I’m going to get back into it tonight. Why would I make it again?
'In other words, if I’m living alone and writing, the idea of putting the writing aside to “tidy up a bit” [the phrase drips with irony] is just ridiculous. So I’ve become much nicer to live with since I got married.’
Stoppard's writing routine
Friends, indeed, say that Stoppard is ‘as happy as a bee’ since marrying. ‘Look at him. He used to be so hangdog; now he’s smiling all the time. They’re perfect for each other.’ Stoppard once said that he found it hard to work away from domestic stability.
‘Did I?’ He reaches for his coffee. ‘Well, yes and no. When I’ve been in terrible time-trouble and up against it with a deadline, very occasionally I would just go to a hotel and write half a script in three days, or something. I used to love working in hotels.
'Nowadays, because I smoke when I work, I can’t work in hotels. There was a time when all I needed was 24- hour room service, an ashtray and a fountain pen.’ He sighs in blissful recollection. ‘It was very good for productivity.’
(Smoking and writing have always gone in hand for Stoppard; he tells the story of how, as a penurious young writer on a deadline, he devised a method of sellotaping sandpaper to his desk and then spilling out some loose matches from a box.
‘So if I wanted a cigarette I could just pick it up, strike the match and keep going, instead of having to stop, open a box of matches, take out a match, strike it with both hands and carry on. It was irritating.’ The inference is he was too hard up to buy a lighter).
He is presently at a stage, he says, where every other person he meets asks whether he has a new play on the way, and if not now what does he intend to write about in the future. The answer is, he doesn’t, and, honestly, he has no idea. He thinks on this.
Perhaps if he could just spend some time at home with Sabrina, with no commitments for the next month – less the playwright than a man writing a play – something would come up. ‘I think in the past I needed quiet time on my own to write the play. But now I need it to choose a play to write.’
(Later, as we step on to the escalator at Waterloo tube station he will challenge himself to name all the papers and periodicals he reads before we reach the bottom: ‘The Telegraph, Times, The Guardian, the New Yorker, the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, the New Statesman, The Spectactor, Prospect, Standpoint...’ He sighs. ‘It takes up far more of my time than I can afford.’)
On Trump, climate change and the future
Perhaps all that reading that will provide inspiration. But then again, he allows, perhaps not. A play, he says, ‘should just come out and hit you, like a locomotive coming out of a fireplace, like in Magritte. ‘There is this distinct moment, which is an enormous simultaneous lifting up and calming down, which can be paraphrased into the statement, “Oh good – there’s one more play I can write!”
'And it’s quite precise. It’s not, you know, I really ought to tackle climate change, or I really ought to take some notice of America in the age of Trump.
'It’s nothing like that, and it won’t be anything like that. Being interested and aware of salient parts of the political world, or any kind of world, is meaningless as regards trying to create something. And I may not actually write any more plays anyway…’
And would that worry him? ‘Yes, it would.’ He is 79 now, and it is the natural order of things, he says, that death takes away one’s friends, one’s acquaintances, and sooner or later oneself. ‘Really, I don’t think about my wife and children in the context of, “When will I die?” But I do think about, “Will I have written a decent play?”’ But he has written many decent plays.
He shrugs. ‘Well, it doesn’t seem like that to me. No. I think I’ve written a few that are fine – pretty good. But the one where you over-reach and get hold of everything in the right order, with the right degree of elegance, with nothing otiose, nothing lacking… That one I suppose I’ll never write. But it’s the one you want to write.’
The waitress is clearing the plates. He drains the last of his coffee. ‘I don’t much like myself in this conversation,’ he says at last, ‘because it’s making me too important. Well, it is important to me, but in the scheme of things it’s not of great importance whether I write a play or not.
'I just want it for myself, for my own sense of having an identity and fulfilling my purpose, and things like that. But I’m well aware that I’m very, very fortunate, and I have lived a very charmed life, so to speak to you on a note of complaint is simply absurd.’ He smiles. ‘So I’m going to stop.’
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead previews from Saturday (0844-871 7628; )
Travesties is showing at the Apollo Theatre until 29 April (0330 333 4809)