Life of Czechs and balances

Double Act
August 29, 2003

Kiernan Ryan is struck by the secret history of a dazzling dramatist.

You have to admire the chutzpah of any biographer bold enough to tackle the life of Tom Stoppard. The author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is, after all, not only notoriously guarded about his private life, but also notoriously sceptical about the art of biography.

Stoppard's quip that he would like his biography "to be as inaccurate as possible" might be dismissed as another mischievous bon mot from the self-styled heir of Oscar Wilde. But, in fact, it reflects a long-standing preoccupation with misguided biographers in his work, from the eponymous Moon in Stoppard's comic novel Lord Malquist and Mr Moon (1966) to Eldon Pike in Indian Ink (1995). At the core of this concern is the suspicion, aptly voiced by the character of Wilde near the end of The Invention of Love, that "biography is the mesh through which our real life escapes".

The danger of turning a life into a narrative is that the telling details will be tidied away by the drive to impose a pattern. Ira Nadel is aware of this trap awaiting the unwary biographer, but that does not stop him from tumbling into it. The idea of duality inscribed in the title of his book, and enshrined in the cover shot of twin Stoppards staring into each other's eyes, dictates Nadel's account from start to finish. Stoppard's personality and plays, we are told at every turn, reveal him to be at once innately Czech and incorrigibly British, both ironically detached and passionately committed, wilfully cerebral yet shamelessly commercial and so on, through an endless series of predictable paradoxes and textbook dichotomies.

It might seem perverse to take Nadel to task for embracing an image of Stoppard that the dramatist has been at pains to cultivate and so much in his life and work confirms. Asked once why he chose to write plays, Stoppard replied: "Because writing dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting yourself." Ceaseless self-contradiction has proved a vital weapon in his lifelong battle to defy definition and avoid submission to a fixed point of view. From the seminal double act of Hamlet's doomed sidekicks to the double and triple agents in Hapgood, Stoppard's drama teems with doppelgängers devised to perform what Nadel terms "arabesques of antithesis", which keep their creator's convictions unresolved. And when one learns the tragic truth of Stoppard's origins - which Stoppard himself learnt only late in life - it is hard to blame his biographer for seeing the makings of the man mirrored so exactly in the work.

That "the ageless bright boy of the British theatre", as The Observer dubbed him, was born Tomáš Sträussler in Zlín, Czechoslovakia, in 1937 is, of course, old news. Less well known until recently, because his mother, Martha, took the full facts to the grave, is that Stoppard's whole family was Jewish, and that all four of his grandparents and four of his mother's sisters perished in the Holocaust. Stoppard's father, Eugen Straussler, died at sea in 1942, his ship sunk by the Japanese, en route to join his family's flight from Singapore, where they had sheltered since 1939. Three years later, in Calcutta, his widow married Major Kenneth Stoppard, and in 1946 Tomáš found himself transplanted to East Retford and transformed into an English schoolboy.

It requires little imagination to understand why Martha Stoppard wanted that transformation to be total and why she kept her family's tracks covered, especially when her xenophobic spouse was prone to crush recollections of their Czech roots by barking "Don't you realise that I made you British?" It requires still less to understand why growing up with a surrogate surname and a repressed past fostered in Stoppard the chameleon's art of "camouflage by display", as he calls it, and an obsession with the elusiveness of the self, of truth and of history.

Nonetheless, when Nadel has finished mapping the compulsive tropes of Stoppard's drama onto the stark divisions of his life, the nagging sense remains that something essential has slipped through the biographer's net.

There is no doubt that Double Act - the first full-length biography of Stoppard - is a solid, well-researched piece of work, crammed with insights into the genesis and production of the plays, and bound to be found absorbing by scholars and fans alike. It charts each stage in its hero's metamorphosis from the louche, trout-lipped Jagger-clone of the 1960s into the knighted grandee of the British stage, graced with the Order of Merit and brandishing an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love. It brings into focus the huge number of foreign plays he has adapted (including Lorca, Schnitzler and Nestroy) and the countless screenplays, produced and unproduced, on which he has worked (the oddest being a cartoon version of Cats). And it spills at least some of the beans about Stoppard's complicated marital career and glamorous paramours.

The book is marred, however, not only by its schematic view of its subject, but also by its irksome habit of repeating facts and quotations it has already supplied. Yet such flaws pale beside the failure to capture the covert poetry of Stoppard's extraordinary story, the secret history glimpsed in stray anecdotes and incidents, which stick in the mind when the biographer's tale has faded.

The most striking is the moment that stands out in the playwright's own memory of his wartime childhood in Darjeeling. One day, he recalls, when he was seven years old, he was walking through the school, "trailing a finger along a raised edge on the wall, and it suddenly came upon me that everything was alright, and would always be". The uncanny epiphany of little Tomáš Sträussler suggests that a different tale has yet to be told about Tom Stoppard, a tale that might well baffle the dazzling dramatist himself.

Kiernan Ryan is professor of English, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Double Act: A Life of Tom Stoppard

Author - Ira Nadel
Editor - Methuen
ISBN - 0 413 73050 6
Publisher - None
Price - £25.00
Pages - 621

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