A brand new biography of Tom Stoppard has just hit the shelves in America (it was released late last year in the UK). So I read this piece in the New Yorker and wondered if that is actually as close as I might get to reading the book. It’s most likely I will buy it. But it might take some time to read it (over summer I finally read a wonderful biography of Brian Eno, it had been patiently waiting – like one of Eno’s big ambient loops – for a decade and it was worth the wait; worth its weight).
Tom Stoppard is almost inarguably the world’s greatest living playwright. And his biographer here is Hermione Lee – she might be the world’s greatest living biographer having literally written the book on it (as well as covering Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton and Philip Roth, among others).
Sometimes I think a good documentary or even just an interview clip is all we need about a writer –beyond their own works of course. An outside biography is its own skill – and I hope to write at least one myself so I’m not at all damning such projects with faint praise. But biographies of a writer…do we need to know about the person behind the words? As we’ve seen in recent years that can often just lead to a puzzling lack of connection, even creating a troubled relationship with the work in light of what is learned about the character. I’ll take the memoir or autobiography always, and consider it less of a truth-telling and more in-character play (Dylan’s Chronicles just might be the most sublime example to date).
But I also have the urge to know more about Tom Stoppard – to know something – actually. Beyond knowing the quick skim-sheet of Wiki facts (age, place of birth, popular works in the order they arrived) I couldn’t tell you about any of his motivations or the machinations. I’d be somewhere deep in a queue of people lining up to throw money and praise at his very best works of course.
I first saw a Tom Stoppard play at the very start of my second year at university. Arcadia was then pretty new and this was its NZ premiere I’m sure. My mind was blown. The actors were great, absolutely. Everything about the production sparkled, but it was really Tom Stoppard’s words that strutted and fretted for the hour (and a half) on stage. We left almost punch-drunk, our minds filled with science and philosophy and art and deft wordplay. Maybe that’s why my after-date attempt to simply flick on the pinky-red lava lamp and drop the needle on Stevie’s Songs In The Key of Life was absolutely meaningless. How could anything compete with Tom Stoppard? And sure, you could make a case for Stevie Wonder doing exactly that (and maybe that’s for me to do right here another day) but I just remember the void after seeing Arcadia, for a day or two nothing else mattered. That’s the power of great theatre and great theatre-writing. And it’s something that doesn’t happen often. But on more than this one occasion Tom Stoppard has been responsible for that exact feeling.
But his cleverness can also be his undoing, particularly if the production isn’t smart enough to deal with the weight of the script. In the same theatre a decade and a half on I walked out of Stoppard’s play Rock ‘n’ Roll at halftime. The interval is still going as far as I’m concerned…
Stoppard is one of just a handful of playwrights for me where I’ve read the scripts – sometimes even returning to them like a favourite novel. It started with Arcadia, and then of course it was back to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead which I’ve seen on stage twice and loved the 1990 film adaptation (Gary Oldman and Tim Roth, how couldn’t you?) A nod of course to Waiting For Godot. And it was that play in particular that got me reading scripts as if they were story collections or novels – or long prose poems. And it was Beckett that was the first writer where I read the plays without even ever worrying as to whether I might see filmed or live productions.
I’m not sure I need to know how human Tom Stoppard is – the magic is in the conjuring of worlds and the wit with words. The humanity is right there in so many of his works. And then the fact that he co-wrote the screenplay to Brazil. If he’d just done that work alone he’d be on my hero list. I was in a daze for days after first seeing that film.
Oh yeah and he co-wrote Shakespeare in Love too. Which is a bit like Tom Hanks being in Forest Gump. But in both cases, we simply allow it. And know they moved on to greater things and had more important work already behind them. Time off, then, for good behaviour.
The thing that exists – on the page and on the stage – is the word, the play, and within it the wordplay. The wordplay is the thing wherein the audience’s imagination is captured by a king of writing. And so I’m not sure I need 1000 pages of deep background on Tom Stoppard. But at the same time I want to own and one day try to get through 1000 pages of labour-of-love work from an excellent writer. With the bonus that it also happens to be about an excellent writer.
I’m saving you 1000 pages and opting instead for just 1000 words.