One of the greatest living playwrights is also a sought-after screenwriter and a conservative modernist. As his adaptations of "Anna Karenina" and "Parade's End" arrive, Victoria Glendinning goes for lunch...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2012
TOM STOPPARD TURNED 75 this summer. There is a line of his on several quotations websites: “I think age is a very high price to pay for maturity.” Does he still think that? He tells the strange story of how he wrote those words, some time in the late 1960s, on a dressing-room wall, backstage at the rock musical “Hair”, for a friend who was appearing in it. “And then, years and years later, I was sent a photo of the same words written on a signboard in Hawaii, and this was pre-Twitter. It’s like one of Richard Dawkins’s memes, a cultural gene which spreads.”
Back to the subject: “I don’t like getting old.” Tentatively, I suggest this may be because when we are old we don’t know any more how we seem to other people. “I don’t think I ever present myself to other people,” he says. “Most of us are impersonating a version of ourselves.” The version of himself that Stoppard projects to the world is courteous, considerate, conscientious. If a comment strikes a wrong note, he responds at an angle, like a politician, or a poet, and with a hint of asperity. His pastime is fly-fishing, which demands quiet and patience. It is hard to imagine him getting really angry. “I lose my temper about things and people but not at people, or rarely.”
He runs his fingers through his longish grey locks, quite often. He speaks with deliberation, and does not pronounce the letter r as others do. It is not rolled, it comes from somewhere at the back of his throat. He is conservatively dressed in dark trousers and a striped shirt, no jacket. In profile he is a Roman emperor. But just around the corner is the flash of a cape, the flicker of a flying scarf, all the tousled stylishness of Bohemia. He looks like Doctor Who as played by Jon Pertwee. He is the Doctor Who of theatre, spiralling round parallel realities, playing with time. Even in conversation, versions of himself jostle for primacy, subverting what he has just said. He could never have been an actor like his son, Ed: “I’d be too self- conscious.” He’s not self-conscious at the moment—even though he is, he says, “enacting someone being interviewed”—“because I’m not pretending to be someone else. I’d feel silly in someone else’s story, being someone else.”
Yet he did start his life as someone else—the little Czech refugee, “whisked away from both the Nazis and the Japanese”. Tomas Straussler, with his brother and his parents, fled the German occupation of Czechoslovakia and went to Singapore. The small boys and their mother Martha fled again, to Australia, this time escaping the Japanese occupation of Singapore. His father, a doctor, stayed behind and did not survive. Martha and her sons were displaced a third time, from Australia to India, where at the end of the war she married an Englishman, Major Kenneth Stoppard. He gave the boys his name and brought the family to England. Major Stoppard said to Tom, when he was still a young child: “Don’t you realise that I made you British?” So far from resenting this, Tom sees the gift of Britishness as part of what he calls his “charmed life”.
An aspect of his charmed life is that “I grew up in a culture which put a high premium on theatre.” He is one of that clutch of world-class British playwrights born in the 1930s who burst on to the scene after Arnold Wesker, John Osborne and Peter Shaffer; he can be thought of in the same breath as Harold Pinter, Michael Frayn and Simon Gray. But a few years’ difference in age is huge when you are young, and Pinter was seven years older, Frayn four, Gray one. “Pinter I looked up to when I was a journalistic reporter in Bristol”—his first job, straight out of school—“and I was a Frayn follower from the late 1950s. His television reviews in the Guardian were little gems.”
“Simon [Gray] and I came through at much the same time”—Stoppard with “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” (1966), an overnight success which now has classic status. Virtuoso performers such as John Wood, the friend for whom he wrote “Travesties” (1974), made theatre seem like a collaboration between writer and actor. “I knew John from 1965 when we were both youngish-marrieds in Pimlico, and he was in a TV play I wrote.” John Wood died last year, and at a memorial celebration in July Stoppard told a roomful of actors, “he truly was my favourite actor”.
No artist considers himself as one of a cluster, however distinguished it may be, and Stoppard says he thinks about his contemporaries not just as playwrights, but as “people and what they are like”. But is he competitive? A long pause. “I am furtively competitive.”