Sir Tom Stoppard is Britain’s — perhaps the world’s — leading playwright. Born Tomas Straussler in Zlin, Czechoslovakia, in 1937, his family left as the German army moved in. The Strausslers were Jewish. In adulthood he learned that all four of his grandparents were killed by the Nazis. His father was killed by the Japanese on a boat out of Singapore as he tried to rejoin his wife and two sons. In India his mother married again, to an English Army man who gave his stepchildren his surname.
Stoppard has lifted the lid on his early life only once before, in a piece for Talk magazine in 1999. He remarked there that in the 1990s, after the death of his mother, his stepfather had asked him to stop using his name after feeling some imagined ingratitude in his then already famous stepson: ‘Don’t you realise I made you British?’ seemed to be his resentful message.
Today, at the age of 82, the playwright lives in an old rectory in the south of England with his third wife, Sabrina Guinness, whom he married in 2014. After lunch together in the kitchen and a walk around the rectory gardens, the famously private author agrees to talk about his life and work, including his new play, Leopoldstadt, which opens at the end of January.
We talk in the drawing-room, with a log fire roaring beside us. With his still unmistakable Mitteleuropean drawl he explains that the right subject for a play ‘is not that easy to find’. Perhaps it is only now, towards the end, that Stoppard feels ready to go back to the world which produced him?
‘This one actually was hiding in plain sight. I’d been circling it for quite a long time without quite admitting that I was writing a play about it. It’s a Jewish family — 1900 to 1955 — and the main reason that they’re Viennese is that the latter part of the play impinges on my own experience, this mental experience, and I didn’t want it to be about me because it wasn’t supposed to be about me. But it was about… yes it was about part of myself.’
He speaks slowly, carefully, constantly turning over and self-correcting his words as he caresses and then smokes the first of a steady stream of cigarettes. ‘But it was so much more than that. It would have been confusing if I’d said, “Well here’s this young man — or old man — born in Zlin in 1937”, and so forth. So to get away from all of that I made them Viennese, which was all well and good up to a point and then, when it began to kind of cross the frontier into something more individually personal I had to shift my feet because I came to England when I was eight and ultimately this play ends up with somebody who was a bit older than me and came to England speaking only German, whereas I spoke English by the time I came to England. So there’s just a scrap of me towards the end of the play.’
The subject of Jewish culture in the middle of Europe just before the catastrophe may be the most fertile subject there is.
‘I feel that way about it myself now, yes. You honestly can’t do justice to it. There couldn’t have been many places or periods where the axis between culture and its practitioners and its audiences was so intimate and so intense.’
Does he have pre-opening angst?
‘Just the technical and physical aspect of things. When you’re writing you’re very self-sufficient. It doesn’t need anything except you and it. But the moment it goes into rehearsal, and especially on to the stage itself, it becomes an aggregator.’
Do the words still come as easily? ‘All the good bits are subconscious — they truly are. It’s one of those things maybe writers like to say of themselves or say of their trade, but it’s very seldom that you sit down knowing pretty much what you have to put on this page of paper. It’s much more the case that it creates itself in the doing, almost as though it creates itself in the physical act of writing.’
There is a quote from the 19th-century Russian critic Vissarion Belinsky, who features in Stoppard’s 2002 trilogy of plays The Coast of Utopia — essentially, where does the poet go at that moment of pause, before his pen starts up again?
‘I know more than is good for me now about synapses and lobes and grey matter and that whole stuff that I got to know about quite thoroughly for The Hard Problem [his 2015 play about the problem of consciousness]. So I imagine that, in a sort of sense, I know what happens materially. But as far as the immaterial part of it goes, not only do I not know but it is necessary not to know. It’s a belief in a metaphysical dimension which operates really almost on every side of my life and I believe in it and depend upon it.’
Like a lot of the foundations of Stoppard’s mind, there are depths that appear slightly at odds with the assumptions of the age. For instance, this age doesn’t like to talk about inspiration.
‘It’s interesting that you know the difference between having written something which is OK and something which isn’t. But actually explaining or analysing what the difference is is very difficult. But there’s no question that you know the difference. The luckiness comes from not being in complete control of what’s going to come off the end of your fountain pen. You can’t guarantee it. You can’t guarantee that because it happened yesterday it will happen today. And now that I revel in being an octogenarian, I expect it to stop. I was nervous that it would just stop before I finished Leopoldstadt.’
It is not false humility. During our hours together he talks repeatedly about his diminishing physical strength. Yet he still works incredibly hard. ‘I don’t work as hard as I used to, because the physical limit is different nowadays. I used to work two shifts a day very happily. But not only is my body and my brain older, but I used to live on my own. Until Sabrina and I were living together, I’d lived on my own for 20 years I think.’
Was he impossible to live with?
‘No. Because I liked it. You know, I like living with Sabrina but I never had a lonely five minutes when I was living on my own. I don’t think it’s particularly unusual, but living in silence is actually a perfectly agreeable way to live. Sabrina, bless her, wakes up very early and very quietly listens to the Today programme, and whenever I meet Sarah Sands [the editor of Today] I have this terrible guilt, because I’ve never, ever listened, and of course the people who do the Today programme are under the impression that everyone is listening.’
But clearly the mental energy a writer needs is still there? ‘Yes, for shorter bursts.’ And are there not advantages that he has in his eighties? Things that he couldn’t do as a younger writer? He seems surprised at the suggestion. ‘Have you got any advantages in mind?’ ‘Wisdom?’ I suggest. Things you might have worried about in the past that don’t concern you any longer. There is a magus-like quality about Stoppard, and it is impossible not to want to tap into it.
‘Well, you know, like everybody I live a sort of double life,’ he says with a glint. ‘I’m fur-tively competitive, which is one of the things which made me want to keep writing.’ Whenever a piece of the shard within him is revealed, like this, he immediately covers for himself. Who does he still feel in competition with?
He won’t name names. ‘I wasn’t thinking in that way. There was a wonderful thing Stirling Moss said. He said, “You don’t get a big bang out of going round the track at 180 miles an hour. No, it’s all about taking an 80-mile-an-hour corner at 81 and then you think, “There, you bastards, match that.” And I sort of felt a complete, shameful empathy with him.’
So does the 82-year-old playwright know when he’s taken an 80 corner at 81? ‘Sort of, yes. I mean, you could be wrong but you think you know, yes. It’s very hard to make judgments abreast of what you’re judging. I make no assumptions of how things will look in the future. Reputations rise and fall. Even in your lifetime, let alone mine, there are painters and writers who’ve been hit by the sunbeam and then the sunbeam moves on.’ He quotes Lytton Strachey (‘What has posterity done for me?’) but acknowledges that he feels differently.
‘I aspire to write for posterity. I would like my plays to be done occasionally, not just be done when they’re brand new. I like the idea of them being part of the furniture. Which of course isn’t true of all of them. You’re just lucky if you have one or two which are there.’
The sun has shone on his own work an awful lot, hasn’t it? ‘It’s too soon to tell. But yes, you’re right.’
And when did it shine hardest?
‘I think it just happens once, doesn’t it? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead got a couple of good reviews at the Edinburgh Festival. Within eight or nine months it was on in London and got very good reviews. So that was a bit of a sunburst, but it didn’t actually last very long because until then I hadn’t understood that that kind of thing could happen to people like me, and as soon as I realised it had happened it kind of went through the floor. The stock plunged at that moment and I was thinking, “Oh, I see, you don’t have to be one of these gods for this to happen. You can just be somebody who writes a play”. After that I was very anxious about it. I remember being very, very nervous for succeeding opening nights right through the 1970s, most certainly the 1980s. But nowadays, because I suppose I don’t feel I’ve got anything to prove, I’m just happy if the event happens the way we rehearsed it.’
Has he ever felt the critical consensus has been badly off?
‘The Coast of Utopia was more successful the second time, in New York, than the first time [in London]. You learn from the first time and I learned a lot. The first time around, to be honest, we didn’t have enough rehearsal time. But more to the point perhaps is that, between the two productions, I took 15 minutes out of each play, so instead of being a nine-hour epic it was an eight-hour epic, and that’s a crucial difference.’
But these are technical aspects. What wisdom has he accrued as a writer? In The Invention of Love (1997) there is a scene in which, having crossed the river Styx, the poet A.E. Housman ends up in conversation with his younger self. At one point the younger Housman (who does not realise that he is speaking to his older self) asks for advice on the nature of love. In a devastating moment, the older Housman realises that there is nothing he has learned over the decades. That cannot be the case with the playwright himself, can it?
‘Recalling that scene, the thing that leaps to the forefront of my mind is that I didn’t see it coming. In the case of Housman, I was really worried because I had nothing to write about. I had no situation to write about. I just had my pleasure in what Housman did and how he worked and wrote. So when it got to a point, “Oh I get it, he can meet his younger self”, that took me to the end of the act. I’m sure that you don’t suppose any such thing, but the last thing that tends to happen is you think, “Oh I’ve got this great idea for a play, and half an hour in the old boy can meet his young self”. It doesn’t happen like that at all, and furthermore I don’t think it would be any good.’
But what would happen if the older Tom Stoppard were to get a chance to speak with his younger self? Beyond the technical advice, playwright to playwright?
The drawbridge politely but firmly comes up. ‘Well, obviously not to be taken personally, but I think “just say no” essentially about talking about it. Delivering yourself of opinions of any kind is somehow robbing your own pantry.’ Apart from that one moment in 1999 when the drawbridge came down in his Talk magazine article, Stoppard has been warier than any other writer of raiding that pantry for anything other than his plays. He seems to have a deep need to keep everything inside, turning it over where it is useful and letting things out only as finished products.
He is still a self-confessed ‘junkie’ when it comes to newsprint. ‘I get up and I read the Guardian and the Times, and if it’s Friday I have either the TLS or The Spectator.’ He tells himself that he’s looking out for the next idea, but really, ‘It’s partly from coming out of journalism and really loving it, and partly because I’m a natural fan. I want to know who is writing this novel or that biography. I’ve got an appetite for knowing what the next wavelet of culture has brought ashore. I don’t know why.
‘I meet people — as a general rule nearly all the people I know don’t read what I read — and I think “What a strange way to live, what you don’t seem to know about. It’s kind of like, how can you not know about The Madness of Crowds?” It’s actually the book I’ve just finished. You can’t just not read these books, not know about them. The answer maybe is that you can, in the sense that everything percolates through, finally. So what is it? I get a little thrill every time there’s a new issue of something.’
He asks if I share the feeling and I tell him that of course a day without having ingested a book of some kind is a day I become irritable. As though I haven’t had any nutrition. ‘Well, you haven’t,’ he says, simply.
‘My life at the moment, and for some time past, has been very happy, and strangely the sense of gravity of that is not so much having something to write and writing it. It’s the fact that every day ends the same way. It ends with me in bed, Sabrina asleep, and I’m reading whatever I’m reading until half past one, sometimes two o’clock.’
Where else does that mental searching go? When his last play, The Hard Problem, came out, some people thought that he was leaving the door open for religion — or at least prayer.
He is keen to correct some misapprehensions about that play. ‘The play ultimately wants to say that reductionism just won’t do as a final answer. There’s too much in one’s life which doesn’t fit with that. You know. We all have private experience. I’m thinking of things in life like grief, for example, which people explain as a biological response, and I’ve never felt that that was explanation enough for sorrow, or love, or mother love. Scientific investigation has this strange internal contradiction, which is that it doesn’t need you to find it out, so why are you finding it out?’
So he is a sceptic of the scientific age?
‘Yes — a sceptic of the expert explanation, the sort of complete lack of self-doubt: total self-certainty and dogmatism of the proponents. I mean your friend Sam Harris would be an example. I’ve never really read him but I’ve read a bit of him here and there, and I remember thinking of him in much the same way as I think of Richard Dawkins, who I find very agreeable company too, that there’s something discourteous about claiming 100 per cent of the terrain, just nothing else to say from any other quarter. Somebody said about Macaulay, “I wish I knew as much about anything as Tom knows about everything”. ’
As the light is failing and the fire flickering down, our conversation roams over the many other things that still cluster in Stoppard’s mind. He is worried about the constant encroachment on liberty (‘I think it’s been encroached upon my whole life’). And talking of the internet, he says: ‘I can’t think of anything in history which turned out to be as bad an idea as it turns out to be, contrary to all expectation of it being a wonderful thing.’
He thinks there is a big play to be written on capitalism and the City of London. ‘I think a lot of what I think of as being criminal behaviour is done by people who don’t consider themselves to be criminals at all. I think the artist’s job partly is to remind us of what’s fair, but in moral terms.’ But he worries that he doesn’t have the time and energy to do the research into the big problem that capitalism currently presents. What about one of his other ideas? He has all the paperwork upstairs (including the Leveson report and the transcripts of the House of Commons committee hearings) to write a play about the press. He’s been thinking about that ‘from long before Leopoldstadt and long before The Hard Problem’.
Of Europe, he says: ‘You know, in 1989/90 I thought I had lived to see the good times in European history.’ Fukuyama and all that. ‘And it seemed to last about ten minutes before another fault line arrived under our feet.’ He talks about the floods in Venice, the fires in Australia, and Islamism, which ‘won’t go away. That particular tectonic plate between Islam and everybody else. I don’t know. It’s like a fight to the death, the way it looks now. The Strange Death of Europe as well’.
Despite following things with extraordinary care, he has always managed to maintain a stance above politics. Is it deliberate? ‘I think of theatre as being the commentary on life.’ He has said before that if you want to change something by next month you need to work on a newspaper or a television documentary. Whereas ‘the job for an artist is to lay down the moral matrix for having that urge — for making that urge intelligible. The artist has the job of making morality clear but not necessarily the strategy’.
The sun has gone down outside and as the two of us sit opposite each other by the dying fire I feel compelled to ask him who he misses. He dodges the question for a while, then admits that he misses Ken Tynan — misses reading him. And ‘in a strange sense I miss people I’ve never known’. Philip Larkin, for instance, who ‘I did meet once or twice’, including at a party at 10 Downing Street. We talk about Larkin for a bit and after a while he stops himself. And then: ‘I’ve dodged your question because I was ashamed of my answer. I don’t actually miss anybody.’ There are more exhalations of cigarette smoke. Then he stops again. Something has caught him. ‘I miss my mother. But that’s not what you meant, or maybe it was what you meant. Yes, I just loved my mother. She was a very touching, sort of brave sort of person, but very timid, very nervous and once or twice in my youth I’d get infuriated by her and part from her in this awful way. And although she lived for many years after that, so it was OK, I still think of one or two of those occasions. One was at the railway station. I just think of them with terrible regret that I allowed it to happen.’
As the evening draws in his thoughts have brought him back again to the start. The young boy from Zlin, about to be lent a name that he would make famous throughout the world.
Leopoldstadt is at Wyndham’s Theatre from 25 January 2020.