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.