Tom Stoppard rarely grants interviews, and is reluctant to speak about his life – even refusing to read the typescript of his recent biography by Ira Nadel, and never asking for corrections. The celebrated playwright is in Oxford to accept the Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence, and I was told it was unlikely he would agree to talk. His acceptance of my invitation, then, comes as a surprise, and I approach the morning with some trepidation. He speaks in a beautiful, almost hushed voice. As we walk from the marquee in the snowed-over Christ Church meadows, and as he offers me a cigarette (he smokes Silk Cut), I am struck by his charm and sincerity. It is daunting to be face to face with a notoriously elusive intellectual giant – it is practically mortifying to see that he takes you seriously and treats you as an equal. I mention this to him, for he is no stranger to being in this position, having started his career as a journalist at the age of seventeen. He once even constructed an ‘interview’ with Harold Pinter, made up entirely of quotations from previous interviews. Transforming multiple voices, and rendering familiar texts and contexts unfamiliar anew is what he does best.
It is perhaps fitting, therefore, that he receives with his award a copy of the Portland Vase – a cameo glass Roman vase from the first century BC housed in the British Museum, smashed by a vandal in 1845 and repeatedly restored – a symbol of the fragility and creation of art as an artefact. It seems only natural to question him about the process he employs in writing his plays, for, rather uniquely, he often rewrites scenes, recycles scripts, and refashions his plays during the process of rehearsal and performance. ‘I don’t go into rehearsal in order to defend my text, thinking that the text as it exists is a finished object like a poem. Theatre is an empirical art form, really – a pragmatic one, even.’ For Stoppard, writing a play is a collaborative process – an interactive journey. ‘The event which is a play implicates the audience, the actors, the playwright, and one has to achieve just the right degree of communication and comprehension, neither be undercomprehended or overcomprehended, and perhaps then the text needs just a bit of small adjustment. I don’t resent it, it’s part of the enjoyment of the art form.’
This attitude is not surprising when one considers how his life has been shaped by multiple and contrasting experiences. Stoppard was born Thomáš Straussler in Zlin, Czechoslovakia in 1937, from where his family moved to Singapore to escape the Nazis. His mother moved to India when Singapore was invaded – his father was captured and died in a Japanese prison camp. At the age of eight, the young Thomáš moved again – taking on the English name of his stepfather, Major Kenneth Stoppard. The Major was to write to him many decades later, demanding his name be returned to him. ‘It’s not practical’ was to be Stoppard’s response, to the man who once told him – ‘Don’t you realise I made you British?’ He was to discover, decades later, that his true history – that of a Jewish family – was hidden from him. ‘It affected me much less than people thought it had to affect me – and maybe it just came too late.’
These experiences inevitably shaped Stoppard’s writing, which in turn has defined the shape of British drama in the twentieth century. ‘You can only write what you know. I don’t have a secret drawer, and I never seem to have anything saved up and ready to work on… And that’s my present situation, actually. I don’t know what to channel, really.’ His time in India was the basis of In A Native State, a radio play he re-wrote as Indian Ink. ‘I was only eight when I left, but dreamed about India all my life. I used to have dreams about being in India – the kind of dreams where you are very very sorry to wake up – there’s something kind of poignant about it.’
Poignant, however, is not how his work has always been described. He has too often been criticised for being all head and no heart. Does emotion matter in plays? ‘I think it’s desirable, actually.’ But does what people say affect him? ‘I’m quite an eclectic writer. People always come to me with things they want me to write – "it’ll be perfect for you, Tom" – and that doesn’t really work – because they’re coming off what I have done already, which is the last place where I want to look, really.’
Looking back is not something he’s afraid of, though, and his plays often deal with multiple time schemes and settings, blending history and fiction. He has an interesting and unavoidable relationship with the past – both literary and historical. ‘I have plays that are set in the past, but I have no special attitude towards that fact.’ He is hesitant to tackle the question of his political allegiances. ‘It registers with me when political issues dissolve into moral issues… I don’t think of left and right… it’s perfectly clear to me if the moral issues were clear cut there would be no issues – that’s why it’s a living problem.’ This is not to say that his plays do not tackle or reverberate with political questions; politics are just not the point.
‘The primary impulse in writing plays tends to be lost in favour of secondary and tertiary impulses. The primary impulse for me is that it’s a storytelling art form, and what it has to say about politics as it were, or the community, that might be very pertinent to what the play is trying to do… but somehow of secondary importance. I don’t think theatre gets points for its subject matter any more than what a poem does. I don’t think art gets points for its intention. It gets points for execution. There are other ways of looking at that point and ways of disagreeing with it – and I’m quite happy to disagree with myself in a moment.’
And disagree he does. For despite this declaration, Stoppard has been linked with the cause of political dissidents in Eastern Europe. ‘I have to say that having made that very point to some silenced semi-exiled artists, writers and actors in Belarus three years ago, I was really shamed and put into place, because one forgets living here that for people living under repression and suppression, there’s no useful distinction to be made between intention and execution, and I think that’s what I would possibly need to remind myself of.’
When I began by asking if there was any particular direction he wanted our talk to take, he decided to ‘decline the honour or the onus.’ Yet, he is inquisitive – about Oxford, the student theatre scene, and my involvement in it. ‘I shouldn’t be interviewing you,’ he smiles. I am surprised, for I did not think he would be interested in knowing how his plays are produced by students – and I’m quite uncomfortable talking about my own participation with student productions, for fear of making a fool of myself. But his enthusiasm is infectious, and his curiosity genuine. ‘I am flattered, but it will pass’, he says, when I mention his undying popularity amongst students.
Stoppard never went to university, and instead started work as a journalist in Bristol. ‘I came to regret it… but I was anxious to start earning my own living… Probably I was sick of being in the sixth form and didn’t take into account what a liberation being a student would be… but I don’t regret being a journalist I think I got a lot from it.’ Working as a drama critic and a humour columnist for the Bristol Evening World first drew him into the circle of the theatre, making friends with people like Peter O’Toole, who was also starting a career at the same time. He tried his hand at writing a novel, which was a failure, but he found his niche as a playwright. ‘Apart form all the other reasons, there was definitely an element of vanity and self interest, because people were very interested in the theatre. And…I’m not being flippant. There was a knowing part of me that young playwrights got more attention than young novelists at that time; there was a disproportionate amount of attention for young writing for the theatre.’
This sense of the stage being larger-than-life, in a way, has translated itself into a foray onto the screen. He directed a film adaptation of his Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead starring Gary Oldman and Tim Roth, but it is for his co-writing of the screenplay of Shakespeare in Love that his stint in cinema is best remembered. Here, if anyone wanted it, was proof that Stoppard did indeed have a heart.
‘I don’t use the same parts of myself because I’m always treading on someone else’s work…. When I get turned on by a film job, I have a great time doing it.’ And what a great time it gave us, I say! ‘John Madden brought a lot of it to it. He made sure it worked as a love story.’ But it doesn’t always go the way it’s planned. ‘Sometimes it goes horribly wrong. I spent a long time on the Philip Pullman trilogy, but there was no director attached, and it was a completely wasted period as it turns out because the director likes to write his own scripts. But I like working with directors.’
It seems to have paid off. He gently waves off my congratulating him on his haul of the Tony for The Coast of Utopia and the Dan David Prize recently bestowed on him by the University of Tel Aviv. ‘I think I’ve been given it for being seventy, really!’ It is the sort of thing one can afford to say when one is Tom Stoppard, I suppose. When one’s career spans four Tony awards, the first knighthood for a playwright in over twenty five years, and even an Oscar, what more could one possibly ask for?
The answer, as ever, is candid. ‘Everytime I come to Oxford, and somehow more so this morning because of the snow and the sun and the sky all working together in collaboration with the old stone – I think I would like to be a writer in residence here with no duties – that would be the ideal form of one’s last decade – I don’t know how it strikes you, but to me it’s deeply appealing.’