We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.
Sir Tom Stoppard born Tomáš Straussler is a Czech-born British playwright and screenwriter. He has written for television, radio, film, and stage, finding prominence with plays such as Arcadia, The Coast of Utopia, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, Professional Foul, The Real Thing, Travesties, The Invention of Love, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
He co-wrote the screenplays for Brazil, The Russia House, and Shakespeare in Love, and has received an Academy Award, an Olivier and four Tony Awards. His work covers the themes of human rights, censorship and political freedom, often delving into the deeper philosophical thematics of society. Stoppard has been a playwright of the National Theatre and is one of the most internationally performed dramatists of his generation. In 2008, The Daily Telegraph ranked him number 11 in their list of the "100 most powerful people in British culture".
Born in Czechoslovakia, Stoppard left as a child refugee, fleeing imminent Nazi occupation. He settled with his family in Britain after the war, in 1946, having spent the three years prior 1943–1946 in a boarding school in Darjeeling in the Indian Himalayas. After being educated at schools in Nottingham and Yorkshire, Stoppard became a journalist, a drama critic and then, in 1960, a playwright.
It was announced in June 2019 that he had written a new play, Leopoldstadt, set in the Jewish community of early 20th-century Vienna. The play premiered in January 2020 at Wyndham's Theatre with Patrick Marber directing. In October 2020, it won the Olivier Award for Best New Play.
Life and career
Stoppard was born Tomáš Sträussler, in Zlín, a city dominated by the shoe manufacturing industry, in the Moravia region of Czechoslovakia. He is the son of Martha Becková and Eugen Sträussler, a doctor employed by the Bata shoe company. His parents were non-observant Jews, members of a long-established community. Just before the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, the town's patron, Jan Antonín Baťa, transferred his Jewish employees, mostly physicians, to branches of his firm outside Europe. On 15 March 1939, the day the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, the Sträussler family fled to Singapore, where Baťa had a factory.
Before the Japanese occupation of Singapore, Stoppard, his brother, and their mother fled to India. Stoppard's father remained in Singapore as a British army volunteer, knowing that, as a doctor, he would be needed in its defence. Stoppard was four years old when his father died. In the book Tom Stoppard in Conversation, Stoppard tells how his father died in Japanese captivity, a prisoner of war but has said that he subsequently discovered that Sträussler was reported to have drowned on board a ship bombed by Japanese forces, whilst trying to flee Singapore in 1942.
In 1941, when Tomáš was five, the three were evacuated to Darjeeling, India. The boys attended Mount Hermon School, an American multi-racial school, where Tomáš became Tom and his brother Petr became Peter.
In 1945, his mother, Martha, married British army major Kenneth Stoppard, who gave the boys his English surname and, in 1946, moved the family to England. Stoppard's stepfather believed strongly that "to be born an Englishman was to have drawn first prize in the lottery of life"—a quote from Cecil Rhodes—telling his 9-year-old stepson: "Don't you realise that I made you British?" setting up Stoppard's desire as a child to become "an honorary Englishman". "I fairly often find I'm with people who forget I don't quite belong in the world we're in", he says. "I find I put a foot wrong—it could be pronunciation, an arcane bit of English history—and suddenly I'm there naked, as someone with a pass, a press ticket." This is reflected in his characters, he notes, who are "constantly being addressed by the wrong name, with jokes and false trails to do with the confusion of having two names". Stoppard attended the Dolphin School in Nottinghamshire, and later completed his education at Pocklington School in East Riding, Yorkshire, which he hated.
Stoppard left school at seventeen and began work as a journalist for the Western Daily Press in Bristol, never receiving a university education. Years later, he came to regret not going to university, but at the time he loved his work as a journalist and felt passionately about his career. He worked at the paper from 1954 until 1958, when the Bristol Evening World offered Stoppard the position of feature writer, humour columnist, and secondary drama critic, which took Stoppard into the world of theatre. At the Bristol Old Vic, at the time a well-regarded regional repertory company, Stoppard formed friendships with director John Boorman and actor Peter O'Toole early in their careers. In Bristol, he became known more for his strained attempts at humour and unstylish clothes than for his writing.
Stoppard wrote short radio plays in 1953–54 and by 1960 he had completed his first stage play, A Walk on the Water, which was later re-titled Enter a Free Man 1968. He noted that the work owed much to Robert Bolt's Flowering Cherry and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Within a week after sending A Walk on the Water to an agent, Stoppard received his version of the "Hollywood-style telegrams that change struggling young artists' lives." His first play was optioned, staged in Hamburg, then broadcast on British Independent Television in 1963. From September 1962 until April 1963, Stoppard worked in London as a drama critic for Scene magazine, writing reviews and interviews both under his name and the pseudonym William Boot taken from Evelyn Waugh's Scoop. In 1964, a Ford Foundation grant enabled Stoppard to spend 5 months writing in a Berlin mansion, emerging with a one-act play titled Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Meet King Lear, which later evolved into his Tony-winning play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
In the following years, Stoppard produced several works for radio, television and the theatre, including "M" is for Moon Among Other Things 1964, A Separate Peace 1966 and If You're Glad I'll Be Frank 1966. On 11 April 1967 – following acclaim at the 1966 Edinburgh Festival – the opening of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in a National Theatre production at the Old Vic made Stoppard an overnight success. Jumpers 1972 places a professor of moral philosophy in a murder mystery thriller alongside a slew of radical gymnasts. Travesties 1974 explored the 'Wildean' possibilities arising from the fact that Vladimir Lenin, James Joyce, and Tristan Tzara had all been in Zürich during the First World War.
Arcadia 1993 explores the interaction between two modern academics and the residents of a Derbyshire country house in the early 19th century, including aristocrats, tutors and the fleeting presence, unseen on stage, of Lord Byron. The themes of the play include the philosophical implications of the second law of thermodynamics, Romantic literature, and the English picturesque style of garden design.
The Coast of Utopia 2002 was a trilogy of plays Stoppard wrote about the philosophical arguments among Russian revolutionary figures in the late 19th century. The trilogy comprises Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage. Major figures in the play include Michael Bakunin, Ivan Turgenev and Alexander Herzen.
Rock'n'Roll 2006 was set in both Cambridge, England and Prague. The play explored the culture of 1960s rock music, especially the persona of Syd Barrett and the political challenge of the Czech band The Plastic People of the Universe, mirroring the contrast between liberal society in England and the repressive Czech state after the Warsaw Pact intervention in the Prague Spring.
In his early years, Stoppard wrote extensively for BBC radio, often introducing surrealist themes. He has also adapted many of his stage works for radio, film and television winning extensive awards and honours from the start of his career. His radio production, Darkside 2013, was written for BBC Radio 2 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Pink Floyd's album, The Dark Side of the Moon.
Stoppard has written one novel, Lord Malquist and Mr Moon 1966, set in contemporary London. Its cast includes the 18th-century figure of the dandified Malquist and his ineffectual Boswell, Moon, and also cowboys, a lion banned from the Ritz and a donkey-borne Irishman claiming to be the Risen Christ.
In the 1980s, in addition to writing his own works, Stoppard translated many plays into English, including works by Sławomir Mrożek, Johann Nestroy, Arthur Schnitzler, and Václav Havel. It was at this time that Stoppard became influenced by the works of Polish and Czech absurdists. He has been co-opted into the Outrapo group, a far-from-serious French movement to improve actors' stage technique through science.
Stoppard has also co-written screenplays including Shakespeare in Love and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Steven Spielberg states that though Stoppard was uncredited for the latter, "he was responsible for almost every line of dialogue in the film". Stoppard also worked on Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, though again Stoppard received no official or formal credit in this role. He worked in a similar capacity with Tim Burton on his film Sleepy Hollow.
Stoppard serves on the advisory board of the magazine Standpoint, and was instrumental in its foundation, giving the opening speech at its launch. He is also a patron of the Shakespeare Schools Festival, a charity that enables school children across the UK to perform Shakespeare in professional theatres.
In July 2013 Stoppard was awarded the PEN Pinter Prize for "determination to tell things as they are."
Stoppard was appointed president of the London Library in 2002 and Vice-President in 2017 following the election of Sir Tim Rice as president.
In July 2017, Stoppard was elected an Honorary Fellow of the British Academy HonFBA, the United Kingdom's national academy for the humanities and social sciences.
Stoppard was appointed Cameron Mackintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre, St Catherine's College, Oxford, for the academic year 2017–2018.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead 1966–67 was Stoppard's first major play to gain recognition. The story of Hamlet as told from the viewpoint of two courtiers echoes Beckett in its double act repartee, existential themes and language play. "Stoppardian" became a term describing works using wit and comedy while addressing philosophical concepts. Critic Dennis Kennedy notes "It established several characteristics of Stoppard's dramaturgy: his word-playing intellectuality, audacious, paradoxical, and self-conscious theatricality, and preference for reworking pre-existing narratives... Stoppard's plays have been sometimes dismissed as pieces of clever showmanship, lacking in substance, social commitment, or emotional weight. His theatrical surfaces serve to conceal rather than reveal their author's views, and his fondness for towers of paradox spirals away from social comment. This is seen most clearly in his comedies The Real Inspector Hound 1968 and After Magritte 1970, which create their humour through highly formal devices of reframing and juxtaposition." Stoppard himself went so far as to declare "I must stop compromising my plays with this whiff of social application. They must be entirely untouched by any suspicion of usefulness." He acknowledges that he started off "as a language nerd", primarily enjoying linguistic and ideological playfulness, feeling early in his career that journalism was far better suited for presaging political change, than playwriting.
The accusations of favouring intellectuality over political commitment or commentary were met with a change of tack, as Stoppard produced increasingly socially engaged work. From 1977, he became personally involved with human-rights issues, in particular with the situation of political dissidents in Central and Eastern Europe. In February 1977, he visited the Soviet Union and several Eastern European countries with a member of Amnesty International. In June, Stoppard met Vladimir Bukovsky in London and travelled to Czechoslovakia then under communist control, where he met dissident playwright and future president Václav Havel, whose writing he greatly admires. Stoppard became involved with Index on Censorship, Amnesty International, and the Committee Against Psychiatric Abuse and wrote various newspaper articles and letters about human rights. He was instrumental in translating Havel's works into English. Every Good Boy Deserves Favour 1977, "a play for actors and orchestra" was based on a request by conductor/composer André Previn; inspired by a meeting with a Russian exile. This play as well as Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth 1979, The Coast of Utopia 2002, Rock 'n' Roll 2006, and two works for television Professional Foul 1977 and Squaring the Circle 1984 all concern themes of censorship, rights abuses, and state repression.
Stoppard's later works have sought greater inter-personal depths, whilst maintaining their intellectual playfulness. Stoppard acknowledges that around 1982 he moved away from the "argumentative" works and more towards plays of the heart, as he became "less shy" about emotional openness. Discussing the later integration of heart and mind in his work, he commented "I think I was too concerned when I set off, to have a firework go off every few seconds... I think I was always looking for the entertainer in myself and I seem to be able to entertain through manipulating language... it's really about human beings, it's not really about language at all." The Real Thing 1982 uses a meta-theatrical structure to explore the suffering that adultery can produce and The Invention of Love 1997 also investigates the pain of passion. Arcadia 1993 explores the meeting of chaos theory, historiography, and landscape gardening. He was inspired by a Trevor Nunn production of Gorky's Summerfolk to write a trilogy of "human" plays: The Coast of Utopia Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage, 2002.
Stoppard has commented that he loves the medium of theatre for how 'adjustable' it is at every point, how unfrozen it is, continuously growing and developing through each rehearsal, free from the text. His experience of writing for film is similar, offering the liberating opportunity to 'play God', in control of creative reality. It often takes four to five years from the first idea of a play to staging, taking pains to be as profoundly accurate in his research as he can be.
Stoppard has been married three times. His first marriage was to Josie Ingle 1965–1972, a nurse; his second marriage was to Miriam Stern 1972–92. They separated when he began a relationship with actress Felicity Kendal. He also had a relationship with actress Sinéad Cusack, but she made it clear she wished to remain married to Jeremy Irons and stay close to their two sons. Also, after she was reunited with a son she had given up for adoption, she wished to spend time with him in Dublin rather than with Stoppard in the house they shared in France. He has two sons from each of his first two marriages: Oliver Stoppard, Barnaby Stoppard, the actor Ed Stoppard, and Will Stoppard, who is married to violinist Linzi Stoppard. In 2014 he married Sabrina Guinness.
Stoppard's mother died in 1996. The family had not talked about their history and neither brother knew what had happened to the family left behind in Czechoslovakia. In the early 1990s, with the fall of communism, Stoppard found out that all four of his grandparents had been Jewish and had died in Terezin, Auschwitz and other camps, along with three of his mother's sisters.
In 1998, following the deaths of his parents, he returned to Zlín for the first time in over 50 years. He has expressed grief both for a lost father and a missing past, but he has no sense of being a survivor, at whatever remove. "I feel incredibly lucky not to have had to survive or die. It's a conspicuous part of what might be termed a charmed life."
In 2013, Stoppard asked Hermione Lee to write his biography. It appeared in 2020.
In 1979, the year of Margaret Thatcher's election, Stoppard noted to Paul Delaney: "I'm a conservative with a small c. I am a conservative in politics, literature, education and theatre." In 2007, Stoppard described himself as a "timid libertarian".
The Tom Stoppard Prize Czech: Cena Toma Stopparda was created in 1983 under the Charter 77 Foundation and is awarded to authors of Czech origin.
With Kevin Spacey, Jude Law and others, Stoppard joined protests against the regime of Alexander Lukashenko in March 2011, showing their support for the Belarusian democracy movement.
In 2014, Stoppard publicly backed "Hacked Off" and its campaign towards press self-regulation by "safeguarding the press from political interference while also giving vital protection to the vulnerable."
Representations in art
Stoppard sat for sculptor Alan Thornhill, and a bronze head is now in public collection, situated with the Stoppard papers in the reading room of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The terracotta remains in the collection of the artist in London. The correspondence file relating to the Stoppard bust is held in the archive of the Henry Moore Foundation's Henry Moore Institute in Leeds.
Stoppard also sat for the sculptor and friend Angela Conner, and his bronze portrait bust is on display in the grounds of Chatsworth House.
The papers of Tom Stoppard are housed at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The archive was first established by Stoppard in 1991 and continues to grow. The collection consists of typescript and handwritten drafts, revision pages, outlines, and notes; production material, including cast lists, set drawings, schedules, and photographs; theatre programs; posters; advertisements; clippings; page and galley proofs; dust jackets; correspondence; legal documents and financial papers, including passports, contracts, and royalty and account statements; itineraries; appointment books and diary sheets; photographs; sheet music; sound recordings; a scrapbook; artwork; minutes of meetings; and publications.
Selected awards and honours
- 1967: Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright UK
- 1967: Plays and Players London Theatre Critics Award Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead UK
- 1968: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – Tony Award for Best Play, New York Drama Critics' Circle Best Play of the Year US, Plays and Players London Theatre Critics Award for Best New Play UK
- 1968: Albert's Bridge – Prix Italia Italy
- 1972: Jumpers – Evening Standard Award for Best Play, Plays and Players London Theatre Critics Award for Best New Play UK
- 1974: Travesties – Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy of the Year UK
- 1976: Travesties – Tony Award for Best Play, New York Critics Award for Best Play US
- 1978: Night and Day – Evening Standard Award for Best Play UK
- 1982: The Dog It Was That Died – Giles Cooper Award
- 1982: The Real Thing – Evening Standard Award for Best Play UK
- 1984: The Real Thing – Tony Award for Best Play, New York Critics Award for Best Foreign Play US
- 1991: In the Native State – Giles Cooper Award
- 1993: Arcadia – Critics' Circle Theatre Awards for Best New Play, Evening Standard Award for Best Play of the Year
- 1994: Arcadia – Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play UK
- 1997: The Invention of Love – Evening Standard Award for Best Play UK
- 1998: Shakespeare in Love – Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay US
- 1999: Shakespeare in Love – Silver Bear for an outstanding single achievement Berlin
- 2000: The Real Thing – Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival of a Play US
- 2000: The Real Thing – Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play US
- 2001: The Invention of Love – New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play US
- 2007: The Coast of Utopia – Tony Award for Best Play US
- 2007: The Critics' Circle Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts presented on 3 April 2008 at the National Theatre UK
- 2008: The 2008 Dan David Prize for Creative Rendering of the Past in Theatre Israeli
- 2013: The PEN Pinter Prize for "determination to tell things as they are." UK
- 2013: Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement
- 2015: PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award
- 2017: America Award in Literature
- 2017: David Cohen Prize
- 2020: Leopoldstadt – Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play
- 1972: Elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature
- 1978: Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 1978 New Year Honours
- 1997: Knight Bachelor in the 1997 Birthday Honours for services to literature
- 1999: Induction into American Theater Hall of Fame
- 2000: Order of Merit
- 2000: Honorary Doctor of Letters, Yale University
- 2000: Honorary Doctor of Letters, University of Cambridge
- 2002: President of The London Library
- 2009: Honorary Patronage of the University Philosophical Society, Trinity College, Dublin
- 2013: Honorary Doctor of Letters, University of Oxford
- 2017: Honorary Fellow of the British Academy
- 1966: Lord Malquist and Mr Moon
- 1964: A Walk on the Water
- 1965: The Gamblers, based on the novel The Gambler by Dostoevsky
- 1966: Tango, adapted from Sławomir Mrożek's play and Nicholas Bethell translation, premiered at the Aldwych Theatre
- 1966: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
- 1968: Enter a Free Man. Developed from A Walk on the Water. First performed 28 March 1968.
- 1968: The Real Inspector Hound
- 1969: Albert's Bridge premiered at St. Mary's Hall in Edinburgh
- 1969: If You're Glad I'll Be Frank premiered at St. Mary's Hall in Edinburgh
- 1970: After Magritte frequently performed as a companion piece to The Real Inspector Hound
- 1971: Dogg's Our Pet premiered at the Almost Free Theatre
- 1972: Jumpers
- 1972: Artist Descending a Staircase
- 1974: Travesties
- 1976: Dirty Linen and New-Found-Land first performed on 6 April 1976
- 1976: 15-Minute Hamlet
- 1977: Every Good Boy Deserves Favour was written at the request of André Previn. The play calls for a full orchestra
- 1978: Night and Day
- 1979: Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth – two plays written to be performed together.
- 1979: Undiscovered Country – an adaptation of Das Weite Land by the Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler
- 1981: On the Razzle based on Einen Jux will er sich machen by Johann Nestroy
- 1982: The Real Thing
- 1982: The 15 Minute Dogg's Troupe Hamlet, revision of 1979 play, Tom Stoppard's contribution to eight one-act plays by eight playwrights performed as Pieces of Eight
- 1983: English libretto for The Love for Three Oranges. Original opera by Sergei Prokofiev.
- 1984: Rough Crossing based on Play at the Castle by Ferenc Molnár
- 1986: Dalliance An adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's Liebelei
- 1987: Largo Desolato, translation of a play by Václav Havel
- 1988: Hapgood
- 1993: Arcadia
- 1995: Indian Ink – based on Stoppard's radio play In the Native State
- 1997: The Invention of Love
- 1997: The Seagull – translation of the play by Anton Chekhov
- 2002: The Coast of Utopia is a trilogy of plays: Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage
- 2004: Enrico IV Henry IV – translation of the Italian play by Luigi Pirandello First presented at the Donmar Theatre, London, in April 2004
- 2006: Rock 'n' Roll – first public performance 3 June 2006 preview at the Royal Court Theatre.
- 2010: The Laws of War – contributor to a collaborative piece for a one-night benefit performance in support of Human Rights Watch.
- 2015: The Hard Problem
- 2020: Leopoldstadt
- 1964: The Dissolution of Dominic Boot
- 1964: 'M' is for Moon Amongst Other Things
- 1966: If You're Glad I'll be Frank
- 1967: Albert's Bridge
- 1968: Where Are They Now?, written for schools radio
- 1972: Artist Descending a Staircase
- 1982: The Dog It Was That Died
- 1991: In the Native State, later expanded to become the stage play Indian Ink 1995
- 2007: On Dover Beach
- 2012: Albert's Bridge, Artist Descending a Staircase, The Dog It Was That Died, and In the Native State have been published by the British Library as Tom Stoppard Radio Plays
- 2013: Darkside, written for BBC Radio 2
- A Separate Peace transmitted August 1966
- Another Moon Called Earth containing some dialogue and situations later incorporated into Jumpers
- Neutral Ground a loose adaptation of Sophocles' Philoctetes
- Professional Foul
- Squaring the Circle
- 1970: The Engagement, a television version of The Dissolution of Dominic Boot on NBC Experiment in Television
- 1975: Three Men in a Boat adaptation of Jerome K. Jerome's novel for BBC Television
- 1975: The Boundary co-authored by Clive Exton, for the BBC
- 1978: Despair – screenplay for the film directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, starring Dirk Bogarde, based on the novel by Vladimir Nabokov
- 1979: The Human Factor — a film adaption of the novel by Graham Greene
- 1985: Brazil co-authored with Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown, script nominated for an Academy Award
- 1987: Empire of the Sun first draft of the screenplay
- 1989: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade final rewrite of Jeffrey Boam's rewrite of Menno Meyjes's screenplay
- 1990: The Russia House screenplay for the 1990 film of the John le Carré novel
- 1990: Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead – won the Golden Lion and which he also directed
- 1998: Shakespeare in Love co-authored with Marc Norman; script won an Academy Award
- 1998: Poodle Springs teleplay adaptation of the novel by Robert B. Parker and Raymond Chandler
- 2001: Enigma film screenplay of the Robert Harris novel
- 2005: Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith dialogue-polish of George Lucas's screenplay
- 2005: The Golden Compass a draft screenplay, not produced
- 2012: Parade's End, television screenplay for BBC/HBO of Ford Madox Ford's series of novels
- 2012: Anna Karenina, film screenplay of the Leo Tolstoy novel
- 2014: Tulip Fever, film screenplay of the Deborah Moggach novel