Tom Stoppard – A playwright of wit and dazzle

AN ELGIN EXCLUSIVE FEATURE By Surabhi Sunil

In London, a long time ago, Tom Stoppard puts pen to paper and cuts the sandpaper off a matchbox glueing it to his desk. There’s no time to waste on striking a light when words attach themselves to ideas.

It suited him, to turn seeds of thought into a story that surprising and original. In Hermione Lee’s Biography, we learn that his first hit, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was a work of pure genius created from a simple premise that Stoppard’s agent suggested.

“Words, words. They're all we have to go on.” - Tom Stoppard

Image by Lichfield Archive, Getty Images
“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.” ― Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Born Tomáš Straussler in Czechoslovakia, he and his family fled to Singapore when the Nazi’s invaded. However, their stay in Singapore didn’t last long as the family once again left before the Japanese occupation. This trip bought them to Darjeeling in India.
It was in Mount Hermon School, Darjeeling that Tomas became Tom and after his mother’s marriage to British army Major Kenneth Stoppard, he was given the Stoppard surname.

“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 dissociation, feelings of not belonging and constant pressure to fit is reflected in characters he creates who he notes are “constantly being addressed by the wrong name, with jokes and false trails to do with the confusion of having two names”.

Image by Joan Marcus, Vulture
India is mysterious, ethereal, definitely spiritual and Indians love the British – like a servant who dotes on his tyrannical master. And now we have Tom Stoppard’s word for it witnessed his play, Indian Ink. For all its gushing reviews, Indian Ink suffers from political incorrectness and cashes in on the Raj nostalgia.

In his writings, he favours subjects that are poets and scientists, especially if they can crack wise about philosophy. This fondness created the term ‘Stoppardian’ that attached itself to philosophy told using wit and comedy as a medium.
Stoppard has also worked on various screenplays though uncredited. Some of the most prominent works are Shakespeare in Love, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and even Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith.

In his personal life, Stoppard has been married three times. He has also had relationships with actresses, Felicity Kendal and Sinéad Cusack. Presently he is married to Sabrina Guinness.

Stoppard and his brother both remained in the dark about their family history till the late 1990s which was when they found that all four of their grandparents had been Jewish and had died in Terezin, Auschwitz and other camps. Following the death of his parents in 1998 he returned to his birthplace with a deep sadness for a lost father and a missing past but no notions of being a survivor.

Image by Dave Bennet, Evening Standard
Stoppard who fled what was Czechoslovakia in 1939 with his Jewish family said: “I always cry, I keep thinking, I can’t keep doing this. I think it’s about the 10th time I’ve seen it.” speaking about his latest work Leopoldstadt.

In his play, Indian Ink, a reworked version of a 1991 Stoppard radio play, In the Native State, he explores the relationship between Britain and India through a 35-year-old, left-wing, sexually liberated poetess, Flora Crewe, played by Felicity Kendal, and a young Anglophile Indian painter, Nirad Das (Art Malik). The play moves between the India of the ‘ 30s and contemporary Britain and India in a way that symbolizes Stoppard’s own Indian experiences and past.

Stoppard’s new play, his first in five years is an intimate drama with an epic sweep; the story of a family who made good. Leopoldstadt is a passionate drama of love, family and endurance. Tom Stoppard’s most humane and heart-breaking play and just perhaps his last.