In the following excerpt from her landmark biography of Tom Stoppard, Hermione Lee explores the background of one of his most personal works to date, the 2020 play Leopoldstadt.
Time and again Tom Stoppard had talked about his good luck. He told people that he had had a charmed life and a happy childhood, even though he was taken from his home as a baby in wartime, his father was killed, and many members of his family, as he later discovered, were murdered by the Nazis. This narrative had become part of his performance, his built-in way of thinking and talking about himself. And that story of a charmed life was profoundly connected to his sense of luck in having become English. A patriotic gratitude, and a pleasure in belonging to his adoptive country, which, in contrast to many other places, was a free country, was the lifelong outcome of his childhood luck.
A charmed life seems a highly appropriate phrase for Stoppard, too—not that he would put it like this—because of his own charm. Charm is a difficult word. It usually makes a person sound shady: glib, superficial, manipulative. If it’s possible to redeem the word, you’d want, in his case, to talk about “deep” charm: a charm that comes from attention, kindness, intelligence, humor, physical charisma—as well as glamour. And, also, charm as a form of concealment. Stoppard’s charm is not a barrier to the extent of the worldly, famous novelist Felix Abravanel in Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, whose “charm was like a moat so oceanic that you could not even see the great turreted and buttressed thing it had been dug to protect. You couldn’t even find the drawbridge.” But it does work as a form of defense and a means of persuasion. He knows what effect he has on people. Charm is also a vital characteristic of his work: the 2017 production of Travesties shows that off perfectly. And “charm” in its sense of spell or enchantment—like the “charms” that Prospero says goodbye to, having set Ariel free, at the end of The Tempest—is the secret of Stoppard’s profession, the magical thing that happens in the theater, hard to say quite how or why: “It’s a mystery.”
But his sense of having had a charmed life has its dark side, too. Luck, the fall of a coin, plays a big part in his plays. Some of his characters get away with it, and get lucky. They escape the war to the blessed zone of Swiss neutrality. They visit an oppressed Eastern European country, but are free to go home again. They find the person they love, at the very end of the play, by accident or coincidence. But there are as many characters who don’t have any luck. They don’t know who they are or what they are supposed to do. They are uncertain and confused, and they never get any answers. They are far from home, in exile with no hope of return. They do not get their heart’s desire. They do not escape the worst of history. They die bewildered, or too soon.
As Stoppard came into old age, his sense of his “charmed life” underwent a retrospective shift. Of course there had been profound changes before that. His thoughts about his own history, and the way he used it in his work, had been altered by his friendship with Václav Havel, by finding out the facts of his Jewishness and returning to Czechoslovakia in the nineties, and by his mother’s death. But, in his eighties, the past came back for him in a different way, entailing some pain and self-reproach. He was a person and a writer for whom “kin” and “kinship” had always mattered deeply: a family man. And he was thinking more and more about his kin, his family history and the responsibility he owed it. He had rethought, many times, what it meant to be Czech, to be an Eastern European child turned Englishman. Now—as can happen in old age—his history and his family’s past became increasingly a preoccupation. What had once been obliterated came back to haunt him.
He reproached himself for having trotted out his line so often over the years, of having had a charmed life. What if you turned it inside out and looked behind the cliché? What was the other side of the story? What of those who did not have the luck, who did not escape the worst of history? Late in the day, he asked himself why he had not thought or written about this, why he had not faced up to it.
It was in March 1993 that he had learned from his cousin Sarka Gauglitz, at the National Theatre, about his Jewish family history, to his mother’s distress. It was in November 1994, in Prague, that another of his cousins, Alexandr Rosa, had shown him the family album. But, even though, after that, he had asked his mother a few more questions, he hadn’t pressed her or gone far with it. After her death in 1996, he felt freed up to write autobiographically in the 1999 piece “On Turning Out to Be Jewish,” and to create a version of the Czech life he might have had, in Rock ’n’ Roll, in 2006. But otherwise he had continued to do what his mother had wanted, to face away from his family’s past. He had not gone any deeper into that history or used it as material for a play.
Some time after 2012, he read a novel called Trieste by a Croatian writer, Daša Drndić (who died in 2018). It’s an extraordinary, harrowing story, in which fiction and fact overlap, of an old Catholic-Jewish Italian woman, Haya, who comes from a Habsburg Empire–era, multilingual Jewish family. She had a son, by a German officer who then became the barbaric commander of the Trieste concentration camp. She has been trying to find her son, who becomes obsessed with the family past. Haya lacerates real historical figures whom she describes as “bystanders” or “blind observers.” They include Herbert von Karajan, Madeleine Albright, and Tom Stoppard: people who discover their family history, but turn a blind eye to it. Her “blind observers” are “ordinary people” who “play it safe. They live their lives unimpeded.” She tells Stoppard’s story (with many inaccuracies). Once escaped to England, his family “live happily ever after, as if there had never been a family, a war, camps, another language.” “Until 1999 [sic] Tom Stoppard has no clue he is Jewish; then (by chance) he finds out that he is … ” He learns of his family, she says, in the Czech Republic. “He learns that his grandfathers and grandmothers, uncles and aunts, all of them disappeared as if they had never lived, which, as far as he is concerned, they had not, and he goes back to his lovely English language and his one and only royal homeland.”
Reading this, Stoppard accepted the charge. She was clearly saying, well, fuck you and your “charmed life,” good for you. He thought: yes, actually, she’s right. He felt that Drndić was justifiably blaming him for excluding from this “charmed life” all those others who had “disappeared.” He took it as an intelligible rebuke. He felt regret and guilt. It was a late echo of his mother’s own survivor’s guilt. He went back over his family history, and his Jewishness. It began to seem to him that he had been in denial about his own past. He increasingly felt that he should have been rueing his good fortune in escaping from those events, rather than congratulating himself. As a playwright, he needed to inhabit those lives he never lived, in his imagination. He started to think about a play that would answer the rebuke.
His everyday memory was getting worse, his long-term memory was changing. Very early scenes and moments came back ever more clearly, as if he were recovering memories that had always been there. But it was a sadness to him that he had no physical memory of his father. He remembered being on a beach in Singapore when his father must have been there, but he couldn’t actually remember him, except from knowing what he looked like from photographs. He disappeared, like all those family members whom he only knew from photographs, and all that remained of him was a scar on a Czech woman’s hand. It was only his mother who didn’t disappear.
Hermione Lee was president of Wolfson College (2008–2017) and is emeritus professor of English literature at Oxford University. Her work includes biographies of Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, and Penelope Fitzgerald (winner of the James Tait Black Prize and one of the New York Times’s 10 Best Books of 2014). She has also written books on Elizabeth Bowen, Philip Roth, and Willa Cather. Lee was awarded the Biographers’ Club Prize for Exceptional Contribution to Biography in 2018. She is a fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Society of Literature, and a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2003 she was made a CBE, and in 2013 she was made a Dame for services to literary scholarship. Read her Art of Biography interview.
Excerpted from Tom Stoppard: A Life, by Hermione Lee. Copyright © 2020 by Hermione Lee. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.