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.” Read More