Tom Stoppard turned 75 this summer. There is a line of his on several quotations websites: “I think age is a very high price to pay for maturity.” Does he still think that? He tells the strange story of how he wrote those words, some time in the late 1960s, on a dressing-room wall, backstage at the rock musical “Hair”, for a friend who was appearing in it. “And then, years and years later, I was sent a photo of the same words written on a signboard in Hawaii, and this was pre-Twitter. It’s like one of Richard Dawkins’s memes, a cultural gene which spreads.”
Back to the subject: “I don’t like getting old.” Tentatively, I suggest this may be because when we are old we don’t know any more how we seem to other people. “I don’t think I ever present myself to other people,” he says. “Most of us are impersonating a version of ourselves.” The version of himself that Stoppard projects to the world is courteous, considerate, conscientious. If a comment strikes a wrong note, he responds at an angle, like a politician, or a poet, and with a hint of asperity. His pastime is fly-fishing, which demands quiet and patience. It is hard to imagine him getting really angry. “I lose my temper about things and people but not at people, or rarely."
He runs his fingers through his longish grey locks, quite often. He speaks with deliberation, and does not pronounce the letter r as others do. It is not rolled, it comes from somewhere at the back of his throat. He is conservatively dressed in dark trousers and a striped shirt, no jacket. In profile he is a Roman emperor. But just around the corner is the flash of a cape, the flicker of a flying scarf, all the tousled stylishness of Bohemia. He looks like Doctor Who as played by Jon Pertwee. He is the Doctor Who of theatre, spiralling round parallel realities, playing with time. Even in conversation, versions of himself jostle for primacy, subverting what he has just said. He could never have been an actor like his son, Ed: “I’d be too self- conscious.” He’s not self-conscious at the moment—even though he is, he says, “enacting someone being interviewed”—“because I’m not pretending to be someone else. I’d feel silly in someone else’s story, being someone else.”
Yet he did start his life as someone else—the little Czech refugee, “whisked away from both the Nazis and the Japanese”. Tomas Straussler, with his brother and his parents, fled the German occupation of Czechoslovakia and went to Singapore. The small boys and their mother Martha fled again, to Australia, this time escaping the Japanese occupation of Singapore. His father, a doctor, stayed behind and did not survive. Martha and her sons were displaced a third time, from Australia to India, where at the end of the war she married an Englishman, Major Kenneth Stoppard. He gave the boys his name and brought the family to England. Major Stoppard said to Tom, when he was still a young child: “Don’t you realise that I made you British?” So far from resenting this, Tom sees the gift of Britishness as part of what he calls his “charmed life”.
An aspect of his charmed life is that “I grew up in a culture which put a high premium on theatre.” He is one of that clutch of world-class British playwrights born in the 1930s who burst on to the scene after Arnold Wesker, John Osborne and Peter Shaffer; he can be thought of in the same breath as Harold Pinter, Michael Frayn and Simon Gray. But a few years’ difference in age is huge when you are young, and Pinter was seven years older, Frayn four, Gray one. “Pinter I looked up to when I was a journalistic reporter in Bristol”—his first job, straight out of school—“and I was a Frayn follower from the late 1950s. His television reviews in the Guardian were little gems.”
“Simon [Gray] and I came through at much the same time”—Stoppard with “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” (1966), an overnight success which now has classic status. Virtuoso performers such as John Wood, the friend for whom he wrote “Travesties” (1974), made theatre seem like a collaboration between writer and actor. “I knew John from 1965 when we were both youngish-marrieds in Pimlico, and he was in a TV play I wrote.” John Wood died last year, and at a memorial celebration in July Stoppard told a roomful of actors, “he truly was my favourite actor”.
No artist considers himself as one of a cluster, however distinguished it may be, and Stoppard says he thinks about his contemporaries not just as playwrights, but as “people and what they are like”. But is he competitive? A long pause. “I am furtively
We are in London, in his penthouse flat overlooking Chelsea Harbour. On the telephone, I said I could be there by ten. “Oh no, don’t do that.” I assumed this was because he could not get himself together so early. But it wasn’t that. Knowing that I live two hours away in the country, “I did not want you to have to make such an early start.”
He had driven himself back to London at midnight from his “Goldilocks-like cottage down the M3”, and before I arrived was making notes for the edit of the fourth episode of “Parade’s End”. This is the five-part series he has adapted from the novels of Ford Madox Ford, commissioned by the BBC. Set before and during the first world war, in which Ford had served, “Parade’s End” is a whirlwind of a work, four novels put together as one, and stylistically a challenge, with a “baffling structure”, Stoppard says. “The difficulty in writing a series, as opposed to a film, is that each episode has to come to something.” He had trouble with the third episode, “I really got it completely wrong.”
A veteran who has adapted everything from “Three Men in a Boat” (1975) to “Empire of the Sun” (1987), Stoppard has his techniques for adaptations. For “Parade’s End”, he reduced the novels to one-line summaries on a sheet of A3. “I subsequently mapped out on a bigger sheet of card how I thought it would divide into five parts. We stuck to that scheme, though I was vague as to the length of each part. The 60-minute length was arrived at without calculation and we were stuck with it ever after. Naturally, I wrote too much, and some of the cuts we had to make were painful. It is crucifying to have to drop scenes, and make chicanes joining the bits together.”
This project has been on the stocks for a while. In 2008 Stoppard was at a literary festival in Brazil and afterwards had a week in the suite above the entrance to the Copacabana Palace Hotel in Rio, overlooking the beach, reading these extraordinary novels. He came home and wrote for a year. “Susanna [White, the award-winning director of, among other adaptations, “Bleak House” and “Jane Eyre”] read the script and simply decided she would do it whatever happened, even though she was under pressure for a big film.”
The production required co-funding from foreign channels, and as executive producer Stoppard found himself involved in protracted negotiations over casting and direction with the American cable network HBO. “They become, in effect, co-producers, and have the same sort of input as the BBC and Mammoth [the production company] when it comes to giving notes, etc, and generally exerting an influence on the finished product. I was very naive about what it would be like. They naturally had the interests of their own customers uppermost, and no shared network of allusions.”
He was not used to this degree of co-operation. “My idea of television goes back to 1977,” when Michael Lindsay-Hogg directed his “Professional Foul” in the days of pre-electronic editing: “We did what we wanted to do, with no involvement in meetings with five or six other people, and everything occupied as much screentime as it needed—if you did 70 minutes, it went out as 70 minutes.”
He would probably not be giving this interview were it not for the imminent screening not only of “Parade’s End” but also of his full-length film adaptation of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”, for Working Title, starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law. He composed a lightly challenging interview with himself once, for the Royal Society of Literature’s Review, in which he asked himself why he gave interviews, and answered: “Almost invariably to oblige someone, usually it’s the person employed to publicise the production.” To say no “makes me look, or at any rate feel, churlish or arrogant. But in my heart I respect the writers who won’t play the game.”
So we play the game, sitting opposite one another at a table—good acquaintances over many years, but not familiar friends. We are both smoking cigarettes, and between us is a fat ceramic ashtray on the top of which we stub them out. Every now and then Stoppard presses the top and the butts disappear into the cavity below.
The room is comfortable without being grand, with generous sofas, quiet colours, walls covered with books and pictures and family photographs. It is tidy but not hotel-tidy. It is home, the only one Stoppard owns. He sold his house in Provence, and the cottage is rented. “I love it, but my diary is such that I hardly get there.”
He goes into the kitchen to fetch a dish with four large slices of quiche, two Stilton and broccoli and two smoked salmon. They are rich and deep, so we only have one each. I ask him where the quiche came from, imagining he had it sent in, or that it is the work of an invisible cook. “No,” he says, “I bought it myself, from the food shop I always go to because it is the nearest to John Sandoe”—the independent bookshop in Chelsea, the haunt of writers and dedicated readers. The food shop is Partridges, family-owned for 40 years and with a royal warrant as Grocers to the Queen. My mother used to go there, I say. “Ah, but when your mother went to Partridges, it would have been at the bottom of Sloane Street.” Quite right.
Chelsea is his patch. In a life dislocated in various ways, he sustains and is sustained by a kind of bedrock continuity. He has lived in the same building for 20 years, beginning on the first floor and moving up to the top when space for his books ran out. The flat overlooks the pier where, on the day of the Jubilee pageant, the Queen took to the river in a launch which carried her the few hundred yards to the royal barge (though she didn’t look up). “I had 18 children on my balcony, plus their parents, and Union Jacks to wave at the Queen and her family. One of my friends brought some faded bunting saved from the Coronation, a strangely moving detail. Camilla [Prince Charles’s wife] impressed me by turning up with a see-through umbrella, very good thinking.”
His PA, Jacky Matthews, and her family were in the party on the balcony. She has worked for him for even longer than he has lived in the building, almost 37 years, which speaks well of them both. She comes to London once a week and the rest of the time they communicate, as she puts it, by “phone, fax and telepathy”. He writes his scripts and everything else in longhand and Jacky puts it all on the computer, as well as helping with everything “from personal accounts to dealing with family matters to first-night presents, parties, travel,occasional shopping, diary, doctor, dentist...”
As a public figure and as a private person, Stoppard would have seemed no more or less comfortable in 1912 than he does in 2012. With his formal manners and whiff of deviance, he would fit right in with early-20th-century innovators such as H.G. Wells, Augustus John, or indeed Ford Madox Ford. “I am a small-c conservative.” He has said that before in interviews. It is about taste, culture and art, not politics: “If you exclude authentic genius from the landscape, the wilder shores of Beckett for example, coherence and narrative tensions and catharsis are the business of a playwright.”
The great point is that there has to be a story. “I am often in the position, as I am now, of being unable to find a story,” as opposed to a topic, or topics—his tend to go in pairs, from philosophy and gymnastics (“Jumpers”, 1972) to biography and chaos theory (“Arcadia”, 1993). “The main misapprehension people have is that a play is the end product of an idea, when the idea is the end product of the play.” He acknowledges how powerful theatre with a message can be, but “a play works or doesn’t work on an emotional level. I wrote ‘Rock’n’Roll’ about the events in Czechoslovakia between 1968 and 1989, and in the end I saw that the play as a whole worked as a love story, and I hadn’t realised.”
“Rock’n’Roll” (2006) is not his only play circling round dissent to the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. But a political agenda is “not obligatory—I used to have arguments about this with Ken Tynan.” The joy of writing is “for writing’s sake”—a question of getting it right, as he described in the unforgettable cricket-bat speech in “The Real Thing”, when the ball, cleanly struck, makes a sound like “a trout taking a fly”. And yet “it is virtually impossible to write without social and philosophical layers.”
Since the 1970s, Stoppard has actively supported human rights and freedom-of-speech organisations, especially in connection with dissidents in eastern Europe. When the Belarus Free Theatre (BFT) contacted him and other theatrical luminaries asking for a message of support in 2006, his immediate response was: “Shall I come and see you?” So he went to Minsk, and got to know the founders of the theatre, Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada. “At that point dissent was pretty much out in the open, even though students were harassed and people were murdered for standing against Lukashenko in politics.” Since the protests following the rigged 2010 election, there has been a brutal crackdown. The BFT leaders, now in exile, put on two shows in London this summer: a Belarusian “King Lear” as part of the World Shakespeare Festival at the Globe, and their own “Minsk, 2011” at the Young Vic. Their kind of theatre is not like Stoppard’s. “There are plays I love which I would not be capable of writing, and the essence of being part of a theatre culture is enjoying things which have nothing to do with one’s own creative impulses. The BFT’s work feels quite fresh, very serious, they are absolutely dedicated to their kind of theatre, struggling to survive as a company and to keep the issue of dictatorship alive internationally. They got to Hillary Clinton, but they ran up against international diplomacy. Ultimately, at the level of government, decisive acts are acts of self-interest.” Belarus has no oil, as Kaliada has said, just people.
In 1966 Stoppard published a novel, “Lord Malquist and Mr Moon”, commissioned by the independent publisher Anthony Blond, a colourful creature and early backer of Private Eye. Novel-writing is attractive “for a good pragmatic reason. If you spend your life writing plays, you are in dangerous waters because a play is an event, never the same, even night after night. A novel stays the way you left it. I would like to have written ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ [by Julian Barnes, 1984]. It’s a book which chimed for me, and I’ve often thought that I must reread it.” One can see why it chimed, even if he can’t now remember. Barnes is a fastidious stylist, and his narrator is preoccupied with the cultural past and its inconsequential quiddities: quite Stoppardian, in fact.
He won’t write another novel, but maybe “a book” as opposed to a play. “I am a bit fenced in by the conservatism of the way my thoughts go. My thoughts don’t get released into dangerous forms of play. But the well-told story is a form on its way to being spent.” He sounds sad, or resigned, about this.
He loves George Bernard Shaw, because “Shaw understands how theatre works. Theatre is storytelling.” This is wilful. The more usual view is that Shaw is the polemical playwright par excellence. Stoppard’s own plays would not normally be categorised primarily as “well-told stories” either, but as complex, language-led works of imagination. It seems to me that the creative tension in him between “topic” and “story” sends him round in circles.
His starting point for a new play is always “some particular area of interest. I have two or three. I have been keeping newspaper cuttings about journalism in a box for years. There is another box of cuttings about consciousness, and another about Russia. I relish all the reading which precedes a play.” He has already mined the journalism box for “Night and Day” (1978), and the Russia one for “The Coast of Utopia” (2002), but there’s more rummaging to be done.
He gets the old books he needs from the London Library, the open-stack treasure-house in St James’s Square. It was founded by Thomas Carlyle and others in 1841, and Stoppard has been its energetic president since 2005. “I get a big kick out of the very existence of the London Library. I’d say it was an ornament to society, only it is more than an ornament. The centre of gravity of our morality is our literary culture.”
His 1997 play “The Invention of Love” was about A.E. Housman, poet and classical scholar, and he became so immersed in Latin scholarship that he had to postpone his next work. “I make a lot of notes, but then forget to look at my notes...It doesn’t take very long to write a play. It takes a long time to get to the top of page one, the take-off point.”
Stoppard's body of work is alive and well. “Arcadia” returned to Broadway last year (“a half-terrific revival of [an] entirely terrific” play…"propelled by genuine, panting passion”—New York Times). “The Real Thing”, his provocative 1982 play about infidelity, toured England this summer. He has received countless awards—a knighthood, the Order of Merit (restricted to 24 members at a time), honorary degrees from Cambridge and Yale.
The adaptations are absorbing, but only partially satisfying for a playwright. “I do them the best I can possibly do them.” On some he is credited as co-author, and on others he gets no credit. “This could never happen in the theatre. Films have a different social history: 19 times out of 20 the director will want to change things. I don’t always expect a credit, if I’m doing something to help a friend.” But he gets paid? “Yes, though once or twice I’ve given someone a week of my time. And conversely, a job you wouldn’t really jump at, you do so as to have a chance to work with someone you admire,” on the condition of anonymity. “I don’t like to have my name on something that isn’t really mine.”
“I’ve never written a film from my own work when directors have asked me to, although I directed the film of ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’, and was free to meddle with the play text as I wished. I have never written a film from scratch.” Even “Shakespeare in Love” (1998)—the film that sounds most like him, with its dancing wit—“was almost entirely rewritten from an existing script by Marc Norman.” They shared the Oscar for best original screenplay.
“Parade’s End” is something of an exception, “in that I had to invent scenes for the characters to tell each other things which in the novels are thought privately.” Ford’s story is not chronological. “I have made it linear, fair enough, but we hope and believe that it still has the smell of modernism. The book is quirky, the characters don’t make sense, it wrong-foots the reader about the judgments one makes about any particular character. There is a complementary feeling in Waugh’s ‘A Handful of Dust’—a masterpiece too, and there too the moral standing of the characters is refracted through their ambiguities.” Stoppard, here, seems modernism incarnate, with both his work and himself refracted through moral ambiguities.
He offers cheese or fruit, and I opt for fruit. He brings two bowls of raspberries and strawberries, suggesting “a sprinkling of sugar”.
“I can’t bear travel,” he says. “I hate the airport experience. Partly because I no longer like going anywhere anyway, partly because it often doubles the journey time and partly because getting from the street to the plane has become dehumanising. Nobody is to blame. It is progress in operation.” Spoken like a true conservative.
He had a bucketful of travel last autumn. He wrote his adaptation of “Anna Karenina” for Working Title after delivering “Parade’s End”, finishing the last episode in September, then flying to Moscow for “Karenina”, then to Tokyo and on to LA to rendezvous with HBO to discuss the casting of “Parade’s End”. “I had someone in my mind’s eye, but I couldn’t put a name to her. But God was looking after us”—and Rebecca Hall is Sylvia, the beautiful, faithless wife of the main character, the country gentleman Christopher Tietjens, played by Benedict Cumberbatch of “Sherlock Holmes” fame.
The two adaptations were shot at much the same time, but the experiences were very different. “There was more flexibility with ‘Parade’s End’. Susanna wanted me with her a lot of the time,” whereas Joe Wright, directing “Anna Karenina”, did not. “I am not a natural cinema-writer, and there were huge considerations because the story is a double helix—the love story of Levin and Kitty as well as that of Anna and Vronsky. I was worried about how much of it I could get into two and a quarter hours. But it panned out very well and I had a very nice time writing it. Ideally you would do two or three drafts, though sometimes you do 17. I like films which are dialogue-driven, and ‘Anna Karenina’ is definitely a talkie. After it had been written, Joe had a vision of how it could be, in film parlance he had a concept, and it’s not done as a classic BBC costume drama.” More than that he will not say, but, as with “Parade’s End”, we do not have long to wait.
Stoppard had wanted to have his son Ed in “Parade’s End” too, but Ed was busy with another period piece, “Upstairs, Downstairs”. Family is patently important: he has two sons from each of his two marriages. He tells me feelingly about each of them and what they do, and shows particular pride in the son who works for the Royal Mail in Norfolk, “living his own life”. He talks equally warmly about his seven grandchildren, six of whom are girls, to balance all these men. Stoppard the patriarch: another version of himself.
Parade’s End BBC2, starts Friday August 24th at 9pm. Anna Karenina opens in Britain September 7th; France, Italy and Germany in October; America, November 9th; Scandinavia, January-February