The play’s the thing…: A Wknd interview with Tom Stoppard

Tom Stoppard sits in his parlour and waits patiently for his wife, Sabrina Stoppard, a television producer and heiress of the banking branch of the Guinness family, to aright his screen. “I’m the most technology-unaware person you would have ever interviewed,” he says. It sounds self-deprecatory, a trait that surfaces often in the course of the nearly 90-minute conversation over Zoom; in this instance, it seems true.

“I don’t own a computer,” Stoppard says. Does he write on, perhaps, a typewriter? Pen on paper, he replies, but he concedes to using printouts for the rewriting. “I like to see the words I strike and while I hear that it is possible to do that on the computer too, it’s not quite the same thing.”

If it is the fate of a writer’s written word to be struck through, the same holds true of his points of view. Stoppard, now 85, held several through his career, first as a journalist and then as a playwright, and he became well known for expressing them with brevity, acerbic wit and a good deal of negative capability (that elusive ability to show competing points of view which don’t necessarily resolve into a neat ending).

By the 1970s, critics had turned his name into an adjective to describe his style of writing, capturing what one theatre director called “hypnotised brilliance”.

To be sure, there were many, including famed playwright James Saunders, who didn’t buy into the hype after Stoppard’s third play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, won him rave reviews and public adulation. Stoppard “hides the ultimate expression of his deepest concerns… he’s cautious about being thought too serious,” Saunders once told critic Kenneth Tynan.

It wasn’t Stoppardian to seem doctrinaire, but for the playwright, born in a small town in Czechoslovakia in 1937 to Jewish parents who fled with him and his older brother the following year to escape Hitler’s Nazi army, his preoccupation with individual freedom stifled by deadly authoritarian regimes, seemed almost fated.

Stoppard was born Tomáš Sträussler. In 1941, his mother Marta Sträussler was forced to flee Singapore ahead of the Japanese invasion; his father Eugen, a doctor, stayed back and was killed. Tomáš was four. Marta brought the boys to India, and they spent the next few years in boarding schools in Nainital and Darjeeling. The family moved to England after Marta married a British Army officer, Ken Stoppard. In his latest play, Leopoldstadt, which opened on Broadway earlier this month, Stoppard addresses his Jewish heritage, which he came to fully understand only later in life.

In the 1960s, as Stoppard wrote his first few plays, east of the Berlin Wall, the Russian secret service had started the practice of treating dissidents — including Czech playwright Vaclav Havel (who went on to become the first president of the Czech Republic after the dissolution of the Soviet Union) among other artists, political activists and Russian-Jewish asylum-seekers –– as patients with psychiatric illnesses.

“When I was growing up, societies divided up to the east of the Iron Curtain, and those to its west. Ever since my adolescence, Soviet Russia represented the kind of antithesis of the ideal. Of course, the UK wasn’t ideal, but when I was a young man, for me the essential difference — and it’s a rather complacent view — was that the failures of the systems where I lived were the result of aberration and abuses of the system, whereas the failure of the Soviet system were not considered failures at all,” Stoppard says. “As I got older, I began to see how complicated these demarcations really were,” he adds after a pause.

In 1977, Stoppard had little doubt about them. Both the plays that he wrote at that time, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and Professional Foul, portrayed a sense of urgency about dissidents’ lives that were at stake in communist Russia.

“From the very beginning I never thought of myself as a political writer. I thought that political questions resolve themselves into moral questions. Every Good Boy… was a play about morality. The questions were: what is good and bad? Is it human nature to seek a good life or only a selfish life? Selfish or selfless, what is human instinct?” Stoppard says.

As Every Good Boy… returns to the stage — this time in Mumbai, at the National Centre for the Performing Arts for a three-day run starting November 4 — Stoppard is still struck by what he attempted to do with it. He’s referring to the play’s genesis in a collaboration sought by Oscar-winning composer and pianist, and close friend, André Previn, who asked Stoppard to write a play that would feature the London Symphony Orchestra that Previn conducted at the time.

The orchestra became a character in the play, it is a figment of a mental patient’s imagination; its role will be essayed by the Symphony Orchestra of India when the play opens later this week.

His phone rings, but Stoppard doesn’t answer it. A minute later, a cup of coffee is placed beside him, which he receives with a look of delight. Sunlight streams into the parlour of his countryside home 100 miles from London, and Stoppard grows more contemplative. We are selfless with our kin, but not in society at large. The most elevated ideas don’t have any resistance once basic needs are met. In those nations where keeping people out is the main drive of the socio-political psyche, selflessness is not driving history. So long as we can recognise the difference between a selfish action and a selfless one, all is not lost.

“I heard a phrase from a friend once — ‘a competition of generosity’. Imagine if we lived like that; in a state of competing generosity. Things would move very well,” he says. “It’s also a hopelessly romantic idea,” he adds, tempering his earnestness with an opposite view. How Stoppardian of him.

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