Tom Stoppard 1937-
(Born Tomas Straussler.)
Since the mid-1960s Stoppard has been recognized as a leading playwright in contemporary theater. Like George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, with whom he is often compared, Stoppard examines serious issues within the context of comedy, using such devices as word games and slapstick to address complex questions regarding authority, morality, the existence of God, the nature of art and reality, the supposed progress of science, and other issues. This mixture of the comic and the serious in Stoppard's work has led some to characterize his plays as "philosophical farce." Although some critics argue that Stoppard's theatrical devices mask their lack of real profundity, most praise him for his wit and technical virtuosity.
Stoppard was born in Zlin, in the former Czechoslovakia, the second son of Eugene and Martha Straussler. His father was a doctor employed by the shoe manufacturer Bata, which moved the family to Singapore in 1939. Soon thereafter, just prior to the Japanese invasion of Singapore, Stoppard, his mother, and his brother were evacuated to Darjeeling, India. Dr. Straussler remained behind and was killed in 1941. Five years later Stoppard's mother married Major Kenneth Stoppard, a British army officer stationed in India, and after the war the family moved to England. Stoppard left school at the age of seventeen to become a journalist with the Bristol newspaper the Western Daily Press. Two years later he became a freelance journalist and began writing plays. His first work, A Walk on the Water, was written in 1960. In the early 1960s, while continuing to work as a journalist—including a stint as drama critic for the short-lived magazine Scene in 1963—Stoppard composed radio and televisions plays, the novel Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon, and several short stories. He also wrote Tango—an adaptation of a play by Slawomir Mrozek—and "The Gamblers." In 1964 Stoppard spent five months in Berlin participating in a colloquium of young playwrights. While there he wrote the one-act verse drama "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet King Lear," based on a question his agent had posed whether Lear was king of England during the time period in which Shakespeare's Hamlet is set. During the next three years, the work evolved into Stoppard's first major success, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The play opened to near-universal acclaim and Stoppard received several prizes, including the Evening Standard Drama Award for most promising playwright and a Tony Award. Stoppard has continued to write for radio, stage, and screen, winning a Evening Standard Drama Award for Jumpers, a New York Drama Critics Circle Award for The Real Thing, a Tony Award for Travesties, and an Olivier Award for Arcadia.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead explores such themes as identity, chance, freedom, and death. It centers on two minor characters from Hamlet who, while waiting to act their roles in Shakespeare's tragedy, pass the time by telling jokes and pondering the nature of reality. These two "bit players" in a drama not of their making are bewildered by their predicament and face death as they search for the meaning of their existence. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead has often been compared with Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot for its mixture of humor and philosophic speculation on the absurdity of existence. Jumpers reinforced Stoppard's reputation as a playwright who flamboyantly examines important questions. In this play, which parodies both modern philosophy and the "thriller" genre, George Moore—a philosopher attempting to prove the existence of God and of moral absolutes—and his wife Dotty—a nightclub singer who believes in the sentimental songs she sings—are stripped of their moral ideals and romantic notions. Travesties marked a new development in Stoppard's career: the presentation of detailed political and ethical analysis. This play fictionally depicts Vladimir Ilych Lenin, James Joyce, and Tristan Tzara residing in Zurich during World War I. By juxta-posing the theories of the three men—Lenin's Marxism, Joyce's Modernism, and Tzara's Dadaism—Stoppard offers observations on the purpose and significance of art. Stoppard's next four major works are commonly referred to as his "dissident comedies." Every Boy Deserves Favour, Professional Foul, Night and Day, and the two interlocking plays Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth blend themes of art, illusion and reality, marital infidelity, the freedom and responsibility of the press, and the moral implications of political issues. The Real Thing examines art, metaphysical concerns, and political commitment, while marking Stoppard's most significant treatment of the theme of love. As with the dissident comedies, The Real Thing continues Stoppard's movement toward conventional comedy, deemphasizing farcical action while increasingly concentrating on witty dialogue and exploring human relationships. Hapgood is a comic espionage thriller that employs theories regarding the behavior of subatomic particles to explore uncertainty and the subjective nature of truth. Stoppard's two most recent works, Arcadia and Indian Ink, both possess structures that divide the action between the historical past and the present. As the scenes set in the present uncover and comment on the scenes set in the past, Stoppard explores the elusiveness of certainty, be it in human relationships, historical events, or knowledge of the universe.
Many critics rank Stoppard, together with Harold Pinter, at the forefront of contemporary British theater. The 1966 production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstem Are Dead was an immediate critical and popular success; when the play premiered in London, Harold Hobson declared it "the most important event in British professional theatre of the last nine years." Jumpers and Travesties solidified Stoppard's reputation as a major dramatist, as reviewers praised the moral and philosophical complexities presented in these plays, as well as their verbal and visual wit. While generally less well received, Stoppard's dissident comedies nevertheless have been admired for their broadening of the scope of Stoppard's art to include political themes. In Hapgood critics have detected a new note of optimism and a movement away from the absurdism of Stoppard's earlier work. Further growth has been observed in the highly acclaimed The Real Thing, which has been hailed as the playwright's most personal and autobiographical work and praised for its examination of the power of love. Arcadia has been judged a theatrical tour de force for its fusion of science, philosophy, and human emotion. Vincent Canby has pronounced it Stoppard's "richest, most ravishing comedy to date." Since 1966, Stoppard's theater has evolved from depicting the absurd view of existence to presenting artistic and philosophical attacks on absurdity. The political positions of his plays have moved from detachment to a commitment to personal and artistic freedom, while Stoppard's dominant theatrical mode has varied from farce to romantic comedy. Throughout these changes in Stoppard's career, critics have consistently extolled his wit and brilliant use of language, as well as his technical skill.