(Douglas Murray’s article appreared in The Spectator, 1/27.)
Tom Stoppard talks about inspiration, growing older and his new play, Leopoldstadt
Sir Tom Stoppard is Britain’s — perhaps the world’s — leading playwright. He was born Tomas Straussler in 1937 in Zlin, Czechoslovakia, which his family left as the German army moved in. The Strausslers were Jewish. In adulthood he learned that all four of his grandparents had been killed by the Nazis. His father was killed by the Japanese on a boat out of Singapore as he tried to rejoin his wife and two sons in Australia. In India his mother married again, to an English army officer who gave his stepchildren his last name.
Stoppard has lifted the lid on his early life only once before, in a 1999 piece for Talk magazine. He said there that in the 1990s, following his mother’s death, his stepfather asked him to stop using his name after feeling some imagined ingratitude in his famous stepson. ‘Don’t you realize I made you British?’ seemed to be his resentful message.
Today, at the age of 82, Stoppard lives in an old rectory in the south of England with his third wife, Sabrina Guinness, whom he married in 2014. After lunch together in the kitchen and a walk around the rectory gardens, the famously private author agrees to talk about his life and work, including his new play, Leopoldstadt, which opened in London at the end of January.
We talk in the drawing room with a log fire roaring beside us. In his still unmistakable Mitteleuropean drawl he explains that the right subject for a play ‘is not that easy to find’. Perhaps it is only now, towards the end, that Stoppard feels ready to go back to the world which produced him?
‘This one actually was hiding in plain sight. I’d been circling it for quite a long time without quite admitting that I was writing a play about it. It’s a Jewish family — 1900 to 1955 — and the main reason that they’re Viennese is that the latter part of the play impinges on my own experience, this mental experience, and I didn’t want it to be about me because it wasn’t supposed to be about me. But it was about… yes, it was about part of myself.’
Photo: The Spectator