The Oxford University professor and award-winning biographer delves into the extraordinary life of the playwright behind Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Arcadia, revealing a dramatic childhood escape from the Nazis in Czechoslovakia to a British upbringing that brought him early fame and a lifetime of achievements in theater and film.
In the astute and authoritative new biography, Tom Stoppard: A Life, Hermione Lee wrestles it all onto the page. At times you sense she is chasing a fox through a forest. Stoppard is constantly in motion — jetting back and forth across the Atlantic, looking after the many revivals of his plays, keeping the plates spinning, agitating on behalf of dissidents, artists and political prisoners in Eastern Europe, delivering lectures, accepting awards, touching up scripts, giving lavish parties, maintaining friendships with Pinter, Vaclav Havel, Steven Spielberg, Mick Jagger and others. It’s been a charmed life, lived by a charming man. Tall, dashing, large-eyed, shaggy-haired; to women Stoppard’s been a walking stimulus package ... Her Stoppard book is estimable but wincingly long; it sometimes rides low in the water. The sections that detail Stoppard’s research for his plays can seem endless, as if Lee has dragged us into the library with him and given us a stubby pencil. Like a lot of us during the pandemic, Tom Stoppard: A Life” could stand to lose 15 percent of its body weight.
... empathetic, meticulous ... Ms. Lee, a formidable literary scholar, discusses the plays at length but warily. Not every line her subject wrote is golden, but she seems chary about delivering negative criticism. And it seems clear that the two of them agreed that certain personal subjects should be off-limits ... One feels that Ms. Lee, like Boswell writing about Johnson, might have stashed away a sizable file marked Tacenda—'things to be silent about.' But there honestly doesn’t seem to be much in the way of dirt to dig up. Mr. Stoppard’s romantic breakups have been amicable, and friends and colleagues speak of him in the highest terms. He appears to be genuinely kind, as well as self-controlled and well-behaved.
Lee...builds an ever richer, circular understanding of his abiding themes and concerns, of his personal and artistic life, and of his many other passionate engagements ... Lee’s biography is unusual in that it was commissioned, and published while its subject is still alive. Lee is a highly acclaimed biographer whose rigor and integrity make her decision to write under such conditions surprising ... Lee is frank and thoughtful about the challenges of writing about a living subject. She is aware, as the reader will be, that her interview subjects do not want to speak ill of a friend and colleague who is still among them. In addition to the almost unrelievedly positive portrayal of Stoppard, the seven-hundred-fifty-plus pages of this volume might have been somewhat condensed, were its subject no longer living, thereby rendering the biography easier to wield and to read. In spite of these quibbles, this is an extraordinary record of a vital and evolving artistic life, replete with textured illuminations of the plays and their performances, and shaped by the arc of Stoppard’s exhilarating engagement with the world around him, and of his eventual awakening to his own past.