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.
Except for some over detailing of some of Stoppard’s important plays, Lee turns in a masterful performance of the biographer’s craft ... Some of Lee’s granular detailing of the nine-hour opus The Coast of Utopia, chronicling Russian history, real-life characters and literature, on top of the circumstances of Stoppard writing it, nearly sabotages the pulse of the whole book midway through. In contrast, Lee’s crisp account of Stoppard’s next play, Rock & Roll, jumps it back on Lee’s mainline narrative track. Also fascinating is Stoppard’s emotional journey to embrace his Czech-Jewish heritage and what happened to his family.