Gilbert in Oscar Wilde’s dialogue ‘The Critic as Artist’: ‘Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography.’ Not here. Hermione Lee’s immensely long Tom Stoppard: A Life is expert, engrossing, entertaining and sympathetic to its subject. At its heart is a writer steely in his determination to entertain, an inexhaustible mine of mots, a nonstop genius of jokes, capable of winning the Nobel Prize for the interview as an art form.
It comprehensively replaces Ira Nadel’s Double Act (2002), a biography which Stoppard hoped would be ‘as inaccurate as possible’. (Indian Ink and Arcadia are both explicitly hostile to biography and its hubris.) One example: as a young reporter on the Western Daily Press, Stoppard fell in love with a colleague, Isabel Dunjohn. In Nadel’s account, she is his girlfriend, until summarily displaced by Jose Ingle, Stoppard’s first wife. They were never lovers. Fatally, Stoppard introduced Isabel to Peter O’Toole and they became lovers (until, after 18 months, O’Toole dumped her for the actor Sian Phillips, whom he married). Stoppard was left holding his torch, writing hopeless poems (in both senses) and sharing pleasurably agonizing, unrequited holidays with Isabel.
Lee has undeniable advantages over Nadel, who spoke to Stoppard only once: many interviews with her subject; access to Smith, goes to New York for the first time, and they stay in the apartment of someone with connections to the Village Voice. The owner stays elsewhere with his girlfriend, and his guests never see him. They behave boorishly — sleeping in his bed, eating all his food, complaining that the peanut butter should be replenished, buying a replacement loaf and immediately eating it. In Nadel, it is clear this is a joke, an exaggerated comic riff of ingratitude, and the source is articles written for the Village Voice which sign off: ‘If you read this, I feel terrible. Also, I used your razor.’ In Lee’s account, the elements are there — the articles, the bad behavior — but the connection and explanation isn’t made for the reader. The well mannered Stoppard saw an irresistible opportunity for comedy.
Richard Eyre’s diary records that, after a performance of Arcadia in New York, a woman came up and was a hydrant of praise. Stoppard thanked her politely. After she had gone, he turned to Eyre: ‘Why don’t they ever offer you a blowjob?’ Another joke not resisted, knowingly transgressive, risqué but licensed by humor. It isn’t seriously meant — nor is the sketch Stoppard wrote for a Miramax pre-Oscars party that proposed Monica Lewinsky should be made pregnant by Bob Weinstein and give birth in time for the launch of Tina Brown’s new magazine Talk. Lee’s laconic verdicts: ‘a (rare) blue joke’ and ‘louche’. She is often uneasy with Stoppard’s jokes, which she frequently finds ‘silly’ or ‘excruciating’. Her idea of a ‘bad’ joke is Stoppard’s quip ‘The only polysyllable word tolerated in Hollywood is delicatessen’. A good joke, I’d say, like her other example: on a flight, he watched ‘a film so bad that people were walking out at 35,000 feet’. Ditto ‘Films are frogs insisting they are princes.’ Dirty Linen and New-Found-Land, two plays written for Ed Berman and spliced together, are a case in point. Both are genre pieces, parodying, respectively, the Whitehall farce and movie cliché s about American life. Embarrassing reading now, according to Lee.
Miraculously, they transcend their matrix. The long paean to America, mined with cliché s, is moving and persuasive — poetic, in fact, comparable to the narrative in The Lehman Trilogy, where recitation takes the place of dialogue. The joke is that the dumb blonde is granted, paradoxically, surprising analytical powers: she sees that the press’s evocation of ‘the public interest’ masks prurience. And she advocates freedom from legislation in the bedroom. Berman sees Dirty Linen as ‘sexist’, and saw it so at the time, though he took the show to America, very profitably for his company. It was a massive hit.
Lee acquits Stoppard, somewhat reluctantly, and deploys her default appeasement strategy — that the play was very much ‘of its time’. The most lowering moment is her aside about The Invention of Love, Stoppard’s play about A.E. Housman and his unrequited homosexual love for Moses Jackson. She complains that this is a very male play. Not, in the circumstances, you might think, a matter for surprise. Male and full of sport: Moses Jackson was an athlete. Then she prudently notes: ‘No one criticized Stoppard for appropriating a gay love story, as perhaps they might now.’ Just to be on the safe side, the right side. You never know which way the wind is going to blow.
Which is one of the motifs added to the play in Stoppard’s film of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead — piles of paper are blown away. Lee notes this and the series of muffed inventions (airplane face masks, Newton’s cradle, the Big Mac) without explaining either. They are there to underline the determined fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: their parts are written and unalterable, the wind is blowing in one direction, time cannot be altered or innovations anticipated. Lee settles for ‘pieces of paper swirl around in the wind, shutters bang, tapers burn’. Do they now? ‘Tapers burn’ isn’t very illuminating. (Joke.) She is better on the life than on the plays. Her criticism is a matter of inviting every possible interpretation to the party, and, increasingly, summarizing the (not particularly enlightening) first-night critics. But her biography is long enough to include some wonderful marginalia. One example from many: Stoppard’s first son, Oliver, is monitored at night by a two-way intercom. The babysitter tries, from afar, unsuccessfully, several times, to get him to sleep, finally bidding him a disguised imperative: ‘Good night, Oliver’. To which he replies: ‘Good night, wall’.
Stoppard’s love life is more fully disclosed here than ever before. But not entirely. There are some of those trite, formulaic, shorthand opacities that disguise ignorance: ‘the marriage was over’; ‘her marriage was a mistake’. His marriage to Jose Ingle is marred from its beginning by her mental instability and subsequently by her alcoholism. She threatens him with a knife and with suicide. He gets custody of their children. The advent of Miriam, his second wife, has one surprise: when her husband is told, he says ‘That’s great!’ and embraces Stoppard. Evidently, the husband had what, describing Paul Johnson, Lee calls ‘a roving eye’.(She isn’t afraid to call out ‘careless’ husbands, but usually they prove to be dead, like Vaclav Havel. I noticed Mick Jagger escapes the ‘careless husband’ label.)
The break-up with Miriam isn’t so clear. On the one hand, in Miriam’s version, Stoppard, though he says he loves Miriam ‘so much’, hasn’t made his love clear enough. His fault. On the other hand, Miriam does something undisclosed which ‘upset’ him. The implication is that he is the wronged party. Stoppard thinks Miriam is happy with their separation. She has a new partner, Christopher Hogg. But she is miserable, telling a confidant it won’t come alright: ‘No, Miriam said, he’s in love with someone else.’ She is ‘deeply upset’ by the divorce: ‘she did grieve’.
Miriam’s replacement is the English actress Felicity Kendal, who has basically kept her counsel. They never lived together. The affair was ‘on-and-off’. She speaks well of him, as do all his exes. Lee rather highmindedly thinks Stoppard was attracted to her talent: ‘He fell in love with her through their professional closeness.’ I think it was probably more to do with flirting: she used to send him Kendal Mint Cake and ask if he ‘fancied one’.
She was succeeded by Siné ad Cusack, the wife of Jeremy Irons, and they concealed their affair by spending time together in Stoppard’s French house in Lacoste. Things wound down when she managed, after a lifetime of searching, to locate the grown-up son she had put out for adoption as a young woman. She devoted her time to her son and gave Stoppard her blessing when he turned to Sabrina Guinness, who was to be his third wife. Sabrina had, Siné ad said, been looking all her life for ‘a good man, and now she’s got the best man in the world’.
Here, then, is the life, as well told as it’s ever likely to be. Now we know about his circumcision, his dental implants, the laser eye-treatment, his Type-2 diabetes, his cronky knees, his smoker’s breathlessness. But the play’s the thing.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s March 2021 US edition.