One can’t help recalling the flair with which Kenneth Tynan in his glittering, swift, not unkvetching New Yorker profile from 1977 caught Stoppard’s spirit like lightning in a platinum martini shaker. Lee calls Tynan’s piece inaccurate and unjust. But she, now an emeritus professor of English literature at Oxford, comes at Stoppard from the academy. Tynan, like Stoppard, started as a journalist, writing for years with dishy mischief about show folk in London, Hollywood and New York. More crucially, while serving as literary manager at the National Theater, he frequented rehearsal rooms, assisted on scripts and was involved in the first production of “Jumpers.” He knew from the inside how theater works day by day, and four-plus decades have not dimmed the illuminations of his essay. It remains a vivid close-up.
That said, Lee is very good on Stoppard’s sometimes painful experiences with the movies and fills us in about some tantalizing writing projects — like a screenplay about Galileo — that came to nothing. She’s wonderful on the wives and girlfriends and home life. She gives a full and fascinating account of Stoppard’s amazed discovery, in middle middle-age, of the full extent of his Jewishness, when he learned, not only about the Jewish family roots his beloved mother had concealed, but of the relatives who’d died in the camps — a revelation that ultimately gave birth to the Viennese lives, fondly told over decades, of “Leopoldstadt.” The book also dishes up generous helpings of sparkling Stoppardisms. A typical example: “Talent without imagination: wicker baskets. Imagination without talent: modern art.”
If there’s a whiff of conservatism in that last epigram, it’s not surprising. Maybe most eye-opening in Lee’s telling is how politically conservative if not right-wing-to-reactionary Stoppard was in his central years, frankly admiring Margaret Thatcher, frankly not admiring trade unions, at one point boycotting a boycott on productions in South Africa. He has been — with well-articulated reservations — an outspoken defender of the West and its values, a position almost unheard-of among playwrights, and even less so now that the words “Western civilization” require a trigger warning. Whatever his politics, he’s been a moral explorer in his plays and a moral activist in his life, eloquent about freedom of expression and busily working on behalf of Eastern European writers and Russian refuseniks. Those political concerns, conjoined with his Czech connection, came to life in “Rock ’n’ Roll,” wherein Stoppard created a sort of alternative existence by imagining the tested principles of a Tomas Straussler-like figure living under Soviet rule.
With celebrated volumes behind her on the likes of Edith Wharton and Penelope Fitzgerald, Lee is an expert biographer. In her superb “Virginia Woolf,” she boldly and woolfishly rethought biographical form and managed to bring a complicated novelist alive. Clearly she admires Stoppard no end — maybe a hair too much — but the expertise with which she’s assembled his bright materials is a testament to her own high and rightly esteemed gifts. Unlike many another writer, Tom Stoppard has enjoyed a rich, inimitable, event-filled life that begs to be told and her generous, event-packed volume is the proof.
All this said, it goes without saying: If you love his work, you need to read her book.