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Stoppard, Tom

Entry updated 4 December 2023. Tagged: Author, Film, Theatre.

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Working name of Czech-born playwright and screenwriter Tomáš Straussler (1937-    ), in the UK since 1946, the Stoppard surname being acquired from his stepfather when his widowed mother remarried in 1945. His early dramatic work was characterized by extravagant wit and wordplay, and an Absurdist application of logic to surreal or insane situations. Following the broadcast of several Radio plays, his Theatre debut was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (first performed 24 August 1966 Cranston Street Hall, Edinburgh; 1967 chap), a worm's-eye view of William Shakespeare's Hamlet (performed circa 1600; 1603; exp 1604) as experienced by the titular attendant lords. A sense of Fantastika quickly emerges from the first scene's violation of probability (see Mathematics) in a coin-tossing game: heads have come up 89 times in succession, leading the more intellectual Guildenstern to deduce that he and Rosencrantz are in the grip of "un-, sub- or supernatural forces" (that is, the inexorable storyline of Hamlet itself), which they feebly oppose but never quite comprehend. The author's one novel, Lord Malquist and Mr Moon (1966), is a work of eccentric Humour only faintly touched with the surreal.

Stoppard's most science-fictional drama is Jumpers (first performed 2 February 1972 Old Vic Theatre, London; 1972 chap), a dazzling philosophical farce involving murder, acrobatics and a lecture on moral philosophy – which touches on Zeno's Paradoxes, with an actual arrow, hare and tortoise brought into play – against a background of Near Future political takeover of Britain by "Radical Liberals", and television coverage of a British lunar mission in which Captain Scott forcibly abandons Astronaut Oates on the Moon: "I am going up now. I may be gone for some time." Shakespeare recurs in Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth (first performed 21 May 1979 Arts Centre of the University of Warwick, Coventry; coll of linked plays 1979 chap), which develops a Thought Experiment in Linguistics by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) into a political parable arguing and demonstrating that under totalitarian state control, language itself ultimately becomes meaningless. The themes of freedom, responsibility and state censorship also inform several of Stoppard's nonfantastic plays. Arcadia (first performed 13 April 1993 Lyttelton Theatre, Royal National Theatre, London; 1993 chap), a subtly tragicomic romance alternating between the early nineteenth century (where Lord Byron is an offstage presence) and the 1993 present day, centres on precocious young Thomasina – first seen in 1809 at age 13, doomed to die before reaching 17 – and her anticipation of the future Mathematics of thermodynamics, Entropy and chaos theory. In The Invention of Love (first performed 1997; 1997), the newly dead A E Housman (1859-1936) discourses with Charon while significant moments of his life play out before them.

In Cinema, Stoppard co-wrote Brazil (1985) and – uncredited but openly acknowledged by Steven SpielbergIndiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) (see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). He wrote and directed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990), the film of his own play, and with Marc Norman co-wrote the nonfantastic Shakespeare in Love (1998), directed by John Madden, a return to his favourite Shakespearean subject-matter which won seven Oscars. He is also said to have worked on Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005), though again uncredited. His draft screenplay for The Golden Compass (2007), based on Philip Pullman's Northern Lights (1995; vt The Golden Compass 1996), was not used.

Among other honours, Stoppard received a CBE in 1978, was knighted in 1997 and was given the UK Order of Merit in 2000. He remains one of Britain's most distinguished living playwrights. [DRL]

Tom Stoppard [born Tomáš Straussler]

born Zlín, Czechoslovakia [now Czech Republic]: 3 July 1937


plays (highly selected)

  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (London: Faber and Faber, 1967) [play: chap: first performed 24 August 1966 Cranston Street Hall, Edinburgh: hb/nonpictorial]
  • Jumpers (London: Faber and Faber, 1972) [play: chap: first performed 2 February 1972 Old Vic Theatre, London: hb/nonpictorial]
  • Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth (London: Inter-Action Inprint, 1979) [coll of linked plays: chap: first performed 21 May 1979 Arts Centre of the University of Warwick, Coventry: pb/]
  • Arcadia (London: Faber and Faber, 1993) [play: chap: first performed 13 April 1993 Lyttelton Theatre, Royal National Theatre, London: hb/photographic]
  • The Invention of Love (London: Faber and Faber, 1997) [play: first performed 25 September 1997 Cottesloe Theatre, Royal National Theatre, London: pb/The Housman Society]

about the author

  • Kenneth Tynan. "Withdrawing with Style from the Chaos" (19 December 1977 The New Yorker) [vt "Withdrawing with Style from the Chaos – Tom Stoppard" in Tynan's Show People: Profiles in Entertainment (coll 1979): mag/]


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