Interview: Tom Stoppard, The Coast of Utopia – “In the end, my circuits blew”
29th June 2002
The long voyage of Sir Tom
Tom Stoppard spent four years researching his new trilogy – yet finished it in a last-minute rush. As his 65th birthday looms, the playwright talks about a lifetime spent battling his perfectionist nature. First published June 29, 2002, Daily Telegraph.
This Wednesday, Sir Tom Stoppard will turn 65. Given that this coincides with another anniversary – it’s 35 years since his play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, first took London by storm and made his name overnight – you’d be forgiven for thinking that he’d be in the mood to celebrate, or at least to look back on the story so far.
But not a bit of it. We meet during rehearsals for The Coast of Utopia, his trilogy of new plays tracing the turbulent lives of a group of 19th-century Russian intellectuals. All three are being directed by Trevor Nunn at the National, the scene of his last triumph, The Invention of Love (1997), and many others. When I ask him what he plans to do on his birthday, he riffles through the schedules for a moment, before declaring: “I’ll be sitting in the dark watching a run-through of Shipwreck [part two]!”
So, no champagne party then? “I did all that when I was 50,” says Sir Tom, who looks in surprisingly good health, considering his regime: “Silk Cut, no exercise, eat what you like and munch sweets all the way through rehearsals!”
Reaching (purely nominal) retirement age is neither a matter of panic or pride for him. “I felt pretty depressed about being 40, but since then I haven’t cared,” he says. Likewise, anniversaries of plays mean little. “When someone told me it was 35 years since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, I thought ‘Gosh!’,” he says matter-of-factly, as though his reaction ended there and then.
I ask whether any particular achievements stand out when he considers a professional life that has spanned theatre, radio, television and film, imagining that at the very least he’ll point to his knighthood (1997) or his Oscar-winning screenplay for Shakespeare in Love (1999). But he goes quiet: “I can’t give you an answer to that, because I don’t look back and think ‘I’m most pleased with X, Y and Z’.”
Trying to coax Stoppard into providing overviews of his life and work is a task that has exercised journalists ever since the dawn of his career, when a reporter asked what his Hamlet spin-off was about. “It’s about to make me very rich,” came his retort. Another early description of himself as a “bounced Czech” – born Thomas Straussler in Czechoslovakia, he reached England after the war – struck a similarly guarded, if equally amusing note.
His private life remains no-go territory. He has never talked about his two failed marriages (the second to the medical pundit Dr Miriam Stoppard) or his eight-year relationship with actress Felicity Kendal. His answer to the question: “Are you currently attached?” is “I reply neither yes nor no”
But the work of the moment, to which he’s in thrall, he is prepared to discuss. The Coast of Utopia “is by far the most arduous thing I’ve done”, he reveals. Coming from an autodidact who, with no A-levels or university education, has clambered among many a daunting branch of learning in the past, that’s saying something.
For The Invention of Love, about the poet and classics scholar A E Housman, he relearnt Latin and boned up on the techniques of textual analysis. Arcadia (1993), his most widely admired play, stirred together observations on thermodynamics, chaos theory and 18th-century landscape gardening. Stoppard is often described as Britain’s cleverest playwright and he has certainly earned the right to that title.
The Coast of Utopia started out in a relatively modest way, he explains. “I had a very abstract desire to write a play in the manner of Chekhov.” Reading Russian Thinkers, a collection of essays by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, his interest alighted on the obscure figure of Vissarion Belinsky, a literary critic living at the time of the autocratic Tsar Nicholas I. “I was struck by the fact that when it came to a choice, Belinsky preferred to live and work under very severe suppression rather than go to Spain or France where he could read and write anything he liked.”
This represented an intriguing paradox, especially for a writer who actively campaigned on behalf of Soviet dissidents during the Seventies and Eighties. But the initial conception changed as more and more historical figures elbowed their way into the frame: chiefly the anarchist Michael Bakunin, Alexander Herzen (man of letters and first self-proclaimed socialist in Russia) and literary giant Ivan Turgenev. Not to mention Karl Marx and the French socialist Louis Blanc. The resulting trilogy involves more than 70 characters, and roams from Moscow and St Petersburg to Paris, Nice and London in its examination of differing quests for a utopian society.
“In the end, my circuits blew,” he says. “I have a killer neurosis: the fear of not coming across one vital piece of information that might give me a new dimension. So I overload.
That was true of The Invention of Love and Arcadia, too. I end up living for three years with 100 books and, as I get older, I find I have to read them two or three times for anything to stay in my head. Of course, at the end of the whole process, I realised that if I’d known what the essential six books were, these plays could have been on and off a couple of years ago. But I couldn’t stop shuffling my pieces around and torturing myself. I ended up writing the third play more or less to a newspaper deadline.”
The ability to file in the nick of time seems to have stayed with him from his local journalism days in Fifties’ Bristol. Nevertheless, he goes on to make an astounding admission: “It’s an awful thing to say, a couple of weeks before we get an audience, but I now feel perfectly positioned to write a play about Herzen, Bakunin, Belinsky and Turgenev!” He lets out a loud, slightly manic laugh.
“Even now, sitting in rehearsal, I’m aware that I’ve got notes that contain things I never used and I’m half-wishing that I had. For instance Herzen, who went into exile in London, said the only thing he got from England was Colman’s Mustard and Worcester sauce. I thought, ‘God, even at this stage, I must get that in.’ It’s like one of those pantos.
If you mention something very familiar and mundane to an audience, they practically burst into applause. After 10 minutes of social theory, one could pop that in and it would be a tremendous relief to all.”
It seems a strange way to set about writing a play, this angsty cramming in of information, this blurring of boundaries between conscientiousness and creativity. For the first time in ages, Stoppard, in pursuing a Chekhovian model, has attempted naturalism, but he has done so by painstakingly academic means.
Why not just set yourself the task of writing something without reference to research, I ask. “That would certainly be an attractive proposition,” he agrees drily. “To have a play written in six months rather than four years.” In fact, his next project is another trilogy – Stoppard is to write the screen adaptation of Philip Pullman’s cult fantasy epic His Dark Materials.
There are cynics who would suggest that when he returns to playwriting again, he won’t be able to shed the mantle of erudition. It’s a commonplace assertion that audiences are flattered by his plays’ displays of learning. An attendant insinuation is that without his hanging onto the coat-tails of real personages or heavyweight ideas, he’d be left stranded. And, though a detectable increase of emotion has crept into his work, the longstanding charge remains that he is too cerebral for his own good.
Because he abstains from giving a full account of himself (a new biography, out this month, has had no encouragement from its subject), and because he sees no connection between his plays (“I feel that more separates them than unites them”), Stoppard is vulnerable to accusations of dilettantism, of going where his intellectual whims takes him.
Yet in his fervent identification with Herzen, now the moral centre of The Coast of Utopia, one finds a pointer both to the creative impulse underlying the trilogy and as good a summation as one is likely to get of the credo behind Stoppard’s intellectually nomadic art.
Herzen, he says, grew disillusioned with the vision of the perfect society as laid down by the likes of Marx. “He came to the conclusion that there was no abstract formula at work on our history. There was nothing going on that was inevitable. The big bond between me and him is that he found an appalling arrogance in the way that people might construct an abstract narrative of our society and subordinate the individual life to it. He found that morally repellent.”
If there is to be a catch-all description of Tom Stoppard and his work, it is that both blaze with such indignation that catch-all descriptions won’t do. We cannot be fixed into tidy, immutable positions. We are far more complicated than that. All of us.