One may say "He's the best playwright alive;" one may say "The best writer alive;" another one may say "He's won four Tony Awards, one Tony Award for best revival of a play, four Plays and Players London Theater Critics Awards, four Evening Standard Awards and an Oscar." Everyone? No. "There is his-name prize: Tom Stoppard Prize." Anyone else? "He's knighted."
Well -- well enough --, Sir Tom Stoppard; I'd say "He's a genius."
I met him in 2008. During the FLIP festival (International Literary Party of Paraty). There was a lonely tall gentleman standing at the breakfast room of our hotel, Pousada da Marquesa, firmly shaking my hand. Hello, I'm Tom. Huge ignorance, assumedly, I didn't know his face: Tom Stoppard, for me, was just a name, a yellow cover and the broken disc of my Rock'n'Roll paperback. By the way, I was only 18.
"Felipe. Nice to meet you. Where are you from?"
Tomáš Straüssler was born in Zlín, Czechoslovakia, in 1937. He wasn't even 2 years old when his Jewish family, fleeing the nazi occupation, "was translated" to Singapore. Fleeing, then, the Japanese occupation, they took a boat bound to Australia. Except his father, a doctor, who stayed volunteering for the British army and died in Japanese captivity. Tomáš was 4. The boat got bombed around and the remaining Straüsslers were soon evacuated to Darjeeling, India -- where Tomáš became Tom. Some years have passed, his widowed mother married Kenneth Stoppard, a British army major -- and the kid Tom Straüssler became Tom Stoppard.
After the end of the war, in 1946, the brand new Stoppards finally arrived in England. As ever: the best of times, the worst of times. Exactly when Tom Stoppard begins to fuse deeply in the country. Tom studied in Nottingham and Yorkshire and, at 17, left school -- never receiving a diploma -- in order to work as a journalist.
At the Western Daily Press and, later, at the Bristol Evening World, he did "almost any kind of job there was" in a newspaper. Six years. Until he quit -- in order to work as a freelancer -- and, living cheaply, wrote his first play.
(Tom enters the theater area.)
Looking forward to grow up in journalism, and as a man, Tom moved to London in 1962; he was offered a job in the Scene magazine -- for his astonishment -- as their theater critic. He never stopped writing his personal stuff. But was he a good critic? He himself answered it, when interviewed by Shusha Guppy from Paris Review: "If I might quote myself from a previous interview: 'I was not a good critic because I never had the moral character to pan a friend.' I'll rephrase that: I had the moral character never to pan a friend."
Suddenly, despite the half-century between us, we started a friendship. Talking, at the breakfast table, as high intellectually as you're expecting, about Brazilian tropical fruits. Can you picture it? I'm sorry I didn't recognize the unique mind in front of me. Sorry, Tom. That July morning advanced on and Cees Nooteboom joined us, with his wife; Ingo Schulze and his wife. England, Germany, Netherlands; magnificent festival!, I stupidly thought; the public really came from all around.
When the food subject was finished, giving room for literature, I realized some mistake of mine. Of course, brain shaking, I started reading his plays immediately.
Reading Tom Stoppard for the first time is a memorable experience. He's the writer who is worried about the word. You can notice that each word has a single meaning, a single sound, a single particularity inside the context. They've been measured, pondered and measured again. Words that are made to flutter from the page, right in front of our eyes, to breathe on the stage.
Or on the radio. Tom also wrote some exceptional radio plays. I have a secret fell, not secret anymore, for M is for moon, among other things -- broadcast on BBC in 1964. Which, distant from his Stoppardian trademark, still is a wonderful language expedition. Macedonia, Machine-gun, Magna Carta. Marilyn Monroe found dead. And there is something special behind M is for moon.
Parenthesis: we use the adjective Stoppardian for the mix philosophical concepts and wit and humour. Rooted in complex linguistics mechanisms. Tom disagrees. To Nigel Farndale from The Telegraph, he testified "Stoppardian for me means the ability to cock things up."
Anyway, M is for moon isn't philosophical and wit and humorous as we got used -- but it was a turning point in his career. Tom wasn't unconcerned about his professional future. And a brief but positive mention of M is for Moon on the Sunday Times reloaded him. Thank you, Sunday Times. He felt as a writer again. At 27, now, he was close to achieve his will: make theater.
A couple of years later, Tom had a masterpiece at the National Theater. He did it.
Major theater that is always reflecting on theater itself. Not exclusively when the play is in fact about a play -- the radical cases --, but in a whole. Perfectly dosed. The real inspector Hound, for instance, is a radical case. The curtain rises and people see velvet seats facing them, as a mirror; isn't it embarrassing?, who's acting now? Isn't it fantastic? Another example: The real thing. Theater within theater; changing through the acts and arousing dramaturgy in several possibilities.
In a similar way that Tom fused himself deeply in the country, he fused himself deeply in the contemporary culture. Already belonging to the modern canon, he is reference form academics to playwrights -- from beginners to experienced; from all over the world.
I bought my Penguin Classics exemplar of Ulysses annotated and, not surprisingly, in the first paragraph of the introduction, Declan Kiberd says "He [James Joyce] seems from the outset to have anticipated Tom Stoppard's brilliant joke in Travesties: 'What did you do in the Great War, Mr. Joyce?' 'I wrote Ulysses. What did you do?'"
James Joyce is a character in Travesties, so is Lenin, so is Tristan Tzara; Tom realized that all of them were living in Zurich by the same time: 1917. Rock 'n' roll, for the other hand, brings Czechoslovakia up: Prague Spring and Velvet Revolution. While The coast of utopia, the pre-revolution Russia between 1833 and 1866. Arcady flirts with the same English house in the early 19th century and the end of the 20th century.
We all must agree: Stoppardian, at least, doesn't mean to cock the work up.
We're looking at a playwright who, during his striking career, selected important political moments of history to be the scenery for his plays. To be the scenery where he can discuss art or science or human relations. Like fear and love. And we're looking at a playwright who, at his youth, had the cleverness -- and the courage -- to retell Shakespeare's Hamlet from the point of view of two minor characters. Retell through an absurdist perspective.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead is the masterpiece staged, after debut in the Edinburgh Fringe, in the National Theater when Tom was 29. A prowess that earned him six great prizes: Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright; Plays and Players Best Play Award; Antoinette Perry Award for Best Play; New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play; Prix Italia; and Tony Award for Best Play.
Adapted by Tom to screenplay, and also directed by him, the play transitioned to a notable film in the '90s. Winner of a Golden Lion. Screenwriter Tom, he would co-write, along with Marc Norman, the screenplay of Shakespeare in love. Undeniable outstanding movie. Winner of an Academy Award.
I will never forget that July morning when I, unconscious, started a friendship with the most remarkable Czech-Londoner gentleman. Dear Tom, now I can understand your unparalleled importance. As every writer, every actor and every producer can. What did you do in the last half-century, Sir? Let me answer: you've left us an eternal immense legacy. From linguistic mechanisms to human relations.
For all of this, and much more, I'm writing -- from Brazil -- openly, respectfully, for the Swedish Academy. Don't forget Tom Stoppard. He's among the few masters; he's a unique mind, true genius. He deserves the Nobel Prize.
And don't get angry with me, Tom; you deserve it -- I hope you get it someday.