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5 February 2015updated 03 Jan 2020 10:40am

Tom Stoppard on art, Charlie Hebdo – and why it’s a bad time to be a voter

"Time is short, life is short. There's a lot to know."

By Erica Wagner

It’s the final dress rehearsal for Tom Stoppard’s new play, The Hard Problem. We’ve come in from the cold outside the Dorfman Theatre on London’s South Bank, where Stoppard has been having one last cigarette. He settles me into a seat in the circle before heading down into the stalls, where he’ll make his final notes with the director Nicholas Hytner. I’ve read the play, because Stoppard sent it to me a few days before we meet, and I am eager to see how the words on the page will become words on the stage. But just before he leaves me and the house lights dim, Stoppard pauses for a moment in the aisle and asks, with a worried frown: “Are you sure the play made sense to you?”

That might sound like false modesty but here’s the thing about Stoppard: it’s not. Yes, he is “a true virtuoso”, as Alfred Molina called him when handing him a Writers Guild of America Screen Laurel Award a couple of years ago, an accolade that recognised a lifetime’s achievement in outstanding writing for film and television. His screenplay credits include Brazil, The Russia House and Shakespeare in Love, which got him an Oscar. And he has won four Tony Awards for Best Play: the first in 1968 for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; then for Travesties in 1976; for The Real Thing in 1984; and for the three-play series The Coast of Utopia in 2007. Shall we go on? There are the three Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards, several Evening Standard Awards and a Laurence Olivier Award (for the 1993 play Arcadia). He was knighted in 1997 and, in 2000, he was given the Order of Merit by the Queen. That’s the sort of roster that might make a fellow rather full of himself but Stoppard’s reticence is genuine, his charm honest and sincere. His friend and fellow playwright David Hare puts it simply: “Any discussion of Tom starts with what an extraordinary man he is. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone like him in my life.”

The Hard Problem is Stoppard’s first stage play since Rock’n’Roll in 2006. That play – in addressing the Prague Spring of 1968 and Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution in 1989 – offered, perhaps, a kind of alternate life for its author, for Stoppard was born Tomáš Straussler in Czechoslovakia in 1937. His father was a doctor working for the Bata shoe company. During the war, the family fled to Singapore but that proved only briefly to be a safe haven. His father was killed during the Japanese invasion; Tomáš and his mother and brother escaped first to Australia and then to India. In 1946, his mother married a British army major, Kenneth Stoppard, and soon afterwards the family settled in England, where Tomáš Straussler became Tom Stoppard.

Writer Tom Stoppard poses with The Laurel Award for Screen Writing Achievement. Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images for WGA

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There, from the start, is a conundrum of identity: one that, in its way, The Hard Problem addresses. The problem of the title is the neurological question of consciousness: how does electricity become emotion? Hilary, the neuroscientist who is the play’s central character, doesn’t think pure science provides an answer. She considers physical pain and how it differs from emotional pain: “If you wired me up you could track the signal, zip-zip. If you put my brain in a scanner you could locate the activity. Ping! Pain! Now do sorrow. How do I feel sorrow?”

Hilary’s sorrow is that, when she was 15, she had a baby, a little girl who was given up for adoption. It is a loss that haunts her and that no scientific knowledge can assuage. This is, as Stoppard says, “the gap between the train and the platform” and it is something that has troubled him for a while. “The idea – especially the idea about . . . a mother’s love for her baby – came out of a correspondence I had with Richard Dawkins once about a television programme he did. I kind of said, ‘I really enjoyed the programme, I was really interested, but I murmur against the evolutionary account of, say, altruism.’” That was nearly a decade ago, he tells me, but his file of clippings (“This is before the internet”) on the subject dates back to the 1980s.

He had read up on the subject but coincidence, which has a strong role in The Hard Problem, had its part to play, too. Every other year, Stoppard throws a summer party in the Chelsea Physic Garden; a few years ago, Robert May was in attendance. May is a former president of the Royal Society who spoke about his work in biology to the cast of Arcadia, back in the day. “Bob said, ‘There’s a guy here you need to talk to.’ It turned out to be Armand Marie Leroi, who is professor of developmental biology at Imperial. He’d been brought by somebody else – not by Bob May – and he was very friendly. I used him to tell me what I’d got wrong. I’d send him a first draft; there were things I adjusted and corrected thanks to him.”

Most of Stoppard’s research is done using books. “I really just like to be at a desk,” he admits. In The Hard Problem, Hilary ends up working for a private research institute called the Krohl – which is closely based on the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, started up a dozen years ago by the Microsoft co-founder Paul G Allen. I wonder if Stoppard has ever been there. “Funnily enough, I wrote to invite him [Allen] to see the play and he wrote back and asked me to come visit. I’ve got a very bad habit of doing my research after I’ve finished! I’d love to visit,” he says, “but it’s a long way to Seattle.”

This little exchange is as good a way as any of demonstrating that, for Stoppard, drama is an intellectual pursuit. In the past, he has said that he writes plays “because writing dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting myself”. To me he says: “I don’t really get off on fascinating characters or an amazing incident. I get off on abstract questions, a puzzle. Or just somebody’s mind, really, like Housman’s, or something like that.” The Invention of Love was his 1997 play centred around the poet A E Housman; one could argue that now, nearly two decades later, he is taking on the mind as a whole. A great, wired brain hangs over the set of The Hard Problem, a network of flashing lights and electric connections that makes material the ongoing mystery of what is really going on inside our skulls. As David Hare says, “What Tom loves is good writing. He doesn’t mind what direction good writing takes him in. It’s the quality of the journey which he adores, rather than the destination.”

A coffee with the actor Samuel West gives a sense of how this intellectual electricity flows through everyone who works with Stoppard. West played Valentine in the first production of Arcadia, directed by Trevor Nunn at the National Theatre in 1993. West had just missed getting into a production of The Importance of Being Earnest when Arcadia came along: “The part went to Richard E Grant and I was miffed.” Then he read for Septimus at the National – the role that eventually went to Rufus Sewell and made his name. This reading, West tells me with a sheepish grin, went “quite badly”; but he returned to read for Valentine. By coincidence – another one – he’d just memorised Byron’s poem “Darkness” for a competition; it’s a poem that appears to anticipate the eventual death of the universe, as modern physics understands it. The play hinges on whether such knowledge could have been had a couple of centuries in the past.

“I said to Trevor and to Tom, you know there’s a Byron poem about this, don’t you? ‘I had a dream, which was not all a dream./The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars/Did wander darkling in the eternal space,/Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth/Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air . . .’ I recited it and, at the end, they were – briefly – dumb. Tom was quite excited. And Trevor said, ‘That’s one for the programme!’ I just felt happy that I might have got something into the programme of Arcadia.”

But he got the job, no small thanks, he’s sure, to both Byron and Stoppard – because the lines didn’t just go into the programme, they went into the play. “And it turned out to be arguably the greatest postwar play in English,” West says, his face alight at the memory, “and almost certainly the greatest new play I’ll ever be in.” Most plays, he says, “require you to become a bit of an obsessive. But the wonderful thing about Arcadia is that becoming obsessed with it didn’t seem to narrow the world down at all: it seemed to explode it.”

The dress rehearsal of The Hard Problem runs straight through from start to finish, a good sign, Stoppard says, as we stand outside again for a few minutes afterwards so he can have just one more cigarette before we head inside the warren of the theatre’s backstage area for a chat in an office upstairs. Tall and elegant in a long coat, his mane of hair now grey, Stoppard has a presence that is powerful without ever being intimidating. Just as we are removing our jackets and getting comfortable, the playwright manages, somehow, to turn on the torch of his iPhone. He is clearly startled by this, not least because he didn’t know that the device was so equipped. “I had to borrow a torch for the dress rehearsal!” he says. “I had no idea I had one in my pocket. I’m not actually fit for purpose, writing about science.”

He had put off writing this play for a long time. “I did Anna Karenina instead of this, for example” – Joe Wright’s 2012 film starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law. He also cites his TV adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s novels, Parade’s End, also released in 2012, as a years-long distraction from getting to work on his latest play.

But it wasn’t simply other commissions that got in the way: there was his sense of himself as a playwright, too. “I really didn’t want to write the kind of play that I write,” he says. “I’d like to write a play which didn’t sound like one of mine.” He looks at me slightly hopelessly. “And this one does, doesn’t it?” I say it does: there’s no escaping that. “Yes,” he says. “Well, because it is one. I thought I might find a more abstract way of talking about these things, or a more poetical way, rather than do this, where it’s essentially naturalistic, or realistic, except that the dialogue tends to be worked on, which it isn’t in life. I had a feeling that I was on the cusp of being out of date in some interesting or uninteresting way, just in terms of the conventions I use. But finally . . .” He trails off for a moment. “You are what you write. And you write what you are. And it just came out like this. I still would like to do the thing I’m talking about. But I didn’t, on this occasion.”

It’s moving to hear him say this. After all, many people greatly admire work that sounds like Stoppard; the “worked-on” dialogue has plenty of fans. But it is the mark of the artist always to be reaching, if possible, for the new, even if it can’t be achieved.

He is aware that time is shorter than it once was. “I’m 77,” he says. “Fifty years ago, I would have thought, frankly, if you get to be 80, you’ve won. Everything else is gravy. Now I don’t feel this at all and it’s quite worrying, if one cared to worry about it. My last stage play was 2006 so, clearly, if I want to write another one, I’d better not interrupt myself to that degree and try to write one next year. I don’t think I’d like to leave things as they are.” As if describing an imagined obituary, he considers what ending his play-writing career with his latest work might look like: “The Hard Problem opens – that’s where I got to. I don’t want to think that way. I want to think there’s something to follow it and plays are the only thing I write which are truly my own.”

Indeed, his work for the screen doesn’t loom large in our conversation. “I think of myself as a theatre writer who sometimes does other stuff,” he says. Although he invested “an enormous part” of himself in Parade’s End, “Somebody else invented the characters and the general outline of the story.” What he loves in film “are the bits which don’t have any words in them. Just the way of telling a story with objects and a camera. I admire that, I really do. I’d love to be able to be good at it but it doesn’t draw my devotion in the way that particular words in a particular order do.”

David Hare tells me that he and Stoppard and their wives (last year, Stoppard married Sabrina Guinness, the brewery family heiress who was once romantically linked to Prince Charles; it was his third wedding and her first) often make a foursome at the theatre, which, I find myself thinking, must be a terrifying prospect for any member of the company who glimpses them coming in. “All of us cheer up when something catches our fancy,” Hare says, though that’s not always the case. He mentions (but will not name) an “extremely well-received play”, after which: “Tom turned to me and said, ‘This is the kind of thing that people who hate theatre hate most.’ He meant that it was tiresome and humourless. You could never use that word about Tom. I once asked him, ‘You don’t think that play has too many jokes, do you?’ He said he didn’t think a play could ever have too many jokes.”

But it doesn’t seem as if evenings at the theatre fill his life. I remark that “state of the nation” plays, for want of a better term, seem to be having a moment. I think of Rona Munro’s The James Plays, a trilogy that looked at Scottish independence through the glass of Scotland’s history; Mike Bart­lett’s brilliantly satirical King Charles III; and Jack Thorne’s austerity drama Hope. “You’ve mentioned three titles to which I hoped to go but never did. I can read plays, I tell myself,” he says. He agrees that they arise from a moment of political engagement. He is himself deeply engaged; yet he has resisted addressing current political issues in his work, not because he fears that it would become dated but because some questions are not adequately answerable.

“Where do you stop?” he asks. “The murders in Paris – where is the bottom of that story? Where do you get back to? I had a conversation today which offered a very good metaphor for this. It was about somebody studying architecture as a restorative enterprise. The question for these people is: ‘Restore back to where?’ Original may not be the best choice. There may be a superb 18th-century building on a 15th-century building, so which do you restore? Some of these subjects are bottomless and I reverberate with half-formed responses to this mad spectrum of the state of a the nation and the nations, plural.”

Stoppard is acutely aware of global affairs. He says he is “a great newspaper reader” and knows “what’s going on in the world”. He used to love the journalist entertainers, the comic columnists, but not any more – striking to hear from a man who said a play could never have too many jokes. “Time is short, life is short, there’s a lot to know. So I skip the entertainers in the newspaper now. I just haven’t got time.”

The playwright in 1967. Photo: Jane Brown/Guardian News & Media Ltd

He is not a writer, or a man, who can simply be placed on the left or right of politics. His world is too complex for that, as the unabashedly left-wing David Hare acknowledges. “He and I came from very different political points of view in the 1970s,” Hare tells me, “but he embraced my work and supported me very strongly in that generous way of his. He was a committed anti-communist and that was the most important cause of his life. But unlike most anti-communists, he was not pursuing a surrogate vendetta against the British left. He hated communism because of what it did to its victims. He knew about how people suffered in the Soviet bloc; the domestic argument about left and right didn’t much interest him.

“Tom has fantastic integrity. He is a genuine democrat – and one without an axe to grind, which is terribly unusual. In that way, he’s unique. I’m not talking about the theatre; I’m talking about his place in British life. It’s not that he’s above the struggle. There are many things to which he gives a great deal of time and attention – anything to do with freedom of speech, freedom for writers. But his is no Olympian detachment; it’s a largeness of soul.”

Some of that largeness of soul goes into his role as president of the London Library. That’s how he and I came to meet some years ago. It is clear that this Piccadilly institution, founded in 1841 by Thomas Carlyle, is a place dear to his heart. He presides with warmth over its annual Christmas party, persuading the likes of Vanessa Redgrave and Tom Hollander to read seasonal verses to the assembled guests. Yet there is more to his public life than that. Over the years, Stoppard has supported many human rights causes across the globe, ranging from Charter 77, the campaign and manifesto for human rights formed in communist-era Czechoslovakia (Václav Havel’s rise to the presidency is dramatised in Rock’n’Roll), to action over Darfur; and he has called for Vladimir Putin to restore “peace and justice” to Chechnya. He has been vocal in his support for the Belarus Free Theatre, a troupe that was in effect banned by Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorial regime.

In 2013, he was awarded the PEN Pinter Prize, given in memory of the late Harold Pinter – a good friend of Stoppard’s – in recognition for a lifetime’s literary achievement and his work in the field of human rights. It is notable that, the same year, the PEN Pinter panel honoured the Belarusian journalist Iryna Khalip with the International Writer of Courage Award. Khalip had suffered intimidation and imprisonment in her country; it’s clear, in speaking to Stoppard, that he feels that his own courage pales before hers and that of many others. He knows that his visibility allows him to do good work; he is also very much aware that he is not at risk. His involvement is “at a distance. One gets points. If you are well known at something else, you get points for doing stuff which lots of other people do and much more and they don’t get any points at all. You get over-praised, over-credited. [Václav] Havel is something else. That is getting involved and paying the price and going to jail and everything else.”

But the fall of communism in Europe has only brought a certain kind of change and not all of it positive, as Khalip’s story attests. “It certainly wasn’t the end of history,” Stoppard says. “The fault lines now in . . . I was going to say ‘western society’ but it’s not just western society.” His voice trails off a little, as if he is debating whether to say something. It turns out that he was in Paris just after the murders in the offices of Charlie Hebdo. He took part in the march that thronged the streets of the city on Sunday 11 January. “I was there for other reasons,” he says; the trip had been long planned. He participated in the march “in the spirit of observing some important thing. But, of course, you couldn’t ‘observe’ it: you were either in it or you weren’t. I was in the middle of a million people and it was actually” – he pushes up against me, so we are shoulder to shoulder – “that close. A million.” He pauses. “I found the whole thing very troubling. I didn’t associate myself absolutely with the magazine. Obviously, the murders were indefensible, that’s quite clear. But those events chimed with me, with parts of me I’ve been aware of for years and years and years.”

Addressing Charlie Hebdo’s aggressive editorial policy, he makes a connection to his firm belief that: “You always feel worse if you decide to make an aggressive comeback.” This applies between individual human beings, he says, just as it does between families and villages and nations. “If you won’t let it go, if you are determined to flex your muscles and make your point bigger and better and louder, you always end up feeling bad. Whereas if you conciliate and give, you always feel relieved. This is the human truth about us. So I couldn’t, I really couldn’t, as it were, position myself in the heart of Charlie Hebdo.”

The shorthand of the “Je suis Charlie” hashtag, in that sense, is the antithesis of the sort of sophisticated discussion this issue requires, he says. That slogan “was supposed to be a statement against extremism but actually it was a gratuitous swipe at the entire population of Muslim countries.”

He notes the speech that Egypt’s President al-Sisi made on New Year’s Day, in which he asked: “Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants – that is seven billion – so that they themselves may live? Impossible!” As Stoppard says, this idea is “beyond Jonathan Swift, beyond Alfred Jarry. It’s beyond anything, the absurdity of it.”

He makes sure that he is heard to condemn the murders absolutely: “What I would like to say and think and be sure is true is that the murders were committed by deranged criminals and should be treated as such. But, of course, those criminals are also guerrilla soldiers in a war of the world.” There is, he is certain, only one solution to this situation: “What we actually have to do is demonstrate by our behaviour that our values are better than theirs. That’s the only thing we’ve got to work with. It will take a long time and you’ll take a lot of hits for it but finally you can’t coerce people. You have to be more attractive than the competition.”

Hare calls his friend “a conservative with a small c”. Stoppard’s words about the Charlie Hebdo affair make me ask if he would agree with that description. What does he think it means? “I think it has a literal meaning, to do with conserving things,” he says carefully. “It suggests a kind of prudence in moving forward; a certain caution. Maybe there are one or two things I’m more radical about but ‘conservative with a small c’ is perfectly fine.” Once upon a time, he caused a fuss in artistic circles by expressing support for Margaret Thatcher: he told the US journalist Mel Gussow that he thought of her “as a subversive influence”. The pre-Thatcher, Wilson-Callaghan years had been “nauseating”.

None of the main political parties in this country inspires him now. He calls the rise of Ukip “scary and depressing”. “My sense is that all manner of disreputable opinion is huddled under that umbrella for the moment, because more unites them than divides them. Whatever follows, what divides them will show up very clearly. I don’t care for that at all.” But when I say that no major party seems to be offering an effective rebuttal to the rise of Ukip, he agrees, while remaining diplomatic about each party’s leadership. “It’s a bad time to be a voter. Where does one actually place one’s devotion, dedication, enthusiasm? You end up trying to calculate the least worst. It’s very troubling that we pay lip service to democracy as an ideal but we are becoming less democratic the more we promote democracy for other people.”

Not all aspects of what some call democracy find favour with Stoppard. He is an untiring advocate of free speech but the WikiLeaks saga left him pretty cold. “I realise that in the circle of my friends and probably most people I know, one is supposed to be gung-ho on Assange and Snowden,” he says, but he seems cautious about the notion of “blowing the whistle on some sort of negotiation or whatever”.

It’s the “bulk giveaway with no discrimination” he takes against – sometimes politicians must operate out of the public eye, surely. “When it’s exposing what’s happening at Guantanamo, it is democratic. One doesn’t want one’s democracy to behave like a dictatorial or fascistic police. One doesn’t. But I feel a great sympathy with what are called the forces of law and order, frankly; I think they’ve got their hands full, to say the least.”

It is clear that he has carefully considered the role he plays in such a world. “I think that I deal in luxury goods nowadays,” he says, perhaps a little sadly. “I don’t actually make a habit of quoting myself but there is a woman in Arcadia, or maybe it’s another play, who says: ‘It’s needing to know that makes us matter.’” It says much about the focus of Stoppard’s work that he can’t quite place this line. It is indeed from Arcadia, or nearly: “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter,” Hannah Jarvis says towards the end of the play, “otherwise we’re going out the way we came in.” She is, unquestionably, speaking for her author.

“That impulse, which I think does make us matter and is very much to do with being human and being a progressive human – it feels like luxury goods now, compared to doing something about the fact that half the population of the Lebanon is now refugees. Shouldn’t I write about that?” he asks. “Shouldn’t I go to Beirut? Rather than wonder whether I should go down the Fulham Road to visit a guy doing experiments?”

It sounds pessimistic but, as always with Stoppard, there is another side to the coin. “I’ve always thought of theatre as being a recreation for the community, the tribe, the society,” he says. “And obviously it’s all to the good if that particular kind of recreation is educative in some way, or occupies your brain in serious ways. The artist is trapped in his own logic, which is that if the actual purpose is to be educative, then you could hardly do worse than to write a play, where you are giving people a chance to hear something once as it goes by. Plays are story forms from which one can draw huge lessons but they aren’t the lesson. I think that’s always been true, from antiquity.”

The lesson is to listen, one thinks after spending time in Stoppard’s company. Our cups of tea have gone cold now; it’s dark outside. Stoppard has to get back to the theatre but he helps me with my coat and walks me to my bus stop on Waterloo Bridge. Then he turns and disappears back towards the theatre, to work, to writing, to his life.

“The Hard Problem” is at the National’s Dorfman Theatre, London SE1, until 27 May See page 49 for the review

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