When Tom Stoppard accepted the David Cohen Prize for Literature on 8 November, he did so with characteristic graciousness. The prize – often referred to in the same breath as the Nobel, for it rewards a lifetime’s achievement – was presented by Antonia Fraser, whose late husband Harold Pinter was its second winner in 1995. Stoppard spoke of that postwar flowering of British theatre of which Pinter was an integral part. “I saw The Birthday Party performed by students in the Victoria Rooms in Bristol in 1958,” he recalled, “and something about that time entitled one to say: I was there. I ended up thinking I’d like to write a play, mostly – so I entered the shallow end of the theatre, and I’m still swimming as fast as I can.”
This is still how Stoppard feels (“I’d like to write a play, mostly”), though he acknowledges that, six decades later, the state of the world seems to make the mere act of considering how to go about it much harder. “There seem to be half a dozen huge subjects thrusting themselves at anybody who writes,” he says. “And this whole year…” He hesitates for a moment. “It’s been an odd experience, finding out that I didn’t feel that I had a way in on any of them.” He sighs.
We are sitting in a London hotel suite, the morning before he accepts his prize at BAFTA in Piccadilly. He nibbles at a biscuit, guiltily; he’s not supposed to have any sugar, he tells me, but there was no time for breakfast. “My older brother said to me very sweetly on the phone the other day, ‘Listen, why don’t you write about something which isn’t too clever?’ and I thought, ‘That’s probably very good advice!’ But in the end, you write things which spark you, which get you going. And when I think of skirting around a Trump play, a climate change play, a machine-learning play, a Brexit play, there’s a disconcerting lack of appetite.”
At 80, he is a little aware, he tells me, of slowing down. He’s conscious of a loss of energy and that his memory “isn’t what it was”.
Considering that his is the mind that made Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Arcadia, The Real Thing, and The Coast of Utopia – to name but a few – and that created screenplays for classic films such as Brazil and Shakespeare in Love, this might just bring him to the level of us ordinary mortals. “I said to Sabrina [Guinness, his wife since 2014] just the other day, ‘I think I’d rather be silent than dwindling,’ which may not be true,” he says with a rueful little laugh. “She didn’t like it at all!”
Stoppard has always been reticent about joining the political fray. His work has never engaged directly with the subject in the way of his contemporaries David Hare or Tony Harrison (the last winner of the biennial David Cohen Prize, in 2015). But it’s clear he regards current political developments on both sides of the Atlantic with some alarm.
Born Tomás Straüssler in Zlín, Czechoslovakia, he came to Britain in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Accepting the David Cohen Prize, he told the assembled audience that he felt he had lived “a charmed life”, while reminding us that his father had been killed in the war and much of his mother’s family murdered.
When I raise the subject of Brexit, he says simply: “My whole being, and my whole instinct, is about saving things from the wreckage, rather than acknowledging some huge sea change in civilisation and going along with the current.”
He is dismayed by populist billionaire Andrej Babiš, the new Czech prime minister – “a very rash sort of person”, Stoppard says. “Hungary has been that way for quite a while now. Austria. The whole thing is just like a huge note of irony on one’s fond hopes about ‘the end of history’ 25 years ago. You know, that idea that liberal values had won, and that was it. That teaches one not to assume too much.”
He decries, too, the debasement of the language of public debate. “There’s always been a correlation between a successful politician – in any form of that word – and articulacy, the ability to handle the language. It’s impossible to conceive of somebody who could use the language effectively and be as stupid as Mr Trump at the same time,” he says.
I offer that the ascent of Trump seems to be connected to a distrust of the “elite”. Barack Obama’s articulateness marked him out as a member of this tribe. “I know, I know,” Stoppard says, a little despairingly. “One finds oneself clambering around a kind of utopian monkey ladder saying, ‘Well, yes indeed, these people like Obama, they’re elite, and that should be what you’re aspiring to, not actually getting angry and feeling outsmarted and resentful and so on.’”
So when did that seesaw tilt? He doesn’t have the answer, but I’m not surprised – Stoppard’s work has always been about asking the right questions rather than providing definitive answers. And while he’s cagey about what he might or might not be working on, he has nothing but praise for the next generation of playwrights.
“I find it incredibly heartening,” he says. “Whatever the subjects, it’s just the quality of the writing; people who are young and good – and there seem to be more of them coming all the time. I wouldn’t have guessed it would happen.”
Theatre is still the subject that excites him most.
“I still consider myself lucky to have somehow taken that path,” he says. “It didn’t have to happen.”