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Tom Stoppard’s Luck

British playwright Tom Stoppard arrives at Westminster Abbey for a memorial service for theatre great Sir Peter Hall OBE on September 11, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Is Tom Stoppard all fun and no game? His virtuoso word play, scintillating dialogue, and hilarious absurdity can seem an end in themselves, but there is a very serious game afoot. As Stefan Collini writes in The Guardian, “At the very least, his work reveals a constant endeavour to decipher the puzzles of existence. As Hannah, a character in one of his best-loved plays, Arcadia, says: ‘It’s wanting to know that makes us matter. Otherwise we’re going out the way we came in.’” Collini is reviewing Hermoine Lee’s new biography of the playwright, but Jeremy Treglown’s review in The Literary Reviewis better:

Until I read Hermione Lee’s life of Tom Stoppard, I didn’t know it was possible to bask in envy. As if being handsome, funny and a dazzling writer (and good at cricket and fly-fishing) weren’t enough, Stoppard is immensely rich – not just in money but also, Lee shows, in family, lovers, friends and even, which may sound pompous, moral qualities. ‘What is the Good?’ Emily asks in his 2013 radio play Darkside. ‘It is nothing but a contest of kindness.’ We learn of his devotion to his mother, brother, sons and grandchildren, his ability to stay friends with his exes and his work on behalf of good causes, beneficiaries of which include the opposition in Belarus, which he has supported since before Lukashenko came to power, and refugees encamped at Calais. There are a couple of brilliant paragraphs late in the book about the meanings and pitfalls of charm, and also of luck. A small part of Stoppard’s good luck is that, unlike the subjects of most worthwhile biographies, he’s alive to enjoy this one.

It’s the book itself, though, that made me most happily jealous. The research couldn’t be more thorough. Stoppard’s decade in provincial journalism in Bristol is perfectly evoked, for example: jazz clubs, coffee bars, kids chain-smoking in polo-necked black jerseys. I was one of them and went to some of the productions at the Old Vic that Stoppard reviewed, such as Look Back in Anger with Peter O’Toole as Jimmy Porter, so I know. The narrative moves fluently between the raffish, impoverished life he was living there, his main love affair and friendships – most of them kept up for a lifetime – and his journalism. Lee is fascinating on his early pieces, including an irreverent one on the ‘workers’ theatre’ pretensions of Arnold Wesker’s Centre 42 . . . From the point of view of a fan, student or scholar wanting to know the history of any individual work (radio plays and screenplays included – everyone knows about Shakespeare in Love but it was a surprise to me how much lucrative script-doctoring Stoppard has done anonymously for Steven Spielberg), this book will be indispensable. The ideas he mobilises are fully explained, along with the personal, cultural and political circumstances in which each of sixty or so plays was written, what the plot is (the summary of Arcadia runs to nine pages), how and by whom it was first directed and performed, what Stoppard’s own input to the staging was, how critics reacted to both the first production and revivals and how much money it made. It’s broadly chronological, sympathetic, sensitive, often moving and, as we would expect of its author and hope of any book about Stoppard, stylishly written. The ‘human’ aspects – particularly the passages about his half-dozen most important love affairs – are tenderly done, though it has to be admitted that the more encyclopedic parts can be a bit of a slog.

In other news: Remember Pascal Cotte’s claim five years ago that there was another portrait under the Mona Lisa? Now he has published the full results of his 15-year research of the painting, detailing not just another portrait below the surface but a charcoal sketch: “The faint traces of a charcoal underdrawing, visible thanks to multispectral analysis, are evidence of the spolvero technique, in which the artist pricks tiny holes along the outlines of the drawing and uses charcoal dust to transfer the cartoon to canvas . . . This is the first time a spolvero has been spotted in the famous painting, which raises the fascinating possibility that somewhere out there, a paper drawing of the Mona Lisa by Leonardo’s hand may still exist—and that it would feature a slightly different pose, as the underdrawing shows the artist made adjustments to the final composition.”

The Booker Prize changes the date of its award ceremony to accommodate the release of Barack Obama’s forthcoming memoir: “On Tuesday, the Booker Prize said it was moving its award ceremony, previously scheduled for Nov. 17, to Nov. 19 to avoid overlapping with the publication of Mr. Obama’s book.”

In defense of hierarchies: Chang Che reviews Daniel A. Bell and Wang Pei’s Just Hierarchy: Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the Rest of the World: “Ask a group of Chinese friends how they deal with restaurant checks and they’ll tell you that one friend always pays for the rest (usually after a prolonged bout). Among my Western friends, the bill is often split among participants. The contrast reflects a difference of priorities: for my friends in the West, splitting the bill is desirable because it leads to a fair and equal outcome; but in China, equality isn’t always what matters. Sometimes, as in the case of paying the bill, virtuous behavior — a display of kindness, a touch of generosity — trumps the demands of fairness. The mountain of monetary debt I owe to my Chinese friends is a testament to this fact. This gets at an unsettling truth about moral actions. Although the Declaration of Independence claims that it is ‘self-evident’ that all men are created equal, some virtues are only attainable from unequal positions: you can’t begin to describe a good parent, coach, teacher, or doctor without speaking of a superior and an inferior. When we think of these figures as role models — as we often do — inequality is a precondition; it is not in spite of their superiority, but because of it, that they are seen as targets for our adoration.”

Simon Jenkins reviews Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay’s Cynical Theories: “Universities everywhere have hosted eccentric cults and the gods of reason have somehow survived them. What was new in Critical Theory – at least in its latter-day incarnation – was its adoption of militant direct action to enforce its creed. American campus authorities began to live in terror of accusations of being “unconsciously” racist or sexist. If they protested they were told it was not for them to decide. The outcome mattered, not the intent. In 2017 America’s Evergreen State College was invaded by a mob armed with clubs and forced to ‘confess’ its racist offences. Names, statues, publications, even lectures and classes were censored or “cancelled” by spies and thought police. Today more than 50 per cent of British universities have been forced formally ‘to restrict speech, especially certain views of religion and trans identity’. Areas of knowledge are banned from campus debate. Engineering must be ‘reconceptualised’ to make it ‘sensitive to difference, power and privilege’ and in Seattle maths is ‘rehumanised to maintain critical bifocality’. I am not sure I would want to cross a woke bridge. I might once have been disinclined to take all this too seriously. But persecution is transformed by digital media.”


about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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