Oddly enough, until yesterday I never really looked into Tom Stoppard’s past. I mean, no more than what seems to be generally known, like him having been born in Czechoslovakia, and writing highly amusing drama. It’s odd, because he was my favourite dramatist when I was at university, and it was only my tutor’s perception that Tom lacked depth that meant I never ‘did’ anything about him in an academic way.
Perhaps it was the lack of Google and Wikipedia? Although, I did have a volume on British dramatists where I could look people up. Or maybe I simply felt that Tom’s work spoke for him?
I used to think he was awfully clever; to have been born a foreigner and still be able to write the way he did. Yeah, I know. I sound almost xenophobic, but that’s not what I meant. I believed that if a language was not your native one, then there would always be something that you couldn’t do with it. I knew I couldn’t.
And it seems that Tom agreed with me in some way. I found this quote on Wikipedia: ‘His stepfather believed strongly that “to be born an Englishman was to have drawn first prize in the lottery of life” – a quote from Cecil Rhodes – telling his small stepson: “Don’t you realise that I made you British?” setting up Stoppard’s desire as a child to become “an honorary Englishman”. “I fairly often find I’m with people who forget I don’t quite belong in the world we’re in”, he says. “I find I put a foot wrong – it could be pronunciation, an arcane bit of English history – and suddenly I’m there naked, as someone with a pass, a press ticket.’
Two years ago I’d have found that amusing. Now I don’t.
It’s noteworthy that his stepfather was happy to marry a foreigner, and to take on two little foreign boys as his sons. But what’s more, Mr Stoppard appears to have believed that the act of doing so made these little foreigners British. How many people – who matter – share his thoughts today?
As for the pronunciation, the arcane history, or being naked; I’ve been there too. At least I share something with Sir Tom.
So, as I was saying, I adored his humour back then. I must have read almost every single play he wrote, up until the mid 1980s when I moved on to other reading material. But I always wanted to be able to write like Tom Stoppard, even if he ‘lacked depth.’
I had a bit of an epiphany thinking about my tutor’s comment. I’d like to think she has changed her mind over the years, and with hindsight I see that humorous drama like Tom’s could very well be viewed like children’s books, or crime; not quite properly grown-up.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have everything you could want.
The very same tutor was terribly ambitious, so after I teased the group with my frequent trips to London, going to the theatre to see new and exciting plays, she organised a drama week for us. She bought tickets for about eight plays in six days and charmed a lot of money from someone at some party or conference, which meant that we could all have a week in London for next to no cost.
And one of those plays was a Stoppard, Night and Day, starring John Thaw, but sadly not Diana Rigg.
Where am I going with this? Not sure. But Sir Tom is clearly an immigrant, with a refugee past, a Jew, who made it in Britain. Made it to Britain. And he dares to be clever with the language spoken here. Whether he has stopped feeling inadequate I have no idea. And I suspect he won’t be one of the first to be forced to leave when Brexit really gets going.