Tom Stoppard Finally Looks Into His Shadow

Sep 07, 2022 · 164 comments
Fred White (Baltimore)
In a sense, English drama since the Elizabethans is mostly a desert, with a few oases like Congreve, Gay, Sheridan, Wilde, and Shaw. So there's little doubt that Stoppard's body of work is by far the most impressive among those of English dramatists of the last four hundred years or so. A low bar for a genius to cross.
Maureen! This is magical. You've achieved something the snooty UK press has failed so far. Getting to the measure of the man. I knew about Sir Tom's back story already, but your take here makes it new.♟️
Dew (USA)
He's sad today, but chuffed for King Charles III.
Scott Lahti (Marquette, Michigan)
While reading the comments to this article during a 12:30 am rerun on Pluto TV of the 1977 "Funny, You Don't Look It" episode of Sanford and Son in the background on my phone, I was practically Stoppard in my tracks as I discerned that Fred, inspired by Alex Haley's "Roots", had sent off $25 to a scam genealogy outfit, that promptly informs him by return mail, phony family crest included, that he is, by way of the ancient Ethiopian Falashas, a Jewish king. He tells a yarmulke-sporting shopkeeper (Milton Seltzer), who replies "As if you didn't already have enough trouble."
Stephen Rosedale (Cincinnati, Ohio)
Tomas would do well to look to his beginnings cast away at time of peril. They were in any event considered perhaps and accident of birth. Yet they contain eternal truth, absolutes from a Higher plain and answers to questions hidden on this earth. As God said to Avraham. Go outside and look at the stars. Jews have the ability to rise above the constellations, the fates, the destinies controlled by others and make our own destinies; and when synchronous with God's plan bring purpose, goodness and meaning to an otherwise empty existence.
ADN (New York City)
Christine Baranski and now Stoppard. Ms. Dowd has a new metier and dazzles with it. Her level of preparation alone is stunning, never mind the wit of the prose. If only she hadn’t spent so many years savaging decent politicians and adoring repugnant ones. It would be easier to love her.
Robert Hathaway (California)
Amazing article and definitely should be enjoyed and consumed by more readers. I love the overhead picture of his writing station. A lefty with a fountain pen. How I know that struggle. I can almost hear the skritching of nib against stationery. Pack of Mentos at hand to cover the smoker’s breath in case of visitors. Soft light glow. The smell of old manuscripts on the shelves.
Jeff (South Boston, MA)
Most wonderful column celebrating the life and achievements of a great man of the theater. For those wanting to immediately delight in his work, search “Professional Foul” on youtube. It is his BBC television play centered on a Cambridge don who flies to Prague for a soccer match and to incidentally to deliver a ethics paper at a conference. My good fortune was moving from Ithaca, N.Y., to Shepards Bush, London, shortly before the 21 September 1977 broadcast and enjoying the ethics debate and anti-totalitarian message. It is dedicated to the Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright who became president of the Republic.
rafshari (Rockville, MD)
This fascinating article is far more than a theatre review. It should not be placed in theatre section of the NYT website. It demands a prominent position to be noticed immediately. R. Afshari
sdw (Cleveland)
This is a superb column by Maureen Dowd, as I wrote in an earlier comment. The column is worth re-reading before people rush to fault Tom Stoppard for accepting his mother's evasive choice of a new name and identity for him.
Mike Boyle (Maryland)
Tom unstoppered (Dogg R.L.). Marvelous column (and comment).
Christopher Hawtree (Hove, Sussex, England)
There is something to be written about the way in which local newspapers can foster international writers. Not only Stoppard in Bristol but Anthony Burgess in Banbury (the latter described... tractor shows).
JF (Italy)
The Bata shoemaking company is alive and well and still selling shoes -- at least in Italy. And I think it sells most of them to my wife.
s.chubin (Geneva)
Wonderful interview, brilliant subject. Also excellent bio by H Lee .
JanosG (San Francisco)
I haven't read all comments, but of those I've seen mentioning Stoppard's plays, I sorely missed my favorite, "Arcadia," at that point THE play with emotion in addition to brilliance. Tomasina dances not only into the final courtain but into the audience's memory and heart as well.
Steve Sailer (America)
Is Stoppard telling the truth about not realizing how Jewish he was? After all, he is one of the great creative artists of the age, a magician of misdirection. But his older brother, a prosaic accountant, says the same thing. I think it’s not implausible for boys, even a hyperintelligent one such as Stoppard, to not be alert to family history. For example, when I was 21, my best friend told me he had just been watching TV with his mother (a Katharine Hepburn look-alike), when she said, “That actor looks just like Frank.” “Who is Frank?” “Oh…I guess never mentioned that I was married before.” So I told my mother this story. She replied, “That reminds me, I never told you. I was married before too.” Her story, however, turned out to be less scandalous: her first husband died in combat on Iwo Jima. That finally explained why I had a third set of relatives besides my mother’s family and my father’s family: my “Uncle Chuck” and “Aunt Betty” who, my mother had informed me, weren’t exactly my relatives. But I had never been interested enough in family relationships to ask what that meant. It turned out that they were my mom’s late husband’s extended family. Yet, up through age 21 I not only hadn’t figured that out, but it hadn’t occurred to me to even ask what exactly was our relationship to our quasi-relatives. At least in the English-speaking world, family trees are not of intense interest to boys. And Stoppard has been an impressively boyish man throughout his long life.
Helene (Long Beach Ca)
As someone whose parents were Holocaust Survivors, and, like Stoppard's, were from Czechoslovakia, growing up knowing basically what they had been through (which included Concentration Camps), as I child I wished I had a completely American background- like the Dick and Jane characters I read about in school. However, when I hit my late Twenties, I, like Stoppard, was compelled to seek the Truth, and all its details, and asked my parents to tell me what they had gone through. I will always be immensely grateful that they complied. Although our childhoods were immeasurably different, Stoppard and I share the same roots, and the thirst for knowledge of those roots. And don't we all? So: Parents, Grandparents, Everyone: Share your Background with your Children and their Children. And don't Wait. Life is too short.
E (New York)
I had the pleasure of seeing Leopoldstadt in London and it was breathtaking. As is stated in the article, the character Leo, Stoppard’s stand-in in the play, is viewed with disdain, pity, anger, and sadness by the other family members he eventually meets. The play is Stoppard’s reckoning with himself rather than his Jewishness, recognizing his failure to explore his past while celebrating the albeit fictional Jewish family that he left behind. A must-see.
sam s (Mars)
Hermione Lee’s bio is one of the best bios Of anyone I’ve ever read.. Maureen gleans the life story, but there is so much more in the book. May Tom live long enough to justify a second volume!
Thomas Feyer (New York)
@sam s I agree. Hermione Lee's biography is riveting. And Maureen Dowd did a terrific interview.
Martin Huckerby (London, UK)
Those who condemn Tom Stoppard for failing to probe his Jewish ancestry may be ignoring that he had already looked into his past with a different focus – imagining what it would have been like if Tomáš Sträussler had never escaped Zlin, but survived and grew up in communist Czechoslovakia. His play Rock 'n' Roll offered a splendid portrait of an unheroic character who becomes a sort of accidental dissident, due to his love of rock music. It feels very much like Tom seeing how life might have turned out for Tomáš.
Joseph Katz (Hamburg, Germany)
I went to his Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Twice, I think. I was not impressed. Pseudo-philosophic pseudo-profundity. Rather like Waiting for Godot. No there there.
Try again. Both plays.
@Joseph Katz I’m not a fan of that one either. But if you haven’t seen other of his work like Hapgood and The Real Thing, you’re not taking your theatre-going seriously
Alan J. Shaw (Bayside, NY)
The interview does not mention his mother's maiden name, nor is it entirely clear that his father was Jewish, although it does state that his four grandparents perished at the hands of the Nazis.
JerseyGirl (Princeton NJ)
You can look all this up in Wiikipedia. Both his parents were Jewish.
Linda J. (New Jersey)
In Orthodox Judaism, if a person's mother is Jewish, her child is Jewish. However, if the father alone is Jewish, the child isn't "automatically" Jewish. This is because the child was obviously the mother's, but until recently there wasn't DNA testing to determine fatherhood.
NYCSandi (NYC)
Escaping the Nazis AND marrying a Guinness heiress-that IS a charmed life.
Greg Goodwin (Vancouver WA)
When Maureen Dowd does an interview, it is always a must read. This is a must .
fiona freer (cassis france)
ms dowd, you are a wordsmithl. i always love your articles.
Reggie (WA)
This piece illustrates why Ms. Maureen Dowd may be hailed as the greatest American columnist. . . .
Lots of people cry at the end of The Real Thing.
Solomon (brooklyn)
You meant "when Hitler annexed Austria"
Patty (San Francisco)
What a wonderful piece, dear Maureen Dowd. Thank you.
ejb (PA 1st Congressional District)
It's wonderful, but too rare, to see Ms Dowd writing about human greatness rather than cretinous political swill. But she writes exquisitely about everything.
Doug (Denver)
“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.” (Monty Python) And when it inevitably happens as it did with Hitler, fighting that evil means not letting your history as a member of the jewish people be destroyed by that evil. Great article. Can’t wait to see the play.
Doug Tarnopol (Cranston RI)
Stoppard discovers that Jews were murdered in Europe during WWII. Confesses to Maureen Dowd. Fantasizes about how if only there were no nukes, we could destroy Russia. I liked him a lot better when he was writing things like Rosencrantz… and Travesties.
Steve (New York)
@Doug Tarnopol I agree with your taste in his plays. Travesties is by far my favorite but Rosencrantz, Jumpers, and a few rarely performed including New Found Land, Dirty Linen, Dogg's Hamlet and Cahoot's MacBeth, and Every Good Boy Deserves Favour are all great. Although I saw have seen several since it, the last one of his that I really enjoyed was The Real Thing. Since then I've found his plays more didactic than entertaining. I was even at the first preview in NYC of Coast of Utopia when one of the actors suffered a heart attack at the end of the first act and the audience members were offered a refund or tickets to another performance. I, and the other people around me, all decided on the refund as we found the first act to be so boring we wouldn't consider sitting through it again.
babka1 (NY)
George Eliot (Annapolis, Md)
There’s only one Tom Stoppard and only one Maureen Dowd.
Jake Roberts (New York, NY)
This aspect of Stoppard's life—the knee-jerk avoidance of his Jewishness—is very typical for generations of post-war Jewish families. The trauma of the Holocaust affected the entire people. Many survivors (like Stoppard and his mother) changed their names and lied about their identities, even to themselves. His mother's aversion to her own identity went beyond any conscious calculation—why lie to her son about her childhood, and the deaths of her own parents and siblings? This allergy to their own identity affects even Jews who remain Jewish, and who were born decades after the Holocaust. My brother-in-law was a comedian in New York in the 1980s and '90s. In his routine he'd ask how many Irish people were in the audience. People would clap and cheer. Italians? The same. How many Jews are here? Dead silence. Why? Realistically, no anti-Jewish riot would break out if the Jews drew attention to themselves. And, in fact, American Jews are far more likely to denounce anti-Black, anti-Asian, or anti-LGBTQ bigotry than antisemitism. To me, it's all part of an intergenerational post-traumatic response.
Vivian (New York)
Perhaps I'm mis-reading this, but I find Dowd's expressions of Mr. Stoppard coming to a "reckoning" with his Judaism to be anti-semitic. Why does Jewishness need to be "reckoned" with? It's reads to me as if Mr. Stoppard had to begrudgingly admit his ancestry.
lise (california)
I think she intends to convey his reckoning with his opaqueness to his past, and by extension the damage that was done to this group of people of whom he is a descendant
Rob (NY)
"I’m vaguely aware that I have a capacity not to dwell on this. I can see that there’s another way to live where you’re lying awake about it. I just think, ‘Move on and to hell with it.’” I need this in my life.
Linda J. (New Jersey)
If everyone went through life saying to themselves about their past, particularly when they've messed up, "To hell with it. Move on," the world would be in worse shape than it is. Reflection, and reasonable guilt, can be highly motivating to become a better human being.
Rob (NY)
@Linda J. Fair point.
Judy (Freeport, NY)
Speaking about the influence of Alexander Waugh's book on the Wittgenstein family over Stoppard's Leopoldstadt, there is a line about Hitler annexing Germany. Huh? Surely, as the family resided in Vienna, the annexation of Austria is meant here. Was the error made by Waugh or Dowd? Or, is this a metaphorical expression of the Nazi Party taking over Germany? Even were it this latter, it would not connect to family in Vienna.
PB (Northern Utah)
Best interview I ever read. So many insights and nuggets of wisdom here, especially about changing perspectives from middle age to old age. I especially appreciated Stoppard’s observations about denial and moving forward, which I think it pretty standard when we are so busy for much of our adult lives. We don't take time to put the pieces together—beautifully expressed by Maureen's observation: "Stoppard’s early life was defined by a series of escapes, and those escapes led to elisions." A couple of astute remarks by Stoddard: “You don’t know that you’re in denial, so you’re quite happy about being in denial. You think that’s your kind of resting place.” "I can see that there’s another way to live where you’re lying awake about it. I just think, ‘Move on and to hell with it.’” For decades, I taught gerontology, and one of the most fascinating findings was that a few very talented creative writers, composers, and artists do move forward in old age and become even more creative. Why? Because they stop creating for audiences and earning a living, and decide to do what they want or must--which is to pull the pieces together in new ways and move to a higher level. Stoddard's is one of these special creative older people, and Maureen captured and conveyed the spirit. Made my day at age 80!
PB (Northern Utah)
@PB Apologies to Mr. Stoppard for changing his name (again) half way through the comment.
Eric Z (Evanston, IL)
Aw, the line break ruined the “Jew-ish” joke!
Jzzy55 (New England)
Yeah, I didn’t get it.
lise (california)
"ish" as in "kind of" ...
Malone Cooper (NYC)
What is so completely sad about a story like this, is that there are thousands of others, many who will never know the truth, whose Jewish backgrounds have effectively been erased. Throughout 2000 years of European hatred of Jews, these people learned how to survive while keeping their backgrounds hidden. Descendants of the survivors of the Spanish Inquisition, created a cryptic Judaism where every observance was hidden so that their true origins would never be revealed. Over the centuries, millions of these descendants have lost any connection they once may have had. And many of those who were AWARE of their Jewish backgrounds, when finally living in a free environment, we’re happy to forget their origins simply because Europe, for so many centuries, had made life for them so extremely difficult. These burdens and hardships placed on Jews by the Europeans for so much of their history, in my opinion, can never be forgiven for the identity loss of so many.
J (San Francisco, CA)
@Malone Cooper This is true for many other groups that the Europeans "hated", included and especially Black people, and for my recent ancestors (whom the British shuffled from one former colony to another).
Malone Cooper (NYC)
@J True but it's a bit more difficult to erase one's skin color.
Tony Francis (Vancouver Island B C)
Brilliant piece on a brilliant man. Thank you NYTs!
Muddlerminnow (Chicago)
Two ashtrays on his writing table, and one for pencil shavings and ashes--I'm jealous.
JC (Brooklyn)
Superb interview, Maureen. Looking forward to reading Sir Tom's next play.
steve (palm springs)
Great article, It inspired me to get his biography thanks
MHWells (DC)
Maureen, this is a magnificent interview. Just fascinating. Well done!
Steve (New York)
I read the Stoppard biography. For a man who does so much research for his plays demonstrating an immense intellectual curiosity it was hard to believe that while he knew his father was Jewish, he never wondered why members of his mother's family had fled from the Nazis. Also regarding his political views. I found it interesting that he strongly supported Thatcher's and Reagan's anti Communist stances because of the restrictions of rights in Eastern European countries but somehow had no problem with suppression of rights in South and Latin America by dictators supported and in some cases installed by the U.S. Also, according to the bio, he could spend over $200,000 on a party every other year but begrudged British unions when they sought higher wages.
Vivian (New York)
@Steve I think not knowing was convenient for him.
Phyliss Dalmatian (Wichita Ks, Homosassa Fl)
A magnificent piece, your best in years. Perhaps lay off the political writing and sniping, and concentrate on this, your real talent. Advice from a constant reader.
@Phyliss Dalmatian Mo Don’t you dare ever lose the snipe!
Vivian (New York)
@Phyliss Dalmatian Or maybe reserve some of that snipe for the Republicans instead of railing agains the Dems as usual.
A.Stanton (Dallas,TX)
Jewish comedians tell us truths about things and about ourselves -- examples being Tom Stoppard (Tomáš Sträussler), Mel Brooks, Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, Rodney Dangerfield, Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce, Sarah Silverman, Sacha Baron Cohen, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Howard Stern, Gilda Radner and many others. Long may they endure.
A.Stanton (Dallas,TX)
Jewish comedians tell us important truths about things and about ourselves ....
Audrey Grant (Montreal)
How is it that Shakespeare in Love gets a mention but not Harvey Weinstein? Perhaps there is the same denial mechanism at work as that concerning Stoppard’s family origins?
cds333 (Washington, D.C.)
I appreciated Ms. Dowd's reference to Jonathan Miller's habit of calling himself Jew-ish. My favorite quote of Miller's on the subject has always been "I am Jewish only when in the presence of an anti-Semite."
This Old Man (Canada)
@cds333 - If you like Jonathan Miller, you'll love Howard Jacobson.
dbregernyc (New York NY)
Old joke: Two Jews in the village but three congregations. Jewish, in it's modern practice, is a wonderfully slippery thing - memes and chromosomes and preschool and vestigial phrases of Yiddish among the assimilated and an all Yiddish existence among the cloistered. The accusations of hypocrisy, the tut-tutting of the rabbis and the side-long glances of the frim, only help to delineate the breadth of Jew. Sir Lord Tom has lived an entirely Jewish life, whether he knew it or not. He expanded the definition.
@dbregernyc As an argumentative lapsed Catholic, I love the idea of, as an old Jewish boss used to say, two Jews arguing three positions.
Wezilsnout (Indian Lake NY)
The casual (and non-Jewish) observer might wonder why a family or an individual might deny or hide from their Jewish heritage. The explanations could fill a library. In the early 1950's many eastern European countries were holding Soviet ordered show trials of government officials. These unfortunate souls tended to be Jewish. In the Czechoslovakian trial, one of the defendants had my family surname. Our neighbors asked my parents if this was our relative. It was only a few years after the Holocaust. It was the Red Scare. My parents denied any connection between the Communist official and us. The reality was that he actually was a close cousin. Most of those defendants, including our cousin, were hanged after they "confessed" to Zionism and treason. Eventually they were rehabilitated during the Prague Spring. My parents were private people. They eventually became very interested in that part of our family history. But at that moment in time silence seemed like the best option.
Patricia (Wisconsin)
I want to see that play on moral reality.
George (Minneapolis)
Mr. Stoppard is a mensch.
David Wachter (Salmon Bay)
This was a good find for me. I really liked the interview and the photos really brought me into his “studio”. The transitions from those mentioned from Vienna etc. their family’s Jewishness to “no shadows” seems to be a major topic. I looked up on Wiki, the list of his work, his son, partners, etc I too really loved Shakespeare in Love yet I have to read one of his plays.
ronny (hartford)
great article. thank you.
Fred (Somewhere)
I had a friend who grew up in Hitler’s Germany, but managed to escape to the U.S. He remained a Jew, married a Jew, and raised a Jewish family. I have little use for people like Stoppard, or his mother, who have no understanding, no curiosity, of their heritage.
SW (Nc)
@Fred --perhaps from our comfortable world its hard to imagine what these people went through...
JTR (Central Mass.)
@Fred I know many people, American-born, as I am, who have no interest in their heritage. Their choice is as valid as that of people who (like me) would like to trace their lineage back to Adam and Eve, were it possible.
reader (North America)
Horrified to read that Stoppard co-wrote Shakespeare in Love. I refused to watch that movie because it distorts the reality of the sonnets in order to heterosexualise them. 126 of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets are written to a beautiful young man, whom he addresses as "my rose," "sweet boy," and refers to having "had." Out of thin air, the movie cooks up the nonsensical story of Shakespeare falling love with a boy actor who is actually a girl in disguise. It was Oscar Wilde who first plausibly suggested, in his brilliant story "The Portrait of Mr W.H." that the young man might have been an actor. For thousands who saw the movie but never read the sonnets, Shakespeare was safely heterosexualized. It took the late twentieth century to do that, I guess.
C.J. (Alameda, CA)
My husband's father was also lucky enough to work for the Bata shoe company, which deserves so much credit for finding jobs around the world for its many Jewish workers.
Boswell (Connecticut)
My modern day literary hero and we share a birthday. I think he has always had these thoughts in his mind. There is this exchange from R&G Are Dead which reveals so much and great advice to us all about how to live: Player: Uncertainty is the normal state. You’re nobody special. [He makes to leave again. Guil loses his cool.] Guil: But for God’s sake what are we supposed to do?! Player: Relax. Respond. That’s what people do. You can’t go through life questioning your situation at every turn.
CarloMusto (NYC)
Thank you Maureen for this complex and compelling look at Stoppard.
Alfons Lammers (Otterlo, Netherlands)
Tom Stoppard is one of my heroes, and Dowd does him proud. The interview is one of the best NYT has published in recent years. Of course, I'm prejudiced.
Susan Michael (Brunswick ME)
I am of two minds about the issue of a person such as Stoppard being "in denial." The term seems to me to be a bit pejorative, as if Jews such as Stoppard were guilty of something. I had a close friend, who was a Polish Jew, who fled the Nazis as a boy with his mother and brother, and spent the war years in a Nazi camp in eastern France. His family was able to escape the concentration camps because my friend's father had the wherewithal to buy Chilean passports for the family, and the family emigrated to the US after the war. After my friend died, his daughter told me that her father barely mentioned the Holocaust and his childhood when she was growing up. It was only in his middle years that he began to deal with his history and later wrote a memoir of his experience. I do not think my friend was "in denial." I think he, liked many immigrants, got the memo: learn English, get a job, and enough with your stories about the old country. Look ahead, not back." This is not denial; it is a survival technique that scores of immigrants use to assimilate and fit into their new society.
A. Reader (New York)
So Stoppard's home is quiet, with "no tapping," because he's not on social media and "he lets Guinness email for him." How nice for Sir Tom to have a wife who apparently requested permission to do his secretarial work for him, in addition to doing, it seems, all the cooking and also the gardening for their household. But ... does this poor woman slink off elsewhere to carry out his correspondence? Or does she somehow have access to a silent laptop that he cannot procure for himself?
nrl (NYC)
@A. Reader You obviously don’t know who his wife is..
sdw (Cleveland)
Maureen Dowd was playing her "A" game in her interview of a difficult, albeit very talented, playwright, Tom Stoppard. Then, Dowd moved to her "A+" game in writing about the interview and Stoppard's acknowledgment of being disinterested in a "Leopoldstadt." No person who has been encouraged by his or her mother for decades to deny his or her religious or ethnic roots can be sure of stepping forward with the truth. One must have lived the lie to know how difficult it is to speak the truth.
DPQuinn (New Jersey)
When I saw Stoppard's dazzling TRAVESTIES with John Wood at the Kennedy Center it was BRILLIANT and WILDLY FUNNY as insight, satire, whimsy and chaos rolled into one. What's in a name as WS once said ? Just a portion of one's heritage fore and aft. Will the knock on the door happen here if djt returns ? Will the price of LEOPOLDSTADT leave me out in the cold as well ? Stoppard as an amalgamation of all those disparite parts and a treasure for all of us as well.
Paco (Santa Barbara)
If he is the best playwright since Shakespeare why hasn't he been awarded the Nobel Prize? Wouldn't they give one to Shakespeare if he were alive?
Linda J. (New Jersey)
@Paco No, Shakespeare wouldn't necessarily be awarded the Nobel Prize if he were alive. The awards can be political in nature. Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while we were fighting a questionable war, and when he was in office for such a short time that he couldn't have done much to promote peace anywhere. Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel for literature. If all his lyrics were published in a book as poems, we'd have one slim volume that wasn't very significant without the music. Philip Roth devoted his life to an extraordinarily eclectic, brilliant body of work, but never won the Nobel. Pearl Buck did win it. Her output mainly consists of one novel about China that hasn't withstood the test of time.
Doug Tarnopol (Cranston RI)
I liked him a lot better when he ways joyously romping through intellectual history in his hilarious “Rosencrantz…” and “Travesties.”
michael (hudson)
A great article and I will add my vote to those who would like to see Maureen dowd do more pieces like this instead of political commentary, except how many times do you get to interview someone like Tom stoppard.
heyomania (pa)
Much too long, couldn’t get through it.
Raymond (New York, New York)
@heyomania Then stay outta the theater!
Haitch Kay (DC)
One of the best interviews I’ve read
Pat Hoppe (Seguin, Texas)
I think this Texas gal might just have to take a trip to New York to see Leopoldstadt!
thebigmancat (New York, NY)
Oops. Spoke to soon. Last row tickets $175 plus fees. All center tickets $275 plus fees. Next time the Times runs a piece on the death of Broadway, keep this in mind.
Elliot Silberberg (Steamboat Springs, Colorado)
Stoppard isn’t the only Jew whose history has caught up with him in old age, after "forward" being life’s default drive to help keep anti-Semitism at bay. It’s great that a playwright so accomplished makes an entire production sourced in these tensions, proving forward is back and both are right now. Adding some guilt means being totally Jewish, as ever, then, when and now.
Peter Rosenwald (São Paulo, Brazil)
What a wonderful and thoughtful piece. One of the greatest compliments I have ever received was when a lilting Irish voice on the other end of the transatlantic phone call told me that she was calling from the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and that Tom had recommended that they use a piece I had written in 1972 for 'Time Out' for the program notes for a season of his plays. It is years later but I'm still incredibly flattered.
Passion for Peaches (left coast)
Whenever I read a piece by a talented, noted journalist about an iconic writer, I tend to study the prose with an particularly critical eye. I assume that the journalist has taken extra care with the phrasing and word choice, in that situation. I know I would. I think I would be terrified. So it was that, as I nodded in appreciation at the use of the seldom-seen “fey,” I wondered how a house could be “erudite.” Did it speak? Or was their a preening, proud, puffy quality to the furnishings? I am still wondering about that. It’s a puzzling word choice, if evocative. Still, this was an engaging profile. I am a huge fan of Stoppard’s work. I gained a new perspective in the man, reading this. I saw the US-premiere production of “Artist Descending a Staircase” at the Helen Hayes Theater, in 1989 (so long ago, I had to look up the date). It is among the most memorable plays I’ve seen, for many reasons. Back then, I was still new to New York theater. The intimacy of that theater, the skilled performances, and the clever, slow build of the play’s mysteries — with the “Aha!” of the final line — all contributed to an experience I will never forget. I love the pacing of Stoppard plays. If I think of one thing that ties them all together, for me, it is that.
madlar (New York City)
@Passion for Peaches After scrolling down and reading the comments, here at last I find someone who wondered, as I did, how a house could be erudite. Or even fey, for that matter, when applied to an inanimate object.
Passion for Peaches (left coast)
@madlar, I risk being judged as a nitpicker, choosing to focus on one word usage. However, Ms. Dowd is a writer who chooses her words with care, so it matters. Words always matter, to me. Merriam Webster implies that a thing can be fey, in the definitions it lists: “marked by an otherworldly air or attitude” and “excessively refined : PRECIOUS,” as well as “ quaintly unconventional : CAMPY.” If it were my home being described, I would go with otherworldly. The other choices are a bit pejorative, no? I do love a detailed description of an interviewee’s home! I am nosey by nature, but such descriptions are an art in themselves.
Regina Hackett (Seattle)
Mr. Stoppard is without peer in the contemporary world, but Ms. Dowd is a brilliant interviewer. And writer. I think of the time she wasted making mean fun of politicians such as former president Obama, whom she insisted on calling Barry, to mark her distain. I'm her age, I think, and for that reason in particular I'm glad for her late flowering. She makes me believe in progress in a single life. We can learn and grow, after all.
@Regina Hackett The interview is brilliant. It leaves me anticipating much more about Stoppard. How sad and unfortunate that Maureen Dowd was such an unpleasant political writer. I didn’t read her work for years because she was so profoundly vicious.
Lev Raphael (Okemos, MI)
I was lucky enough to see "Arcadia" in London and New York, and probably one of the few people who laughed at the joke about The Mysteries of Udolpho. And in London, one woman nearby was offended that I did.
Moses (Spokane WA)
Wonderful interview. I suspect that the playwright’s story of discovery later in life is not uncommon. I have had a similar experience in my 20-30s learning about the past in the country, where the events took place. Unfortunately, I will never have a complete picture. That’s the sad part.
Dadof2 (NJ)
Greatest since Shakespeare? Well, what about George Bernard Shaw, John Millington Synge, Harold Pinter, Oscar Wilde, PG Wodehouse, Peter Shaffer, and John Osborne? Shaw and Synge were foreign born, too--Irish. While Pinter was English, he, too, as well as Peter Shaffer, was Jewish, descended from Eastern European grandparents. Surely Stoppard stands equally with all of them, as well he should, and they are all great playwrights. But better than the rest? That's too subjective for me.
SW (Nc)
@Dadof2 ..and Tony Kushner
Martin H (London)
Wilde was also Anglo-Irish, like Synge and Shaw.
Nancy Lederman (New York City)
Samuel Beckett. Berthold Brecht. August Wilson
Woollygirl (PDX, Oregon)
Wonderful article. I am in Poland now, walking through Krakow imagining that I am stepping where my grandparents stepped. It has taken me too long to get here.
SW (Nc)
Will see Leopoldstat in 2 weeks!! Very excited... and await a sobering and powerful experience. My Lithuanian and Byelorussian families ... gone... Stoppard, like the players in Hamlet, depicts the 'abstract and brief chronicles of the time.' While this century hurtles on relentlessly, leading humanity into an unknown future, 'stopping' to experience an epic historical tale seems perfect and timely..
Sophia (chicago)
This is quite a stunning piece. The shadows, indeed. My grandparents fled the pogroms in Ukraine, then Russia. It’s all too much. Another work echoing this history is marvelous book “The Hare With Amber Eyes.” Haunted. We are haunted, and now the darkness threatens again.
Peter Rosenwald (São Paulo, Brazil)
@Sophia The darkness does indeed threaten us all!
MD burbs (Maryland)
When the dreadful knock on the door comes, they are stunned. None of us can ever escape our true history, our roots. It is not necessarily a matter of religion or ethnicity, that I speak of. Find out who you are, not only historically but especially in your depths. Life is so short. Time goes so fast. One moment I celebrated by bar mitsva, age 13. Now I am 73. It goes very fast. Carpe diem, to use an old Yiddish phrase.
Michael (Vancouver BC)
We are all gifted to be alive at the same time as Mr. Stoppard and to benefit from his extraordinary ability to show us the inseparability of the most profound matters of the heart and mind. His plays have been my north star, guiding my curiosity and desire to learn.
Anthony (Hapgood)
Fantastic author. Ironically one of his plays has our last name Hapgood Been a fan since!
Lesley Gordon-Mountian (San Francisco)
A very precious friendship of many years standing, until his death, was with my friend Pavel, a survivor of Theresienstadt. Pavel had a perennial smile on his face, quick to make jokes and lived (and loved) life to the fullest. After liberation in his mid-teens, he joined family in South America that made it out in time and eventually made it to the US. Unlike Stoppard he never lost his charming Czech accent. Under Pavel’s sunny surface was a deep well of tragedy and mourning that was almost never discussed. An ardent theater goer, his memory was front and center as I read this revealing portrait, so deftly drawn and penned by Ms. Dowd. Pavel would have enjoyed knowing that Sir Tom belatedly addressed his roots and attempted to make peace with his identity by creating this seminal work.
Sally (California)
Went through a Stoppard phase in the late ‘80s. (Much as I had a Wilde and Beckett devouring earlier.) Loved What the Butler Saw. Oops! (Just playing with you!) The Real Inspector Hound was fun. So many of your plays made me consider form and desire. How we yearn for so much. We yearn.
BZ (US of A)
A captivating article. Many of those who survived or escaped the Nazis’ consciously chose to leave their pasts behind them for many reasons. For them it was too painful They wanted to protect their children both from the trauma that they themselves had experienced and from experiencing the stigma and anti-semetism that came with being born Jewish. Sometimes what happens, as with Mr Stoppard,in adulthood their personal family history comes back to them as a shock. I’m sure Mr Stoppard isn’t the only one who has had this awakening.
Donneek (Sonoma Co. CA)
@BZ, Mandy Pitinkin recently had the emotional rug pulled out from under him when he found out that 23 ancestors died in the Holocaust. I am still trying to learn the genealogy of my husbands family that seems to end in 1939 in New York city. It often isn't for a lack of want of knowing, those were confusing chaotic times...
Glenn Ribotsky (Queens)
The best English playwright since Shakespeare? An understatement. Take out the adjective "English" and we get closer to what Tom Stoppard truly is.
Edward (Wichita, KS)
I've heard that Mr. Stoppard at times would sign a whimsical or satirical piece using the pen name R. L. Dogg. He would sign as Dogg R. L. I don't know whether it's true but it's clever and amusing enough to be.
Phyliss Dalmatian (Wichita Ks, Homosassa Fl)
@Edward It should be true. Cheers.
Perry J Greenbaum (Toronto, Canada)
An excellent piece about a very important playwright. His personal history is telling and a reminder of what my father told me. No matter how tight you shut the door on history, the past has a way of creeping into the present.
nettie (Pittsburgh)
in my twenties I was fortunate to see/devour a play by Stoppard in a basement theater in my town. I disappeared into the compelling words of his work and recall standing at the too soon end and applauding so long that people were staring. Yet, I believe it was in their wishing they could have been that overjoyed at seeing it. Bravo again Maureen Dowd as you continue to dazzle me.
Deirdre (New Jersey)
So many of us are refugees with little knowledge of history. The pogroms destroyed so many records and whatever they missed was burned by the Soviet’s or the Germans. My grandparents were orphaned at a young age and didn’t even know how to spell their surname - my grandmother never learned to read but could speak 4 languages. My family hails from Belarus (bybruisk) and that’s all I know. From here forward is what we have. I wish someone could sit me down and tell me what i don’t know. But what I really want to know is how my grandmother survived it all. She didn’t discuss it and she passed when I was young. Her daughters don’t know much which m is just astounding to me but they never asked either. They were all too busy just trying to get by.
Steve (New York)
@Deirdre Just to let you know Jews living in what was then the Russian empire and whose families came to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century didn't care very much about family names. Many gave sons different last names to avoid their being drafted into the army of an anti-semitic Czar as usually they wouldn't draft a lone son.
Jzzy55 (New England)
Exactly. My grandparents never spoke of “the old country.” There were a couple of well worn anecdotes about how they left and the perils they encountered en route (pre WW1). No one ever wrote down the names of their birthplaces. Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Romanian? They were Eastern European, kreplach-eating, Yiddish speaking Jews who were barely observant or synagogue attending. Stoppard should be grateful he has a documented history when a lot of us don’t. Meanwhile, my German-Jewish husband has family documentation going back hundreds of years! I don’t criticize though. He’s not the first crypto-Jew I’ve known or heard of.
Vivian (New York)
@Steve Or had their names changed at Ellis Island
Stephen Judge (Concord, NH)
Delightful! I saw Rosencrans in college in 1975 and directed The Real Inspector Hound. He is my favorite playwright.
Mmm (Nyc)
A really outstanding interview and piece of writing.
Monsieur Jimmy (Suburban Berkshire, UK)
Don't forget he has also rewritten a number of movie scripts - often semi-anonymously, Schindler's List and The Bourne Ultimatum, to name but two. I very clever chap. I still love to rewatch 'Shakespeare in Love'. 'I 'ad that Christopher Marlowe in my boat,' says the Thames waterman.
Mark Kropf (Long Island)
If we are willing to accept the monotheism of the 3 Faiths of the Book, all originating from the Old Testament in one fashion or another, we can all consider ourselves spiritual descendants of Adam and most certainly of Noah before him. Whether one holds to Christianity, Islam or Judaism we would all be members of a common family by that standard whether born to it or adopted into its fold. We can ignore or attack the other members of the greater fold to our own loss. We can ignore or merely choose to avoid thinking of others in our apathy about those not close to us. It is not to the credit of any of us to live in some protective shell of isolation and lack of concern for others. In considering the nature of the 'poleaxed' reaction of Stoppard, it is perhaps wise to consider whether the proximity of our more recent generations allows concern for others that we are more than willing to withhold from those who were merely our past neighbors or our past countrymen. Who should we care about? If we treat others with neglect or with disparagement, we diminish ourselves. Stated much better than I could ever hope to do: "Each man's death diminishes me, For I am involved in mankind." (John Donne Devotion) Is it not well to see that each man's life should have worth to me for much the same reason?
Mike S. (NYC)
This comment is highly recommended, and a message of empathy is great. But still: "...we can all consider ourselves spiritual descendants of Adam and most certainly of Noah before him." Well, no. You have that backwards. "In considering the nature of the 'poleaxed' reaction of Stoppard, it is perhaps wise to consider whether the proximity of our more recent generations allows concern for others that we are more than willing to withhold from those who were merely our past neighbors or our past countrymen. Who should we care about? If we treat others with neglect or with disparagement, we diminish ourselves." I think you misunderstand why Stoppard was 'poleaxed' and reacted as he did. It is not man's inhumanity to man that was so disturbing. Nor was it even the disparagement (or murder) of millions of others. It was the burden of dealing with one's own hidden past and heritage, the fact that in many ways his lived and remembered life was in part a lie, as it were. The idea of compassion and concern for others is great, but in the context of this article it kind of misses the point.
ejb (PA 1st Congressional District)
@Mark Kropf Noah came after Adam, not before.
Barbara (NYC)
Wonderful piece and yes thank you to the interviewer for remaining in the background and letting Stoppard’s complexity come through. But Fran Leibowitz gets the best line — “Only compared to Tom Stoppard am I a knowledgable Jew.”
Teach (NYS)
Since the invasion of Ukraine, I came to realize that my "Russian" great-grandmother and her parents were not only of Moldovan/Ukrainian extraction, but were in fact Jewish. They fled the region for America in the early 20th century, when my great-grandmother was around three years old. Perhaps, with so little connecting her to her homeland, it is unsurprising that she and her mother assimilated. Her unusual last name could pass for French, much more elegant than someone from the shtetl. But from there, my grandfather's own bald-faced assumption of an all-Irish identity (despite his mother's birthplace) continued the pattern. What is identity, if not something of your own creation? Thanks to Tom Stoppard/Tomáš Sträussler and Maureen Dowd for the interview and introspection.
Rachel (Brooklyn)
The story of humanity - and Stoppard’s life itself - is proof that identity is not, in fact, merely a matter of personal creation, as much as some might wish it to be. But ok.
Scruzan (Santa Cruz, CA)
And who decided that a French-sounding name is more “elegant” “than someone from the shtetl”? Someone who never lived in France. The average French town is inelegant, as are its inhabitants. Compare them to the world of Marc Chagall and they come up short.
Not Seagullible (Sky)
What a masterpiece. Hope you are mentoring young journalists in this strange new time!
So many people, Jewish or otherwise, have suffered at the hands of dictators and extremist governments or religions. Or been caught in senseless wars. For centuries. Sometimes the survivors have escaped to other countries, remade themselves and wish not to remember or discuss what happened. Or maybe they really did not know the details. But they knew the likely shape of the horrible and tragic story. I lost relatives and family friends, who immigrated to the States and then went to the Soviet Union in the depths of the Great Depression. Searching a second time for a better life. Only to be caught up in the horrible Gulag whirlwind along with millions of others. Like the playwright I too have been working on understanding what happened and why. Sadly, it's a more common story than many folks probably know. I had friends and neighbors who had family members who left Lebanon at the age of 14, to avoid civil war. Another friend had a young relative, a boy, shipped in a crate to the US to keep from being drafted in a long ago war between Spain and Portugal.
J (not here)
@RR The difference between people, who generally try to escape war, and politicians, who so often wage it, is an instructive one.
Jim (Merion, PA)
"hailed by some as the greatest British playwright since Shakespeare" No, he's the greatest playwright anywhere since Shakespeare. My wife and I have tickets to see Leopoldstadt twice. Unlike most (even good) theater, his plays are like Beatles songs--you can see them over and over. Wonderful interview.
thebigmancat (New York, NY)
I haven't been to the theatre since my wife passed away a number of years ago. Nothing seemed interesting enough. I look forward to seeing Stoppard's new work as soon as possible.
LaBohemeNYC (NYC)
One of the greatest playwrights and thinkers of our time, and his dedication to the craft is heartening, in the age of Netflixing everything. Looking forward to seeing “Leopoldstatd” on Broadway this fall!
Jim (NH)
well, no need to feel any guilt I should think...most people are uninterested in their ancestry until later in life...he may not want to "work on any more movies", but it would be wonderful to have his plays filmed for a much wider audience...wishful thinking?...
Thinker (Everywhere, Always)
@Jim I know that Leopoldstadt has been filmed because my friend in London had tickets to the play, but performances were canceled due to Covid, so she saw a film of the performance in a movie theater. I was more fortunate: when I heard that Tom Stoppard had a new play in January 2020, I bought a ticket to the last preview and had the extraordinary opportunity of experiencing this play with only the knowledge that it featured a large Jewish family in Vienna and that Stoppard was referencing his own past. I still remember every moment.
Jim (NH)
@Thinker ...well, you seem to have an advantage with this sort of thing, since you're "Everywhere, Always"......I see the National Theatre Live has the film with "showtimes coming soon"...thanks for the suggestion...I did see Arcadia on film somehow, though can't seem to find it now...
Natalie (Urbana, Illinois)
That was a wonderful interview. I love Tom Stoppard, Arcadia is one of my favorite plays. It’s very interesting to find out about his background, his mother is very interesting. Three of her sisters died in the holocaust and her parents and she never talked about it? Fascinating.
cds333 (Washington, D.C.)
@Natalie Fascinating? Perhaps. But very common. I grew up in an overwhelmingly Jewish town on Long Island in the 1960's. There were quite a few Holocaust survivors in the area, as well as people whose extended family in Europe had been all but wiped out. Almost none of them spoke about it -- even within the family. It was all too much for words. Your comment immediately brought to mind the indelible moment when a survivor who was called to testify at the Eichmann trial stepped down from the witness stand and collapsed on the floor, suffering a paralytic stroke. I saw film of that moment once more than thirty years ago, and it is seared into my brain.
Suzanne (San Diego)
@Natalie- Heartbreaking, more like
mikeg4015 (Cherry Hill, NJ)
Thank you Maureen for taking your writing talents outside the scrum of our daily politics. Leave those topics to the less skilled. Great article!
Lloyd Dobin (Pittsburgh)
Tom Stoppard gives me faith in humanity. Minds like his make me think in the end all will be well.
Myrna (New Jersey)
Arcadia was the best play I’ve ever seen. Stoppard is truly a genius and Maureen this is exquisite writing! Thank you!
NA Wilson (Massachusetts)
Wow, an amazing piece. Superb work! The best thing I've come across in this paper in a very long time, and I've read it faithfully every day for years. So many great quotes about Wilde, Vienna, Trump, and most critically, Jews who were rather fortunate during the holocaust, and the difficulties they face when reflecting on the horrors of what might have been.
AJWoods (New Jersey)
A life well lived by Mr. Stoppard. Also a charmed life escaping many hazards. It is understandable that people under threat hide their identities and go undercover, as it were, after such horror happened to their kin. However, as people age and come to the end of their story it is natural to go back to see and to acknowledge where it all began. That is true for everyone. A great interview and a great interviewee.
RL (South)
Great article. Such a life. Now I want to go to see the play but I’m very sadly in Houston.
Jim (Merion, PA)
@RL I recommend reading the play. Stoppard's plays are especially readable, and Leopoldstadt is the best play I've read. The play is about the price of a bottle of water in a Broadway theater, too.
Solomon (brooklyn)
Fascinating! Most enjoyable was that the interviewer was as if not present.
dianeellen (michigan)
wonderful article...great way to start the day...kudos to author and subject.
EB (San Diego, CA)
@dianeellen I agree - the article was like an exquisite brunch full of tasty morsels. That Stoppard has chosen to explore his roots and write a play about them is an urge that many of us get in our old age. Learning about my roots (early Dutch America in 17th century New York) has enriched my life, and a book is underway. Though I lack the eloquence of a Stoppard, I hope the effort will attract at least a few readers!
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