“We are tied down to a language which makes up in obscurity what it lacks in style,” so says the Player in Tom Stoppard’s renowned play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Uninhibited by circumstance and convention, Stoppard, an immigrant playwright, breaks free from this line as he pens well-reputed works that showcase not only his mastery of the English language but also his eccentric manipulation of both fiction and canon to create timeless narratives for both the stage and the screen.
Stoppard was born Tomáš Straussler in 1937 in Zlín, Czechoslovakia, where he and his Jewish family experienced the ravages of World War II, during which all four of his grandparents perished in Nazi concentration camps. The Straussler family fled to Singapore, Australia, and India, where Tomáš’s mother, recently widowed, married British Army major Kenneth Stoppard. After the war, the Strausslers moved to England, where Tomáš, now called Tom, attended school in Nottingham and Yorkshire.
At seventeen, Stoppard left school to become a journalist for the Western Daily Press and the Bristol Evening World as well as a freelance drama critic for the Scene magazine in London. He then began writing television and radio plays in 1960; his first play, A Walk on the Water, was televised and staged in Hamburg in 1963 before reaching London theaters in 1968 as Enter a Free Man. Stoppard followed up with such works as The Real Inspector Hound and Albert’s Bridge, the latter broadcast by BBC Radio.
It was with the premiere of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the 1966 Edinburgh Fringe Festival that Stoppard’s commercial success began. The tragicomedy chronicles the events of Shakespeare’s Hamlet through the eyes of minor characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In 1967, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was produced by the National Theatre and staged at the Old Vic in London and on Broadway, winning the Tony Award for Best Play in 1968.
The following decades, Stoppard continued writing numerous plays for the stage and television, which would gain critical and commercial praise. Among those staged were Jumpers (1972), a satirical commentary that combines philosophy with gymnastics, and Travesties (1974), set in World War I and featuring such prominent historical figures as James Joyce, Tristan Tzara, and Lenin; the latter earned Stoppard another Tony Award for Best Play.
Stoppard began writing screenplays for films in the 1980s. He cowrote Brazil with Charles McKeown and Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame, in 1985; the script was even nominated for an Academy Award. His other screenplay contributions include Empire of the Sun (1987), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), and the 1990 film adaptation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, starring Gary Oldman and Tim Roth in the respective titular roles. Perhaps his most well-known screenplay is Shakespeare in Love (1998), a riveting romance set in Elizabethan London between William Shakespeare and his fictional muse, which he had cowritten with Marc Norman and which won seven Academy Awards, including Best Original Screenplay.
Stoppard was knighted in 1997 and presently resides in Dorset with his family. He continues his screenplay-writing ventures, his latest pieces being the films Anna Karenina (2012), based on Leo Tolstoy’s novel, and Tulip Fever (2014). To this day, critics have showered Stoppard’s plays with such praise that they have coined the term “Stoppardian,” referring to any work of art that combines tongue-in-cheek wit with deep philosophical reflection.
We’re celebrating literary plays this June by featuring well-known playwrights of different periods all over the world. If you want to check out or suggest more Author Highlights, drop by the 1-Hour Proofreading Blog!
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