Lunch with Tom Stoppard

The playwright Tom Stoppard has written a new screen version of Anna Karenina. Victoria Glendinning recently had lunch with him.

Tom Stoppard turned 75 this summer. There is a line of his on several quotations websites: “I think age is a very high price to pay for maturity.”

“I don’t like getting old,” he says.

Tentatively, I suggest this may be because when we are old we don’t know any more how we seem to other people.

“I don’t think I ever present myself to other people,” he says. “Most of us are impersonating a version of ourselves.”

The version of himself that Stoppard projects to the world is courteous, considerate, conscientious. If a comment strikes a wrong note, he responds at an angle, like a politician, or a poet, and with a hint of asperity. His pastime is fly-fishing, which demands quiet and patience….

As a public figure and as a private person, Stoppard would have seemed no more or less comfortable in 1912 than he does in 2012. With his formal manners and whiff of deviance, he would fit right in with early-20th-century innovators such as H.G. Wells, Augustus John, or indeed Ford Madox Ford.

“I am a small-c conservative….” He has said that before in interviews. It is about taste, culture and art, not politics. “If you exclude authentic genius from the landscape, the wilder shores of Beckett for example, coherence and narrative tensions and catharsis are the business of a playwright.”

The great point is that there has to be a story. “I am often in the position, as I am now, of being unable to find a story,” as opposed to a topic, or topics – he tends to go in pairs, from philosophy and gymnastics (Jumpers, 1972) to biography and chaos theory (Arcadia, 1993). “The main misapprehension people have is that a play is the end product of an idea, when the idea is the end product of the play.”

He acknowledges how powerful theatre with a message can be, but “a play works or doesn’t work on an emotional level. I wrote Rock’n’Roll about the events in Czechoslovakia between 1968 and 1989, and in the end I saw that the play as a whole worked as a love story, and I hadn’t realized.”

Source: Intelligent Life: September/October

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