Tom Stoppard: The true voice of old England

Plays, politics and patriotism: Tom Stoppard's search for meaning in an uncertain present always takes him back into the past. The playwright, now garlanded with an international award, talks to Ciar Byrne

The clubby atmosphere of Duke's Hotel, just off London's Piccadilly, seems an appropriate setting for an interview with Tom Stoppard, as the Czech-born writer has a particular attachment to all things English. "I adopted England as least as much as England adopted me," explains Stoppard, now 70, who has lived in this country since the age of nine. "I became quite proud of England, because it was my language, my country. I thought it even had the best architecture, or the best landscape."

The playwright rarely gives interviews, finding the process of introspection uncomfortable. But he has agreed to talk now to mark his winning the Dan David Prize, an award from Tel Aviv University, which presents three annual prizes of $1m for outstanding cultural, social, scientific or technological achievements, within the three dimensions of time – past, present and future. Alongside the Israeli writer Amos Oz and the Canadian-Armenian film-maker Atom Egoyan, Stoppard has been made a laureate for his "creative rendering of the past".

In its citation, the Dan David Prize praises Stoppard for being "a master playwright whose plays return repeatedly to the past as part of his ceaseless search for meaning in a bewildering universe while demonstrating farcical cleverness alongside profound humanity".

The citation mentions Travesties, Stoppard's play based on the fact that James Joyce, Tristan Tzara and Lenin all lived in Zurich during the First World War; Arcadia, featuring a Cambridge contemporary of Lord Byron; The Invention of Love, which took for its subject the poet AE Housman; The Coast of Utopia, about the roots of political radicalism in 19th-century Russia; and his latest stage hit, Rock'n'Roll, which travels between Prague in the spring of 1968 and the present. "I'm attracted to the past," Stoppard says. "It doesn't necessarily have to be the distant past, and I certainly didn't think about it, but looking back on it, the truth of the matter is that for about 15 years everything I've written has got at least one foot in the past."

The reluctant interviewee is charm itself, ordering plentiful bowls of bar snacks, which he later insists on paying for, and giving his best shot at self-analysis, even though he insists: "I'm hopeless at looking into myself and trying to see how things are working and why."

Wary of looking "like a prat", he nonetheless speaks candidly about how the country he fell in love with as a boy has changed. He agrees with the female character in Rock'n'Roll who declares at a dinner party that England has "lost its nerve".

"People's freedom to use their own common sense has been taken away from them," he says. "I think that since September 11, this aspect of our society began to accelerate very quickly. We went a long way into the future, much more quickly than we would have done and the future is a place where, because people took over a plane using box-cutters, you mustn't have a fruit knife. There's nobody there to say, 'Well, obviously you can't take this bloody carving knife on board, but yes, this ridiculous 19th-century penknife for sharpening quills, of course you can have that.' The idea that anybody might be allowed to use their common sense when clearly no harm is being done is part of history now."

What he fears most about this new world is the drive towards homogeneity. "The whole philosophy of modern times is to dissolve distinctions between individuals and deal with them as large collections of people. It's essentially self-interested on the part of authority."

Individual freedom was central to Rock'n'Roll, in which Jan, a young Czech V C lecturer at Cambridge University in 1968, returns home as members of the Warsaw Pact, led by the Soviet Union, invade Czechoslovakia. In contrast to Jan's increasing politicisation against the forces of Communism, back in England, his mentor Max Morrow refuses to abandon his communist principles.

Stoppard sees Morrow as "a rather moving, strangely sympathetic figure. To me he was an idealist with a strong sense of natural justice and social justice and all these things are admirable."

But the attitude of many on the left who persisted in their support of communist ideals irked him. "I felt myself out of patience with people who, from 1968 onwards, would denigrate this country that adopted me, this country that I'd adopted, as some kind of fascist police state. It just seemed so embarrassing that those countries that truly could be described as such were very, very different from Britain. It annoyed me that nobody seemed to get the obvious sense of contradiction in standing up in the street and complaining about the lack of free speech. I thought, 'Christ, they're so lucky living here.'"

Turning to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Stoppard refuses to pass easy judgements, although he has in the past been a signatory to a letter from Jews for Justice for Palestinians. "If things were so cut and dried and easy to work out, they wouldn't be issues. They are problems because there are things to be said on both sides."

The playwright was born Tomas Straussler in 1937, in the town of Zlin. Stoppard's Jewish parents fled the Nazis when he was just 18 months old, going first to Singapore. When the Japanese invaded there, they were evacuated once again. His father, a doctor, stayed behind to help and was killed when the boat on which he was leaving was bombed. But his mother escaped to India with him and his brother, where she married Kenneth Stoppard, a major in the British Army, who brought the family to England.

University would have seemed a natural route for such a lively mind, but at the age of 17, Stoppard decided he had had enough of education and joined the Western Daily Press in Bristol as a journalist. As a young reporter, he attended local government meetings, magistrates' courts, took people's business cards at the church door at funerals and even covered the local pre-Wimbledon tennis tournament.

It was in Bristol that he got his first taste of theatre – the newspaper was given free tickets to the Old Vic in return for a couple of paragraphs each week.

Stoppard delighted in every aspect of the newspaper business, including a year spent on the sub-editors' desk on the 6pm to 3am shift. "I loved everything, I loved dealing with copy, I loved working when other people were sleeping. I just loved ink and paper and pencils and loved the presses, I loved the vans taking the paper out."

On days off, he would take the train to London, often to see a play, but on the way he would visit Fleet Street, "rather as a pilgrim might go and look at St Peter's". Recently, arriving early for a meeting, he walked the length of the "Street of Shame", now deserted by the press, and found himself "overtaken by an intense feeling of my lost youth".

By 1960, Stoppard – who was then working on the now defunct Bristol Evening World – had done pretty much every job he could do on a regional newspaper and began to turn his attention to the theatre – which had been set alight by Samuel Beckett, John Osborne and Harold Pinter. He admits that his initial attempts at playwriting were highly derivative. "I tried to write a Look Back In Anger, and I probably got about five pages into it before I realised that 'this is pointless, this has been done'."

His first play on the professional stage was Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, performed at the London Old Vic in 1967. Still perhaps his most famous play, it revisits Hamlet from the point of view of two characters on the sidelines of Shakespeare's tragedy, through the filter of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.

Even at that time, he admits, he had not yet found a distinctive voice. "It was so clearly taking from Waiting for Godot. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern was a combination of my own voice and what was in the air around me. I don't even know what my voice is to this day."

But it did teach him a valuable lesson, which he now passes on to the many aspiring young playwrights who send him their work in the hope that he will "somehow get it through security".

"Until that happened, it seemed to me that people who had plays on at the Old Vic represented a possibility only open to truly exceptional and gifted people. I never saw it from the other perspective, from the perspective of the theatre, a director or producer who depended on finding decent stuff to put on and grabbed it gratefully if they came across anything at all."

The exception to this rule, Stoppard says, is works of true genius – "plays that are ahead of their time have been missed and lost".

He finds it difficult – and unnecessary – to analyse his writing in great depth. He does not believe that his personal history and circumstances affect his work: "I write out of my intellectual experience." As a young man, he was much influenced by parody – treasuring a collection of Max Beerbohm parodies called A Christmas Garland, which he found on a barrow on Portobello Road. For a while, this had a disastrous effect on his journalism, as he tried out his humour muscles in his newspaper column.

The frequent allusion in his works brings to mind a line from TS Eliot's The Waste Land – "These fragments I have shored against my ruins". Stoppard considers this. "I think what I do isn't quite that. I like trying to create a spark through a collaboration between me and the audience. A lot of the time there are these ghost plays, ghost books and so on behind my plays. It's not that I'm looking into the past for it's own sake, it's just because I love the world of literature completely and rather sweetly expect my audience to share this love and therefore pick up what I drop." What if the audience do not recognise a reference? "They often do not, and it means I've made a miscalculation."

This comes across as quite unashamedly intellectual. "It does, doesn't it? I plead unwittingness. It's not an ambition; it's just my character, for better or worse, coming out. I think of myself as being intellectual almost as a biological fact. I simply like things that require thought."

He is careful to distinguish between being intellectual and being "an intellectual" – "the noun as opposed to the adjective has different connotations for me" – he thinks of an intellectual as someone immersed in a particular area of study, which he is not. While his plays are erudite and well researched, as soon as he has made use of material, he casts it off.

He has, for example, turned down several requests to write pieces about Alexander Herzen, the "father of Russian socialism" and the subject of his 2002 trilogy The Coast of Utopia. "It would be such a labour to get back into all that. I'm now trying to think of what I'm doing next, not what I did three years ago."

Stoppard isn't working on a new play at the moment, but he is far from idle. He has adapted Chekhov's Ivanov for the Donmar Warehouse (at Wyndham's Theatre, from September), starring Kenneth Branagh. Sam Mendes has asked him to adapt The Cherry Orchard for a round-the-world tour starting at the London Old Vic. And the National Theatre is reviving his Every Good Boy Deserves Favour in August.

When he is not writing plays, Stoppard crafts film scripts. He wrote the screenplays for Shakespeare In Love and Enigma, and also wrote a script for the film version of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, which was abandoned when Chris Weitz took over as director and decided to use his own script without even looking at Stoppard's – "It's made me determined not to get involved with a film where there's no director attached," he says.

As we leave the hotel and part on a Mayfair street corner next to a gentlemen's outfitters – it's a quintessentially English spot – Stoppard comments on how lucky we are to be here, of all the places in the world we could be, before disappearing off into the night.

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