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Tom Stoppard was born Tomas Straussler to
a Jewish family on July 3, 1937,
in Zlín, Czechoslovakia. He fled with his parents to Singapore in 1939 to
escape the Nazis. A few years later, at the height of World War
II, he went with his mother and younger brother to India to escape the
invading Japanese. His father, a doctor, stayed behind in Singapore
but later drowned on his way to join his wife and sons. In India,
his mother met and married Kenneth Stoppard, a major in the British
army. Along with his stepfather, mother, and brother, Stoppard moved
to Bristol, England, in 1946, just as India
declared its independence from Britain. By all accounts, Stoppard
wholeheartedly embraced British culture and eventually ceased to
speak Czech. A love of English wordplay and constant references
to English literature run throughout his literary output, which
includes plays, screenplays, and fiction.
At age 17, Stoppard left school
and started working as a journalist, reviewing plays and writing
news features for such papers as the Western Daily Press and Bristol
Evening World. In 1962, he became a
theater critic for Scene magazine in London. Around
this time, he also began writing plays for the radio and television,
including A Walk on Water (1963)
and The Dissolution of Dominic Boot (1964).
A novel, Lord Malaquist and Mr. Moon, was published
in 1966. Stoppard wrote a one-act play in 1964 called Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern Meet King Lear, which he then rewrote, expanded into
three acts, and retitled as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Are Dead. This new version premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe
Festival in 1966. An extremely successful
production at the National Theatre in London in 1967 led
to a debut on Broadway in the United States later that year. Stoppard
went on to win the Evening Standard Award for Most
Promising Playwright in 1967, and Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern Are Dead earned the Plays and Players Best
Play Award in 1967 and a Tony Award for Best
Play in 1968.
While Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead remains
Stoppard’s most famous play, his other work has garnered critical acclaim
and won several awards. In all, Stoppard has written more than twenty
plays. Most are performed in both London and New York City, the
two epicenters of theater. Critics generally cite Jumpers (1973)
and Arcadia (1993) as his
best plays. Among his many accolades are the Prix Italia (for Albert’s
Bridge, 1968), Evening Standard Award
for Best Comedy (Travesties, 1974),
the 1976 Tony Award for Best Play (Travesties),
the 1976 New York Critic Circle Award (Travesties),
and Antoinette Perry Award for Best Play (The Real Thing, 1984).
In the 1970s, Stoppard began speaking out against
the imprisonment and treatment of political dissidents in his native
Czechoslovakia, including that of fellow playwright Vaclav Havel.
A friendship with another political prisoner, Viktor Fainberg, inspired
Stoppard’s play Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1976).
Still another work, a play written for television called Professional
Foul (1977), was created especially
for Amnesty International’s Prisoner of Conscience Year.
Although Stoppard wrote plays throughout the 1980s,
he also began working in the movies. His rewrite of the script for
Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985)
earned a Best Screenplay Award from the L.A. Film Critics Association.
Stoppard wrote the script for Steven Spielberg’s Empire
of the Sun (1987), and he did an
uncredited rewrite on Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the
Last Crusade (1989). To secure financing
for a movie version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Stoppard
decided to write the screenplay and direct the film himself (1990).
The movie, which starred Gary Oldman and Tim Roth, earned the Golden
Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in 1990.
His other screenplay credits include Billy Bathgate (1991), The
Bourne Ultimatum (2007), and Bond 22 (2007),
the next James Bond film in that franchise. His screenplay for Shakespeare
in Love (1998) earned Stoppard and
his co-writer, Marc Norman, an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best
Screenplay. This movie imagines a young William Shakespeare, poor
and suffering from writer’s block, entering into a passionate but
doomed love affair.
Like Shakespeare in Love,
and Guildenstern Are Dead mines the Elizabethan era for
dramatic and comedic effect. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two
minor characters in Hamlet, a play written around 1600.
Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy tells the story of the prince
of Denmark, Hamlet, who may or may not be going insane. As the play
opens, the ghost of Hamlet’s father visits Hamlet to say that he
was murdered by Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle. Claudius has not only
become king of Denmark but has also married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude.
Hamlet pretends to be insane to trick Claudius into believing that
he is safe, but, as the play progresses, Hamlet’s anger and revenge
fantasies may actually drive him insane. Claudius sends for Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern, two childhood friends of Hamlet, to watch over
Hamlet, but Hamlet does not confide in his friends, confuses them
with riddles, and eventually sends them to their deaths. Hamlet
also convinces a group of actors to perform a play that closely
mimics the murder of Hamlet’s father, and the play greatly disturbs
Claudius, who decides to send Hamlet to England under the care of
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet escapes, goes back to Elsinore,
and dies, as do most of the other characters. Stoppard borrows heavily
from Shakespeare, not only re-imagining the play’s plot but also
quoting directly from Hamlet whenever his Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern characters speak to Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet,
In 1997, Stoppard was knighted
by the British Crown. He lives in London and has four sons, two
from his first marriage to Jose Ingle, from 1965 to 1971,
and two from his second marriage to Dr. Miriam Stoppard, from 1972 to 1992.
He continues to write for the screen and stage. His recent plays The
Coast of Utopia (2002), a nine-hour
opus that explores the reasons for the Russian Revolution, and Rock
’n’ Roll (2006), about the fall
of communism in the Czech Republic, have been commercially and critically
successful. As one of the most intelligent, thought-provoking playwrights working
today, Stoppard is generally considered to be a potential candidate
for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead!