The playwright Tom Stoppard was born Tomáš Straussler in Zlín, Czechoslovakia on July 3, 1937. He received an English education in India, to which his family had fled to avoid the Japanese invasion of Singapore. His father was killed during this exodus, and his mother married a British army major named Stoppard, who gave the boy his Anglo-Saxon surname. The family moved to England.
Stoppard left school at seventeen and began work as a journalist. By 1960 he had completed his first play A Walk on the Water, which was later produced as Enter a Free Man.
One of Stoppard's most famous works is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a comedic play which casts two minor characters from Hamlet as its leads but with the same lack of power to affect their world or exterior circumstances as they have in Shakespeare's original. Hamlet's role is similarly reversed in terms of his stage time and lines, but it is in his wake that the heroes drift helplessly toward their inevitable demise. Rather than shaping events, they pass the time playing witty word games and pondering the hows, wheres, whys and whos of their predicament. It is similar in many ways to Samuel Beckett's absurdist Waiting for Godot particularly in the main characters' lack of purpose and comprehension of their situation.
Stoppard's plays are plays of ideas that deal with philosophical issues, yet he combines the philosophical ideas he presents with verbal wit and visual humor. His linguistic complexity, with its puns, jokes, innuendo, and other wordplay, is a chief characteristic of his work. Many also feature multiple timelines.
Jumpers explores the field of academic philosophy, likening it to a highly skilful competitive gymnastics display. Travesties is a parody of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. The Real Thing examines the nature of love, and makes extensive use of 'play within a play'. Arcadia follows the fortunes of a pair of researchers investigating a literary mystery while simultaneously showing what really happened during the incident they are investigating. Hapgood mixes the themes of espionage and quantum mechanics, especially exploring the idea that in both fields, observing an event changes the nature of the event.
By 1977, Stoppard had become concerned with human rights issues, in particular with the situation of political dissidents in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. In February 1977, he visited Russia with a member of Amnesty International. In June, Stoppard met Vladimir Bukovsky in London and travelled to Czechoslovakia (then under communist control), where he met Václav Havel, at that time a dissident playwright. Stoppard became involved with Index On Censorship, Amnesty International, and the Committee against Psychiatric Abuse and wrote various newspaper articles and letters about human rights. Stoppard was also intrumental in translating Havel's works into English.
One of Stoppard's most unusual works is Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. It was written at the request of André Previn and was inspired by a meeting with Russian exile Viktor Fainberg. The play calls for a small cast, but also a full orchestra, which not only provides music throughout the play but also forms an essential part of the action. The play concerns a dissident under an oppressive regime (obviously meant to be taken for a Soviet controlled state) who is imprisoned in a mental asylum, from which he will not be released until he admits that his statements against the government were caused by a (non-existent) mental disorder.
In Dogg's Hamlet we find the actors speaking a language called Dogg, which consists of ordinary English words but with meanings completely different from the ones we assign them. Three schoolchildren are rehearsing a performance of Hamlet in English, which is to them a foreign language. Cahoot's Macbeth is usually performed with Dogg's Hamlet, and shows a performance of Macbeth carried out under the eyes of a secret policeman who suspects the actors of subversion against the state.
The Real Inspector Hound is one of his best-known short plays. In it two theatre critics are watching a ridiculous send up of a Country House Murder Mystery, and become involved in the action by accident, causing a series of events that parallel the play they are watching. Other plays include Night and Day and Dirty Linen and New-Found-Land (1976).
In his early years Stoppard wrote extensively for BBC radio, in many cases introducing a touch of surrealism. Some of his better known radio works include: If You're Glad, I'll Be Frank, Albert's Bridge, The Dog it was that Died, and Artist Descending a Staircase, a story told by means of multiple levels of nested flashback. He returned to the medium for In the Native State (1991), a story set both in colonial India and present-day England, and examines the relationship of the two countries. Stoppard later expanded the work to become the stage play Indian Ink (1995).
Tom Stoppard has written extensively for film and television. Some of his better known scripts and adaptations include Empire of the Sun, The Russia House and Enigma. He has also adapted many of his own plays for film and TV, notably the 1990 production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. He was nominated for an Academy Award for the script of Brazil in 1985, and won one in 1999 for Shakespeare in Love. He was appointed CBE in 1978 and knighted in 1997. He has been co-opted into the Outrapo group. He has been married twice, to Jose Ingle (1965-72), a nurse, and to Miriam Moore-Robinson (1972-92), whom he left to begin a relationship with actress Felicity Kendal. He has two sons from each marriage.