Writing on Stoppard presents Lee with two primary challenges. First, he’s a playwright, where she previously has worked on novelists. Second, he’s living, where her previous subjects have been, convenient for a biographer, dead (with one exception, her 1982 Philip Roth—less a biography than a critical study). Both of these difficulties have to do with, in one way or another, the problem of other people. Playwrights work collaboratively, their plays belonging as much to the directors, actors, and set designers as to themselves; living people have friends who might not be as forthcoming as the biographer would like. Lee addresses these obstacles head on. Because Stoppard is still alive, and because Lee is his authorized biographer, she gets to be in the room and see how he works with others. She brings us into the rehearsal space, where Stoppard “makes a writer’s nest of his corner table, listening hard, editing the layout of the programme, texting, reading the papers, occasionally snoozing, taking pencils out of his zip-up pencil case, ferreting in his beautiful old soft leather shoulder bag, cracking peanuts, clipping his nails and eating bananas (and diabetic sweets).” We learn how he revises up through his shows’ previews, cutting and tweaking “always in the interests of clarity and speed.” We read about his friendship with the director Mike Nichols, his negotiations with various directors and producers, his complicated dynamics with Sean Connery. In 1989, Stoppard wrote the screenplay for The Russia House, a novel by the late le Carré, whose real name was David Cornwell. Cornwell and Stoppard brought the script to Connery’s hotel room:
They sat on the sofa while Connery turned the pages of the script, saying “too long, too long.” According to Cornwell, Connery expostulated, of one speech in the script: “If anybody said all of that to me, I’d kick him the balls!” As they were leaving, Stoppard turned to Cornwell and said, “I think I shall have to find a new typeface for irony.” Cornwell didn’t know if Connery had heard him.
Stoppard has worked on a surprising number of films. Most famously, he wrote the screenplay for Shakespeare in Love, for which he won an Oscar. But he also has punched up the dialogue for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and worked on less classic films like Mom, “in which a Los Angeles mother turns into a werewolf,” and 102 Dalmatians. “One of the lines of his which survived in the movie,” Lee writes, “and which he and [Glenn] Close particularly liked, was ‘You may have won the battle, but I’m about to win the wardrobe.’” He offered candid notes on Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe: “For the forest gods’ sake will you save this fuck-up!”
Stoppard has created permanent works of art. As Lee correctly asserts, Arcadia “will last as long as there are actors and theatres.” He also worked on the 1992 doggy comedy, Beethoven. Why? Partly for the paycheck, undoubtedly; those parties won’t pay for themselves. But also because, again like Auden, Stoppard likes to see a thing made well, even if that thing is schlock. “I think it’s right to take pride in one’s craftsmanship as much as one’s originality,” he’s said. There’s a philosophical seriousness, a metaphysical yearning, to Stoppard’s best plays. Asked if he believed in God, he responded, “Well, I keep looking over my shoulder. When I am asked whether I believe in God, my answer is that I don’t know what the question means. I approve of belief in God and I try to behave as if there is one, but that hardly amounts to faith.” That answer reveals a tendency in Stoppard. It’s not exactly that he refuses to take sides in an argument—belief or disbelief, high or low. It’s that he’s convinced by different sides at different times.
Lee ends by ruminating on what it means to write the life of someone whose life isn’t yet over. “How is this to end?” she asks. “You cannot end the written life of a living subject. Nor can you ever tell the whole story.” Right before the pandemic hit, Stoppard’s latest play, Leopoldstadt, premiered. It received good reviews; then it, with everything else, shut down. That’s one kind of ending. In her conclusion, Lee channels Auden’s great elegy for W. B. Yeats:
But in the end, this person, Tom Stoppard, will vanish into the darkness.... He will live on in his work: you will find him there, as he has always wanted you to. Once he vanishes, he becomes his admirers. His life turns into the work he has left behind, and into other people’s stories, legends, anecdotes and versions of him—of which this book is one.