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Tom Stoppard was born Tomas Straussler on July 3, 1937 in Czechoslovakia. When Tomas was two years old, his family fled to Singapore when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. A physician with the Bata shoe company, Eugene Straussler was one of many Jews to be relocated to one of his company’s international outposts. Tomas, along with his brother and mother, were sent to Australia before the Japanese occupation of Singapore. Eugene Straussler remained to serve as a British army volunteer. Eugene died when Tomas was four years old, perhaps in Japanese captivity. In 1941, Tomas and his brother and mother were evacuated to Darjeeling, India. In 1945, his mother remarried a major in the British Army, Kenneth Stoppard, who was stationed in India.
When the family moved to England after the war, Tomas’s name was changed to Tom Stoppard. Many have speculated about how being a transplanted Czech affected Stoppard’s identity; Stoppard, however, claimed that the transition had an immensely positive effect:
“I came here [Derbyshire, England] when I was eight, and I don’t know why, I don’t particularly wish to understand why but I just seized England and it seized me. Within minutes it seems to me, I had no sense of being in an alien land and my feeling for, my empathy for English landscape, English architecture, English character, all that, has just somehow become stronger and stronger… As soon as we all landed up in England, I knew I had found home. I embraced the language and landscape.” (Kelly, 26)
Yet it was not until Stoppard was almost sixty years old that he delved deeper into his past. Not only did Stoppard discover that all four of his grandparents were Jewish, but he learned that they, along with three of his aunts, were killed in the Holocaust when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. Although he had publicly protested the treatment of Soviet Jews back in 1978, Stoppard had no idea of the extent of his Jewish ancestry. This new knowledge jarred Stoppard. Just a few days after his mother’s death in 1996, Stoppard’s stepfather wrote and asked Tom to stop using the Stoppard name due to Tom’s “tribalization” with the Jewish people. Stoppard describes his feelings about his heritage in a Talk article published in September of 1999 entitled, “On Turning Out to be Jewish.”
At the age of 17, Tom left school and began to work for a local newspaper, The Western Daily Press. Smart and quick-witted, Stoppard was quickly promoted to theater critic, but still made so little money he had to live at home. Tired of critiquing plays, Stoppard soon began writing them. Stoppard’s career as a playwright began at the young age of twenty-three with his first play, A Walk on the Water, which was televised in 1963. Some other notable early plays were The Gamblers and The Stand-Ins, later known as The Real Inspector Hound. Inspired by a conversation with his agent, Kenneth Ewing, and funded by a Ford Foundation grant, Stoppard wrote Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Meet King Lear, a one-act play. Stoppard rewrote the script eliminating the King Lear plot and focusing on earlier events in Elsinore. Originally written in verse, Stoppard transformed his lines into prose in order to contrast with Shakespeare’s text, and lengthened the play into three acts, ultimately titling it Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The play, first staged by an amateur troupe at the Edinburgh Festival in 1966, was taken up a year later by the National Theater. The play was an immediate critical success, and won the Tony Award for best play, as well as the New York Drama Critic’s Award.
Although Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was one of Stoppard’s earlier successes, he proved to be a prolific playwright. His novel Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon (1966) was not as successful as anticipated, but he went on to write over twenty more plays including Jumpers (1972), Travesties (1974), Enter a Free Man (1974), The Real Thing (1982), Arcadia (1993), and The Invention of Love (1997). Every Good Boy Deserves Favor (1976) deserves mention because it marked a point when Stoppard ventured to write about sociopolitical issues following his encounter with Victor Fainberg, a man who was imprisoned for five years in a Soviet psychiatric hospital because he had protested the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Stoppard also had great success with his screenplays – most notably his collaboration with Marc Norman in Shakespeare in Love (1992) starring Gwenyth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes, and the film version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1991).
In 1965, Stoppard married Josie Ingle and had two sons: Oliver in 1966, and Barnaby in 1969. They divorced, and he married Dr. Miriam Moore-Robinson, with whom he had William in 1972, and Edmund in 1974. Stoppard currently lives in London.
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