Tom Stoppard

Tom Stoppard (1937- Present) is a Czech-British playwright. He belongs to the genre of Absurdism, and his many plays explore various themes such as reality versus the stage, fate versus free will, chaos versus order, and time. He is most renowned for his plays Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), Arcadia (1974), and Travesties (1993). He has won multiple awards for his plays, including an Academy Award and several Tony awards. 

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Table of contents

    A Biography of Tom Stoppard

    Tom Stoppard (born Tomas Straussler) was born July 3, 1937, in Zlin, Czech Republic (Formerly Czechoslovakia). Due to the upcoming Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, the shoe company that employed his father transferred the Straussler family to Singapore in 1939. However, upon arrival in Singapore, there was an invasion by the Japanese. Therefore, Stoppard, his mother, and his brother fled to India. Stoppard’s father stayed behind and died. In 1941, Stoppard and his family settled in Darjeeling, where he attended school. In 1946, Stoppard’s mother married a British army major, and they moved to England. Taking his stepfather's last name, he then became Tom Stoppard.

    Tom Stoppard, Darjeeling India, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Tom Stoppard went to school in Darjeeling, India.

    At the age of seventeen, Stoppard began work at the Western Daily Press as a journalist. In 1958, he was offered a position at the Bristol Evening World as a drama critic. Stoppard became acquainted with the director John Boorman at the Bristol Old Vic, a theater company. With an introduction to the world of theater, Stoppard began to write radio plays. His first stage play was written in 1960 as A Walk on the Water and was renamed and republished in 1968 as Enter a Free Man. Between 1962 and 1963, Stoppard began working as a drama critic in London for Scene Magazine. He was given the Ford Foundation grant, which allowed Stoppard to live in Berlin for five months and work on his Tony award-winning play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966).

    Stoppard continued to write plenty of plays, including A Separate Peace (1966), Jumpers (1972), and Travesties (1974). Stoppard also wrote a novel at this time called Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon (1966). Stoppard also began translating plays into English, particularly plays written by Polish and Czech absurdist playwrights. These plays influenced his work, and in 1982 he premiered The Real Thing. It won a Tony award. Stoppard also worked on co-writing films, including Brazil (1985) and the scripts for Empire of the Sun (1987) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). In 1993, he premiered his next play, Arcadia, which won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play and was awarded a Tony Award.

    Stoppard also wrote the film Shakespeare in Love (1998), which won seven Academy Awards, a BAFTA award, and a Golden Globe Award. His next play was a trilogy of plays, The Coast of Utopia (2002), and in 2006 he wrote the play Rock ‘n’ Roll (2006). Stoppard continued working on films and television series such as Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012) and Parade’s End (2013). In 2019, Stoppard wrote the play Leopoldstat (2020), which won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play.

    Plays by Tom Stoppard

    Tom Stoppard is a prolific playwright who has written many plays. He is most famous for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), Travesties (1974), and Arcadia (1993). Let's take a closer look at each of them.

    Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966)

    Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) is the first stage play published by Stoppard. It fits into the category of an absurdist and existential tragicomedy and is set in Denmark. The play is also a work of metatheatre.

    Tom Stoppard, Hamlet Statue, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are characters in Shakespeare's famous play, Hamlet.

    Metatheatre is a type of play that emphasizes the fact that it is a play by addressing the audience, acknowledging that the characters are actors, and other techniques.

    The play focuses on characters from Shakespeare's play Hamlet (c. 1599-1601), namely Hamlet's childhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The characters are on the sidelines watching in confusion as the play unfolds on stage before them. The play has three acts and focuses on themes of art versus reality, the world as a mystery, and absurdity.

    Travesties (1974)

    Travesties (1974) is set in Zurich and focuses on Henry Carr. Carr thinks back to Zurich during World War I and his interactions with the writer James Joyce, the Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, and the poet Tristan Tzara. The play is placed inside the framework of a production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) in which Carr was a leading actor. Therefore, Carr is unknowingly an actor in two plays but is only aware of his role in one, The Importance of Being Earnest. Carr is easily distracted and tells his stories without chronological order and is mazelike. The play contains aestheticism, Dadaism, art, and language themes. The play has won multiple awards, including the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play (1976), the Tony Award for Best Play (1976), the Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy (1976), and the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play (1976).

    Arcadia (1993)

    Arcadia (1993) focuses on Thomasina Coverly in the early 19th century and on the modern-day Hannah Jarvis and Bernard Nightingale, a writer and professor, who investigate the Coverly house for various reasons. Coverly is interested in math, nature, and science and is a student of Septimus Hodge, a close friend of Lord Byron. Jarvis comes to the house to investigate a hermit, and Nightingale wants to know more about Byron. Together with Valentina Coverly, they uncover the truth about Thomasina. The play is separated into two acts and contains themes such as evidence and truth, chaos versus order, and Classicism versus Romanticism. It was awarded the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play (1993) and was nominated for two Tony awards.

    The Writing Style of Tom Stoppard

    Tom Stoppard's career spans many decades. Therefore, his writing style has evolved. However, Tom Stoppard is considered an Absurdist.

    Absurdism is a literary genre that focuses on characters that find themselves in meaningless situations and nonsense. This is derived from the idea that everything is irrational and meaningless, and therefore there is no point in trying to find order.

    Stoppard also uses humor to explore absurdism. In addition, several of Stoppard's plays are based upon the idea that plays should be seen and enjoyed without too much analytical thought. That being the case, Stoppard wants the audience to believe his plays have no guiding concept. His writing style uses minimal words and phrases to get the point across.

    Here is an example of Stoppard's minimal writing style from his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead:

    "GUIL: How long have you suffered from a bad memory?

    ROS: I can't remember.

    (GUIL paces.) GUIL: Are you happy?

    ROS: What?

    GUIL: Content? At ease?

    ROS: I suppose so.

    GUIL: What are you going to do now?

    ROS: I don't know. What do you want to do?" (Act 1)

    Notice the short words and phrases that say just enough to get the point across. This moves the dialogue quickly along and engages the audience's attention.

    Stoppard also sometimes relies on repetition, with some actions in the scenes occurring more than once to emphasize either the ridiculousness of the situation or to emphasize the action itself.

    Finally, Stoppard includes various other plays within his plays, such as Hamlet and The Importance of Being Earnest. While doing that, he adopts the language and dialogue style of a play, such as Hamlet, in certain scenes, creating a stark contrast to Stoppard's writing style throughout the rest of the play.

    Themes in the Works of Tom Stoppard

    Tom Stoppard wrote many plays with various themes. Three themes that appear most often in his work are chaos versus order, reality versus stage, and time.

    Chaos Versus Order

    Order implies rationality, and chaos implies the disintegration of order into disharmony and randomness. Stoppard understands that most aspects of life hold a chaotic element, and it is intrinsically human to seek order once more. Chaotic elements can be anywhere from love to language.

    Tom Stoppard, Chaos Lights, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Chaos vs. order is a common theme in Stoppard's plays.

    In the play Arcadia, Stoppard explores the theme of chaos versus order. Thomasina, who is interested in scientific theories, comes upon the theory that all order and rationality break down over time into disorder. This descent into chaos is also observed in the world around her as orderly and rational relationships begin to disintegrate into chaos.

    However, as an absurdist, Stoppard shows the audience that the search for order is meaningless, and it makes more sense to find harmony within the chaos.

    Reality Versus the Stage

    Stoppard liked to confuse reality and the stage. A play within a play suggests that the play the audience came to watch is the current form of reality on the stage, while the play within the play is the fictitious world. However, the audience becomes aware that the reality they are watching is indeed a play. The audience is then forced to think about what is real and what is the stage. For example, in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the characters are not entirely aware that they are watching the play Hamlet unfold and are unaware that they are actors in a play by Stoppard. The two characters exist in a form of reality that only exists within the framework of the fictitious play.


    Time is another important theme in the work of Stoppard. Oftentimes, Stoppard's plays will jump between time periods, such as the past and present. This exploration of different timelines and the changes and continuities that occur over time explain to the audience that time is a relative concept. In the play Travesties, Carr tells of his experiences with Lenin, James Joyce, and Tristan Tzara during WWI in Zurich. However, when Carr tells his stories, the timeline is confused and mazelike, showing that past and present can converge.

    Quotes by Tom Stoppard

    Here are some quotes from the plays of Tom Stoppard that will provide you with a better understanding of his work and style.

    GUIL: Well…aren't you going to change into your costume?PLAYER: I never change out of it, sir," (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Act 1).

    In this quote, the theme of reality versus the stage is explored. Guildenstern asks one of the actors if he will change into his costume, indicating a shift from reality to the stage. The costume is symbolic of leaving reality to enter a fictitious world. However, the player says he never changes out of it. This, in turn, makes the audience think about whether the player is aware of the fact he is part of a play or whether he is even aware he is not a part of reality. It also indicates Guildenstern's ignorance of his status as a character in a play.

    The universe is deterministic all right, just like Newton said, I mean, it's trying to be, but the only thing that goes wrong is people fancying people who aren't supposed to be part of the plan," (Arcadia, Act 2).

    Relationships are a key cause of chaos in the play Arcadia where the theme of chaos versus order is explored. In this quote, a character named Chloe believes the universe has a set plan for how things are supposed to be. It is these plans that make the universe deterministic. She also believes the universe favors order rather than chaos. However, when people try to form relationships outside those plans, chaos happens. It makes the audience wonder whether the Universe determines our fate or if people can choose their fate based on their actions.

    I learned three things in Zurich during the war. I wrote them down. Firstly, you’re either a revolutionary or you’re not, and if you’re not you might as well be an artist as anything else. Secondly, if you can’t be an artist, you might as well be a revolutionary… I forget the third thing," (Travesties, Act II)

    Carr tells of his memories of Zurich during World War I and his interactions with Lenin, Joyce, and Tzara. He remembers three things in particular, although the last he forgets, about the times. However, his dichotomy of splitting people into the category of revolutionary, as Lenin was, and the category of artists, as Joyce was, is problematic. It is problematic because Tzara was both a revolutionary and an artist. That means the third thing he forgot may be that there is a third category that includes those who are artists and revolutionaries. However, his mazelike descriptions of his memories make the audience question the credibility of his words.

    Tom Stoppard - Key takeaways

    • Tom Stoppard is a Czech-British playwright born in 1937 and continues to write plays into the present day.
    • He is renowned for his Absurdist plays, including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), Arcadia (1974), and Travesties (1993).
    • His writing style is minimalistic, repetitive, and contains elements of Metatheatre.
    • He explores themes such as chaos versus order, reality versus the stage, and time.
    • He has won multiple awards for his plays, including an Academy Award and several Tony Awards.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Tom Stoppard

    What are the themes in Tom Stoppard's works? 

     Three themes that appear most often in his work are chaos versus order, reality versus stage, and time. 

    What is Tom Stoppard most known for? 

    Tom Stoppard is most renowned for his plays Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), Arcadia (1974), and Travesties (1993). 

    Who is Tom Stoppard? 

    Tom Stoppard (1937- Present) is a Czech-British playwright.  

    How old is Tom Stoppard? 

    Tom Stoppard is 85 years old. 

    What did Tom Stoppard write?     

    Tom Stoppard wrote plays such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), Arcadia (1974), and Travesties (1993). 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is are characteristics of Stoppard's writing style?

    True or false: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Hamlet's friends in both Shakespeare's play and Stoppard's 

    What is interesting about the coin Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are flipping?

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