CDE Studies 17

Holger Südkamp
Tom Stoppard’s Biographical Drama

Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2008.
ISBN 978-3-86821-043-9, 380 S., kt., € 36,00 (2008)

Tom Stoppard once told a reporter he wanted his own biography to be as inaccurate as possible, a statement he corroborated by denying his biographer’s request to correct any factual errors in the latter’s typescript. On receiving a copy of the first ever complete biographical account of himself, he reacted with surprise, exclaiming: „How is it so big?“ At the same time, Stoppard usually begins his preparations for a new play by devouring life-writings of its historical subjects, incorporating passages of them, often verbatim, into his plays.

Stoppard, it seems, has an ambivalent attitude towards the genre of biography, on the one hand questioning its verisimilitude and its relation to an actual life, while on the other hand relying on the factual information it yields for his work. Historical personalities such as James Joyce, Lenin and Tristan Tzara, Lord Byron, A.E. Housman and Oscar Wilde, Alexander Herzen and Michael Bakunin, to name only a few, have been the main characters of some of Stoppard’s plays. Add to this a metahistorical and metabiographical constituent and the continuous discussion of different historical concepts. Nevertheless, studies regarding the playwright as a historical dramatist are few and far between. The present study will go even further by claiming that with his focus on the individual in history, and by broaching the question of the (im)possibility of its reconstruction, Stoppard is in many respects not only a historical, but chiefly a biographical dramatist.

The textual corpus of this study consists of Stoppard’s biography plays Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1966/67), Travesties (1974), Arcadia (1993), Indian Ink (1995), The Invention of Love (1997) and Voyage, Shipwreck, Salvage: The Coast of Utopia part I-III (2002). In order to arrive at an understanding of biography in Stoppard’s drama, the study considers the genre of life-writing in itself and, as a second theoretical framework, the genre of biographical drama. Hence, the book is directed at two kinds of readers: readers looking for a survey of biography, biography in drama and Stoppard’s individual biography plays, and, most importantly, readers interested in the artistic and thematic development of Stoppard’s biographical drama from the classic Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to the monumental The Coast of Utopia.