His latest work, Rock 'n' Roll, bowed on Broadway in November to general enthusiasm. It will very likely net a Tony Award nomination for Best Play, as have six of his previous plays, including four — Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Travesties, The Real Thing, The Coast of Utopia — that won the prize. Given his body of work, it comes as a surprise to learn that the Czechoslovakia-born, English writer only works on one thing at a time, and hasn't penned a new play of his own for three years. The polymathic author — whose plays have addressed everything from Russian intellectual movements to the collision of art and ideas in World War I Zurich to the nature of love — took a few moments to talk to Playbill.com about plays past, present and future.
Playbill.com: A lot of people have said Rock 'n' Roll seems like a more personal play for you. Do you agree with that?
Tom Stoppard: Not particularly. I'm Czech by birth and a lot of the play takes place in Czechoslovakia and is about Czech matters. But as regarding it's being personal — it is personal, but then other plays are personal to me, too. On the whole, it's a bit deceptive. I don't think that I see myself as being a version of the leading character.
Playbill.com: Are there certain plays in your oeuvre that you consider more personal that others?
TS: Well, The Real Thing is about a playwright, so that seems like a good start. The main character in The Real Thing gets a lot of things off my chest. I think he does. But I don't really think I'm a particularly personal kind of writer. I'm not that interesting in writing about myself through this prism or that prism.
Playbill.com: You're more interested in looking at things objectively, examining parts and people of history…?
TS: Well, there are two answers to your question. One is that, on the whole, I write about everything except myself. But the other half is I think you are the plays you write and you can't escape that.
Playbill.com: You've written about many different things. How do you go about choosing the subjects of your plays?
TS: It's difficult. When I feel it's time I write something else, I try to remember how it was that I got into the last one and where it came from. And I find that I cannot remember. It's an odd thing. Even with Rock 'n' Roll, which is the last play I wrote, I find it very hard to actually recall how I got into it. It's something that one is thinking about, sometimes unconsciously, for a long time. And then little bits and pieces of it start to crystallize and there comes a day when you just kick off. But as for choosing subjects, I think I probably rely on what I read. I'm not talking about great works of literature or great works of nonfiction. I'm a newsprint junkie, essentially. I often have a feeling that, though I'm not consciously looking for a play, I feel every time I open a newspaper or a magazine, I might find a play in it. And sometimes I think I have, but it turns out to be a false promise. And sometimes I get some things from somewhere else entirely. I can remember how The Coast of Utopia began. I remember reading an essay about one of the characters in the play and something in his story made me want to write. Playbill.com: I imagine that you — a person in your position, whose work is so well known — often have people approach you with suggestions for plays.
TS: Yes. You're quite right. The problem with that is, they're going on what you've already written. Whereas, for the writer, he's looking in areas where he hasn't written anything.
Playbill.com: A new frontier.
TS: Yes. A new area, anyway. It never works, offering a writer ideas. The last thing they're looking at is what they've already done. And that's all other people know about.
Playbill.com: Have you started cultivating your next area of interest?
TS: I'm afraid not. I'm actually translated a Chekhov play at the moment. It's Ivanov. I don't have a thing of my own, but I'm hoping to move on soon.
Playbill.com: You've used several directors over the past 20 years — David Leveaux, Jack O'Brien, Trevor Nunn. Do you use different directors for different sorts of plays?
TS: It's very hard to answer that. I'm not sure what makes a good fit between a director and a play. You work with certain people, you have certain kinds of experiences, and there comes a time when you'd like to repeat it. I haven't worked with Trevor all that much. I just think he's a very great director and I hadn't worked with him since Arcadia and I thought, "I'd like to work with Trevor again." I had a wonderful time with David Leveaux twice and I'd like to work with him again. But I'm not saying it's any particular kind of plays that fits the case.
Playbill.com: Once you've written a play — for instance, The Coast of Utopia — do you retain an interest in the play's subject matter after the play is finished? Do you, say, still read about 19th-century Russian intellectuals?
TS: Up to a point. Of course, there's a kind of carryover that lasts quite a long time. But, I think it lasts until the moment you get interested in your next play. And then you become quite fickle about your former love.
Playbill.com: Your plays are often set in past time periods. Is that more attractive to you than writing something that is set in the present day?
TS: No. It's the kind of thing that doesn't even cross my mind. I'm just grateful for anything that interests me. There's nothing special about writing in the historical past. I don't think it changes the way you write. There's certain kinds of voices that I like writing for. The Invention of Love was about the poet A.E. Houseman and I loved writing for his cadences.
Playbill.com: You have a great body of work at this point. Do you have a play or two that you feel is somehow neglected?
TS: No, I don't think I can say that. I was talking about that only today. I mentioned the play Indian Ink, only because it's been done in different cities in America, but not in New York. But I don't consider that to be evidence of neglect. [Note: Indian Ink was actually given a small, Off-Broadway production in 2003 by the company Alter Ego Productions.]
Playbill.com: Do you ever think of writing a memoir?
TS: No, I haven't. I've never written one. And it's not something I think about. I don't keep a journal or diary, so it would be a pretty defective memoir. I imagine it would quite an enjoyable thing to do, but I never have the time to do it. Maybe that's the last thing you do.
Playbill.com: Is there anything else you're working on at this time besides the Chekhov adaptation?
TS: Well, I only do one thing at a time. And that's the job I've got on at the moment, and I haven't got a job to go to beyond it. I hope I'll think of a play to write. It's now 2008. It's been three years since I was actually writing Rock 'n' Roll.
Playbill.com: That surprises me. I have this picture in my head of you continually writing. You've produced so much work.
TS: Yes, but it's been produced over many years.
Playbill.com: True. And you'd have pretty consistent success throughout it all. It's really quite a remarkable career where playwriting is concerned, especially these days. Do you feel fortunate?
TS: I do. I do.
Playbill.com: You even have this place in New York, Lincoln Center Theater, where you can almost always be assured of seeing your plays produced.
TS: I think that's true. I've got a very close friendship with Lincoln Center [Theater]. It's a place where I feel I could bring them anything. Actually, I've even got a kind of — it's not exactly a commission. [LCT executive producer] Bernie Gersten one day will be retiring, no doubt, and there's an idea that I'm trying to find a play to write to mark the occasion for him, because I'm very fond of him.
Playbill.com: You mean a full-length play?
TS: It's a suggestion that Lincoln Center might commission a play. I've thought from time to time that something I haven't done, which I'd like to do, is write an American play. A play set in America about Americans.
Playbill.com: That would debut in America.
TS: That would debut in America. It was a thought in my mind. So the board [of Lincoln Center Theater] suggested that they should commission this to honor Bernard. So I'm very enthusiastically going along with this idea, though all it lacks at the moment is a subject. (Laughs).