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Tom Stoppard was born Tomas Straussler in Zlin, Czechoslovakia on July 3rd, 1937. His family moved to Singapore shortly after his birth. His father was killed during the war and his family moved to Darjeeling, India, for several years. There his mother met a British officer named Kenneth Stoppard. They married and the family moved to England. Tom Stoppard left school at age 17, bored with academics and began working for small newspapers. Though he was a good reporter and was promoted to writing feature stories quickly, he made little money and had to live at home. He was made a theatre critic, and he gradually learned that he loved the theatre. He says, however, that he was a terrible critic: he was under the impression that art was an objective business, and judged it accordingly. He began to feel that he would be better off writing plays.
He has said that during the sixties in England, almost everyone who wanted to write a play wrote one, because of the recent successes of John Osborne’s "Look Back in Anger" and Samuel Beckett’s "Waiting for Godot." Most of those plays, Stoppard continues, were copies of either Osborne or Beckett. At twenty- three he wrote his own first play, "A Walk on the Water," but he now considers it so unoriginal that he counts his next play, "The Gamblers," as his real first play. Stoppard says he is a notorious procrastinator, and his plays tend to be written the way a student "crams" for an exam. He notes the constant problem with writing: one cannot begin until one knows what to write, and one cannot know what to write until one begins. Yet he is prolific. He has written dozens of plays and numerous screenplays. His single novel, "Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon," published in 1967, was not a success, but he continued to work. (Interestingly, it has been noted that the names Boot and Moon recur in Stoppard’s works. Boot tends to be someone who makes things happen, while Moon lets things happen to him.)
Later that year he introduced Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. It was his first major play, and is perhaps still his most famous. It was also the beginning of a school of criticism that objected to his "derivative" material: R&G, like much of his work, takes its inspiration from another play. He is also criticized for his supposed overuse of flashy words and ideas. This same showy wordplay, however, has brought him much admiration from most critics. Most of his plays are filled with light jokes, though they deal with dense subjects.
His play Arcadia unravels chaos theory and fractals, but miraculously maintains the feeling of a parlor game throughout- -it may be complicated, but it is never boring. Stoppard writes intelligent plays that never stray into preachiness. Amy Reiter notes that his plays, though they sometimes deal with moral issues, never present the audience with a simple moral lesson. In fact, for many years Stoppard avoided moral or political issues altogether: he thought they polluted his art. He once said, "I must have the courage of my lack of convictions." This changed when, in the late seventies, he became concerned about the plight of political rebels in Eastern Europe. One of his most acclaimed plays, "Every Good Boy Deserves Favor," deals with this subject.
He joined Amnesty International, among other human rights organizations, and met with several dissident writers. He has translated a number of these. Though he sometimes tries to avoid commenting on the role of the arts in society, he clearly believes free expression has its importance, and has wrestled with its strengths and flaws in his writing. He has criticized current visual artists who allow their works to be built by other people: art, he says, only makes sense to him if it includes creating. Though he believes outsider art, and challenging art, has an important place in society, he cannot accept self- indulgence. He maintains that art should only be shocking if it needs to be, not simply to draw attention to the artist.
Though he has drawn some criticism for this viewpoint, he is generally a widely respected popular playwright in England. He is also comfortable with writing for mass audiences. He wrote the screenplay for Shakespeare in Love, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes, and won an Oscar for it in 1998. He has won three Tony awards, in 1968, 1976, and 1984. He wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for Brazil, Empire of the Sun, and Billy Bathgate, among others. He may have left school out of boredom, but he has written on extremely varied and complex subjects, including: poetry, love, history, math, philosophy, and physics. Yet he can honestly say--as he did, about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead--that his plays are written to entertain. It was his first goal, and he has never forgotten it.