Tom Stoppard and Michael Holroyd: Talking to themselves

Tom Stoppard and Michael Holroyd

Filed under: Biography

Tom Stoppard and Michael Holroyd interview themselves - RSL Review 2005


Q: Why are you interviewing yourself?

A: Because I don’t like being interviewed by other people.

Q: You could have fooled me.

A: I know what you mean. I feel I’ve been shooting my mouth off for 30 years.

Q: Thirty-seven, but who’s counting?

A: You’re right. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was 1967. I was thrilled to be interviewed. I think the first interview was in the Sunday Mirror. After that every interview was an attempt to correct the impression of the previous interview. Hopeless. If I’d been strong-willed about it I would have fallen silent, publicly, after my first play. I don’t want to talk about what I write, least of all to ‘explain’ it.

Q: So why…?

A: Almost invariably to oblige someone, usually the person employed to publicise the production. This person, usually female, is without exception pleasant and friendly. Saying no makes her job more difficult, makes her look as if she has failed in some way, and makes me look, or at any rate feel, churlish or arrogant. But in my heart I respect the writers who won’t play the game.

Q: But what I meant about being fooled was that in interviews you appear to play the game with some flair, you’re good at it.

A: I’m aware of that. I try to give good interviews. As a journalist I spent the first ten years of my working life asking the questions.  I empathise with journalists, so try to oblige them too. I put on a show, quotable Tom, pally Tom, garrulous Tom. You’d never guess I’m secretive, anti-social and solitary by inclination.

Q: And somewhat self-deluding.

A: Touché. You can’t altogether fake the show I put on. But on the matter of talking about my work, I’m telling the truth. I prefer not to talk about it, and have always found it goes against the grain.

Q: And yet, in two hours from now you’re doing a Q-and-A, not with yourself, at the National Theatre to mark Faber & Faber’s 75th birthday.

A: A perfect example. I was asked to do it and I said no. Then I got a tear-stained postcard from a delightful woman at Faber’s who had never done me any harm…

Q: Why are you so priggish about this? You write for the public, so what’s so wrong with talking publicly about what you do? Why behave as if it’s some kind of sacred mystery you have to keep to yourself?

A: Because it’s a sacred mystery. I simply don’t believe that writing plays is a craft you can pick up. I don’t know how I write plays.   At the moment (I hope this changes by the time you’re reading it) I’m failing at getting into a new play, and I’m not aware of any technique that might help me. It’s like trying to pick a lock without thinking about the lock. I have a topic, more than one, but I can’t find the way in. My plays are – supposedly – a bit complicated, ‘clever’, etc., but that’s not the problem. I don’t even know what the problem is. When I was busy failing (this has been going on for a couple of months) I was reduced to reading my own work, trying to remember how I did it, what I did, how I got in, but there didn’t seem to be anything to remember. Previously, after – sometimes – a lot of preparation (I mean in the case of plays which required research) I took the cap off my pen and suddenly I was in, I was off, like the daring young man on the flying trapeze. So it’s a sacred mystery, near enough.

Q: You’re a romantic.

A: I know.

Q: And an elitist. You’re like the playwright in The Real Thing who is accused: ‘You want to keep it sacred, special, not something anybody can do. Some of us have it, some of us don’t. We write, you get written about.’

A: Guilty.

Q: Still, that’s no reason why you should recoil from discussing the plays once they’re written.

A: It’s not that different. It’s connected.My main thesis about theatre is that its potency, when it is potent, comes from the fact that it works through metaphor. What it’s ‘about’ is slippery. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is about two courtiers at Elsinore, but it’s not about that. It’s not about any one thing or any two things or three things. It’s about what it does to you when you watch it. And it’s about something else to someone else. That’s how plays – art – should be in my opinion. People generally think that the subject or message of a play is the thing the author starts with, and the play is the end product. But if you write, or try to write, without a corset, the play will start to tell you what it’s about, or what you think it’s about. A play which works properly has a metaphorical level and to a great degree, the thought is the end product of the play, not the other way round.

Q: There you are – you’ve managed to say something about the process and also about the meaning. That didn’t hurt, did it?

A: It did a bit. I think saying something – anything – limits, rather than expands, the possibilities inherent in art. The less the audience knows about my end of it, the better. The most famous question asked about modern drama is, ‘Who is Godot?’ Suppose Beckett had answered ‘Jehova’ or ‘The Inspector of Highways’ or ‘The Collective Unconscious’, a thousand steel shutters would slam down on the infinite avenues the experience ofWaiting for Godot offers. But the point is, in not answering, Beckett was not being evasive. Not answering was his answer. Now it looks as if I’m presuming some kind of parity with Beckett! Who wouldn’t hate interviews?

Q: But in actual fact, most interviews stick to less mysterious matters – your smoking, your life style, your clothes, your tastes, your politics…

A: I hate that, too. I don’t want to tell anyone what are my current bedside books, my favourite restaurant, my friendships, my opinions about this or that. I flinch if I see my name in a paper.  I won’t go to any party which is a PR event. I won’t go to a first night. I won’t go to a book launch. I’ve developed a phobia.

Q: A neurosis?

A: Yes. Will this do? Can I go now?

– ‘Hullo.’

– ‘Hullo to you.’

– ‘I’d like to begin by saying that I owe a great deal to my dentist. And of course my father…’

– ‘I haven’t switched on the machine yet. Now: you were saying your father was a dentist.’

– ‘No. No. My dentist mentioned last time I saw him that I’d never acknowledged him in print and, as I’m going to see him again soon, I thought it wise.’

– ‘Shall we start now? You owe your father some money. Is that right?’

– ‘Not exactly. By the way, may I use diaogue? Biographers aren’t usually allowed dialogue, you know.’

– ‘Just speak clearly into the machine.’

– ‘My father and my mother. And my father’s mother and my mother’s father and…’

– ‘Please! Just your father to start with.’

– ‘That was a quote from Samuel Beckett. Near enough. From one of his novels – I can’t recall which. But you’re right. I’ll stick to my father. He was anxious that I should float free from the family tradition of bankruptcy and he signed me up as a student of physics and higher mathematics at school – with the result that I never went to a university. We argued about it a lot, I remember, and my father, noticing that I always lost my arguments with him, pointed me in the direction of the law – the only profession, he said, in which you could make money from losing. So I became an articled clerk in a firm of solicitors for a short time and, after giving that up in some despair, I did my National Service in the army, narrowly avoiding, I remember, a Court Martial for missing some war or other. I finally emerged in my early twenties, as a man without qualifications – indeed with an impressive list of disqualifications. After that…’

– ‘I’m afraid we don’t seem to be getting very far. Let’s try another route. Do you have a mother?’

– ‘I certainly did have a mother – I wasn’t trying to hide her. She was Swedish, you know, and went through many marriages – Hungarians, South America, whatever. I say, dialogue is fun isn’t it? I feel like Monsieur Jourdain who spoke prose. Only I’m writing dialogue. Anyway, to return to my mother: she loved reading. She read only bestsellers and thought it very clever of me to get my own books, full of dates and criticism, published at all. Nobody, she believed, could possibly read them.’

– ‘Look, this is really getting us nowhere. We’re going found in circles. It’s not at all what I expected. We are meant about to be talking about your new honour and why you were given it. Could I speak to your wife?’

– ‘Margaret is writing a book – several books, I think. I don’t think you should interrupt her. She wouldn’t like it. Incidentally, are you interviewing Tom Stoppard?’

– ‘Who?’

– ‘Never mind.’

– ‘This isn’t working out at all. I’ll turn the machine off – I think it must be troubling you. Simply speak to me and I’ll write it all up for you.’

Michael Holroyd’s father, a celebrated Hungarian dentist who practised near the law courts and enjoyed a distinguished career in the army, has always encouraged his son to be a writer. ‘Do not fear bankruptcy,’ he counselled Michael. ‘It never did anyone any harm.’ It is no wonder then that Michael still feels he owes his father a great deal.

His mother, a Swiss lady who published many best-selling romantic novels, was equally encouragjng. But at first Michael was determined to be a scientist and, against his parents’ wishes, went up to university to read physics and arithmetic. He is understandably proud of his fine degree at Oxbridge and has put it to good use in his famous bibliographies – for which he has recently received a much-coveted award from the Royal Society. His mother and father, a devoted couple, who have watched over their son’s extraordinary career with much complacency, are planning a secret celebration in South America where they live. It will, they tell me, probably come as a great surprise to him.

But who can doubt that Michael Holroyd deserves this celebration? HisAugustus JonesJim Bernard Shore, and, perhaps everyone’s favourite,Lytton Strachey (such a pleasing name for a girl) are of course on all our shelves, and no library in the land is complete without them. Is there one more book to come? Mr Holroyd, who has an aversion to dialogue, was not saying.

Related RSL Fellows

Sir Tom Stoppard 1972
Sir Michael Holroyd 1968