The reason for our meeting is to discuss Stoppard’s involvement with English PEN, one of the oldest human rights organizations in the world, which “defends the freedom to write and the freedom to read in the world “. As part of an upcoming auction at Christie’s in June, Stoppard has annotated the first edition of his latest play, Leopoldstadt, which recently premiered in the West End and is set to hit Broadway later this year. Stoppard’s most overtly personal play deals with two wealthy Viennese Jewish families caught in the turmoil of the first 50 years of the 20th century and touches on his own family history.
A sharp mind like Stoppard’s must surely relish the opportunity to revise, and indeed he tells me in detail how it gave him the chance to watch the scene in which one of the families celebrates the Seder (which marks the beginning of the Passover), removing the religious text in order to add some momentum. “I’m not a jealous guardian of the text,” he says.
On occasion, Stoppard writes in other media. He scripted the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love and worked as a screenwriter on such films as Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He loves movies, although he says, “I’m not a natural audience for Marvel movies.” As for rewriting other people’s work, he says, “It’s different with theater because it’s all about the writer. In the cinema, you are the servant of the director. It’s fun, but what I really want to do is write another play.
So the play is still the thing for Stoppard, and he tells me something about journalism might happen. He has countless files, including the Leveson report, upstairs in his office. But of course, there is the question of his advanced age. He looks under 84, still looks the closest the literary world has to a rock star, with fashionably flowing gray hair and a pack of American Spirit cigarettes at the ready. (“My American friend told me they didn’t have any chemicals in them, but I really can’t tell the difference”). Does he think about death?
“In fact, as I get older, I think less and less about death. I have less time in front of me so I’m less inclined to look back. I feel like a clock that needs to be wound at the start of each day. He smiles. “But if I’m not distracted, I can be very useful between twelve and five.”
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