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the Complete Review the complete review - biography

Double Act:
A Life of Tom Stoppard

(Tom Stoppard: A Life)

Ira Nadel

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To purchase Tom Stoppard: A Life

Title: Double Act: A Life of Tom Stoppard
Author: Ira B. Nadel
Genre: Biography
Written: 2002
Length: 545 pages
Availability: Tom Stoppard: A Life - US
Double Act: A Life of Tom Stoppard - UK
Tom Stoppard: A Life - Canada
  • UK title: Double Act: A Life of Tom Stoppard
  • US title: Tom Stoppard: A Life
  • Includes numerous black and white photographs

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid overview of Stoppard's life and work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 28/9/2002 Steven Carroll
Daily Mail . 21/6/2002 Michael Arditti
Daily Telegraph C- 6/7/2002 Charles Spencer
The Independent B+ 24/6/2002 Aleks Sierz
Salon . 10/9/2002 George Rafael
San Francisco Chronicle C 1/9/2002 David Kipen
The Spectator . 22/6/2002 Philip Hensher
Sunday Telegraph . 30/6/2002 Helen Osborne
The Times . 10/7/2002 Iain Finlayson
Times Literary Supplement . 12/7/2002 John Stokes
The Washington Post . 22/7/2002 Lloyd Rose
The Weekly Standard . 7/10/2002 Jonathan Leaf

  Review Consensus:

  Generally fairly minimal enthusiasm, though some (apparently grudgingly) grant that Nadel does provide some information in his massive tome

  From the Reviews:
  • "The book does get bogged down in the detail of changes to scripts from radio to stage and film and there is an inordinate amount of annoying repetition. Nadel could also have been more judgmental of Stoppard's works -- they're not all that good." - Steven Carroll, The Age

  • "Nadel is exhaustive in his scholarship but shows himself strangely reluctant to venture his own judgments on the respective merit of Stoppard's plays. The book is also plagued with repetitions (...) and odd errors (.....) As the most intellectually agile of present- day playwrights, Stoppard deserves to be treated with a lighter touch." - Michael Arditti, Daily Mail

  • "I revere Stoppard this side of idolatry, but even I found these 600 pages a chore. Managing to make a book about Stoppard -- such a fluent, entertaining, intellectually curious and, I think, good and wise man -- dull . . . well, it's quite an achievement. But like many dull things, Double Act is also useful. (...) Nadel has at least brought a lot of information about Stoppard together." - Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph

  • "The book's main strength is that it focuses on life rather than literature. Its accounts of Stoppard's plays, with brief plot summaries, concentrate on how they were conceived, produced and received. The book is clearly written, full of information, often engaging and thoroughly researched." - Aleks Sierz, The Independent

  • "(T)his dutiful if lackluster biography. To his credit, Nadel does a decent job of sifting through a mess of conflicting facts, no small feat considering Stoppard's well-known evasiveness." - George Rafael, Salon

  • "To call Ira Nadel's new biography of British playwright Tom Stoppard workmanlike would be to insult workingmen the world over. (...) Nadel combines laudable thoroughness with a laughable lack of wit. (...) To be fair, Nadel's prose rarely descends below the passable; sadly, his critical insights rarely rise above the flunkable." - David Kipen, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "(D)ocumented by Ira Nadel with a meticulousness which sometimes seems barely decent. (...) This is an impressive biography. Stoppard characteristically said that he would like his biography to be as inaccurate as possible, but I think Ira Nadel has done a very plausible job of work." - Philip Hensher, The Spectator

  • "Even the sharpest of punters may be daunted by Ira Nadel's clunking appreciation, weighing in at a whopping £25. This is no bedtime book. Professor Nadel, who is Canadian and an expert on Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, can kick your brain into reverse. (...) Nadel('s) plodding, often prissy struggle through what he sees as the contradictions of Stoppard's personal and theatrical life." - Helen Osborne, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Nadel's massive life reads like the log-book of a heavy goods vehicle as it trundles back and forth between mines of information (...) and some vast commemorative site." - John Stokes, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Throughout this biography, Nadel gives the impression he's on the track of some mysterious hidden truth we ought to know, without making clear how our knowing would add to our appreciation of Stoppard's plays, or indeed do much of anything except feed our usual curiosity about rich and successful people." - Lloyd Rose, The Washington Post

  • "The Nadel biography does a good job of giving us facts about Stoppard (.....) (H)e is generally thorough -- indeed, at times, wearisomely so. The book is not only exhaustive, but frequently exhausting, filled with digressions about the intellectual life of Jews in nineteenth-century Czech lands, recurrent mentions of a Stoppard letter to a former Czech president, and Stoppard's friendships with celebrities." - Jonathan Leaf, The Weekly Standard

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Ira Nadel's biography of Tom Stoppard is pleasantly straightforward: largely descriptive, covering a great deal of Stoppard's personal and professional life, without too much hypothesizing or analysis about what possibly motivates and moves the artist.
       Amazingly, there doesn't appear to have been anything resembling a full-length biographical study of Stoppard yet. Nadel's is certainly an adequate one, and answers at least some of the questions interested readers will have had about the man behind the plays (and screenplays and the one novel).
       Nadel couldn't resist offering a possible way of seeing Stoppard's life and work: as the double act of the British title of this book. Tellingly, his American publishers felt no compunctions about ditching that idea (the US title being simply Tom Stoppard: A Life) -- though it survives in the book itself, of course. It's not the worst idea. Stoppard conveniently talks about leading a double life and liking to take both positions in an argument and other dualities in his life, and Nadel offers many nice quotes to that effect. We found the idea neither particularly interesting nor wholly convincing -- a fun idea for a critical essay, maybe, but pretty thin when stretched out to cover a whole life. But Nadel doesn't take it too far -- he doesn't force every situation, event, and work to fit his thesis -- so it is only mildly distracting.
       The book itself moves along at a nice pace, informatively describing the stations of Stoppard's life. The beginnings are particularly interesting -- Stoppard was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937, as Tomás Straüssler, going from there to Singapore, then India, then finally England (with his new step-father, Mr. Stoppard). Parts are glossed over -- in particular the sudden appearance of Kenneth Stoppard, a deus ex machina that is presented entirely inadequately. ("Almost, it seemed without warning, his mother married Kenneth Stoppard" is the first readers hear of him, without much why or where (or who -- as in who the hell is this guy ?).) But from the remarkable corporate culture at Dr. Straüssler's employer, the Bat'a shoe manufacturers, to Stoppard's early schooldays in Darjeeling most of this is very interesting stuff.
       Schooldays in England, then the decision not to proceed on the academic track but rather go in for journalism come next. Nadel offers a neat picture of the struggling but ambitious young journalist and the small-town paper he worked at, a nice look at perhaps the least well-known part of Stoppard's life. Success comes soon enough -- though Nadel several times quotes Stoppard's protestations that it was hardly overnight success (and that Stoppard had higher expectations from his novel than from the play that made him, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead).
       Nadel proceeds methodically and chronologically, documenting each next step and work. It gets messy along the way -- screenplays (often unproduced for great lengths of time) litter the way, and Nadel has trouble weaving them in on occasion. There are also revivals to return to, and multiple concurrent productions. Still, overall Nadel stays on track and works his way through most everything of importance.
       Nadel is particularly good in following the transformations of the plays themselves: cut and edited and re-presented in different guises from one production to the next. He reminds readers repeatedly that the play's the thing for Stoppard, not the text, and that the playwright was always willing (or, it even seems, eagre) to change the words to suit the actors and the stage.
       There are interesting stories behind some of the plays, and most of the background Nadel provides -- at least for the so-called major plays, and the adaptations -- should be of interest to Stoppard-fans (and much of it might be new to them too). Occasionally Nadel succumbs to the ambition to provide textual exegesis; we generally weren't thrilled by this, but we could live with it: he doesn't overdo it.
       Among the disappointments is that there is too little about Stoppard in his larger environment: there's little sense of him as husband, family man, friend, or even colleague. Nadel occasionally manages to capture a friendship, or provide some insight -- the young Stoppard's friendship with car-wrecking Peter O'Toole, for example -- but both Stoppard's working relationships and his friendships are not adequately explored. Family life too is largely glossed over -- brother Peter, his parents, his sons: none of these relationships are adequately addressed. The wives (and Felicity Kendal) are tolerably well handled, but there are also significant parts missing (parts that were perhaps not accessible to Nadel -- but he doesn't seem to have cared to sniff around too closely).
       There is some repetition in the book. About Miriam Stoppard Nadel writes: "Her popularity soon outstripped her husband's" -- and then twenty lines (half a page) later Nadel writes: "she was soon known to a wider audience than her playwright husband". And over and over again (perhaps half a dozen times) Miriam is excusingly quoted as saying Tom "likes to be alone". There are also some rough jumps in the narrative -- though most of the time Nadel manages to divide his text up nicely into short pieces. And there are the odd slips (it's Nobel laureate Roald Hoffmann (not Ronald Hoffman), etc.
       The book also comes with a few photographs. We'll just note that three involve cricketing (including a reproduction of a flyer) while the only one depicting a woman Stoppard was involved with just shows Felicity Kendal in Arcadia.
       We would have liked even more information (and some documentation that "Dirty Linen has been Stoppard's most successful commercial play after The Real Thing" -- a position we'd have thought has since been challenged by Arcadia). But Nadel does provide a lot, and he presents it quite well. The book reads easily and quickly, and there are few lulls. Forays into Stoppard's Jewish heritage go somewhat astray, but on the whole Nadel presents Stoppard's life well.

       Nadel quotes from Stoppard's Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon:

the secret of biography is to let your imagination flourish in key with your subject's. In this way you will have a poetic truth that is the jewel for which facts are merely the setting.
       On that count Nadel certainly fails -- for which we are extremely grateful. It would be hard to pull off, given an author like Stoppard -- and we're wary of flourishing imaginations when dealing with matters of fact. Given that the facts aren't widely known (this is the first true biography of the man) they seem a good place to start (rather than worrying much about poetic truth and such), and Nadel does a perfectly good job of presenting most of them.
       Nadel's book is a fine read, and we're glad to have the book for future reference. And we learned much about Stoppard from it that we didn't know. We certainly recommend it to anyone interested in Stoppard.

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Double Act: A Life of Tom Stoppard: Reviews: Tom Stoppard: Works by Tom Stoppard under review: Other works about Tom Stoppard under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Ira Nadel has written several works of non-fiction. He teaches English at the University of British Columbia.

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© 2002-2009 the complete review

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