Eastern_Europe   Czecho-Slovakia   Czech Republic

 

 Czech

Playwrights
 

 

By Nicoline Blom

Vaclav Havel

 

 

At the most recent PEN Congress, the renowned International Writers Organization, two Czech-born playwrights were recognized. One of the men is commonly known for his prominent role in the Czech government, Vaclav Havel. However, during the years of Soviet domination Vaclav Havel wrote many works, such as Temptations and The Garden Party. He always desired to attend the occasion yet was not permitted to because of government regulations. Therefore, due to the prestigious position that he now attains, the organization decided to hold the recent Congress in his homeland. Vaclav Havel was finally honored for his works. The other Czech-born citizen honored for his achievements was Tom Stoppard. His famous play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, has won worldwide acclaim. This play, based on two minor characters in Hamlet, was also adapted to fit the screen. The movie version starred successful actors and proceeded to win Film of the Year at the Cannes Film Festival. Tom Stoppard has gained great notoriety for his works.

 

Tom Stoppard

 

 


Excerpt from the article by

LYN GARDNER


in The Guardian; Manchester; Jan 16, 1999;

 

 

Stoppard was born the second son of Eugene and Martha Straussler in Zlin, Czechoslovakia, in July 1937. His father worked as a doctor for the Bata shoe factory, a company that in 1938, fearing imminent invasion by Hitler, shipped out to Singapore those employees who were Jews or had Jewish connections.

 

 

 

`My mother always made out that we were sent to Singapore because of the Jewish grandparent, but we were Jewish by race. My mother didn't consider herself Jewish, she wasn't a religious woman. I recently got hold of the employment records for the factory at Zlin from the Thirties, and she'd put herself down as a Catholic. Since the fall of communism, I've started to meet people whose existence I knew nothing about. A few years ago I was at a PEN conference, and when I got back to my hotel in Prague there was a young man who had been waiting for me for four hours. He was the son of one of my mother's cousins. I discovered that my mother had two siblings I had known nothing about and that one of them had died in a concentration camp.

 ' Singapore was supposed to be a safe haven. But in 1942 it fell to the Japanese. Stoppard, his elder brother, Peter, and his mother escaped to India. The boys' father had to stay behind with the rest of the men. For almost 60 years his fate has remained a mystery. But recently Stoppard was sent an article written by an elderly Bata employee who survived Singapore; he told how the men were put on a Japanese prison boat that was sunk. Along with many others, Stoppard's father survived to be put on a smaller vessel, which was also shot up. `He died at sea, that's all I know.' In India, Stoppard and his brother attended an English-speaking convent and when their mother married Major Kenneth Stoppard, the boys accompanied the newly-weds to Britain in 1946.

 

`Very early on, I found a very satisfying affinity with all things English - the language, the landscape and the architecture,' says Stoppard, who received a typical minor English public-school education and who embraced all things English, including a new name, the eminently English Tom Stoppard. It is at this point - like Stoppard, but for different reasons -that I think Tynan was wrong when he decided that the key to Tom Stoppard is his being an emigre, an exile. Emigres must come from somewhere else. Exile suggests a longing for something, a sense of loss for something known. But Stoppard has no sense of loss for Czechoslovakia. In fact, he has no sense of it at all. Not even a glimmer.

More curiously, although the family presumably spoke Czech for the first year or so of Stoppard's life, and a mixture of Czech and English in Singapore for four years thereafter, Stoppard says he can't remember a time when he spoke any language other than English. He has never had any desire to re-learn his mother tongue.

 

Perhaps even more tellingly, he says he has never had any curiosity about his past. But surely he must have done as a child? Surely he must, at the very least, have wondered about what happened to his father? After all, he wasn't a baby when the family fled Singapore for India. He was five.

`No, I didn't wonder. I wasn't curious.'

  Why not?

  `I wasn't interested,' he says. `When my mother came to England in 1946 with us and her new husband, she simply turned her back on the past. One of the reasons she buried the traces was that my stepfather wasn't sympathetic. She was a conforming woman and she deferred to his preference.'

 

Suddenly, I have this mental image of the Stoppard family all taking tea and being terribly English and diffident and nice with each other and just not mentioning it.

Stoppard's stepfather and mother are now both dead; his mother - whom he describes as `delightful but highly nervous' - died just over two years ago. Since her death, Stoppard and his brother have begun to find out more about their past. As the playwright will almost certainly point out if you try to imply that it was his early life that moulded him, the same set of circumstances turned his brother into a successful and happy accountant.

 

`Even now that I've started to find out about my past, I'm ashamed to say that I have very little interest,' says Stoppard. `The fact that my past is largely missing from my consciousness is something that doesn't bother me.'

 Why?

`Maybe I'm the last person to know why I'm not bothered, but I'm undisturbed by not knowing.'

Are your children interested?

  `Yes, they are. So are my half-sister and brother. They are all much more interested than I am. Maybe I'm undisturbed by the past because I jumped the rails. The rails I'm on only began in 1946. They don't disappear into the mist.'

 

The lack of curiosity or - that killer word - interest in his early childhood or in his close relations killed in the war suggest an objectivity, a lack of feeling, that chimes well with the supposedly cerebral, uninvolving nature of his plays. But things are never that straightforward.

Back to that cold, pre-Christmas morning in a Soho movie preview theatre, where I was faced with incontrovertible evidence that Stoppard has a beating, squelchy heart. The evidence? A shamelessly enjoyable romantic comedy called Shakespeare In Love.

 

 

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