Rock ‘n’ Roll is the new play by Sir Tom Stoppard. It is said to combine, in some hard to predict Stoppardian fashion, the stories of both Pink Floyd’s acid-casualty Syd Barrett and of Czechoslovakia between the Soviet invasion of 1968 and the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
By my count, that makes Rock ‘n’ Roll Stoppard’s ninth play to deal, disapprovingly, with Eastern European Communism. The others are Travesties (Lenin in Zurich], Every Good Boy Deserves Favor (inside a Soviet psychiatric hospital where dissidents are imprisoned), Cahoot’s Macbeth (censorship in Czechoslovakia), Personal Foul (samizdat literature), Squaring the Circle (Poland in 1980-81), and his trilogy T he Coast of Utopia (the rise of Russian radicalism in the 19th Century). The malignancies of Communism are one of the most massive stories of our time, yet also one that has largely been ignored by almost every other Western European or American writer of Literature-with-a-Capital-L.
As this profile of Stoppard in the Telegraph makes clear, one reason for this is that Stoppard, by birth, is an Eastern European writer like Kundera or Solzhenitsyn. He was born in Zlin, Czechoslovakia, but his family was driven out by Hitler before he can remember. His father died in the Far East, and his widowed mother married a British Army officer in India, from whom Stoppard acquired his English patriotism. Stoppard’s lack of alienation from traditional England is one of the most attractive and rare qualities in a writer of his dazzling intellect.
And, indeed, his devotion to explaining the suffering of his fellow Slavs under the Bolsheviks has a boyishly abstract quality to it. He gives the impression that he decided as a good-hearted English schoolboy who believed in fair play that he would do what he could for his native lands, even though he can’t remember them, and has stuck to that vow ever since, although nobody else in his circles cared much about what had been done to the poor Slavs.
A striking irony is that Stoppard learned during the 1990s that he isn’t Slavic at all:
At 68, he is still discovering himself. When he was a boy, his mother drew a veil over the family’s past. There had been a Jewish grandmother, she said, and this was why they had to leave Czechoslovakia. Only relatively recently did he learn the fully story.
His whole family was Jewish. Most of his relatives had been murdered in the death camps. His father, once the house doctor at the Bata shoe factory in Zlin …
Stoppard grew up believing he was roughly 1/4th Jewish. (When looking at pictures of Stoppard, you are so struck by how much he looks like he could be the best-preserved member of the Rolling Stones that it’s hard to focus on what ethnicity he might be.) But in the 1990s he finally saw a photograph of his father, who turned out, I would say, to be the most Jewish-looking man in all history. (Unfortunately, I can’t find online the picture from Stoppard’s article in Talk magazine.)
It’s interesting to speculate on what subjects would have interested Stoppard if his mother had been forthcoming about his ethnic background. Would he have instead written about the historical crimes of Nazism rather than the more contemporary crimes of Communism? Would he have obsessed over the sins of the Slavs (e.g., anti-Semitism) rather than their virtues (such as fortitude)? In other words, would he have ended up like most of the other writers in the English-speaking world?