Tom Stoppard, Freedom Fighter

By John Murphy

Posted 9/25/08 at 1:05 AM


Tom Stoppard, the witty British playwright most famous for his mind-bending twist on Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, is the feature of an Observer article on human rights. Stoppard’s plays are like Samuel Beckett by way of Oscar Wilde, with detours to Bardland—postmodern riffs on Big Themes like love and death and liberty, but with Wilde-worthy one-liners.

This might make him a curious choice for a conversation about human rights, except for the fact that Stoppard’s personal history and literary preoccupations are both about the struggle for liberty against impersonal fate. His commitment to human rights stems, no doubt, from a childhood spent escaping the Nazis and the Japanese. Czech by birth, Stoppard’s father died in a Japanese prison camp, and his mother re-married a British citizen. England, for young Tom, seemed like a beacon of freedom, which is why the older Tom has been chastised by the Left for his conservative politics—Stoppard sees young liberal radicals as poseurs biting the hand that feeds them.

In the interview, Stoppard touches briefly on the spiritual foundation of human rights:

“What I really think is that everybody who believes in human rights is unspokenly, possibly unconsciously, accepting some form of immaterial reality. I don’t see the value in endurance or survival if we are no more than the sum of our molecules.”