Tom Stoppard and the Inspiration behind Indian Ink

By Shannon Stockwell

Tom Stoppard (photo by Amie Stamp)
Tomáš Straüssler was born in 1937 in Czechoslovakia, and he arrived in India as a refugee when he was four years old. He lived there from 1942 to 1946, and he learned English while attending a school in Darjeeling run by American Methodists. While in India, his mother met Kenneth Stoppard, a major in the British Army, who brought the whole family back to his home in Derbyshire, England. His mother and Major Stoppard married, and Tomáš adopted the name he uses today.

Stoppard did not enjoy school and dropped out when he was 17, taking a job at the Western Daily Press, a newspaper in Bristol. He hoped to pursue a career in journalism, but while working as a critic, he fell in love with the theater. His first play, A Walk on the Water, introduced him to the agent Kenneth Ewing, who provided Stoppard with the inspiration for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

The National Theatre in London produced Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the Old Vic in 1967, and later that same year, the play moved to Broadway. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive, and the production won the Tony Award for Best Play. Stoppard was just 27 years old.

Since the success of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Stoppard continues to be an astoundingly prolific playwright with a flair for intellectual themes and witty dialogue. In 1972, shortly after the premiere of The Real Inspector Hound, he explained in an interview with Mel Gussow:

I suddenly worked this out: I write plays because writing dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting yourself. I’m the kind of person who embarks on an endless leapfrog down the great moral issues. I put a position, rebut it, refute the rebuttal, and rebut the refutation. Forever. Endlessly.

Stoppard began writing In the Native State as a radio play, which was commissioned by the BBC. “I had this tiny notion that I could write a conversation between a poet and a painter,” he remembered in a 1995 interview, again with Gussow. “While the poet was having her portrait painted, she would be writing a poem about having her portrait painted. There would be this circular situation. That’s all I had. And not necessarily in India.”

Although the seminal image for the play didn’t contain India, the country was always in Stoppard’s mind. “I had only been thinking about [India] in the general sense of using what I’ve got,” he said. “I’ve got India. It feels that one should be using it sometime sooner or later.”

In another interview, he said that he wanted to write about “the ethics of empire.” Whichever came first, the two ideas—empire and the circular relationship between painter and poet—coalesced in In the Native State, which aired in April 1991 and starred Felicity Kendal as Flora Crewe.

Next, Stoppard adapted the play for the stage, and Indian Ink premiered in London at the Aldwych Theatre in February 1995. Indian Ink is often called Stoppard’s most romantic play, its warmth a stark contrast to the intellectual debates that typically mark his work. He agrees with this sentiment: “One of the things that is nice about working on Indian Ink: there are no villains in it. It’s a very cozy play in many ways. . . . I really enjoy its lack of radical fierceness.”

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