"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
At the New York premiere of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” the 29-year-old Tom Stoppard was asked what his play was about. “It’s about to make me rich,” he replied.
Quite. Since then, “Jumpers,” “Travesties,” “Night and Day,” “The Real Thing,” “Arcadia,” “The Invention of Love” and “The Coast of Utopia” — his marathon Russian trilogy currently knocking ‘em dead in London — have swelled the coffers. Screenwriting’s been a money pot as well, the Stoppard name having lent cachet to a score of films; “Brazil,” “Empire of the Sun,” “Shakespeare in Love” and “Enigma” stand out. He’s been knighted by the queen, made a chevalier by the French, has won nearly every award; he can count the odd, artistically inclined royal, Lady Thatcher, Mick Jagger (his slighter look-alike) and Steven Spielberg (who regularly uses him for rewrites, the Indiana Jones series notably) among his friends.
Along the way Stoppard has squired Felicity Kendal and Mia Farrow, sired four well-adjusted children (two marriages, the second, though now ended, the happier one) and is, by all accounts, a fine fellow; no one can say a word against him. He’s even fought the good fight, putting his time, talent and reputation at the disposal of Vaclav Havel and other Soviet bloc dissidents (apartheid South Africa was beneath his notice, however). And, I’m pleased to discover, my favorite London bookseller, the venerable John Sandoe, is also Stoppard’s favorite bookseller; a man of taste and wealth!
All this and more Ira Nadel, a Canadian academic, relates in this 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. Regarding this biography the playwright told Nadel, half-jokingly, “I want it to be as inaccurate as possible.” The British title, “Double Act,” a double-entendre worthy of its subject, refers to Stoppard’s dueling dualities as immigrant/Englishman, playwright/screenwriter, public figure/private man, populist/elitist, and of increasing relevance with advancing mortality, Jew/non-Jew.
Born Tomas Straussler 65 years ago to nonobservant parents in Czechoslovakia, Stoppard endured a series of catastrophes that would have traumatized anybody; by his own admission he’s emerged unscathed, though a certain detachment, a reserve un-British by virtue of its depth, became part of his makeup. Whisked away from Ziln to the safety of Singapore by his parents just before the Nazis marched in (most of the family members who stayed behind perished in the death camps), Stoppard soon witnessed that sanctuary fall to the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. The Strausslers had to flee again, this time without Straussler Sr. — his evacuation ship was torpedoed. The bedraggled family finally washed up in the India of the Raj; their four years there were a Kiplingesque experience Stoppard fondly revisited in “Indian Ink.” A Maj. Kenneth Stoppard married the comely widow and brought her and her two sons with him to England — a paradise to the boy exile: “I knew I had found a home. I embraced the language and the landscape.”
Paradise came with a price, though. A cold, disagreeable character, the blimpish major never let his adopted son forget that he had “made him British.” Kenneth Stoppard hated blacks, Jews, Yanks, foreigners, artists, intellectuals, “proles” and anybody else who didn’t fit into “the natural order.” Nevertheless, Tom Stoppard assimilated with ease (his rolled R’s are the sole evidence of his Czech past), and if home life was no picnic, there was school where he excelled at cricket and classics and enjoyed himself.
Skipping university, Stoppard became a reporter and then a theater reviewer. Inspired by the Angry Young Men theater movement of the 1950s (Harold Pinter, John Osborne, Arnold Wesker), the brilliant drama critic Kenneth Tynan, Peter O’Toole, Peter Brook’s “empty stage” innovations and the “Swinging London” phenomenon of the ’60s, Stoppard started to write for TV and radio, eventually publishing a novel. Then came “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” and his unstoppable rise to fame and fortune, not a hair out of place, nothing but blue skies up above … a charmed life.
Perhaps the little rain that’s fallen on Stoppard’s parade these past five decades explains why nearly everything he’s written, for all its razzle-dazzle — or maybe because of it — has that faint air of complacency about it; prosperity conceals genius (and it needs feeding). Whereas Beckett (Stoppard’s idol) strikes a chord of existential dread, Stoppard stoops to flatter us.
Nadel acknowledges these tendencies and allows for Stoppard’s (surprisingly few) detractors, but not to any great extent; his exegeses are weak, and though well-grounded in Anglo-American theater and literature, Nadel’s clearly out of his depth on the Continent. Truth is, Stoppard is a good night out for those who expect more than just a good night out, a thinking man’s Merry Prankster pulling out all the intellectual stops. The secret to Stoppard’s success that eludes Nadel is that he cleverly blends a Wildean lightness of touch and a heavy dose of Brooksian theatricality — the play as an “event” — with difficult ideas simplified and historical personages made to dance to a modern measure. Just a talent to amuse, a boulevardier by any other name. God, how I envy him.
The late, lamented Tynan, an equally facile writer (in the positive and negative sense of the word), was more than capable of keeping pace with Stoppard, and his 1977 New Yorker essay, reprinted in “Profiles,” remains the best thing on him. Stoppard awaits his definitive biographer. After all, every good boy deserves favor.
George Rafael, an arts journalist, writes for Cineaste, the First Post and The London Magazine.More George Rafael.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)