Tom Stoppard spent his twenties broke, smoking and trying to write. He had a series of lowly newspaper jobs, and then went freelance, or “self-unemployed.” He was a theatre critic and, briefly, “the only motoring correspondent in the country who couldn’t drive.” He sent scripts to the BBC, and they commissioned him to write a radio series for the Arabic Service. He received an advance for a novel, but only managed to start it two days before the deadline.

Then, in his late twenties, he seemed to get a break. The Royal Shakespeare Company liked a play he had submitted, and decided to put it on in a small studio production. But their funding fell through, and the play got passed on, ending up with a student group, the Oxford Players, who said they’d do it at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Stoppard arrived in Edinburgh a few days before the play opened, to see how rehearsals were going. They weren’t. The director had had a fight with the leading lady – his girlfriend – and both had left, taking other friends in the cast with them. The stage manager had taken over, and some drama students were recruited to plug the holes, but nobody could make sense of the script.

The play was called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and was a riff on the fate of the two hapless, minor characters in Hamlet. But the script was bizarrely full of repetition: whole passages and pages seemed to repeat themselves. The students thought this was some kind of Beckett-like device, and were earnestly trying to interpret it.

It didn’t take Stoppard long to spot the problem: whoever had typed up the script had accidentally copied out some sections a number of times over.

Stoppard cleaned up the script and helped knock the production into shape. Nonetheless, when it opened, a few days later, the reviews were dreadful. Stoppard, though, was unperturbed. His novel, finally completed, had been published in that same week. It was, he believed, going to make him famous.

On the Sunday morning, Stoppard took the train back to London, and opened the Observer newspaper. There was a photograph of himself, with the caption, “most brilliant debut since John Arden’s.”

Back in Edinburgh, the play started to pack out. In London, the National Theatre said they wanted to do it. In the meantime, his novel sold 681 copies.

And so, on the cusp of his thirties, Tom Stoppard became a playwright. (His celebrated later play, Arcadia, is in preview at the Gate this weekend, and opens on Tuesday.)

Rosencrantz and Guidenstern was a hit at the National, and transferred to Broadway. Stoppard was accosted by a woman after the show one night. “What’s it about?” she demanded.

‘It’s about to make me rich,” he replied.

Rosencrantz and Guildestern made Stoppard famous, and he followed up with a series of similarly clever, funny plays: The Real Inspector Hound, Jumpers and Travesties, amongst others.

But even as his reputation grew, it consolidated around an apparent limitation: his plays were clever at the expense of being cold. His characters indulged more in repartee than revelation.

In his scripts as well as in interviews, that repartee was often dazzling (a favourite: “If Beethoven had been killed in a plane crash at the age of 22, it would have changed the history of music… and of aviation”) but there was a sense that he was holding back.

The watershed came with The Real Thing, in 1982 (which the Gate revived last year). A play about a playwright who has an affair and leaves his actress wife, it was seen as being, in part, autobiographical: Stoppard had left his wife for the lead actress in the play, Felicity Kendall. (He subsequently said the play had been written before meeting Kendall.)

The play was noted for its richer emotional landscape than earlier work, and Stoppard won plaudits for grounding his trademark verbal and intellectual dexterity in characters that were more credible and compelling.

Arcadia, in 1993, was a subsequent high point. Audaciously tackling the subject of chaos theory, it won Olivier and Tony awards, and huge critical acclaim. Revived in London last year, the Guardian’s Michael Billington wrote that it “gets richer with every viewing” and “makes us think and feel in equal measure.”

Since the early 1990s, the Gate’s artistic director Michael Colgan has followed an astute policy of associating the Gate with key playwrights: Beckett and Pinter, most notably, but also Brian Friel and Conor McPherson.

The Gate’s Beckett and Pinter festivals won it deserved plaudits internationally, but in committing so much to them, the Gate risked becoming predictable. With those canons now largely exhausted, the theatre may be in need of new figureheads.

(Though Colgan is currently considering a mini-festival of plays by Beckett, Pinter and David Mamet, which may breathe new life into the work.)

In this context, the Gate’s apparent courting of Tom Stoppard is intriguing. Stoppard’s work has been relatively little staged here, and, at 72, he is still at the top of his game. Arcadia is an enticing prospect in itself. All the more so would be an Irish premiere of a Stoppard play. That would be a tall order for even Colgan. But I wouldn’t put it past him.

See for more or call (01) 874 4045 for tickets.

Published in the Irish Independent, May 22.