Tom Stoppard is one of the greatest living playwrights. End of. His output has been remarkable so I’ve always been excited when news of new work starts doing the rounds. I adore Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead and the truly sublime Arcadia in particular. So my sense of anticipation before seeing Leopoldstadt last week (only a month or so after it opened at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre) was huge.
Stoppard triumphs again
This gets closest to an autobiographical narrative of any of his plays. It is nothing if not ambitious: it requires a cast of 40 and seeks to depict the fate of Europe’s millions of Jews during the 20th Century. As such, it has been called “Stoppard’s Schindler’s List” (such is the wont of critics and publicists). And, with Stoppard now at 82, it’s likely to be his last, but who knows? (There’s an extended interview on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row here)
Despite his ultra-anglicised name, Tomáš Straussler (as he was originally) was born, in Czechoslovak Moravia to non-religious, Jewish parents. His father was a doctor and on the eve of Nazi annexation, he fled with the family to Singapore. But with Japanese invasion imminent, the family was split up, escaping to Australia while Dr Straussler remained to serve with British forces. He would be killed when Tomáš was only four. His mother Martha subsequently married an Englishman, Maj. Kenneth Stoppard. Thus, his story is most akin to Leo Jakobovicz in the play.
Instead of his native Prague, the drama is shifted to Vienna–Leopoldstadt was the district most identified with its Jewish residents, making up nearly 40% of its population–and follows two intertwined families, Merz and Jakobovicz, from 1899 to 1955. They are well-to-do, well educated, highly articulate and successful. It’s not explicit but I couldn’t help thinking that there were strong resonances with the extraordinary Wittgenstein family (keep your ears peeled in case there’s a rerun of this fascinating little BBC radio series by my godmother Margaret Stonborough). In this family, we meet wealthy factory owners, a musician, a mathematician/philosopher (called Ludwig, no less), attempts at assimilation by being baptised as Catholics. There is even a beautiful portrait of Gretl Merz which, by the end of the play, has been looted and housed in Vienna’s Belvedere.
The clear purpose of the play is to humanise the horror of the statistics of the Holocaust. We now have names and faces. By 1955, the family has been worse than decimated; the unusually large cast (for a contemporary play) is thus entirely justified by the final scene’s haunted desolation. Only three cousins remain. And the play’s chilling closing word (coming as it does after a litany of 6 previous repetitions)? Auschwitz.
The Sheer Impossibility of The Play
A German philosopher famously made this statement:
Now that we’re 75 years on, the west, and Europe in particular, forgets the force of such words. We prefer our entertainments and distractions. We are lulled into delusions of security and social betterment.
I am not, of course, qualified at all to comment on the appropriateness of Adorno’s decree: I’m a Gentile, after all. But I think it does hint at the challenge Stoppard set himself. For in wanting to tell this vital story, the linguistic flair for which he is justly famous is necessarily curtailed. There are a handful of wordplays and jokes (including quite a good circumcision gag about cigars), but any more, especially in the second half, would have been obscenely inappropriate. This is not Stoppard at his most ingeniously witty. But then how could it be?
Furthermore, the challenge of earthing the cataclysm of Holocaust statistics through palpable and relatable characters is immense. How on earth do you represent the fate of 6 million in just 27 members of two families? It’s hard enough to make even one or two fictitious characters come alive, let alone 27. So one can’t quite help feeling that many are representatives: the one who tried to assimilate through baptism and social climbing; the one who was unreligious but academically ambitious; the one who conquered Vienna’s cultural scene through her music; the one who married an Englishman; the one whose family emigrated to New York, etc. Now, of course, in less accomplished hands, the play’s characters would indeed be cardboard stereotypes, and Leopoldstadt’s people are far from that. But the need for exposition and scene-setting when covering such a sweep of complex history is acute.
So I suspect this could be why there hasn’t been unanimous critical acclaim? It is beautifully staged. The performances are excellent, especially Adrian Scarborough as Hermann, Faye Castelow as Gretl, and Ed Stoppard (son of Tom) as Ludwig. But Stoppard’s masterpiece? Really not sure about that. I’d say it is a good play; a very good play; and more significantly, it is an important play. Especially for this present moment.
What makes you so sure it’s not relevant?
So let me close with parts of an early conversation between Hermann Merz and his brother-in-law, Ludwig. The play has opened with the family celebrating Christmas (!); Grandma Emilia has commented, “I don’t mind Christmas because baby Jesus had no idea what was going on, but I feel funny about Easter eggs.” (p10)
It is December 1899. Hermann is reflecting on how much the conditions for the Jews of the Austro-Hungarian empire have been transformed.
Hermann: … Why do Jews have to choose between pushy and humble? You’re probably in line for the next Jew-slot. [Ludwig has been frustrated by lack of promotion in the university] So don’t fall for this Judenstaat idiocy. Do you want to do mathematics in the desert or in the city where Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven overlapped and Brahms used to come to our house? We’re Austrians. Viennese. Doctors come from all over the world to study here. Philosophers. Architects. A city of art lovers and intellectuals like no other…
…The seat of six hundred years of accumulating Poles, Czechs, Magyars, Romanians, Ruthenians, Italians, Croats, Slovaks and God knows what else, from the Swiss frontier to the Russian Empire, parliaments and parties in I don’t know how many languages, stitched together by the same black-and-yellow livery of post boxes from Salzburg to Czernowicz and fealty to the Emperor-King Franz Josef, who emancipated his Jews in time for us to grow up with the same rights as everyone else. Obviously prejudice doesn’t disappear overnight. The civil service, the army, the university… [Tom Stoppard, Leopoldstadt, (Faber & Faber, London 2020) pp20-21]
The concession there is important. And we will see evidence of that residual prejudice in subsequent scenes, long before the Nazi Anschluss. But the improvements are real. Hermann continues:
But fifty years ago you couldn’t get a foot in. You couldn’t travel without a permit, or get a bed for the night in village or town except in the Jewish quarter… and of course you couldn’t up-sticks to come and work in Vienna; but if you lived in Vienna you lived in Leopoldstadt, you wore a yellow patch, and stepped off the pavement to make way for an Austrian. By all that’s holy, it happened in one lifetime. My grandfather wore a caftan, my father went to the opera in a top hat, and I have the singers to dinner–actors, writers, musicians. We buy the books, we look at the paintings, we go to the theatre, the restaurant, we employ music teachers for our children. … This is the Promised Land, and not because it’s some place on a map where my ancestors came from. We’re Austrians now. Austrians of Jewish descent! We’re only one in ten but without us, Austria would be the Patagonia of banking, science, the law, the arts, literature, journalism… [Leopoldstadt, p22]
One of my favourite books of all time is Frederic Morton’s A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888/1889 (very closely followed by its sequel, Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914). It is a stunning work, beautifully written and grippingly told. And he testifies to the truth of what Hermann asserts. Fin-de-siècle Vienna really was the most extraordinary cultural phenomenon, in large part because of its emancipated Jews.
But of course, Ludwig the academic can’t be quite so optimistic. His realism is enforced by his constant constraints in the university.
Ludwig: But it’s you who’s missed it, Hermann. The only welcome Theodor Herzl‘s little book received was in the anti-semitic press. A state for the Jews? Good idea! Get them out of here! The Jewish press was offended, naturally. Written by middle-class Jews in the culture capital of Europe. They have enough trouble without Zionism making a song and dance of being different when sameness is the goal. But when we took Nellie to show the family, everywhere we went I was asked about Herzl. His book was going around like an infection. These are people whose parents arrived with their parents running for their lives from the Cossacks, and mentally they’re living with their bags packed. In Galicia, the Jews are hated by the Poles, in Bohemia by the Germans, in Moravia by the Czechs. A Jew can be a great composer. He can be the toast of the town. But he can’t not be a Jew. In the end, if he doesn’t catch up on him, it will catch up on his children. Ordinary Jews understand this. The Empire is made up of so many peoples you couldn’t remember them all, but you left out the Jews, the only people without a territory. So when someone comes along and says, ‘We lost our territory but we can have it again, a country where we’re not on sufferance, where we can be what we once were… Where we can be warriors… [Leopoldstadt, p23]
Hermann, the baptised Catholic and successful businessman who dreams of passing on his father’s factory to his own son, will have none of it. He’s about to be nominated for membership of the Jockey Club, after all. He sums up his perspective.
Hermann: …the twentieth century is upon us, and centuries don’t come round again like the seasons. We wept by the waters of Babylon, but that’s gone, and everything after, expulsions, massacres, burnings, blood libels, gone like the Middle Ages – pogroms, ghettos, yellow patches… all rolled up and dumped like an old carpet, because Europe has gone past them. Prejudice dies harder, but has the mayor physically harmed a Jew? [Leopoldstadt, p25]
The dramatic irony of these words is brutal. If only Hermann was right… What makes us think that the same could not recur?
Naivety is no longer an excuse.