Tom Stoppard’s new play, Leopoldstadt, which recently opened at Wyndham’s Theatre in London, concerns the fates of two haute bourgeois Viennese families in the period from 1899 to 1955. As the play opens, there are 16 characters on stage, almost all of them Jewish. At the close, there are three.
Vienna 1899 is the city of Freud, Klimt, Mahler, Schnitzler. Ten percent of its population is Jewish. Great strides have been made. Says the patriarchal Hermann Merz: “My grandfather wore a caftan, my father went to the opera in a top hat, and I have the singers to dinner”—though “obviously prejudice doesn’t disappear overnight” and he has become “Christianized.” His son Jacob is circumcised and baptized in the same week. Hermann regards Vienna as “the Promised Land” and sees little point in Zionist dreams of a Levantine home. “Do you want to do mathematics in the desert?” he asks of his brother-in-law Ludwig.
Ludwig asserts that “a Jew can be a great composer. He can be the toast of the town. But he can’t not be a Jew.” The first part of Leopoldstadt ends with Hermann having to acknowledge as much after he challenges to a duel an officer, Fritz, who has made an insulting insinuation about his wife.
FRITZ: In my regiment an officer is not permitted to fight a Jew.
HERMANN: I’m a Christian.
FRITZ: This is painful for me.
HERMANN: I’m a Christian, damn you!
FRITZ: Let me put it this way. In my regiment, an officer is not permitted to fight someone whose mother was a Jew.
“Since a Jew is devoid of honor from the day of his birth,” Fritz says, “it is impossible to insult a Jew.” Hermann returns home to participate in a full-scale seder: “It is still our duty to retell the story of how we were brought out of Egypt…” This is the final line of the act.
The play moves on to 1924, after the Treaty of Versailles has reduced Vienna to postimperial poverty. Hermann’s textile business no longer has a sustainable market. Jacob has lost an arm and his spirit in the Great War. Nellie, Jacob’s cousin, has “caught politics at the university and now goes on socialist picnics.” She insists that “there are more important things now than being a Jew,” to which Jacob responds:
Well wave your red flag, the Jews will get blamed anyway—strikes, inflation, bank failures, Bolshevism, the black market, modern art. The Jews got blamed for everything before the war and when the war was over they got blamed for that.
Vienna has become subservient, emasculated, and Hermann, whose identity as a Viennese bourgeois, seriously circumscribed 25 years earlier, is now resigned to his country’s Germanification. The Hydra of Marxism and nationalism flourishes.
By 1938 Jews are leaving Austria. Freud has gone to England. An English journalist will take Nellie and her son home with him to Britain. Even as she accepts having to go into exile, she wonders, “How can it be worse?” Her mother Eva insists that “we’re used to this… it will pass.”
The final scene is set in the same place as most of the preceding action, an apartment in Vienna. We are now in 1955, and the occupying powers have withdrawn. The three characters present are Nathan, who has survived Auschwitz, his aunt Rosa, who had emigrated to the U.S. long before the war, and his cousin Leo, Nellie’s Anglicized son. Leo’s knowledge of his family, including his natural father, has just been revealed to him. At the urging of Nathan, he is vividly reminded that he had once lived in the apartment, by an incident, witnessed by the audience at the end of the previous scene, in which the boy had cut his hand. The sudden recollection reduces Leo to tears.
Rosa presents Leo with a family tree. He looks at it. “Emilia died in her own bed”, says Rosa.
And now Tom Stoppard, master of the baroque phrase, the paradoxical clause, uses a dreadful simplicity of language to produce as powerful a lament as theater has ever heard. With the solemn timing of a funeral drum beat, Leo reads out the names, learning them for the first time, one by one, and Rosa responds, one by one. This is what drama can do that documentary struggles with: It can make us weep at truth. Stoppard has hinted that Leopoldstadt may be his last play. In which case these are the words he leaves us with:
Tom Stoppard was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1978, a knight bachelor in 1997, and in 2000 was awarded the Order of Merit (of which there are only 24 members in the Commonwealth at any one time). He is an avid follower (and formerly player) of cricket. He is tremendously English. Indeed, he may be the most respected living English writer. But as in all things Stoppardian,1 paradox pokes its finger in and waggles.
He was born Tomáš Straussler on July 3, 1937, in Zlin, in Moravia, in what was then Czechoslovakia and is now the Czech Republic. His father Eugene worked as a doctor for Bata shoes, which provided its workers and their families with housing, shops, schools, and a hospital.
Presciently recognizing the danger Germany posed to his Jewish employees, Thomas Bata, the founder of the company, re-employed them throughout the world. Whether this was how the Strausslers found their way to Singapore is not entirely clear, but there they lived until the Japanese threatened. His mother, Martha, brother Peter, and Tomáš, were evacuated before the fall of the city, ending up in British India. Eugene, left behind, was killed.
In Darjeeling the five-year-old Tom was sent to a school run by American Methodists, and Martha remarried a British army major, Kenneth Stoppard. The new family soon found itself back in England, and young Tom (never ‘Thomas’), now eight, at boarding school in Nottinghamshire, before attending Pocklington school in Yorkshire, founded in 1514.
He did not go to university. He would probably say he regrets this, but it likely made him the superior jack-of-all-trades that contributes so much to that ‘Stoppardian’ adjective. He became a journalist, a theater reviewer, was impressed by Beckett’s Waiting for Godot but thought such things beyond him until he saw a play, Next Time I’ll Sing to You, by the little-known English absurdist James Saunders, and recognized something he might have a stab at. Saunders’s play had a lasting impact. Stoppard quoted the following passage from it in a lecture given at the New York Public Library in 1999:
There lies behind everything, and you can believe this or not as you wish, a certain quality which we may call grief. It’s always there, just under the surface, just behind the façade, sometimes very nearly exposed, so that you can dimly see the shape of it as you can see sometimes through the surface of an ornamental pond on a still day, the dark, gross, inhuman outline of a carp gliding slowly past; when you realize suddenly that the carp were always there below the surface, even while the water sparkled in the sunshine, and while you patronized the quaint ducks and the supercilious swans, the carp were down there, unseen. It bides its time, this quality. And if you do catch a glimpse of it, you may pretend not to notice or you may turn suddenly away and romp with your children on the grass, laughing for no reason. The name of this quality is grief.
The lecture was given the same year that Stoppard began to reveal the extent of his Jewishness, a self-discovery that led directly, and decades later, to Leopoldstadt.
Stoppard made his name with the tremendous riff of wit that is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967). A further paradox began to emerge. Play after extraordinary play followed, and the English suspicion of cleverness never seemed to extend to him. This is because he inhabits a particular strain of English humour that runs through Burton and Shakespeare and Sheridan to Oscar Wilde and G.K. Chesterton—and, in the 1960s, when Stoppard was on the rise, to Spike Milligan and Monty Python. It wears its knowledge lightly, and it is not satire. It has to do with how language can be played with, English, so mongrel, being a perfect medium for such japes. Of The Importance of Being Earnest, which provided a kind of underpinning for his spellbinding play Travesties, Stoppard said, admiringly, that “[it] is important, but it says nothing about anything.” He was seen as a wit and slapped on the wrist for not being more “political,” by which was meant left-leaning. But he was not interested in what he called “committed theater.” And so he was accused of being “cold.” Perhaps he was: “I burn with no cause,” he wrote. Actually, he was being disingenuous.
What his British fans and critics did not grasp was the degree to which Stoppard also appealed to the dissidents of Eastern Europe, but for quite different reasons. Unlike the state-subsidized left-wing playwrights who were the toast of bien-pensant London, in Communist Europe, Stoppard was seen as the natural ally of Vaclav Havel, his fellow Czech. On a recent Times of Israel blog, the filmmaker Inna Rogatchi wrote: “No one who is anyone in the cultural world of Central and Eastern Europe just cannot imagine him- or herself without Stoppard as one’s essentially formative part.”
The fact is that Stoppard, from a fairly early point in his career, has been writing plays that would win the approval of most small “c” conservatives (the way he has described himself, though he has also put “timid libertarian” on record). “What worries me,” he has said, “is not the bourgeois exception but the totalitarian norm.”
In the 1970s and ’80s, his anti-Communist activism for Amnesty International, Charter 77, and as a member of the Committee for the Free World, was complemented by plays such as 1977’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (which was dedicated to Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky); a television play that same year called Professional Foul (dedicated to Vaclav Havel, while the Czech leader-to-be was under house arrest); 1978’s Night and Day (dedicated to Paul Johnson shortly before Margaret Thatcher’s first election victory the following year); and 1984’s Squaring the Circle, which concerned Solidarity’s victory over Communism in Poland. “Squaring the circle” was the metaphor Stoppard used to demonstrate that human rights and totalitarianism are incompatible. He urged the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, not in reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but in protest at Communist restrictions on individual freedom. In later plays, such as the Coast of Utopia trilogy (2002) and Rock ’n’ Roll (2006), Stoppard went again to Eastern Europe to further question the delusions, and reveal the dangers, of political idealism.
Stoppard’s conservatism is that kind that allows—paradoxically—a degree of anarchy and chaos that socialism cannot afford. His concern is and has always been for the rights and freedoms of the individual: “The collective ethic can only be the individual ethic writ large,” declaims Professor Anderson in Professional Foul, before his Czech government hosts turn on the fire alarm to shut him down. If we detect in Stoppard the spirit of J. S. Mill, we might better call him a liberal (of the best, old-fashioned sort), though we can perhaps also hear Michael Oakeshott’s “conversation of mankind” echoing in his multitude of themes.
He was keen on Margaret Thatcher: “I had a weary contempt for the to-ing and fro-ing of party politics. Then along came this woman who seemed to have no manners at all and who said exactly what she thought.” He admired the way she dealt with the trades-unions and their protection rackets. Most of all he shared her attitude to Communism: “We had this luxury of opinionating without penalty, while just two hours away by plane people were being locked up for mild dissent. I just found it offensive.”
Stoppard’s stylistic radicalism, and his wit, and his cleverness have saved him from the opprobrium of the cultural elite. I daresay following his death he will be turned upon by the new puritans, but for the moment we have a different triumph in Leopoldstadt, which is concerned with the appalling effects of Communism’s twin totalitarianism, National Socialism.
Stoppard’s mother rarely spoke about her Jewishness. “She was without religion,” he has said, and he himself was largely ignorant of his extended family’s fate until the early 1990s, when a series of revelations concluded with the visit of a grand-daughter of his mother’s sister Irma who had lived in Buenos Aires since the war. She met him for lunch at the National Theatre, and drew him a family tree. It was the first time Stoppard was told all the names of his Czech family. He learned that of his mother’s three sisters, only Irma had survived. All of his grandparents had been Jewish (he had previously thought only one had been so). All had been murdered. It has taken almost 30 years for the impact of those revelations to make its way to the stage. Stoppard is 82.
Leopoldstadt is by some distance Stoppard’s most autobiographical play. Which is not to say that it is all that autobiographical. He has moved his “family” from Czechoslovakia to Vienna (a place he has visited frequently in his writing, and that has, of course, the irresistible attraction of all those great names, names that changed the world); he replaces Singapore with Shanghai, and so on.
Leo, the character who had ended up in England at the age of eight and, like Stoppard, was brought up proudly British, is introduced as a young man in the final scene of the play. I mentioned the incident that unlocks the memory of his presence in the apartment—the cut hand. In 1999, in the first issue of Tina Brown’s Talk magazine, among the Gwyneths and Hillarys and Angelinas, was an article by Stoppard entitled “On Turning Out to Be Jewish.” He tells a story about a visit to Zlin, the town of his birth. There he meets a woman, who was treated for a cut hand by his father, Eugene Straussler.
Zaria holds out her hand, which still shows the mark. I touch it. In that moment, I am surprised by grief, a small catching up of all the grief I owe. I have nothing which came from my father, nothing he owned or touched, but here is his trace, a small scar.
Stoppard subsequently suggested that this immensely moving moment lost its power with each telling of the story. But the doctor in the play, who stitches the wound, is Leo’s grandfather. He is played by Ed Stoppard, Eugene Straussler’s grandson. So, maybe not entirely.
Leopoldstadt might be said to return us to that James Saunders play that impelled Stoppard into drama, and those lines he chose to end his lecture on: “There lies behind everything, and you can believe this or not as you wish, a certain quality which we may call grief.” It is perhaps a stretch too far to say that grief has been Stoppard’s great subject, but a melancholy sense of human folly operates beneath the surface of all his plays. In Leopoldstadt, folly becomes pure evil, no longer on the surface, in a play so vast it is unlikely to get very many revivals, and that will never tour. It will surely travel to New York, and must be seen, as it is a work, “epic and intimate,” as its marketers are rightly describing it, of profound contemporary and sadly possibly unending pertinence.
1 “Stoppardianism combines perplexing but undoubted rationalism with baroque linguistic precision to create comic plots filled with paradoxical uncertainties that somehow generate complex but logically satisfying results,” William V. Demasters, The Cambridge Introduction to Tom Stoppard
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