“Since we cannot hope for order, let us withdraw with style from chaos,” Tom Stoppard wrote in his only novel, Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon (1966). Stoppard’s piquant sense of chaos and comedy have made him rich and renowned. In his dozens of plays, including Travesties, Jumpers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and Arcadia, his masterpiece, Stoppard has established himself as Great Britain’s dandy of doubt. (His favorite line in modern drama, he says, is from Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist: “I’m a man of no convictions—at least, I think I am.”) With their vivacious combination of learning and lampoon, Stoppard’s best plays are both intellectual high-wire acts and spectacular, playful displays of neutrality. Their irony signals his refusal to suffer, the theatrical embodiment of that most familiar British posture: the stiff upper lip.

Stoppard, a Czech émigré who arrived in England as Tomáš Straussler via Singapore and Darjeeling with his mother and brother in 1946, adopted his military stepfather’s surname as well as the pukka major’s faith in all things English. “Until I went to the bad, and the first sign of that was when I turned out to be arty,” Stoppard said of his disenchanted stepfather, who latterly wanted to take back his surname, “I was coming on well as an honorary Englishman.”

By then, Stoppard had acquired a love of countryside, fishing, cricket, and eloquence. Stoppard knew his deceased father was Jewish, but sometime in the early 1990s he learned he was all Jewish. His mother had drawn a line under her story and the plight of her four sisters and brother, all of whom perished in the concentration camps. Who knew? Not Stoppard. “I was busy being English and seldom thought about these mysterious distant relatives,” he said.

In the early 1990s, Stoppard learned he was all Jewish. Who knew?

That watershed moment of personal revelation—the mother’s family tree written out at the end of a long dinner table by a distant relative for a jejune young Englishman, a self-described writer of funny books (“Short but funny. Or not funny but short”)—is incorporated into the finale of Leopoldstadt, Stoppard’s latest play and probably his last, according to him. The play, which takes the name of Vienna’s Jewish quarter, is at once an act of historical excavation and personal reparation for what Stoppard calls his “almost willful purblindness, a rarely disturbed absence of curiosity.” The sprawling, windy drama, which is part epic and part essay, follows the trajectory of a couple of prosperous intermarried Viennese Jewish families from 1899 to 1955, but underneath the eventfulness of its surface is another equally poignant struggle—the spectacle of an 82-year-old playwright inhabiting a mishpachah of his own making, trying to reclaim by the power of imagination his disremembered history and his heart.

Leopoldstadt in London: harmonious times gone by.

Here, before the play begins, slides of Vienna at the turn of the 20th century show the city as the economic and cultural European powerhouse that it then was: broad avenues; clean, ordered streets; attractive shops; opera and theaters; houses; elegant families decked out in their fine clothes; striking, sophisticated postures. “Its culture was a synthesis of all Western cultures. Whoever lived there and worked there felt himself free of all confinement and prejudice,” Stefan Zweig writes of Vienna in The World of Yesterday—Zweig himself a Viennese Jew and one of its famous literary citizens, having grown up in the same buoyant time and place where Leopoldstadt begins, in 1899. Jews dominated every aspect of Vienna’s cultural life and added to the city’s glory: in music (Mahler, Schoenberg, Strauss); in theater (Schnitzler, von Hofmannsthal, Reinhardt, Zweig); in science (Freud).

The Aspirational Spirit of a New Generation

The curtain comes up on the prosperous hubbub of a pre-Christmas family gathering (stately directed by Patrick Marber). The presence of a decorated Christmas tree with the star of Bethlehem briefly replaced with the Star of David by one of the excited kinder broadcasts the assimilation of these urbane Jews into the Gentile community. “We’re torchbearers of assimilation,” says Hermann Merz (Adrian Scarborough), a textile manufacturer and family patriarch who has married a Gentile and converted, pooh-poohing Theodor Herzl’s notion of a homeland for the Jews. Their talk sparkles with cosmopolitan palaver about Freud, Mahler, university, Herzl; and they’re proud of their race’s contribution to both the city’s glory and by extension to Austria’s legend of greatness. “We’re only one in ten but without us Austria would be the Patagonia of banking, science, the law, the arts, literature, journalism,” Hermann says, adding, “This is the ‘Promised Land’…. We’re Austrians now of Jewish descent!”

The elegance and aplomb that fill the stage is a repudiation of the anti-Semitic stereotype of the Jew as petty, grasping, and vulgar. What Stoppard is trying to trap in the high ceilings and high style of the Viennese Jewish bourgeoisie is the aspirational spirit of a new generation, redeeming itself from the curse of money that had ruled the lives of their ghettoized forebears. “My grandfather wore a caftan, my father went to the opera in a top hat, and I’ll have singers to dinner,” Hermann says, adding, “When we make money that is what money is for, to put us at the heart of Viennese culture.”

An Optimistic Heaven, in Retrospect

Stoppard makes the point visually (a commissioned Klimt portrait of Hermann’s wife hangs in the room down the decades) and with a few pointillist dabs of dialogue. “I would have liked my son to be a great composer. A virtuoso of the piano would be almost as good. But alas!,” Hermann tells Ludwig Jacobovitz (Ed Stoppard, the playwright’s son), a professor of mathematics. Later, Hermann’s young son Jacob (Jarlan Bogolubov), who is first in his math class and expected to take over the family business, is thrust in front of the learned professor. “Numbers are a huge toy box, we can play with them and make amazing beautiful things,” Ludwig tells Jacob. In this cosseted and cultured world, the intellectual is elevated above the financial, beauty above the practical.

From this first moment of bourgeois equipoise, which in retrospect will seem like an optimistic heaven to the Viennese Jewry, Stoppard pitches his cast of 26 adults and 15 children forward by degrees into their 20th-century hell.

Elegance and aplomb fill the stage: Noof McEwan in Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt.

When we meet them again, at a bris in this same capacious room, it’s 1924 and their world has already lost much of its shine. The radiant Klimt portrait of Hermann’s wife now hangs upstage, looming over the family proceedings like a ghost of harmonious times gone by. The new age moves to a hectic new rhythm—jazz blasts from a phonograph—and to new, turbulent political circumstances. Jacob (Sebastian Armesto), now grown, has lost an arm and an eye in the World War—a physical correlative of the mutilation of the Austrian Empire that has been reduced in the postwar re-distribution of territories to “the runt of the European litter.” Nellie, Ludwig’s daughter, now spouts socialism and separates the red from the white panels in the Austrian Republic flag.

Stoppard pitches his cast of 26 adults and 15 children forward by degrees into their 20th-century hell.

“There’s no flag anymore for the ground where we stood: liberal bourgeois Jews,” she says. “Well, wave your red flag, the Jews will get blamed anyway—strikes, inflation, bank failures, Bolshevism, the black market,” Ludwig tells her. And Hermann appears just in time to put all this kvetching into an economic perspective. “Who would want to do business in capitalist Austria now,” he says about the ballooning taxes and shrinking market. “Fifty million people was a market,” he says, recalling Austria’s in its wealthy heyday. “Six million people on the breadline is neither a market nor a tax base.” He adds: “It’s humiliating to be an Austrian now.”

Humiliation is the revenge on Jewish culture that the Nazis served up hot. Deprived of their professions; forbidden theater, museums, the use of libraries; with even telephones and radios removed from their houses—the Jewish mind is what the Nazis first aimed to kill before arriving at the Final Solution and killing them altogether. The grievousness of this madness can’t really be conjured onstage. Stoppard chooses instead to dramatize the purgatory just prior to the roundup of Jews for the camps. When the family gathers in 1938, in the play’s penultimate scene, the cavernous room is denuded of decoration and hope. What was once a happy living space is now a crepuscular, liminal one “cluttered with the personal belongings of traveller in transit,” according to the stage directions. The talk is of exile, not art.

The Jewish mind is what the Nazis first aimed to kill before arriving at the Final Solution. The grievousness of this madness can’t really be conjured onstage.

If Stoppard’s characters are sketchy and the outrage orotund (“The rational is at the mercy of the irrational. Barbarism will not be eradicated by culture,” one relative says), the presence of a Nazi civilian stalking on to the premises, taking possession of the property, and ordering the family into the streets on Kristallnacht still manages to freeze the blood. For these Jews the past isn’t just past; it’s done for.

At the finale, set in 1955 at the dilapidated Merz apartment, Stoppard engineers a reunion of the dispersed family survivors, who pick over pastries and fragments of memory, trying to remake coherence from the catastrophe of absurd death. In this way, Stoppard shoehorns into the tale the unfinished stories of his characters and the postwar fate of displaced persons while foreshadowing the genesis of the work itself. At one point Leo, a distant British relative and Stoppard’s stand-in for his detached self, says to a Bolshie cousin, “I’m sorry you had a rotten war.” The inadequacy of Leo’s words and his apparent inability to imagine the gravity of their suffering earns him a jolt. “You live as without history, as if you throw no shadow behind you,” his cousin says.

A scene from Leopoldstadt with Jack Meredith and Eleanor Wyld. By the 1920s, the world of Viennese Jews had lost much of its shine.

Leopoldstadt is intended to make up for Stoppard’s historical amnesia and to remind us of our own. That’s both its news and its value. If the thin characterization doesn’t claim our imagination, the dimension of loss certainly does.

“Only to shed some light, it doesn’t matter on what, it’s the light itself against the darkness, it’s what’s left of God’s purpose when you take God away,” Stoppard writes in The Invention of Love. By those standards, in Leopoldstadt, Stoppard has done his job. In giving the grief of his Jewish ancestors a story, he’s brought us closer to history and to himself.

Leopoldstadt is at Wyndham’s Theatre, in London, through June 13

John Lahr is a columnist for AIR MAIL