I am listening to a phone message left by Sir Tom Stoppard, struck anew by the plumminess of his voice and the High Brit accent, undercut by a faint Mitteleuropean trace in his rolling r’s and the flattened e in Daphne. Stoppard is in New York to attend previews of his much-heralded new play, Leopoldstadt, which opened to rave reviews in London three years ago, and we are trying to arrange for an interview sometime in his overcrowded schedule.
Having written about him in 2006, I know that Stoppard attends these previews conscientiously, tweaking and rethinking until the last possible moment. In a 1995 interview with the New York Times drama critic Mel Gussow, he explained his approach: “It’s the equivalent of the potter and the clay. I just love getting my hands in it…. I change things to accommodate something in the scenery, or something in the lighting. Happily.”
Stoppard has made his name as a consummate playwright, one whose often absurdist wit and what seems to be all-encompassing erudition—whether the topic is the Russian Revolution, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, quantum physics, or chaos theory—have placed him in a starry league of his own. In early 2021, Hermione Lee, author of lives of Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton and a friend of Stoppard’s, wrote a near-hagiographic work of biography, stuffed with the nubby and often glamorous details of what Stoppard himself has referred to as “a charmed life.”
One might wonder whether it is this charmed aspect, a certain lack of adverse experience, that keeps Stoppard’s plays from being as stirring as they are stimulating—a way in which the largeness of his heart lags behind the keenness of his mind. Such an impression will forever be undercut by a viewing of Leopoldstadt, which has been in rehearsal for three years and has been masterfully staged by Patrick Marber, making excellent use of Stoppard’s beloved “scrims” (the sheer cotton or linen hangings deployed as opaque backdrops or semi-transparent curtains).
It is the first play in which Stoppard, who was born Tomáš Sträussler, has grappled with the subject of his own background (although he vehemently insists that the play is not autobiographical) and the first one in which he takes on the collective problem of Jewishness. Stoppard’s Jewish-Czech mother spent nine years evading Hitler’s grasp together with her two sons, Tom and his older brother, Peter, and finally found refuge in England with her second husband, a British Army officer named Kenneth Stoppard. (Her first husband, Eugen Sträussler, Stoppard’s father, had died in an attempt to escape Singapore on a boat that was sunk by Japanese bombers.)
Stoppard learned early on to keep his origins to himself. “I became,” as he explained to me when we met a decade and a half ago, “somebody who didn’t ask.” His mother remained silent about his background and his xenophobic and somewhat anti-Semitic stepfather felt that he was owed a debt of gratitude for providing his stepson with an escape from his vexed tribal affinity. “Don’t you realize that I made you British?” he chastised the nine-year-old Stoppard when he once referred to his “real father.”
Leopoldstadt, which opens tomorrow at the Longacre Theatre, in New York, follows the generational fortunes of a highly assimilated, populous Jewish-Austrian family from the end of the 19th century to 1955. The family’s patriarch is Hermann Merz, whose great-grandfather was “a peddler of cloth” and grandfather a tailor, and who himself is a prosperous textiles merchant. Hermann has tried to leave the taint of Jewishness behind him (early in the play he tells a short, poignant anecdote about the moment he “decided not to be a Jew,” in which his grandfather is treated as not fit to toss a coin into a beggar’s hat because he is an unmannered Jew), by being baptized as a Catholic and marrying a Christian wife, Gretl. Hermann’s sister-in-law Wilma is also married to a gentile, Ernst. Only Ewa, Hermann’s sister, and her husband, Ludwig, are both Jewish.
Stoppard learned early on to keep his origins to himself. “I became,” as he explained to me when we met a decade and a half ago, “somebody who didn’t ask.”
The drama opens as a Christmas tree is being decorated by various of the family’s children in the haut-bourgeois apartment off the Ringstrasse, in Vienna, belonging to Emilia Merz, Hermann’s mother. Almost alone among the family, Emilia seems to have an equable attitude toward her roots, holding on to vestiges of Jewish traditions, such as the Passover Seder, while accepting with a certain degree of exasperated tolerance her family’s gradual migration toward an allegiance to Austria and its fizzing modernist culture over their own bloodied history and religious rituals. That they are painfully deluded in their belief that they will ever be fully accepted by their fellow Austrians is in some sense the heart of the play.
When I asked Stoppard why he decided to write this play now, he replied, “I wouldn’t have done it while my mother was alive. She didn’t like me going into the past.” (His mother, Martha, died in 1996.) It turns out he had researched his family years before—both sets of his grandparents, in addition to a handful of aunts and uncles, had died in concentration camps—and felt he had got to a point in his life where his Jewish background interested him, especially because it had never been that clear-cut. He admits that he has confronted his own history “rather late”—a feeling that is reflected in the character of Ludwig and Ewa’s grandson Leo, who appears to be a stand-in for Stoppard, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.
Leo enters in the last scene, set in 1955 in the same apartment, now barren of furniture, in which all the scenes of the play have taken place; he seems fully an English product, dressed in a jacket and flannels and comfortable in his own skin. We learn, via a list that his cousin Rosa reads out in a straightforward fashion that makes it all the more chilling, of the tragic fates that many members of the Merz family tree have met with: two have committed suicide, seven have perished in Auschwitz, and one in Dachau. Leo is reprimanded by his Merz cousin Nathan Fischbein, who has survived Theresienstadt—for being “an accident of history”—both in the fact, it seems to me, of being alive and of being impervious, because incognizant, of all that has preceded him.
Leopoldstadt runs for two hours without an intermission and has the epic feel of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks crisscrossed with some Schnitzler and a peppering of Freud, who is referred to by Ernst, the one doctor in the family, as “the most profound man I know.” It is an entirely gripping piece of theater, undoubtedly studded with too many characters and at times hard to follow, but all the same it will be a revelation for those who are unfamiliar with its tragic tale, and it will provide a deepening understanding of the causes and consequences of Jewish hope and nostalgia in the face of the Holocaust for those who are.
Stoppard mused to me that it struck him as “astonishing how many people are out there who think it’s about their own family.” Leopoldstadt is this very English writer’s attempt to relate to the life he left behind in the process of becoming British. It is streaked with melancholy but also with the characteristic Stoppard humor and skepticism. It would perhaps be too much to say that with this venture Stoppard has come home, but he certainly has moved closer to coming to terms with the powerful forces, denied as they once were, that helped shape him.
Leopoldstadt is on at the Longacre Theatre through January 29