After a career going all the way back to the early 1960s, only now has Sir Tom Stoppard finally written a play that relates to his Jewishness. “Leopoldstadt,” which opened earlier this month at Wyndham’s Theatre in London, is devastating. It is riveting. It is also something of a service to Anglo Jewry, for it offers remarkable insight into the origins, the motivations, the loyalties and the qualities of at least part of that small, vibrant community.
The play is at once fiction and semi-autobiographical, as Stoppard explained in a Jewish Chronicle interview last month: “It’s so far from being the story I lived through. It’s a lot to do with being Jewish, knowing you are Jewish, acknowledging you are Jewish, acting like you are Jewish…or not. And that’s the area where I felt I was looking inward rather than outward.”
As such, it explores a family history Stoppard himself only started to learn in full in the 1990s, from cousins. In an article included in the program, Stoppard begins by showing a photograph of his own mother, age 3, and other members of her family, and explains that she came from Czech origins, unlike the Austrian family Merz whose fictional story he tells in “Leopoldstadt.”
But, he goes on, “the photograph is one we have seen countless times — the family group who never made it together through the Holocaust.”
“Leopoldstadt” begins with the two-dozen-plus cast members on stage; a little more than two and a half hours later, we will learn that most of them perished at the hands of the Nazis. The real-life Tommy Straussler, the boy who was born in Moravia, Czechoslovakia, in 1937, and who grew up to be hailed as Britain’s greatest living playwright, it turns out, lost all four of his grandparents in Nazi death camps.
Stoppard’s mother never told him about this. She wrote a memoir in 1981 in which the word “Jew” did not occur. “The thing that I feel I still need to explain to myself, let alone to anyone else, is that I didn’t go up to [my mother] and say, ‘what is all this about then?’ I felt she would feel I was rebuking her,” he told the Observer earlier this month.
“She had her own reasons for not talking about it. And so we never did talk about it in any comprehensive or deep way, which I think I regret now.”
If so, this masterful play is also an act of both revelation and contrition.
Stoppard’s stage teems with spirited Viennese Jewish life, marked by minor family dramas and major intellectual debates — including, of course, the viability or otherwise of assimilation, and the appeal or otherwise of Zionism.
We watch the passage of festivals and rituals, loves and lusts, with dreadful foreknowledge, as the Nazi era approaches to shatter the Merz family’s unwitting complacency.
On the night that I saw it, the packed house of London theater-goers sat so silent that the quiet ticking of clock at the back of the stalls was the only disturbance; that and the faint sounds of crying as the production moved toward its climax.
Stoppard cannot and does not try to take us to the camps; his most powerful scene is the one post-war in which his own fictionalized character, the Viennese boy Leo Rosenbaum who becomes the very English Leonard Chamberlain, collapses under the weight of repressed memory flooding back.
The playwright allows himself to lacerate this blithe, pompous buffoon, who has worked so hard to forget and deny his past; it is as though Stoppard is confessing and berating himself for his own ostensible failure in that regard. “I came on well as an honorary Englishman,” he writes in the program of his own early years.
I saw some parallels and similarities, inevitably, between aspects of Stoppard’s semi-fictionalized family story and my own, since my father’s family were relatively comfortable (although far more Orthodox) German Jews; my grandfather fought for Germany in World War I; they resisted any lure of Palestine; they were able to find safety and rebuild their lives in the UK.
But, of course, this is no universal tale. My wife’s father’s family, by contrast, were impoverished Polish Jews whose every energy was devoted to sheer survival, who had no illusions about being part of any governing establishment, and almost all of whom were killed in the Holocaust.
That’s all that is universal about the Nazi era — the pervasiveness of genocide; the individual miracles of survival.
But in a play that is heartrending yet resolutely non-melodramatic, Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt” opens a new generation of British eyes to one resonant saga of tragedy and semi-revival — his own. It may well be his last play, he has also said, a fitting final curtain.
To his mother, he writes in the program, “‘being Jewish’ didn’t figure in her life until it disrupted it, and then it set her on a course of displacement, chaos, bereavement and — finally — sanctuary in a foreign country, England, thankful at least that her boys were now safe.”
At 82, her boy Tommy has finally tackled his most personal subject matter. Perhaps only now did he feel he could do it this stirring justice.