NEW YORK — “What did you think of ‘Leopoldstadt’?” I’ve asked everyone I know that has seen Tom Stoppard’s new play. No one ever says they enjoyed themselves. “It’s big,” they say, or “it’s heavy,” or, as the two young men riding the train clutching their playbills after the show concluded, “it’s something.”
It definitely is something. The intermission-less 140-minute show with close to 40 speaking parts spans from 1899 to 1955 and focuses on an expanded family of Viennese Jews. (As you can imagine, that expanded family shrinks substantially as time moves forward.)
After stewing on it for a few days, my own opinion has changed from mere deer-in-the-headlights astonishment to an unusual kind of respect. This is a new play, but it feels like an established classic. Its scope, its characters and its wit have a self-confidence that says, “I should, and I will, be studied.”
That’s mostly a compliment, but it does mean a bit of work. (Even with the family tree projected onto a screen between scenes, I quickly gave up trying to determine who was who; luckily, this is something of a recurring gag with older members of the family.) I don’t want to go overboard and say this will live side-by-side with Chekhov into the next century, but I will say that theatergoers who roll their eyes at contemporary work that’s often obsessed with the process of storytelling instead of just telling a good story will be glad they’ve got something to sink their teeth into.
“Leopoldstadt” is not set in Leopoldstadt. It’s set in an unnamed part of Vienna, a ritzier section, where a new class of assimilated Jews (or, assimilating, to be more precise) are starting to put down roots. Leopoldstadt was, historically, a section in Vienna with the highest concentration of Jews, and maintained a distinctive Jewish character right up until Kristallnacht. (It’s still home to much of Vienna’s small Jewish community.) In naming his new play “Leopoldstadt,” the 85-year-old Stoppard is putting a spin on an old expression — you can take the Jew out of Leopoldstadt, but you can’t take Leopoldstadt out of the Jew.
Or, to take it one step further, as the story (and 20th-century European history) both do — a Jew can convert to Catholicism and have 3/4ths gentile grandchildren, but they’ll still end up on a train to the death camps. Sounds a little grim, but the show, currently up at New York’s Longacre Theater after an Olivier-winning run in London’s West End, is not exactly a laugh riot. (Yes, there are zings here and there — it’s mostly Jews talking — but other than some hijinks with a mohel, you’d never call any of it “comedy.”)
There’s been some conjecture that this will be the four-time Tony-winner and one-time Oscar-winner’s final work. (He has since walked those comments back.) Either way it definitely feels like a summation. His two best-known works, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” and “Travesties,” deal with the inability to evade a foretold doom and the allure of Mitteleuropean intellectual badinage. “Leopoldstadt” has both, plus a streak of Stoppard’s own family history.
While most of the specifics of the fictional Merz family are very different from Stoppard’s, he’s not even bothering to be coy in interviews. “Of course, it’s autobiographical without really being an autobiographical piece,” he told The New York Times. In the final scenes a young Englishman, Lenny Chamberlain, recalling buried memories, comes to accept that he was at one time Leopold Rosenbaum, a boy terrorized by Nazis. This mirrors the true tale of the Czech boy Tomáš Sträussler, whose widowed mother married a British man and had his name changed to Tom Stoppard.
Growing up, Stoppard had a vague awareness of his Jewish roots, which his mother downplayed. On the rare occasions he discussed it with her, she said, simply, that having even one Jewish grandparent was enough for the Third Reich. Living in an entirely English milieu, he did not learn until the 1990s that all four of his grandparents were Jews, and they died in concentration camps.
“Leopoldstadt” is, therefore, a double “What if?” Stoppard imagines what day-to-day life could have been like for his forefathers, and also what if they were Viennese bourgeoisie. Vienna, arguably the center of the galaxy when the play begins in 1899, is a comfortable setting for Stoppard. His characters talk wittily about Marx, about Freud, about Klimt, about Herzl, about Haydn, and about Reimann’s hypothesis, a mathematical theory I can’t for the life of me understand, but I recognize as being thematically relevant.
The play’s first chunk is set in this whirlwind of intellectual development, where one optimistic merchant character is convinced that Austria, a country of Enlightenment, will soon abandon antisemitism and allow Jews to fully integrate into society. (He has married a Catholic, who, oddly enough, is the one character most enthralled by a Passover seder and grows to have an appreciation of other religious traditions.) His tremendous monologue about what Jews offer society is countered by a more pessimistic mathematics professor who presents antisemitism as society’s incurable congenital condition and posits that, unlike other groups, a Jew can never be fully assimilated. “I don’t observe Jewish customs except as a souvenir of family ties,” he explains. “But to a gentile, I’m a Jew.”
When I say this play will be studied, I mean dialogue like this.
The story jumps to a time between the wars, then to the period right around Kristallnacht with the family dumbfounded by their new social position and many in deep denial, and, finally, a coda 10 years after the end of World War II. The conclusion is an eerie litany in which characters from earlier scenes loom as a survivor describes where they were killed. “Auschwitz” is heard so many times that its repetition becomes unbearable.
Which brings us back to the original question: “What did you think of ‘Leopoldstadt’?”
My thoughts turn to the increasing number of Black American critics who have written recently about wishing for a bit of a respite from entertainment that dwells on “Black pain.” As one who covers the arts for The Times of Israel, I very much understand this position. I don’t know how many Holocaust-story plays, shows, or films I have left in me.
There is an understandable rush to record as much testimony from living witnesses of the Shoah as possible, and, as such, there are more documentaries on the subject than ever before. I think part of the reason Jews will continue to create (and buy tickets for) stories about the Holocaust is because so many in society don’t know anything about the subject (and some that do, deny it.) We must make an effort; sitting in a theater to watch something feels like the least we can do.
But “Leopoldstadt,” an erudite play that costs a small fortune to see on Broadway, is unlikely to tell its audience anything it didn’t know. Where it most succeeds, oddly enough, is when the action transcends the specifics of the setting. Denial is denial, whether it’s saying Austria would never betray its own citizens or tooth decay.
Stoppard’s play isn’t just about history, it’s about the human condition. All of us, I believe he is saying, come from a Leopoldstadt — or are headed there eventually.
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