Tom Stoppard Resurrects the Past in “Leopoldstadt”


The word on “Leopoldstadt,” the latest drama by Tom Stoppard (at the Longacre), is that this time, at last, he gets personal. In Hermione Lee’s immense 2020 Stoppard biography, in recent interviews and profiles, and even via links e-mailed to ticket buyers before the show, we read that the playwright has finally abandoned what Clive James called his “ebullient detachment” and broached the topic of his Jewish identity and a long-gestating survivor’s grief. Some critics have been looking for this turn for decades. In 1977, in this magazine, Kenneth Tynan compared the stories Stoppard used in his plays (wild coincidences with peacocks and shaving foam) with the one he never did share: his 1939 flight, at the age of eighteen months, from the Nazis. He was then Tomáš Sträussler, and he travelled with his Jewish family from Czechoslovakia to Singapore; his mother then evacuated him and his brother to Darjeeling, and from there to England, where he was given a new name and little knowledge of all that had been lost. Stoppard was fifty-six before he learned the facts about his Czech family’s religion, the extent of their persecution, and the long list of cousins and aunts and grandparents who were murdered in the camps.

Given the rumors of “Leopoldstadt’’ ’s autobiographical underpinnings, it is somewhat surprising to find that when the curtain rises we are not in Prague but in Vienna, in a bustling apartment where two intermarried, interfaith families, the Merzes and the Jakoboviczes, meet and celebrate. In five intermissionless acts, Stoppard rappels down the twentieth century: we see the families in 1899, 1900, 1924, 1938, and 1955. The set designer Richard Hudson shows us the Merzes’ stately apartment as it changes over time, from brocade-upholstered warmth to interwar sleekness, then from post-Anschluss tenement squalor to a terrible postwar emptiness. In each section, characters turn to or away from their Jewishness, often looking for a sense of belonging or national identity or safety. Of course, there is never safety. We hear history (a subliminal rumble from the sound designer Adam Cork) preparing to break over the families like a wave.

In 1899, the Merz family is prosperous and variously assimilationist—we begin at a glittering Christmas party, which has a tree topped accidentally with a Star of David—but they and the Jakoboviczes will fall through two World Wars, losing nearly everything in the process. “Leopoldstadt” requires more than two dozen performers, and many actors play several parts, including children who grow up and whose identities must be referred to at a dash. How to keep the generations straight? A handwritten family tree appears several times in slides on a black scrim that serves as the stage curtain, and the program helps, but for much of the show’s two-plus hours the audience is left scrambling to remember when Hermann Merz (David Krumholtz) and his wife, Gretl (Faye Castelow), had a child, and whether shy Hanna (Colleen Litchfield) is Gretl’s niece or her sister-in-law. Stoppard makes jokes about this complexity—characters stumble over the relationships, too—though the humor is not always intentional. One cousin asks another if she remembers a certain dead soldier’s childhood, and the woman responds, “He was the nicest big brother in the world.” We can assume she remembers him.

The first scene is a welter of references to Viennese thought and art—Freud, Mahler, Klimt—and the coming destruction of that golden culture is one of the tragedies of the play. Over whiskey, Hermann and his mathematician brother-in-law, Ludwig Jakobovicz (Brandon Uranowitz), argue about Hermann’s blithe disregard of Austrian anti-Semitism. Hermann is joining the Jockey Club and—a mathematician, you say? Your inner Stoppard gong should ring at that; this is the playwright who taught us chaos theory and probability. When Ludwig later tries to demonstrate coördinate geometry using a cat’s cradle, we can see that one of Stoppard’s famous Knowledge Metaphors is twisting itself into view. And, indeed, like the knots on Ludwig’s cat’s-cradle string, family members change positions yet maintain their connection. By the bitter fifth act, set in 1955, there are huge differences between the destroyed families’ three lone revenants—an American émigrée, an Auschwitz survivor, and an English humorist who remembers nothing. They stand in an apartment that’s as bare as an abandoned lot. Nevertheless, they are cousins, still tied by the family string.

The armatures of Stoppard pieces are often other plays: “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” rests on “Hamlet”; “Travesties” travesties “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Here, his vision of Vienna borrows from the provocative turn-of-the-century Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler (Freud called him his “psychic twin”), whose work Stoppard has adapted several times. In the 1900 section, he reworks elements from “Dalliance,” his own adaptation of Schnitzler’s cynical “Liebelei”—again, there’s a cavalier dragoon named Fritz having an affair (this time with Gretl) and the threat of a duel. “Leopoldstadt” makes reference to another Schnitzler play, “Reigen,” in the course of the action, and begins to echo its structure, with two-character scenes linked in a daisy chain: Hanna and Gretl, Gretl and the dragoon, the dragoon and Hermann. Stoppard uses content and structure to point to a playwright whom many in the audience will not know, and even this unknowing is important. Stoppard’s subject, after all, is forgetting.

The 1924 act shifts its tone, borrowing from Coward and Wodehouse, and is animated by both the Charleston and a farcical misunderstanding. The families gather for a baby’s circumcision, and a Gentile banker is mistaken for the mohel. (Hermann: “What are you talking about?” Grandma: “Foreskins!”) Some in this generation bear the wounds of the First World War, but these are largely ignored in favor of the new baby, the new dance craze. A Klimt portrait of Gretl in a green shawl hangs above the sideboard; beneath it, her niece Nellie is sewing a red flag, a symbol of the socialist movement that will be a pretext for yet more anti-Semitic vitriol. Swiftly, though, we’re on to the next act. In 1938, both green shawl (art) and red flag (politics) will disappear, trampled by the Reich’s jackboots.

Stoppard has described his writing as a “series of small, large, and microscopic ambushes,” and there’s a quality of intentional frustration here—dramatic plots crowd in and break off, and key confrontations remain offstage, experienced mainly in retrospect. What happens with Hermann and the dragoon? Or Nellie’s march for the workers? You might find out, but by the time you do there’ll be a Nazi pounding on the door.

Stoppard has always believed in creating difficulty for his audiences, writing intellectual high-wire acts (“Jumpers,” “The Invention of Love”) and idea-in-action masterpieces (“Rock ’n’ Roll,” “Arcadia,” “The Real Thing”). In these plays, dazzling flights of language manage to make us think and feel simultaneously, to experience both sorts of internal action. Here, though, the challenge lies in keeping the narratives straight, and that difficulty crowds out conceptual engagement and emotional connection. It deprives us of the crucial Stoppardian pleasure, the opportunity to think in real time alongside a mental acrobat.

Could this be deliberate? Is Stoppard snatching away the expected, fictional climaxes in order to point to the “real” grief of the last scene? Certainly, the final moment is wrenching: the audience gasps with tears as the survivors tell their English cousin (who knows as little as the young Stoppard did) what happened to each old man and sweet child. But the drama’s other emotional currents simply haven’t registered. In his rush to cram so much into abbreviated scenes, Stoppard veers toward self-parody, particularly when Ludwig talks about math like a character aware that he’s speaking the theme of the play. The writer’s many gifts do not include compression on this scale. His orchestration is off; in all the hurry, we cannot hear the motifs when we need to, or the individual voices.

The staging is at least partly to blame. The director, Patrick Marber, has imported his production from the U.K., and his mostly new, mostly American cast has, for some reason, been told to speak with a British accent. (In London, that was the neutral choice—on Broadway, it seems affected.) Perhaps out of nervousness about audibility, Marber has his performers stay far apart and yell their lines from opposite sides of the stage; Hermann and Ludwig, in their first conversation, sound as intimate as two guys trying to park a semi. People must rapidly communicate their backstories (Why am I missing this eye? Where did my first husband go?) amid the clamor of other characters, and this just leads to more shouting. Uranowitz is the only one who goes big but maintains his precision; Castelow resists the melodramatic tide, much to her credit. There is, at least, a prettily staged Passover Seder: the lighting designer Neil Austin bathes the scene in a deep, resinous glow, a moment preserved in amber.

As I watched the play, I couldn’t work out why so much of it left me unmoved, and it was only afterward that I began to follow its bread crumbs into the dark. For instance, why is the play called “Leopoldstadt”? The word refers to the old Jewish quarter of Vienna, but the Merz apartment isn’t situated there. I can think of two reasons. One is that the Stoppard stand-in is called Leopold (changed to the more English Leonard), and this play’s gilt-and-black Vienna is the “stadt” of his lost memory, a city he will need to either rebuild or abandon. The other possibility is that we’re meant to wonder. If we look it up, we learn that the sector was named for King Leopold, the Holy Roman Emperor who expelled Austria’s Jews, in 1670. Of course, the tides shifted, and Jewish families returned a few decades later. They flowed back into a neighborhood now named for their tormentor, setting up house in the ashes of the pogrom.

In the end, much of what I found moving about “Leopoldstadt” was not onstage. Instead, it came in the reading that the play persuades you to do, and in the memories of those other Stoppard pieces, which waltz and curtsy in the mind. The show sent me to read Tynan and James and Lee; it sent me to those beautiful interviews with the man himself. Stoppard’s frequent collaborator Carey Perloff recently published “Pinter and Stoppard: A Director’s View,” and she spends a chapter discussing his not quite forgotten, always sort of known Jewishness, the way it emerged in past work as stories about doubles and twins, or heritage that is torn down and lost. Her book helped me think about where Stoppard’s experience surfaces in Hermann, a man who both knows and does not know his true situation, a man who thinks he has won the coin toss while the coin is still in the air.

The more you learn, the more you feel. (That might be a central tenet of Stoppardianism.) The particular lesson in “Leopoldstadt” is that we are responsible even for the things we do not know. Here is a play that strikes deepest if you understand its origin: a conversation in a café between Stoppard and a cousin he didn’t realize he had, while his mother sits at the other end of the table, upset that he is finding out the truth. You will have to seek out that story yourself, but at least it’s easy to find. Stoppard, notoriously, is a man who does the research. Why should his audience not have to do it, too? ♦


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