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Tom Stoppard’s Theatre of Memory

Actor in Tom Stoppard’s play "Leopoldstadt"
Marc Brenner
Ed Stoppard as Ludwig, Alexis Zegerman as Eva, Faye Castelow as Gretl, and Adrian Scarborough as Hermann in Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt, directed by Patrick Marber at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London, 2020

In a recent article for The Guardian on the subject of the film Jojo Rabbit, the British novelist Howard Jacobson expanded on Theodor Adorno’s famous maxim “No poetry after Auschwitz.” Adorno’s admonition, Jacobson explained, “didn’t simply mean no fancy language. It meant not rushing to possess by articulation, or even to explain what might have been beyond explanation, while the thing itself was still warm and its consequences still unfolding.” Jacobson went on to remind us how the Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld, “who as a boy was transported to a labour camp and later spent three years foraging and in hiding, wrote of ‘learning silence’ as a mode of forgetting, burying ‘the bitter memories deep in the bedrock of the soul, in a place where no stranger’s eye, not even our own, could get to them.’”

The leonine British playwright Tom Stoppard has made a grand career from “fancy language,” his reputation built on hyper-literary dark comedies like Arcadia (in which Lord Byron plays a crucial, off-stage role) and The Invention of Love (about the poet-classicist A.E. Housman). It is fifty-four years since his first big success, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, established him as a major presence in British theater. Only now, with Leopoldstadt, does the playwright attempt for the first time to “possess by articulation” his own family history.

Leopoldstadt is a story of a populous Austro-Hungarian Jewish family from the beginning of the twentieth century to the aftermath of the Holocaust. The more numerous the bevy of cousins introduced in the first scene, the heavier our foreknowledge of the genocide in waiting. The weight of that knowledge, which drives Leopoldstadt from the opening, also releases the critic from the modern maxim to “avoid spoilers.” In the closing moments of the play, a rare survivor recites a list of end-locations for each relative. “Auschwitz. Auschwitz. Dachau. Auschwitz. Auschwitz. Auschwitz. Auschwitz. Auschwitz.”

Leopoldstadt takes place in Vienna. The title refers to the old Jewish ghetto: in the play’s opening scene, set in 1899, one Jewish character praises the Austro-Hungarian Empire for having left behind the days when “if you lived in Vienna, you lived in Leopoldstadt, you wore a yellow patch, and stepped off the pavement to make way for an Austrian.”

The location is the only significant departure from Stoppard’s own biography. The playwright was born Tomáš Straussler in Zlín, which is now in the Czech Republic, in 1937. But at the age of eight, he became Tom Stoppard, plucked up, along with his widowed mother, by an English stepfather and placed in a quite different future. Of what came before, the young Stoppard seems to have “learned silence,” like the young Appelfeld, shielding memories fit for no stranger’s eye. Leopoldstadt is not so much a play as a painful, public process of late remembering. It often feels like watching a man performing an autopsy on himself. 

Watching this new production in London’s Wyndham’s Theatre, itself an architectural relic of Victorian imperial confidence, adds further ironies. Wyndham’s—now faded and crumbling, like much of London’s West End—opened in late 1899, as does Leopoldstadt. In Vienna, the Merz and Jakobovicz families inhabit a universe as secure and solid as Wyndham’s must have seemed: a Europe where empires kept each other in check, industrial economies prospered and expanded, social reforms were coming slowly but steadily. The businessman Hermann Merz, played by a compellingly fragile Adrian Scarborough, aspires to be the first “Christian of Jewish descent” to join Vienna’s Jockey Club. Only the mathematician Ludwig Jakobovicz dreams of a purer, prouder Jewish identity—and a Jewish homeland.

In the play’s on-the-nose opening, a child places a Star of David atop the Christmas Tree in December 1899. The two families not only host both Seders and Christmases but are even confident enough in a Jewish identity to marry the odd goy—upsetting no one but the most traditionalist of relatives back out East—for to be assimilated, suggests Hermann, is to be enlightened. None of this, of course, will last. But before we reach the cataclysm, we get adultery, the Great War, socialist young things, and the political violence of Red Vienna. Most of the play’s second act takes place on Kristallnacht.

Compared with most of Stoppard’s work, this is an unusually old-fashioned, linear play, despite its knowing references to Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde. But the narrative thrust is weak. Individual narratives are replaced by communal Holocaust history. This technique has strengths, too. The Kristallnacht scene is not an act of storytelling—there are no twists, no surprises—but an act of ritual witnessing borne in upon the audience. 

Patrick Marber, the author of the plays Closer and Dealer’s Choice, directs. (Stoppard also thanks him in the text as “my first reader at every stage.”) Marber doesn’t always rise to the challenge of making us care enough about the individuals in this doomed collective. The sheer number of characters—a cast of over forty, with more appearing at every time-jump—doesn’t help. I sat through the performance with the family tree from the program open on my lap: without it, I’d have struggled to remember who was who. 

If you can engage with this as a community story, not an individual-led drama, it pays off. In the final scene, we realize just how completely the scythe of a genocide has sliced through this once-numerous family. If we don’t remember all of their names by the end, that is perhaps the point. Amid the crowd on stage, Faye Castelow manages to stand out as Hermann’s shiksa wife, Gretl, fresh and all-too-human. Ludwig the mathematician fades out of the story too quickly after his stagey initial debates with Hermann, but he is played with tender vulnerability by Ed Stoppard, the playwright’s son by the agony aunt Miriam Stoppard. (Ed Stoppard has his described his own childhood as “completely secular,” although Miriam’s orthodox Jewish parents were frequent visitors.)

Actor in Tom Stoppard’s 'Leopoldstadt'
Marc Brenner
Mark Edel-Hunt as the Civilian in Leopoldstadt, 2020

For Stoppard the elder, this play is a personal “coming-out.” That may be a difficult concept for some American Jews to understand, particularly those from large Jewish communities in coastal metropolitan areas for whom the idea of Jewish identity and history as something to be suppressed is profoundly alien. But England is not America. For many mid-century Jewish refugees, the cost of becoming British—and, if you really tried, English—meant not just changing your name but swelling the ranks of the local Anglican church. I have written elsewhere about my own family’s such story.

There is, of course, a proud, practicing Jewish community in Britain. It’s just that when Stoppard was starting his career, its members rarely gained entrée into the Establishment. Jewish quotas were normal at the high-society private schools until the last decades of the twentieth century. Stoppard touches intelligently in Leopoldstadt on English anti-Semitism as a subset of English “snobbery,” which he suggests is different from the explicitly racist anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe. (In the Vienna of Leopoldstadt, Hermann Merz is himself “snobbish” about rural Jews.)

Many American Jews on the left, jaded by the frequency with which claims of anti-Semitism are thrown about by the American right, have been slow to recognize that Britain itself is in the grip of a crisis of left-wing anti-Semitism. To liberal US Jews used to seeing Trump surrogates smear Democratic critics of US policy toward Israel as “anti-Semites,” it may initially have seemed credible that Labour’s outgoing leader Jeremy Corbyn had been, as his defenders claim, a victim of a similar “smear campaign.” But American paradigms should not be mapped so easily onto Britain. There has always been a genuine market for anti-Semitism in British politics. Jews may have become “white” in America, they are not always so in Britain. Unless, like Stoppard, they spend a life “passing.”

In Stoppard’s eagerness to explain the parameters of his own Jewishness through his characters’—and never was the line between memoir and drama so thinly drawn—his writing in Leopoldstadt becomes uncharacteristically heavy on exposition. Sometimes, one wonders if he’s aiming at the type of Gentile British theater-goers who simply haven’t met any Jews. Leopoldstadt deserves a Broadway transfer, but New York audiences will hardly need Gretl to deliver her straight-to-auditorium explanation of what a bris is.

For all its Viennese setting, Leopoldstadt is thus a profoundly English play. In the closing scene, we meet at last Leo, Stoppard’s clearest avatar—and an unwilling heir to “Leopoldstadt.” One of the last survivors of the Merz and Jacobovicz Jewish inheritance, Leo, too, is plucked to safety  by an English stepfather (when we first encounter him as a boy in 1938), and raised after a model of Englishness that admitted no room for a competing Jewish identity. Luke Thallon gives a painfully apposite performance of the adult Leo as a man desperate to avoid confrontation with the memories locked in the bedrock of his own soul.

Actors in Stoppard play
Marc Brenner
Luke Thallon as Leo and Sebastian Armesto as Nathan in Leopoldstadt, 2020

“You live as if without history, as if you throw no shadow behind you,” complains an Austrian cousin Leo encounters. On the contrary, Leo retorts, he is proud of an adopted English history: “fair play and Parliament and freedom of everything, asylum for exiles and refugees, the Royal Navy, the royal family… oh, I forgot Shakespeare.” It’s not that Leo has disowned his Viennese Jewish legacy, but that on his return, in 1955, it seems incompatible with his adoptive English heritage. But, as the cackles of sardonic laughter from London’s liberal audience remind one, neither the stability of England’s royal family nor the immigrant-friendly credentials of Leo’s confident assertion seem quite so guaranteed in the year 2020.

Leopoldstadt tackles other question marks now hanging over the future of Englishness. One of the sharpest moments of the debate between Hermann and Ludwig comes when Hermann extolls the pluralism of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which encompasses “parliaments and parties in I don’t how many languages,” its inter-ethnic tensions supposedly buried by shared commitment to a broader pan-European institution. I was reminded of the author Hilary Mantel, writing as an Englishwoman of Irish Catholic descent that “the greatest hope of minorities, I think, is that they can find a refuge in an imagined Europe of the regions.” Hermann’s pro-European optimism is proven wrong, of course. But Leopoldstadt, which premiered just as Britain leaves the EU, is not without nostalgia for the pan-European dream.

So this is a play about what it means to be English, what it means to be Jewish, and what it means to bury the latter identity in the hope of outrunning the next European genocide. For those of us who are the offspring of similar twists of family fate, Anglo-washed by the surnames of Gentile fathers or stepfathers, these habits of suppression, easy as breathing, are resonantly familiar—seeing them staged is a punch to the gut. For practicing Jews who know their own history, Leopoldstadt may paint in brushstrokes a little too broad. The play, like its author, isn’t always sure what it wants to be. This is Stoppard after Auschwitz: there is no poetry. But as a piece of theater-as-memorial, it cries out for witness.


Leopoldstadt, written by Tom Stoppard and directed by Patrick Marber, is at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, through June 13, 2020.