“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),” writes Kate Maltby. “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.”
For more information, visit leopoldstadtplay.com.
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