Book Review: Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt” — Closing the Circle, Perfectly
By Roberta Silman
This is a great work, more linear than Tom Stoppard’s earlier dramas, yet filled with such intelligence and compassion that it will be read and seen for years and years, and perhaps, over time, be regarded as his richest, most haunting play.
Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard. Faber &Faber, UK 14.99, 105 pages
A wise writer I knew in my youth once said that writers write about what they fear or what they need to understand. Possessed of one of the most interesting and wide-ranging minds of his generation, Tom Stoppard seems to belong to the latter group. Although he chose to skip a university education and went to work for a newspaper in Bristol instead, his thirst for learning is phenomenal and, as a result, he has produced an amazingly diverse and often challenging body of work. His interest in Hamlet brought forth his first hit, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; after reading Richard Ellmann’s great biography of James Joyce he imagined Travesties; his failed marriage led to The Real Thing; his years as a child in India to Indian Ink; his interest in how the values of the Enlightenment and Classicism yielded to Romanticism brought forth Arcadia, (my favorite); then on to Oscar Wilde and A.E. Houseman and homosexual love, The Invention of Love; after reading Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers he delved into Herzen and Turgenev and Tolstoy, thus the nine-hour trilogy The Coast of Utopia; and among the more recent, his birth in Central Europe gave birth to Rock ’n’ Roll. These are his best known plays, but there are dozens of other more obscure dramas, translations, adaptations, and screenplays, such as the famous Shakespeare in Love. So when his biography, Hermione Lee’s Tom Stoppard: A Life, came out, of course I got and read it, all 872 pages.
Although there were some delicious bits, I found myself wondering whether it is really possible to write a valuable biography about someone who is still alive. It seems to me that there has to be a constraint on the author, which Lee, brilliant biographer (her best is Virginia Woolf) and obedient Englishwoman that she is, handled by giving us much too much detail about nearly everything, especially the plays, even the ones for radio and other venues that we didn’t even know about. She also interviewed lots of family and friends, sometimes to a repetitious fare-thee-well, and came away with a picture of a man who has led what she calls “A Charmed Life,” who has scores of admirers, who seems to have maneuvered through his 83 years with great ease and mostly success.
Yet Stoppard has had less than wonderful luck with women — in his late 70s he married a younger woman but by then he had been married twice and had had two very long relationships that withered. My conclusion is that the only really enduring love of his life was his first: Isabel Dunjohn, who became a lifelong friend. He also has four sons to whom he is devoted, but toward whom he has sometimes been elusive and remote. There are scores of friends who envy and admire him, and adore being in his sparkling company. But they are sometimes puzzled by him — one admitted that after 45 years of friendship he had no idea who Tom Stoppard really was. That can be said of many writers because we are essentially a solitary bunch who value our privacy and time to work, above all. Yet Stoppard’s elusiveness is distinctive: what I took away from this biography is that within the “charmed life” there’s a thread of profound unease. Thus, I was not surprised when Lee tells us at the end, “he has told her more than once that he is good at performing niceness, but he is not as nice as people think.”
That rang true. So rather than try to find the real Tom Stoppard in the layers of this exhaustive and sometimes exhausting biography, I decided to put Lee’s tome aside and let my readers get what they need from the mostly glowing reviews that have already appeared. Instead, I got a copy of his most recent play, and maybe his last, Leopoldstadt, which opened in the West End just as Covid began and was closed because of the pandemic after a few short weeks. It got mostly good reviews, some critics insisting that it may be his best work, marked by his usual brilliance, but that it is also his most autobiographical and intimate drama. Others thought there were too many characters and it was too long, especially because it was performed without a break. But the consensus was that the production was certainly worth seeing, especially for anyone interested in his work.
Although reading a play is very different from seeing a play performed and often disappointing, I found Leopoldstadt mesmerizing and moving and also revealing in unexpected ways. However, in order to discuss this play, you really need to know the author’s backstory. Tom Stoppard was born Tomas Straussler in 1937, part of a completely Jewish family in Zlin, Czechoslovakia. When it became clear that the Nazis were coming, his parents Marta and Eugen fled east in 1942 with Tomek and his older brother Peter. Eugen died trying to get to Australia where he hoped to settle and send for Marta and the boys; his ship was blown up near Singapore. Marta and the two boys ended up in India, where after four years she married an Anglican Englishman named Ken Stoppard who was with the British Army. She changed her name to Bobby and in 1946 the family settled in Nottinghamshire. Since the boys, now eight and 12, were sent immediately to boarding school to become “proper English boys,” any talk of the past was diverted. When it did come up, Bobby was evasive and reminded her boys that this was their chance to “start over,” as she was doing by having two more children with Ken Stoppard. So although Tom Stoppard was aware of some Jewish elements in his background — “I’m Jewish-ish,” he would say — he had no idea, as incredible as it may seem, that he was totally Jewish until he was in his early 50s. It was an inflection point in his life, and although it took him almost 30 years to address it, this backstory may help to explain the extraordinary understanding of grief and loss which runs through his work and which also seemed to affect his relationships, as indicated above.
The working title for Leopoldstadt was The Family Album, which brought to mind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that “the form of so many modern novels is less a progression than a series of impressions … like the slowly turned pages of an album.” So with this play, which starts in 1899 in the lavish apartment off the Ringstrasse in Vienna of the wealthy and still very Jewish matriarch of the family — Emilia Merz — and her successful merchant son Hermann, who has converted to Christianity, his wife Gretl and their son Jacob. Visiting to decorate the Christmas tree are Hermann’s sister Eva and her husband Ludwig and their two children, Pauli and Nellie. Also present is Ludwig’s sister Wilma, who is married to Ernst, and their twin daughters Sally and Rosa, as well as Wilma’s unmarried sister Hanna, who is constantly playing the piano in the early turn-of-the-century scenes. Gretl and Ernst are gentile so the children are a bit of a mash-up (one was circumcised and baptized on the same day) and, in true Stoppard fashion, there are interesting conversations about Theodor Herzl and circumcision and how Jews are being treated at the university where Ludwig teaches mixed in with some confusion about whether the Star of David has a place on top of the tree.
In establishing the wealth and stature of the Merzes and the devotion of their servants, as well as the quirks of the Merzes, the next four scenes explore the life of the Viennese bourgeoisie with echoes of Arthur Schnitzler — there is an affair, a poker game, a visit to a brothel, lots of talk about the activities of wheelers and dealers in underbelly Vienna and even a failed duel. There are also references to Klimt (Gretl is the subject of one of his great portraits) as well as lots of talk about why it is either good or bad to be a Jew. The first half of the play culminates in Scene Six, the Seder six months later; here the family is at its ebullient best, Emilia leading as they read from the Haggadah about being slaves in Egypt and now being free, and ends with everyone happy when little Rosa successfully hides the Afikomen and they say the last words of the Seder: “It is still our duty to retell the story of how we were brought out of Egypt.”
The play’s second half is much darker. As World War I goes by, destiny plays a larger part in the family’s plight. Scene Seven takes place in 1924 and we are at the bris of Nathan Fishbein, the son of Sally and her husband Zac. Rosa, Sally’s twin, has come from New York, where she now lives. She has brought Charleston records and they are played on the gramophone, replacing the piano-playing of Hanna, who is absent. But Hanna’s husband Kurt and their 20-ish daughter Hermine are there; they are very proud because Hanna is performing at the Salzburg Festival, which gives rise to talk about whether Jews are welcome in Austria and elsewhere. Pauli has been killed at Verdun and Jacob has come home from the war wounded — in his father’s words “hollowed out.” Nellie is married to Aaron Rosenbaum and has become very politically left, which gives rise to discussions about Austria’s place in the world. All are interrupted by the appearance of Dr. Otto Floge. He is mistaken for the mohel but is a banker who has come to talk to Hermann about the transition of his still flourishing business to his son Jacob. While Floge is reassuring Hermann that the Germans and Austrians should be not only allies but friends, the scene abruptly transitions to 1938. We hear planes and see Nathan as a 14-year-old transfixed by the leaflets printed with swastikas that are falling from the sky.
Scene Eight continues in 1938. Stoppard sets the scene:
The room is just different enough. The gramophone and Gretl’s portrait have gone, along with some unspecified objects of value. The main difference, however, is in the implication of life without servants in an overcrowded space, cluttered with the personal belongings of travelers in transit—handbags, toys, shawls…. Once again there are four children…
This time there are twin girls, Nathan’s younger sisters, and Heini, Hanna’s grandson, and, most crucially, Leo, who is eight years old and the son of Nellie and Aaron Rosenbaum, who has died. Leo, as close to a stand-in for Stoppard as we will have, is playing Cat’s Cradle with his Uncle Ludwig and they are greeting Percy Chamberlain, an English journalist who is urging them to wake up and leave Vienna. Although there is some tension, the family remains the same. Hanna is back at the piano, the rest are making jokes, comforting each other, never agreeing but clearly very attached to each other. This is Stoppard at his best. But soon this scene is interrupted by a shocking maelstrom. We are witnessing “Kristallnacht” in Vienna, with Austrian soldiers coming in and dismantling the apartment, which now no longer belongs to the Merzes. But before the scene’s cruel, sometimes confusing denouement (which is reminiscent of certain episodes in Edmund DeWaal’s beautiful memoir, The Hare with the Amber Eyes), Percy reveals what his reporting has shown him:
When the paper sent me here, the man from The Times, said, ‘Percy, let’s go to Graz, there’s an NSP march.’ I said, ‘I thought the Nats were illegal here.’ ‘Oh, they are!’ So we went to Graz and saw twenty thousand National Socialists with swastika buttons marching through Graz, watched by delirious crowds and a few policemen. I said,… ‘What are the Austrians doing about this?’ ‘These are the Austrians,’ he said.
The last scene of the play is in 1955. Only three people are present: Nathan, now 31; Rosa is back home from New York at 62; and Leo, who is now Leonard Chamberlain because Percy married Nellie and they settled in England, as Ken and Bobby Stoppard did. But Nellie was killed in the Blitz. Leonard has come to meet his relatives in the Vienna apartment which has been awarded back to the Merzes through the program of reparations to Jews. It is impossible to describe the impact of this scene, which is surely even more resonant when seen on the stage, but suffice it to say that in this moving scene Stoppard brings all his talent to bear on discussions of the past, memory, identity, suffering, and grief. In a moving scene-within-a scene, Rosa takes us back to 1900 and confesses that she forgot where she hid the Afikomen. Poignantly, we see the family in its glory one more time.
But, as it was in life, it is momentary and over too soon. So when Leo, who has no comprehension of the agonies this family has endured, asks “What have I done wrong?” he is told by Nathan: “Nothing. You’re an accident of history.” Because he writes “funny books,” he has been found by his Aunt Rosa in much the way Stoppard was found by his Czech relatives. When Leo tries to justify his existence as an Englishman, Nathan responds in no uncertain terms:
No one is born eight years old. Leonard Chamberlain’s life is Leo Rosenbaum’s life continued. His family is your family. But you live as if without history, as if you throw no shadow behind you. You wanted to know why Jacob killed himself. It was because he didn’t think he deserved to be saved when so many died.
Finally, after all those remarkable, sometimes zany plays, we have Stoppard bearing witness to the seminal events of the 20th century that intersected with events in his own life. He is telling us in his unique way that we are all accidents of history, that geography is destiny, and that we all throw shadows behind us, though not always in such dramatic ways as the Merzes and the Strausslers. And, although every life is a Cat’s Cradle, a puzzle that will never be entirely solved, in this work, which Stoppard was destined to write, he closes the circle. I would recommend that anyone interested in the literature of the 21st century read it first and, as soon as Covid is over, and we can go to the theater again, see the production when it comes to Broadway. As painful as it is to read and see, you will know that you are in the presence of a great work, more linear than Stoppard’s earlier plays, yet filled with such intelligence and compassion that it will be read and seen for years and years, and perhaps, over time, be regarded as Stoppard’s richest, most haunting drama.
Roberta Silman is the author of four novels, a short story collection and two children’s books. Her new novel, Secrets and Shadows (Arts Fuse review), is in its second printing and is available on Amazon and at Campden Hill Books. It was chosen as one of the best Indie Books of 2018 by Kirkus. A recipient of Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she has reviewed for the New York Times and Boston Globe, and writes regularly for the Arts Fuse. More about her can be found at robertasilman.com and she can also be reached at email@example.com.