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Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt” Is a Work of Bitter Greatness

(Image credit: Joan Marcus)

Approaching the end of a great career, the Oscar, Tony, and Olivier Award–winning playwright has produced one of his finest works: both surprising and ferocious.

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Tom Stoppard’s new play, Leopoldstadt, is a triumph of the playwriting art. It’s also a triumph of marketing. That’s because its advertising and publicity campaign has sold the public on the idea that it’s a multigenerational saga.

It is that, but only secondarily. To a much greater degree, it’s a ferociously angry Holocaust drama. Those who remember the 1978 NBC television miniseries Holocaust, which starred Michael Moriarty and a pre–Kramer vs Kramer Meryl Streep, may have some idea of what’s in store. Although Leopoldstadt has moments of levity and even a brief bit of farce, it is darker and grimmer than past efforts to depict the Shoah such as Schindler’s List and Europa, Europa. Stoppard has said that he thinks the word play should convey the spirit of a stage presentation; a night at the theater ought to be fanciful and fun. But Leopoldstadt is as lighthearted as a sermon by Jonathan Edwards and as relaxed as a vacation to Putin’s Moscow.

The story follows the misadventures of three couples and their descendants. All are solidly bourgeois, cultured, and intelligent—exemplars of the world that arose in Vienna just after the 1897 Secession movement. At Christmastime a year later, a large family gathering has brought together Hermann (David Krumholtz) and Gretl Merz (Faye Castlelow), Ludwig (Brandon Uranowitz) and Eva Jakobovicz (Caissie Levy), and Ernst (Aaron Neil) and Wilma Kloster (Jenna Augen). A rich industrialist, Hermann is a Jew, if also a baptized Catholic. Married to a beautiful gentile, he sees himself as an entrenched figure of Viennese society and plans to apply for membership in the city’s illustrious Jockey Club. His sister is likewise assimilated, but she has married a Jewish mathematics professor, one who believes that the children of Israel will never really be accepted, and we listen as Hermann and his brother-in-law peaceably take differing sides on the matter. Not committing himself in the discussion is the kindly Christian doctor Ernst, who has married the mathematician’s sister. Scurrying about beside them are a number of their children, along with assorted servants. The mood is amiable.

To prepare the audience for the dire spectacle to follow, the director, Patrick Marber, has underscored the scene with ominous melodies. It’s among the many sage decisions Marber has made in a deftly staged production. Less understandable, though, is another of his choices: The cast speaks in plummy Oxbridge tones that may not be immediately intelligible to American audiences.

The music foreshadows the dire fates due to befall but a few of those present. This hellishness will be visited not only upon the adults but also the children. One of these, fascinated as he is by soldiering, will die in the First World War. Another returns as a one-eyed amputee. Much worse, however, is to come, and in an epilogue set in 1955 we learn the despairing ends of those with whom we have just spent the past two-plus hours. In between, we see Hermann being humiliated by a scornful fin de siècle dragoon and Nazi officials forcing the various family members to kneel and beg that they may be permitted to go on a little longer before they are shipped off to Auschwitz in cattle cars. The play’s title refers to Vienna’s old Jewish ghetto—Leopoldstadt—and the suggestion is that the ease and comfort its deracinated characters think they have attained outside it is illusory. They are no freer outside and in greater danger.

The play’s final scene includes an interloper who represents the author. Sent off to the United Kingdom in 1938, he has survived the war and become thoroughly English. This situation parallels that of the British-Jewish author, born Tomáš Sträussler, who, like the character, spent the war in the relative safety of the English countryside and has returned as a well-regarded author and a devoted amateur cricket player. This moment of self-deprecating humor parallels an earlier incident in which the onstage players mistake an earnest Christian banker who specializes in handling trusts and estates with the appearance of a mohel, a Jew trained in the art of ritual circumcision. These are the few instants of levity in an evening that does not readily harmonize with the word “entertainment.”

This is not to say to say that Leopoldstadt is not a remarkable drama. Although its author was 83 when the play premiered in London at the outbreak of the COVID pandemic, it ranks among his best works. Stoppard has previously acknowledged that he struggles with plotting, and he has said that British theater is not as focused upon the crafting of three-dimensional characters as American theater. Yet Leopoldstadt is an artfully constructed tale with a huge twist in it—one I will not give away—and Hermann and his son Jacob are among the most complex and fully fleshed out figures he has ever created. Nor can the play’s great power be denied. At the performance I attended, the applause at the end was not overwhelming. But this was because the audience was overwhelmed. We left the theater feeling what Aristotle meant by catharsis: pity, fear, and a measure of paralysis.

Indeed, I can think of only a handful of works of art of such quality produced by anyone so old. Among the few I can recall of comparable brilliance are Richard Strauss’ oboe concerto and his Four Last Songs, which the great composer completed at the ages of 81 and 84, respectively, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s work on the Guggenheim Museum, which commenced when he was 76 and was not completed until he was 91. (Hilda von Rebay, the artist who planned the Guggenheim Museum’s construction, had initially rejected Wright as its architect on the assumption that he was already dead.) In fact, the play’s flaws are largely a consequence of its ambition. Thus, because Stoppard wishes to present so much of the history of the period and to alert the audience to its remarkable fertility, he sometimes has his characters offering up unduly tidy speeches in which they inform the audience about noticeably precious encounters with their prominent contemporaries (Riemann, Klimt, Freud). There is also a little too much exposition intended to instruct the audience on the history of Vienna and of the anti-Semitic currents of the prewar era. At approximately two and a quarter hours in length without intermission, it does not feel long, but it’s safe to say that it might have been even better and stronger had it been trimmed ever so slightly.

More surprising is the extent of its wrath. This seems very much of the moment: a time when being rage-filled is expected and almost obligatory. In this it is akin to the many angry dramas being composed about slavery written by upper-middle-class MFA grads with little acquaintance of racism, and the scalding accounts of the AIDS era by young gay men who grew up in the time of consistent cellphone reception. Among Leopoldstadt’s most sympathetic gentile characters is the doctor, Ernst, but he is portrayed as a martyr, and it feels as though Stoppard is reflexively inclining toward the current impulse to equate goodness with victim status. But this is quibbling. How often has an artist produced so grand a work at any time of life, let alone when most his contemporaries have found their rest within the grave?

Jonathan Leaf

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright who writes frequently about the arts and culture.