Novelist Daniel Kehlmann, who translated Tom Stoppard’s latest play Leopoldstadt into German, opens with an anecdote about the dangers of sharing a stage with its author. “If you bore this unique mind…” At an interview some years back during a pause in questioning, the playwright, undoubtedly with a wicked twinkle, said, “Do I see panic in your eyes?” He did. Kehlmann is articulate and perceptive. The two clearly like and respect one another.
“Leopoldstadt feels like an act of personal reckoning for its creator – with who he is and what he comes from.” New York Times critic Ben Brantley
“Why Leopoldstadt (the Jewish district in Vienna) when the play doesn’t take place there?” Kehlmann asks. “It’s where they come from and go back,” Stoppard replies. “A Family Album – with which action begins – didn’t seem like a good title. I think we all felt Leopoldstadt struck a note sympathetic to the subject as well as being slightly enigmatic in English.”
“For me, the strongest image is the album…I have family albums with black and white photos of people who perished and the people who knew then have perished. You say, ‘It’s like a second death to lose your name in a family album.’ The play seems to be about people forgetting.” (Kehlmann)
The Strausslers (Tom’s family) fled Czechoslovakia at the cusp of Nazi occupation. They were nonobservant Jews, as is the playwright. First relocating to Singapore (a job was waiting), three of them then uprooted to India escaping the Japanese. Dr. Straussler stayed behind as a British army volunteer and was killed in service. Tom and his brother attended an international school. When he was nine, his mother married Major Kenneth Stoppard who took them to England.
Stoppard’s stepfather was British to the core and passed his pride onto Tom who tells us he loved/loves everything about his home from landscape to literature. Admittedly “someone with a pass,” he became “A perfect English schoolboy and didn’t look back – which only appears to be a harmless phrase. We had family in Communist Czechoslovakia, so yes, I didn’t have a lapse of memory, I had a lapse of character…a culpable lapse of curiosity.”
“The play ends up with an Englishman in 1955 who would be roughly my age then. Like me, he emigrates at eight…and says a few things that represent my feelings at the time. Unlike him, however, I could speak English,” Stoppard remarks. Insisting none of his plays are autobiographical, the artist increasingly mines his past for – elements. Kehlmann points out that forgetting is an ongoing theme. There’s a forgotten tragedy in Arcardia, an issue with it in India Ink, “and Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern show up in a story-not theirs without knowing where they come from.”
“I had no idea, but yes. I think it underscores the well known trope there are only seven plots. You just do what you can,” the playwright responds. One of the characters in Leopoldstadt is told he “doesn’t throw a shadow,” a vividly descriptive phrase that like much of the author’s work means more than it appears to.
Stoppard is baffled by the fact his grandparents were Jewish, but baptized as adults. It was, he discovered, the process of assimilation. “Without Anti-Semites, Jews would probably have disappeared from Central Europe by assimilation.” His mother explained they weren’t Jews in black hats. Some of the family married Catholics without comment. As a character in the play declares, “Assimilation doesn’t mean you stop being a Jew, what it means is to continue to be a Jew without insult.” A provocative perspective. “Jewishness doesn’t enter my mode of life. It’s just an interesting fact about me…Scooped away from the Nazis and Japanese, it wasn’t hard for me to become complacent.” (Stoppard)
“Why did you set the play in Vienna, not Czechoslovakia?” asks Kehlmann. “Old habits die hard. It wasn’t going to be about me, for heaven’s sake. Vienna was one of the most interesting places on earth at the time. It was very exploitable,” says Stoppard. “From today’s perspective, it seems a lost paradise, but when these people came to the capitols of the empire, they were not welcome,” Kehlmann observes.
By 1938, 150,000 German Jews had fled the country. After Germany annexed Austria, an additional 185,000 were under Nazi thumbs. Comprised of delegates from 32 countries, the 1938 Evian Conference in France met to address the refugee crisis. Collective sympathy for the Jews was expressed, yet few countries widened borders.
“The America quota in Vienna caused a lot of Gentiles to divorce their Jewish spouses in order to escape the murder machine,” says Stoppard. “In my play, there’s a Protestant who’s asked whether he’s going to divorce his wife. I never talked to the actor about it. The character says, ‘What an idea!’ The actor found a way to treat it with utter contempt. It’s a detonating moment.”
The playwright believes there’s a kind of national spirit which exemplifies a nation more than its politics. His displaced characters retain this even when confused. Stoppard’s own national spirit has, at least consciously, aligned with England. Perhaps delving into the cultural and political past is a sort of penance as well as making use of intriguing material.
“Nobody’s sitting in my chair saying people have an unknown background which we never got to the bottom of. In The Coast of Utopia, (19th century Russian critic) Belinsky explains he himself is not an artist. ‘With a real poet, you can watch him sitting there pencil in hand and it’s moving. Then it stops moving, then it moves again. Not even the poet knows what happened in that moment.’
“It sounds mechanical, but you’re sitting there thinking what can I do that’s unexpected. The art of play writing is the art of controlling the flow of information from stage to audience; in what order, with what degree of clarity or opacity. It sounds very conscious, much of it is not…I love the fact that theater is such an empirical art form. This morning I woke to a text from the director (Patrick Marber) saying do you mind if I cut x, y, and zed and I thought, oh my goodness, is that a good idea? Theater for me is an organism, an event, not a text.” (Stoppard)
Work by Tom Stoppard is not for the faint of heart. It’s intellectual, audacious, theatrical, filled with word play, paradox, humor, and social comment. For those who accept the undoubtedly also illuminating challenge, a Stoppard play can feel one is being toyed with or as satisfying as a fine meal – or both. I look forward to Leopoldstadt with excitement and a little trepidation.
Opening photo: Beowulf Sheehan