The opening of Tom Stoppard’s new play Leopoldstadt plunges us full bore into the sumptuous and elegant whirl of fin-de-siècle Vienna. In a huge family room gorgeously appointed (by set designer Richard Hudson) with an undulating divan, a grand piano, a plush Jugendstil rug and exquisite wood molding, we’re swept right into the warmth and hubbub of a large family’s holiday gathering in 1899. It is a prosperous, cultivated, comfortably assimilated Jewish family, well-connected and self-assured, whose swirling and wide-ranging conversation seems to touch on every major artist, thinker and cultural current of the era, from Freud, Mahler, Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal and Herzl to endangered liberalism, waltzing, the new mathematics, and the emperor’s shaky commitment to democracy.
This breathtaking and enchanting snapshot of a refined, hopeful, briefly paradisiacal life is also, obviously, ominous since everyone watching knows it is ripe for destruction. It may not be easy to follow the myriad details of the family’s connections (there are more than 30 people to remember, and a briefly projected family tree is of little help), but the general picture seems to be the main point. Three acts later, in a scene set on Kristallnacht in 1938, the room has been transformed. It’s overcrowded, devoid of servants, stripped of ornamentation, and suffused with terror. The Gestapo is about to burst in. We’ve seen such scenes before in countless movies and plays, possibly even grown numb to them. But here the invasion proves freshly shocking, vicious and barbaric, precisely because of the radiance of what has come before, still glittering in our minds.
Leopoldstadt is Stoppard’s belated meditation on his Jewish family, which he knew only vaguely about until his 50s (he’s now 85). As widely reported, having always felt thoroughly British, he was shocked to learn the full story, in middle age, of his Jewish parents’ nick-of-time escape with him at age 2 from occupied Czechoslovakia. He then became interested in his roots, but it was too late to reconnect because almost everyone had been murdered in the Holocaust.
The Viennese family in Leopoldstadt is his imagined surrogate for the Czech family he never knew, and many commentators have welcomed the play as his most directly and profoundly personal. Patrick Marber, director of this Broadway production (and of the 2020 London premiere), called it Stoppard’s long-belated “ownership” of his Jewish side. The author himself, in interviews, has spoken of exploring latent identity (“It felt like unfinished business”) and repressed guilt (“The play grew out of . . . self-reproach about seeing my life as a charmed life”).
These are welcome sentiments and admirable intentions. The result, as one might expect (more on that soon), is rather a mixed bag. Notwithstanding the thrill of Marber’s populous and opulent spectacle and the emotional punch of the scenes just described, Leopoldstadt is inconsistently dramatic and the opposite of an identity deep-dive. In fact, it shunts identity questions off onto its final act, set in 1955, and probes them only tentatively.
In that act, a politically apathetic, 24-year-old writer named Leo, who was evacuated from Vienna to England as a young boy and feels thoroughly English, meets two surviving Jewish relatives he barely remembers, who explain the family’s fate. He listens, confesses his longstanding feelings of detachment, and then suddenly recovers a repressed memory of cutting his hand on Kristallnacht. This is, well, an anemic catharsis, glaringly unsatisfying for everyone—us, Leo, the relatives—and that may be Stoppard’s point. Nevertheless, it also feels tacked onto a play that has asked quite a bit of us in attending to family details that turn out not to be germane to the conclusion.
Stoppard’s plays always feel valuable to me, even when they’re lumpy. He always shows flashes of brilliance and usually immerses us in some interesting new subject. It must be said, though, that beginning around The Coast of Utopia (written 2002, NY production 2006) his work started displaying a rather clumsy imbalance of information and dramatic action. Leopoldstadt, The Invention of Love, Rock and Roll, The Hard Problem and other later works have lacked the equilibrium and tight structures of earlier gems like Travesties, The Real Inspector Hound, The Real Thing and Arcadia.
As I walked out of Leopoldstadt, I found myself reflecting on an incident related to this matter from 16 years ago, and I beg indulgence for a short digression on it. The incident was my sole face-to-face encounter with Stoppard.
In 2006, when Coast of Utopia was in previews, the Drama Desk, an organization of critics I belong to, invited its members to a specially arranged Q&A with the author. He was in New York for the premiere of that 3-play, 9-hour cycle about 19th-century Russian radicals at Lincoln Center (which I hadn’t yet seen), and I was then at work on Great Lengths, my book about marathon theater productions. I saw the event as a singular opportunity—a chance to ask the most articulate playwright since Shaw (as Stoppard scholar Paul Delaney had dubbed him) for his thoughts about the very subject I’d been researching and pondering.
I raised my hand, he called on me, and I asked this: “Mr. Stoppard, I understand your new play cycle is 9 hours long all together, an epic length that’s sometimes referred to as a marathon theater experience. I wonder if you could speak to how you see your material and its long form serving one another. Or share any other thoughts you might’ve had in conceiving a marathon experience?”
Stoppard didn’t like this question and brushed it off. He said something to this effect: “That’s not my problem. I write something; I give it to the theater. It’s the theater’s business to decide what to do with it, how to present it. Next question.”
I didn’t believe this—Stoppard was known to be a frequent and active presence at many of his rehearsals—but I didn’t take it personally. It was an answer of sorts and (as mentioned) I hadn’t yet seen the plays. As I reached the exit after the session, however, a sallow, grey-haired man I’d never met stepped in my path, in high dudgeon. “How dare you?!” he hissed. “I’m Bernie Gersten, Executive Producer of Lincoln Center. Who the hell do you think you are?! People like you make me regret ever agreeing to things like this. It’s disgusting! Get the hell outa here!”
This did bother me, as you might expect. It was so abrupt and inappropriately aggressive I had no clue what to make of it. Once I saw Coast of Utopia, though, I had a hunch. Coast was a decidedly odd mélange (odd even for Stoppard) of scintillating, witty and quick-moving passages commingled with prolonged stretches of dullness and inertia that felt much more encyclopedic than dramatic. My question evidently touched a nerve. Author and producer were both prickly as wasps at the prospect of Stoppard being held answerable for any perceived doldrums in Coast. Their desperate defense, I surmised, was to treat the very idea that he bore any responsibility as unacceptable, a kind of theatrical thought crime.
At 2 hours and 10 minutes, Leopoldstadt is no marathon but it does occupy us for more than an hour with dense and detailed family information we can’t possibly follow, and this information turns out to be unnecessary to the action’s development, climax, or conclusion. If you strain to follow it, as I did, you end up confused, or feeling foolish for the wasted effort, and that weakens the impact of the play’s ending. The wrenching final scene with Leo features a litany of death, with a cousin reciting name after name of family members murdered by the Nazis. This ought to be flat out heartbreaking but instead it feels anomalously hortatory and emotionally strained—in part because all the big, summary reflections about what has happened have been voiced by characters we only just met and, so, don’t care about.
A writer of Stoppard’s stature has earned the right to buck convention, and his own past practices too, however he likes and ask us to look for artistic merit in it. Having done that, we who have followed him closely through all his stages have also earned the right to hope that the full magic of his signature juggling act—dazzling, entertaining, and educating us all at once—might some day return.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard directed by Patrick Marber