Attention Must Be Paid

Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt expects us to shed fresh tears at a worn out conclusion.

Alisa Solomon
November 18, 2022

At the Passover table in Leopoldstadt.

Joan Marcus

When family dramas need to bring far-flung relatives together to squabble and hurl resentments, there’s nothing so handy as a Christmas scene or, when the relatives are Jewish, a Passover seder. Leopoldstadt, Tom Stoppard’s epic play following an Austrian Jewish family from 1899 to 1955 in a swift 140 minutes, features both. The extended Merz clan—assimilated, intermarried, well-to-do folks, living the cultural highlife of fin-de-siècle Vienna—gathers in early scenes at the same long table to celebrate, in turn, the birth of Jesus and the flight from Egypt. Here, significantly, the conflicts aren’t interpersonal. Though some of the adults argue politics—the men debate the limits of assimilation and a preposterous new book proposing a Jewish homeland by a fellow Austrian named Herzl—the tone is steadily genial. Rather, the tension, played mostly for laughs, pits ambient Austrian Christianity against attenuating Jewishness. When one child mistakenly places a Star of David atop the Christmas tree, Grandma is resigned. “Poor boy,” she says, “baptized and circumcised in the same week, what can you expect?” The seder, for its part, segues into a jubilant Viennese waltz.

As the years pass, the comic clash and the historical stakes intensify in style and substance. In a downright farcical scene set in 1924, a banker arriving for a business transaction is mistaken for the mohel the family awaits for the circumcision of a newborn son. Preparing for a smoke, the banker requests—to the parents’ horror (and my rolling eyes)—a cigar cutter. By 1939, any trace of humor vanishes with the knock on the door we have all been waiting for. Even the famous Stoppardian wit can be trampled by stormtroopers.

This tonal shift, according to exuberant advance press and daily reviews alike, makes Leopoldstadt the most “emotional” work ever by Britain’s most decorated living playwright (for starters: 18 Broadway productions, four Tonys, and three Olivier awards for best play; a fistful of honorary doctorates; a knighthood). Critics agreed that audiences long delighted by the highbrow hijinks of works like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Travesties, Arcadia, Coast of Utopia, and The Hard Problem could now expect to have their kishkes twisted and hearts rent by what is being sold as Stoppard’s most personal play.

One preview feature after another (drawing heavily on Hermione Lee’s recent rigorous and affectionate biography of Stoppard) invited prospective audiences to view Leopoldstadt through the astonishing tale of the playwright’s late reckoning with his background. Born Tomáš Sträussler in Zlín, Czechoslovakia, he was 18 months old in 1939 when his parents fled with him and his older brother to Singapore, where the multinational manufacturer his father worked for as a doctor had an outpost. As Japan’s offensive intensified, his mother, Marta, and her boys headed for India in 1942; his father, meant to follow soon after, was killed when his ship was bombed. Living in Darjeeling, where the boys attended an English school, Marta met and married a British officer named Ken Stoppard, and in 1946, the family moved to Derbyshire and joined the Church of England. Tom was eight. He assumed his stepfather’s name and cheerfully adopted his nationality, coming quickly to love cricket, the queen, and Shakespeare, while Marta took on the nickname Bobby and never spoke about her past. As Stoppard achieved fame, his only nod to his forgotten childhood was to refer to himself as—in a phrase bespeaking his signature winking cleverness—a “bounced Czech.”

Not until 1993, when a relative came to meet Stoppard during a lunch break from rehearsals of Arcadia, did the playwright learn that his family was Jewish and that almost all of them had perished in the Holocaust, most at Auschwitz. Stoppard was stunned, Hermione Lee writes: “It was as if his past was beginning, as he neared sixty, to be reinvented in his mind.” With twinges of self-reproach—and after a 1994 meeting in Prague with another relative who filled in more of the story—Stoppard began to dig into his background. He recounts much of this experience in his 1999 essay, “On Turning Out to Be Jewish” (a shortened version is posted on Leopoldstadt’s website), but it wasn’t until two decades later that he began to write what he has called—in a phrase that sounds like he’s patting it on the head—“my Jewish play.” It premiered in London in 2020 and opened on Broadway in October.

Though ignited by his personal discovery, Leopoldstadt is not about Stoppard’s own family. Rather, as if wanting to place his protagonists as high up as possible so that they would have the farthest to fall—and to convey the decimation not just of people but also of a civilization—he sets the play in that sumptuous Viennese parlor and gives Merz family members personal relationships with Freud, Mahler, Klimt, and the playwright Arthur Schnitzler. (Stoppard has adapted some Schnitzler plays over the years and borrows from him structurally here in scenes that involve an extramarital affair.) The hubbub of simultaneous conversations and activity in the play’s opening Christmas scene suggest that it’s the collective and the context that matter here, more than the arcs of any individual characters; the canvas keeps expanding as the play’s subsequent four acts touch down in 1900, 1924, 1938, and 1955. Stoppard thus sacrifices the conventional hooks where we might emotionally fasten, focusing instead on the sweep of desolation as the family dwindles and declines with the First World War, Hitler’s annexation of Austria, and the Final Solution.

The one character who comes to the foreground is Hermann, a self-assured factory owner who has converted to Catholicism. We watch the air leak out of him over the years as he realizes, with a mounting sense of betrayal (greater than that of his wife’s infidelity), the impossibility of his full belonging to the Austria he loves. First comes the social antisemitism that will block his acceptance into a posh club, later a business associate’s cheerful admission of his support for a right-wing pro-German party, and finally—well, we know where it is going even before brownshirts storm into the Merz parlor on Kristallnacht and announce, “You’re not at home now.”

Precisely because we know where it’s going, Hermann, as our primary vector of identification, proves frustrating. He is shocked, shocked! But how can we possibly be shaken by that same thunderbolt given all that has been written and recounted and taught and memorialized and painted and composed and filmed and performed—including on Broadway—over the past 80 years? An audience typically knows the tragic fate that a hero does not see coming, but Hermann’s is a worn-out anagnorisis, a tragic recognition that has become threadbare with overuse.

This disappointment was compounded in the play’s climactic final scene when, after the war, three cousins meet in the old family parlor, now a vacant shell long bereft of its crystal chandelier, brocade upholstery, and the chortles of carefree children. We learn that Rosa, 62, whom we last saw at the 1924 bris on a visit from New York, became a psychoanalyst; she has returned to Vienna to try to retrieve the looted Klimt portrait of her uncle’s sister-in-law (parallel to the actual case of the disputed “Woman in Gold”). Nathan, 31, survived Auschwitz and is living in Vienna and working as a math professor. The third cousin—Stoppard’s stand-in—is Leonard Chamberlain (né Leopold Rosenbaum), a 24-year-old British author visiting Vienna for a book event, who was taken to London as a child when his widowed mother married an English journalist (bequeathing a name that evokes the UK prime minister best remembered for appeasing Hitler); he is now learning about his family for the first time.

We last saw the two men on Kristallnacht, a memory Leonard has repressed until—in another kind of retrieval—Nathan evokes the event for him and he bursts out crying as the characters from the 1900 seder populate the scene, seven-year-old Rosa bawling because she can’t remember where she hid the afikoman. A seder can’t be concluded without it and, though the adults scramble to substitute a different piece of matzo, I’m disposed to read the absent afikoman as suggesting that the Merzes’ story—the Jewish story—has not come to an end. Past and present can exist simultaneously in the theater as in no other medium, and in the last moments of Leopoldstadt, the co-existence of the vibrant family of 1900 and its wan postwar remnant offers an image of immeasurable loss as well as the promise of collective remembrance. The play concludes as Nathan and Rosa list off the deaths of the relatives who once crowded the stage: suicide, transport, death march, Auschwitz, Auschwitz, Auschwitz.

Was I cynical and heartless, I worried, as I found myself squirming at how rote this roll-call sounded, while people around me sniffled? But it all seemed so detached. Lee’s biography describes the voluminous research Stoppard had to do to prepare Leopoldstadt; just as he dove into subjects like quantum physics, 19th-century Russian revolutionaries, and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle for earlier plays, for this one, he researched Judaism, the Hapsburgs, the Holocaust, British policy in Palestine, and Riemann’s Hypothesis (an obsession of a mathematician character and the basis, along with the string game of cat’s cradle, of a vague metaphor for, maybe, an abstract order in the universe, unperturbed by the vagaries of history). Indeed, the play felt inorganic, like it had been assembled from book-learning. And, in a way, it felt degrading to be asked to view the painful, familiar history through Leo’s blithe naïveté and to be expected to shed fresh tears. While I couldn’t help but appreciate the deft architecture of the play, the lavish production values, and some fine performances (especially Brandon Uranowitz as Ludwig and his great-nephew Nathan, both mathematicians), the experience left me questioning who the play could possibly be for, other than Stoppard himself: a vehicle for working through his late middle-aged rush of generational grief.

While my question is sincere, audiences have been rendering it materially moot simply by showing up in droves: Leopoldstadt has been selling nearly 1,000 tickets eight times per week, rare for a non-musical play, even one by a writer as acclaimed as Stoppard. Demographic surveys of Broadway audiences don’t tell us how many theatergoers identify as Jewish, but even though some six decades have passed since the director Tyrone Guthrie quipped that without Jews, the theater would “collapse about next Thursday,” common wisdom maintains that Jews still make up a substantial portion of non-tourist theatergoers. In any case, people sitting near me at Leopoldstadt hummed along in muffled tones to the Four Questions in the seder scene (as I couldn’t help doing myself). So, for at least this portion of the audience—for whom Nazi horrors hardly come as news—what work can this play be doing in the present moment?

Stoppard would detest such a query. An admirer of Margaret Thatcher who once described himself as a “timid libertarian,” he was always politically out of step with the “social conscience” British playwrights—the likes of John Arden, Edward Bond, Caryl Churchill, and David Hare, who aligned themselves with the left. Lee ascribes Stoppard’s views, in part, to a deep anti-Soviet, anti-Marxist stance, and an antipathy toward the antidemocratic tendencies of a powerful centralized state, though she shows him becoming somewhat more liberal as he aged, voting Green and Liberal Democrat in recent years. Still he continues to reject the notion that plays should ever serve as ideological platforms. “I believe in art being good art or bad art not relevant art or irrelevant art,” he told one interviewer in 1975. He told another, “I am as square and traditional, let’s say as reactionary, a person as you could hope to meet because I operate on the premise that a theater’s job is to prevent people leaving their seats before the entertainment is over.”

If it seemed glibly contrarian decades ago for Stoppard to deny that art— especially as public an art as theater—is always made and received within a political context, it seems downright disingenuous now. There are two discourses Leopoldstadt unavoidably joins: the turmoil of our own political moment and the dense domain of Holocaust memory and its frequent manipulations.

In the first instance, I suspect that all the press about Stoppard’s shock and self-reproach over his unexplored origins has obscured a more trenchant critique implied in the last play’s last scene. The scene, and the play, reaches its climax when Nathan confronts Leonard about his abiding lack of interest in his heritage: “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.” Viewing Leopoldstadt through the prism of Stoppard’s biography encourages us to read the play as merely his mea culpa, a theatrical gesture of expiation that comes to a head in this exchange.

But more is going on in this scene. What sets Nathan off is not just Leonard’s dismissive attitude toward Nathan’s wartime suffering, but a sunny speech the younger man delivers about embracing his new homeland. As he nonchalantly sips a cup of tea, Leonard declares, “I’m proud to be British, to belong to a nation which is looked up to for . . . fair play and parliament and freedom of everything, asylum for exiles and refugees, the Royal Navy, the royal family . . . Oh, I forgot Shakespeare.” Once reflective of Stoppard’s sincere sentiments, these lines now blare with irony. Stoppard was writing the play in the wake of Brexit, a move he opposed, at a time when Britain, like continental Europe, was slamming its doors on refugees. Leonard’s unexamined colonial optimism has become unsupportable even to Stoppard, now that British patriotism smells foul. Blithe Leonard isn’t just Stoppard in 1955; he’s also all of those in 2022 comfortably indifferent to the dangers of populist nationalism and the crime of denying refuge. Only a few members of the Merz family recognized fascism as it was emerging; Stoppard seems to be asking whether we should pay better attention now.

Indeed, Leopoldstadt took the stage amid a surging clamor of alarms against antisemitism sounding from theaters in London, New York, and elsewhere—as well as, of course, the world outside the theater. To cite just a couple of the most prominent productions: Before Leopoldstadt reopened on the West End after the Covid shutdown, London’s Royal Court theater was doing penance after a scandal over Rare Earth Mettle, a play with a protagonist named Herschel Fink, a greedy, conniving billionaire (not Jewish! claimed the theater). The Royal Court followed up its apology this fall with Jews. In Their Own Words, a piece of documentary theater based on interviews with Brits about antisemitism they have experienced, mostly from the left and the Labour Party under Corbyn. (Reviews, careful not to appear to disregard antisemitism itself, gingerly criticized the play for being undramatic and messily overpacked.) Meanwhile, New York’s Manhattan Theater Club presented Joshua Harmon’s three-hour saga, A Prayer for the French Republic, a cross between a dysfunctional family drama—a Jewish August: Osage County—and a hysterical mailing from the ADL. Set in Paris, the play traces three generations of the Salomon-Benhamou family, intercutting scenes from the 1940s with scenes from the 2010s. In the former, the grandparents sit out the war in their own apartment thanks to a lax Gestapo officer, while two of their three children perish. In the contemporary scenes, a professional couple, their two adult children, and a naive relation from the US argue about moving to Israel to escape Muslim attacks. The clueless American offers knee-jerk defenses of Palestinians, easily dismissed because she is presented as comically callow, while her cousins excuse Israel every abomination and ignore the state’s embrace of authoritarianism in the name of Jewish safety.

Harmon’s Jews live in their own historical bubble, suffering their anxieties as if Jewish plight (and, in Israel, might) has no relationship to the legacies of colonialism, the demands of democracy, the socialism of fools. Regarding antisemitism as an eternal, ahistorical phenomenon, they foreclose any possibility of building common cause with other minorities or even of recognizing where the most serious threats are coming from. When the Salomon-Benhamous sit down at the seder table, the key passage in the Haggadah for them proclaims, “In every age, some rise up to plot our annihilation.” Soon after reciting it, the cast turns downstage to ask, chorally, “Why do they hate us?” They respond with a long litany of irrational, contradictory answers: We are capitalists, communists; we live in their countries, we made our own country. In other words, because of eternal Jew-hatred about which one can do nothing but wall oneself up, armed to the teeth.

Leopoldstadt, whatever its shortcomings, never becomes so vapidly tendentious. The key idea in its seder scene is that Jews forever retain the duty “to retell the story of how we were brought out of Egypt.” The joy and love around that table, absent in Harmon’s play, provide at least a sentimental image of what Jewish survival means to preserve—even if Stoppard, looking only backward, knows little about the expressions of Jewishness that now radiate light despite the shadow of the Shoah.

When Hermann and his brother-in-law Ludwig debate assimilation versus Zionism in Leopoldstadt’s first scene, there’s no one acting as the playwright’s mouthpiece the way there is in A Prayer for the French Republic, in which we are clearly meant to heed the character who announces that Jews must always choose “the suitcase or the coffin,” with Israel as the only safe harbor. On the contrary, post-World War I scenes in Leopoldstadt offer dialogue that points to Europe’s, and later, the allied nations’ many failures—violent suppression of worker movements, the inability of the left and liberals to unite against the fascists, borders closed to fleeing Jews—all of which thwarted potential alternatives to the grim binary of extermination or aliyah. Those failures were not inevitable, and citing them opens a sliver of space in the play for imagining a different course of history, and an alternate future. Still, with “Auschwitz” resounding as the play’s last word, it’s hard not to see Leopoldstadt occupying a spot along a spectrum with Prayer, one that leads into an ideological cul-de-sac: nothing to be done but to keep a wad of cash under the mattress and a suitcase ready. If Prayer insists that Israel is the only protection Jews will ever have, Leopoldstadt points at industrially murderous antisemitism and shrugs with dismay.

Maybe that, alone, is what satisfies some Jewish audiences: the mere representation of the fact that no matter how successful and assimilated the Merzes had become—and, by extension, despite playing to an audience of American Jews at a theater where orchestra tickets cost nearly $400—a Jew is never safe from the world’s oldest hatred. That precept, absent any political, cultural, or religious resistance in alliance with others targeted by white supremacist fascism, offers a respite from the discomfiting charge that white Jews benefit from privilege, while also making no demands on us to analyze and organize. Simply to acknowledge the persistent danger thus seems to provide many audience members with a gratifying night at the theater. The impulse calls to mind the famous line from Death of a Salesman, currently playing a few blocks from Leopoldstadt (and written by another assimilated Jew who penned a Holocaust play late his his career): “Attention must be paid,” demands Linda, speaking about her husband Willy Loman, who has been crushed by the false promises of the American dream. The hortatory line rings with righteous indignation. But whose attention, I always wonder. And then what?

Alisa Solomon is the author of Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, and of Re-Dressing the Canon: Essays on Theater and Gender and a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism.