Arielle Angel: Hello and welcome back to On the Nose. I’m your host today, Editor in Chief Arielle Angel, joined by Senior Editor, Ari Brostoff, and today we have two wonderful guests, both dramaturgs. 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 Theatre and Gender, and a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, and Gabrielle Hoyt is a dramaturg, writer, and director who is pursuing her MFA at Yale. And I’m really excited to talk today about Leopoldstadt, Tom Stoppard’s new play which premiered in the UK in 2020, won an Olivier Award. It has been a great success, selling out night after night on Broadway. Ari and I saw the previews together, which was right around the High Holidays, so late September, and so we’re going to talk about it today. I know that I had some strong feelings when I saw it, so I’m excited to talk about it. Alisa, why don’t we start with you? Why don’t you tell us a little bit about this play?
Alisa Solomon: So Tom Stoppard, whom I’m sure listeners are familiar with from probably his first major hit, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead 50 years ago, so he’s been a leading British playwright for a long time, highly successful and lauded with not just an Olivier Award for Leopoldstadt but for other plays, and so forth. And this play is being lauded as his most personal play because it deals with a Jewish family over several generations, in this instance running from 1899 to 1955.
Stoppard learned pretty late in his life, when he was almost 60 years old, about his own family background. He was born in Czechoslovakia. His father was a doctor working for a multinational company, and as Hitler was taking power, the company sent the family and other Jewish employees to some of their various outposts–in this instance, to Singapore. And Stoppard was 18 months old at the time, he had an older brother. Then, of course, the war in the Pacific was heating up, and he and his mother and brother went to India. Their father was supposed to follow, but the father’s ship was bombed, and the father was killed. His mom married a British officer named Stoppard, and they moved to England. Tom was eight at the time, took the name Stoppard, and they joined the Church of England and he became a full British patriot, a conservative one at that, and didn’t really look into his background ever. Something his mother didn’t talk about.
But he learned about it when he was about 60. He learned that his entire family was not only Jewish, but had mostly perished in the Holocaust, most at Auschwitz. And that is the impetus, his biographer Hermione Lee tells us, for writing Leopoldstadt, though it’s set in Vienna, not in Czechoslovakia, by a much more culturally engaged family than his, a family that had personal relationships to Freud Schnitzler, Klimt, and other major cultural figures.
AA: And we’re being told that this is his last play.
AS: Well so he said at some point, but now he’s walked that back. But it has been part of the fanfare. Absolutely. So the play follows this family from this high life of 1899, 1900, to the rise of fascism. The post-World War I period rise of fascism in a scene in 1924, then to Hitler’s annexation of Austria and Kristallnacht in a scene in 1939, and then a scene after the war in 1955. And it’s a big, sumptuous play with a cast of–I haven’t counted–but dozens, beautiful scenery.
AA: Amazing costumes.
AS: Amazing costumes.
AA: Really great acting, a really, really wonderful production, for a play that I personally feel extremely underwhelmed by. I absolutely hated it. Gabrielle, is there anything you want to add to that description?
Gabrielle Hoyt: Yeah. I think it’s worth mentioning, too, that this play is also highly multigenerational, and as Elise was mentioning, it’s epic in scale, crossing decades and decades of European history. But it’s also doing so very intentionally, drawing a line from great-parents, to grandparents to parents to children, and kind of having this funnel effect where, at the beginning, the stage is full of a very alive, happy, prosperous Jewish family, and at the end, we are left with only three surviving members. So that is also, I think, how the play is structured to show us as we lose the status of this family and also begin losing their members, increasingly tragically.
AS: And the stage itself is stripped down in a parallel way. So, the chandeliers, the gilt frames, the brocade upholstery, all of that stuff that we see in the first scenes are entirely gone by the last scene.
AA: I think by way of background, probably, we should talk a little bit about the last scene, which is the confrontation between the family member who is a survivor of Auschwitz–he’s the only survivor who was in Vienna before the war– confronting Leopold-now-Leonard Chamberlain, about the fact of his disaffiliation with his history, the forgetting of his history, as Elisa wrote in her review. This is the scene for which the play was written, and I think Jesse Green says something like that it’s sort of a play that balances on a point. and the point comes at the very, very end. And I wondered a lot–and I think a lot of people did, it came up in a lot of the reviews–this moment of confrontation is sort of a strange one, because it presumes, on some level, that the audience themselves has forgotten and not just this particular character. A lot of people have written about the way dramatic irony functions in the play, that everybody knows that this knock is coming during Kristallnacht, that this knock is coming at the door, that the only people who can’t see it are the Merzes themselves, the family, and perhaps Stoppard, who seems to be encountering this for the first time. So I maybe wanted to talk a little bit about that last scene and also to ask: Who is this play for?
AS: I mean, that’s the exact question I asked in my piece, because I really wondered about it as well. So yes, Leonard Chamberlain, once Leopold Rosenbaum, I think, has come to Vienna. He’s a successful, young author in Britain, and he meets these relatives for the first time who are appalled by his blithe ignorance, really, of his background and his entire lack of interest, and his kind of happy-go-lucky way of being in the world without any regard for his ancestry, or legacy, or any of that. And his, let’s just say cousin, in the general sense, not necessarily a literal, first cousin–anyway, his cousin, who survived Auschwitz, confronts him and accuses him of living without history and saying that, you know, “you cast no shadow behind you,” and really grills him about this, while Leonard is delivering a tearful speech about how much he loves England, and echoing words that Stoppard himself had used about his own love for England–you know, Shakespeare and cricket and the Queen, and so forth.
And while yes, irony is operating in a really important way in the sense that we all know the knock on the door is coming, and what it means, and what the outcome is, I think there’s a further irony in this last scene that hasn’t been noted as widely. And that’s an irony in Leonard’s speech, which is this sunny, patriotic speech at a time when it’s very hard to express that kind of patriotism about Britain–even for Stoppard, who was a Thatcherite, once upon a time–because of Brexit, because of the refusal of Britain to admit refugees in recent years. And Stoppard is not only very aware of that but cares a lot about it. And so, I think that there’s a kind of double whammy here in the critique that’s launched at Leonard. There’s the one coming from his cousin in 1955, but then there’s the one that supplied from the ironic distance of 2020 when the play began, or now in New York in 2022, when we see just how hollow his love of England really is,
Ari Brostoff: I just wanted to try to connect Arielle’s question of “Who is this play for?” to Alisa’s reading and tell the rest of you something that Arielle and I were talking about on the train after we saw the show, where I feel like I had a little bit of a lightbulb go off for me, which is maybe the play just makes much more sense if it’s understood as being for British people. Because it’s true that in the UK, there is a kind of repression of Jewishness that exists, culturally, in a way that it doesn’t in the US, and Stoppard’s own journey from total ignorance of his family’s story to finding it out is really quite dramatic and striking. Not that it couldn’t happen in the US, but I don’t think it feels paradigmatic in the US. Certainly not at this point, maybe 30 years earlier. But I think that kind of total assimilation and the tea-and-crumpets version of Englishness–like not just Britishness but Englishness–that Elisa was talking about in that scene, I don’t think there’s really like an American analog to it because assimilation patterns are key, our relationships to historical memory are different here. So it didn’t make me like the play more, but it made it a little bit more explicable to me how it could have been such a hit to begin with. But of course, that still raises the question of what it means when this cultural product crosses the Atlantic and is still a hit, and I don’t really have an answer to that other than I feel like what Americans want is a fancy, high-production-value Tom Stoppard play.
AS: Yeah, but I have a slightly different response to that. I mean, I think you’re absolutely right, Ari, that this plays very differently for a British audience than for a US one. And in fact, a British Jewish friend and colleague, who has been living in the States for a long time, sent me an email saying he appreciated my review and saying that he knows that this felt very different for British audiences than US ones. I’ve found that much younger friends who aren’t awash in the Jewish cultural bubble that is one of the bubbles I traffic in, and also non-Jewish friends even of my age, who are very aware of history, are having a much different kind of response to it than I had and not finding it so cliched. And part of the reason is, and I think this is one of the strong points of the play, is that it shows the love and pleasure and life of a Jewish family in pre-Holocaust Europe. And to the extent that people outside of our milieu learn about European Jewish history, it’s only Auschwitz. It maybe comes as news to people that there were Jewish families hobnobbing with Schnitzler and Klimt and having a lot of joy and love around the Seder table and a Christmas table.
GH: Yeah, Alisa, I completely agree with you that one of the play’s strongest points is that portrayal of Jewish joy, and specifically pre-World War II and even pre-World War I European Jewish existence. There’s a great article by Clint Smith that just came out in The Atlantic about German Holocaust memorials, specifically discussing how, certainly in Europe, it’s as if Jews only began to exist once they began to be killed in the Holocaust, in terms of that collective memory. So I think that’s right on the nose, so to speak. I also think that in terms of what’s making this place so successful, I think there is also a real dream of how assimilation functions in this play. And that even though we see that dream fall apart, there is still this moment where you can assimilate so far–and we see it at the end with Leonard–that you can assimilate so far that you, and your children especially, can actually not even know that you’re Jewish. That’s how deep you can get into a different culture. And I think that hunger for assimilation has characterized so much of the American Jewish experience and that it’s at play in a specifically American Jewish response to this play.
AA: I think that yes, there is this exploration of a Jewish family and Jewish joy before the Holocaust, and there’s something really sumptuous and lush about it. And at the same time, Alisa says, it feels assembled from book learning to a certain extent. I mean, there’s a lot of reading going on, there’s a lot of pulling from different historical occurrences, like the Klimt painting that later is stolen, and that becomes part of the plot in the latter part, but first, we see Klimt painting the portrait. It’s like, there’s a way in which all of these things are being grabbed from stories that populate the post-Holocaust scene and transposed into the past and reassembled. And there’s a frustration for me there because I think, actually, it would be really interesting to stay with a play in those moments, for example, to know, on some level that there’s something coming, but to have a play that stays there and actually allows us to be in that pre-moment.
Or, on the other hand, a play that helps us do something right now, and I think one of its worst qualities is that it doesn’t say that much about the present. I mean, I see Alisa’s point in terms of what it’s saying about this kind of rethinking of British nationalist idealism. And I definitely see that. But in terms of what it says about Jewishness in the present, it actually doesn’t have anything to say about Jewishness in the present, in my opinion. It doesn’t actually explore, in any real way, what it means to sort through this legacy. It merely reproduces it. And just to put a really fine point on it for those who haven’t seen the play, it ends, literally, with a kind of recitation of ways that people died in the Holocaust. The name, Auschwitz, Auschwitz, death march, suicide, Auschwitz, Auschwitz, Auschwitz, something like this. And frankly, I mean, I don’t see how those words don’t just swallow up the entire play on a certain level. So I personally felt frustrated. I see the things that there are to admire about being in those other time periods, and I just wish that we had either stayed there or moved really far forward.
AS:: I had the feeling at the end, like: Why didn’t the play start in the last scene? Like that would be another way to think about it.
AA:: Yes. Me too.
AS:: Like okay, so what happens to Leonard now? Now Leonard has this information, he’s being challenged about his failure and disregard for all of it. What’s he gonna do with it now?
AA:: Right? Does he become Jewish? Like how does he understand himself as an English person, as a Jew, as a political actor, etc.?
GH: I do think, though, that the reason that it is hitting with audiences is because of how well-known Tom Stoppard is and because of how strongly the publicity for the play has really emphasized how close this is to his story. The kind of metanarrative that I think is being really strongly pushed is this idea that Leonard doesn’t necessarily remember, but Tom Stoppard does. Now he’s telling the stories, and we as an audience are repurposing and kind of completing the circle.
AS: I agree entirely, but I think it’s a really dissatisfying answer. So he finds out all this stuff, and so he does some research and writes the play.
GH: His Jewish play.
AS: Yes, he calls it his Jewish play. In a way, I feel a little ambivalent about complaining in this way because it’s typical of all of Stoppard’s work. Like, this is the kind of playwright he is. He writes from an emotional distance. He assembles his plays from book learning, it all glides very beautifully, on an intellectual surface. It’s often super engaging and interesting, like the arguments about assimilation and Zionism in the first scenes that are old to me but very concisely, and sharply done. And in the later scenes–and I think this has been very overlooked, and maybe all of the biographical press has done a disservice to ways of engaging the play–there are conversations about the European failures that allowed fascism to rise. And for me at least, they create a kind of cautionary tale. Like a united front against fascism couldn’t happen because the far left and the liberals ate each other alive.
AA: Let’s be honest about who ate who alive.
AS: Yeah, okay. Okay, fair enough. Fair enough, but it creates some openings–or at least I want to look for them–that suggest what the endpoint is when those sorts of things are allowed to happen.
AB: Alisa, can I ask you to explain a phrase in your review that I thought was brilliant? Where you said Stoppard was engaging in a “worn-out anagnorisis?”
AS: Yeah, the anagnorisis.
AS: It’s an Aristotelian term. It means tragic recognition. You know, the moment when they realize, “Oh, no! I killed my father and fucked my mother? Oh, my God!” [laughs] And here, the knock on the door is coming, and I think it’s mostly Herman, the most assimilated of the characters in the Merz family, who’s denying the–I wouldn’t quite say existence but the impact and power of antisemitism. I think he’s the one who comes to recognize that, no matter his conversion to Catholicism, his success as a businessman, his marrying a Catholic woman, his being wealthy and being able to commission Klimt to paint a portrait of his wife, his recognition that none of this protects him against the violent antisemitism of the Third Reich, that’s his tragic recognition.
GH: And I think the idea of revelation is so crucial in this play. It brings to mind a quote that Stoppard’s been bringing up when he does interviews around this play, which is–he says of his mother, who fled Europe, assimilated, and gave up her Jewish identity in England after her second marriage, he said something to the effect of, “She was only Jewish once Hitler made her Jewish.” And, of course, so much of this play is springing from Stoppard’s own revelation about his Jewishness and his family’s deaths. And I think it’s so interesting structurally to think of the revelation of Jewish identity as tied to tragedy. In other words, the moment that you realize you’re Jewish is the moment also that you realize that you’re doomed. There’s this line from Merchant of Venice where Shylock says something like, “I never understood the curse of my people till now, I never felt it till now.” And I think about that a lot with this play, and with many plays to do with Judaism and the Holocaust. The idea that Jewishness, death, doom, and the curse of a doomed race, go hand-in-hand with this kind of structure,
AS: Right. And the other thing about Shylock–I think that’s a great insight, Gabrielle, and if I’m remembering the line right, he says it in a way that’s collective as well as individual: “The curse never fell upon our nation till now,” he says.
GH: That’s exactly right. Yes.
AS: I never felt it till now.
AA: I think what’s frustrating about that is to receive this revelation, that I learned from the day I was born and relearned every day since then, as the grandchild of Auschwitz survivors, and to have that regurgitated back to me by someone who had to write this play in order to let it sink in. And I feel a little bit patronized. I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to get too grievence-y about this, or like, I don’t see this as some kind of identity wound, or I’m not counting how many Jews are being played by Jews in this play or something. But I do feel a little bit frustrated by being told this story by Stoppard. And the meta pieces of it don’t make up for that. Like the idea that Leonard is being lambasted in the last scene for being exactly that person doesn’t really make up for that. I mean, it goes back to the question of who is this play for. And I think many people have said that the play is for Stoppard, including you, Alisa. And that does really resonate with me and makes its success all the more vexing.
AS: You know, one of the arguments I advanced in review is that for Jewish audiences, there’s a certain satisfaction in antisemitism simply being pointed at in a lavish Broadway production.
AA: Yeah, I mean we had a bit of a conversation when we were talking through the review, Alisa, which is also the question of like: Is a play like this, that gives us a moment of real assimilation where it seems to be almost complete on some level, and then pulls it back with the Anschluss and the annexation of Austria and Kristallnacht and the deportation to Auschwitz...is this inherently Zionist just to depict with these exact beats? I know, Alisa, you are not sure that it is. But I do feel on a certain level that the characters who are suspicious of Zionism in this play are wrong. And there’s no other way to read the Holocaust, that these characters who feel at home where they are wrong in this instance. And I don’t think necessarily that Stoppard is bringing that to the play, but I do wonder what it means to present it almost like an omniscient, almost like a neutral story to audiences that contain a lot of Jews. As you said, Alisa, people were kind of singing along with the prayer–and in ours as well. What they’re taking away from it and what they’re rehearsing when they see it, even as distinct from what Stoppard was writing toward,
AS: But here’s why I disagree with you somewhat. Not entirely. But for two reasons. One is that we aren’t presented with Zionism as the only alternative. The play also gives us somebody who came to New York and became a psychiatrist and seems to be having a nice life. And somebody who went to England and is having, in a way, too nice of a life. And we also hear debate, at a certain point, about other countries closing their doors to Jewish refugees. So we know that those alternatives exist and matter and that there was a failure on the part of these countries. The other reason I disagree is because of a foil for this play that I write about, namely Joshua Harmon’s A Prayer for the French Republic, a play that really does put forth Zionism as the one-and-only solution to antisemitism in such a stark and tendentious and annoying way that Stoppard really shines in contrast.
AA: Yeah, I don’t disagree with any of that. And again, I don’t think it was his intention. I think the question is: How are Jewish audiences receiving this? I mean, in terms of being able to rehearse the moment of the Holocaust, what are people doing with those feelings? Why do they want to rehearse that? And what is the message? And I don’t know, I think that the burden is on a play like this to really answer that question within the text of the play, which is something that of course, Stoppard either doesn’t know or isn’t thinking about, because he had to ask Fran Liebowitz what a bris was, you know? I mean, he’s not in Jewish life. He’s not in a contemporary discourse about Holocaust memory. And again, it’s like, on the one hand, I’m sort of like, “Okay, fine. That’s not what he’s doing. He is trying to explore this moment in the past.” And on the other hand, I’m sort of like, “Well, if you’re not part of the solution, right now...” I mean, not that this all has to be instrumentalized or something. But in terms of like, if you’re not helping us think through where we’re going, or even in a less partisan sense, just dealing with some of the nowness, some of the muck of now, in this kind of question, then what exactly are you doing?
AS: Yeah. But you’re kind of layering that question onto a presumption of what audience members are projecting onto the play, that the play itself doesn’t really directly do, I don’t think.
AB: I’m somewhat inclined to agree with you, Alisa, because it seems to me that Stoppard, in his kind of arch-Britishness, that is too much of an ironist to really have much of a national allegiance besides the one to Britain itself, that clothes itself as a non-nationalistic nationalism. And I think there’s a version of this that you see in some of his older work, where he’s working in the mode of like, high, post-Cold War irony, and it’s all about the almost comical failure of the utopian projects of the 20th century. I imagine that he would turn up his nose a little bit at Zionism, almost in the way that he turns up his nose at the hubris of the Russian Revolution or something. And that doesn’t make him an anti-Zionist any more than it makes him a Zionist, but it also doesn’t make him or the play inherently Zionist, I don’t think. I think it makes it deeply apolitical in a way that slides toward a kind of barren centrism or something. And then again, going back to that speech, that Leonard gives us the end–the tea-and-crumpets speech–there is a way that, I think, as Alisa wrote in the review, that he’s maybe satirizing his own inclinations there, which is why I do think that that’s a really interesting moment.
GH: I think that your noting of Stoppard as a high ironist is really key to our differing understandings of this moment and of the play’s point of view. Because to clarify, the conversation we’re talking about is quite brief. It happens in the first scene, if I’m remembering correctly, as a lot of other side conversations are happening, and two of the men are discussing, essentially, “That Herzl and his crazy ideas.” And it’s this moment of saying to yourself, “I know better,” it’s this pretty classic, tragic irony. But I think the thing about irony is that it is double-edged, and it sets up a hierarchy between what’s being said and then a deeper truth that’s being gestured at. And the deeper truth that’s being gestured at is the Holocaust and its links to the founding of Israel. And so, regardless of what Stoppard’s political stances there, which we can only guess at, I do think that there’s a way that Israel is being posited as an answer to a question, even if that question is not central to the political project of the play,
AS: Right. I mean, historically, it was posited as an answer to the question, which is why these men are debating it. But I think in the biography of Stoppard, Hermione Lee basically tells us that Stoppard has, like Ari was saying, he’s not a Zionist or anti-Zionist, he’s just not interested. And this is one of the many ways he’s distinct from playwrights of his generation or the generation after in England. Like, David Hare wrote a play, Via Dolorosa, about Israel and Palestine. Not one that I admire much. But you know, nonetheless, went there and interviewed a whole bunch of people and created this play. Caryl Churchill wrote Seven Jewish Children after one of the attacks on Gaza. But the point is, this is a matter that British playwrights have taken up that Stoppard has shown zero interest in.
AA: Gabrielle, I do want to give you the chance to talk about the anti-Nazi plays of the period and the connection that you see between Leopoldstadt and those plays.
GH: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you, Arielle. So, when we talk about the period, what I’m talking about, at least, is the 1930s. And the reason that I’m really interested in this parallel is because of this myth, which has, of course, been punctured again and again, of the US as relatively ignorant and certainly innocent of the massacre of European Jewry and other marginalized groups in Europe within the 1930s and into the 40s. And part of the evidence against it, at least to me, is this series of anti-Nazi plays that go up on Broadway–so this is mass culture, this is not going up in Yiddish theaters or Jewish theaters, this is not even going up in downtown experimental theaters. These are a series of Broadway plays from 1933 through 1938, all of which have very eerily similar structures, both to each other and to Leopoldstadt, which is part of why when I read and then saw this play, these plays of the 1930s immediately came to mind.
And essentially, in all of them, they depict a central, Jewish German family. This family is culturally fluent, and they are patriots. A lot of times, the fathers or sons are veterans of World War I. There’s a preponderance of Jewish doctors. So basically, these are exemplary citizens in the way that the characters of Leopoldstadt are exemplary Vienna citizens. And sometimes, these families are so assimilated that the sons and daughters don’t even know that they’re Jewish. And you’ll then have some revelation where this beautiful girl is engaged to a Nazi soldier, finds that she’s Jewish, dies by suicide or just of grief. But we see this exact pattern happen over and over of exemplary, patriotic, German Jewish family–Jewish really in name only–who then are persecuted to the point of extinction by the play’s end.
And these plays were being produced throughout the 1930s, and in general, they were flops. Most of them closed after a week. Some of them made it a full month on Broadway. One of them, Professor Mamlock, did end up touring worldwide and was adapted into a film. But they were theatrical failures to the point that Brooks Atkinson, who was this really influential New York Times critic at the time, bemoaned the fact that it seemed as if plays on Broadway simply could not adequately depict the horror of what was happening in Nazi Germany. And again, he’s bemoaning this all in the 1930s, so before most of the horror that we think of now when we think of the Holocaust has even occurred. And in one of his articles, he talks about wanting a Promethean dramatist who can stir the hearts of theatergoers and thunder Nazism off the stage with the wisdom of the ages, essentially, but he says that maybe this is all just too great a topic for theater. He thinks maybe art can’t depict this, is what he kind of comes to.
So wild to me that this is happening in the 1930s. So before Adorno’s famous adage about poetry after Auschwitz, before any sense of trauma theory, which deals with how language can or cannot depict the Holocaust and other traumas. But to me, it’s relevant because Stoppard is a Promethean dramatist in terms of his scope, his ambitions, his longevity, the topics that he takes on. And so I wonder about this play’s resemblance to these 1930s dramas that, whatever their political project was, they failed. Whatever their aesthetic project was, it seems, they also failed. So what is different in us, in audiences, in theater? Because this play is certainly succeeding commercially.
AS: That’s so interesting, and it raises two questions that I have for you. One is, it sounds like these plays, depending how late into the 30s they went, were happening at the same time as the very public rise of American Nazis. I mean, there was that giant American Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden in the late 30s, which was not a flop. And so, you know, these plays were being performed alongside other public spectacles from a very different point of view. And the other thing–this is sort of leaping ahead some decades–is I wonder if any of you read about the–I think now canceled–plans for a London production of Romeo and Juliet, which was precisely going to have Nazi Romeo and Jewish Juliet. And also, you know, maybe those plays in the 30s weren’t as well written as Stoppard’s plays, there’s always that.
GH: The ones that I have read are indeed bad.
AS: [Laughs] I just had a feeling.
AA: But I do have a question. I mean, that question still stands and is one that I have actually written about a lot, which is just about the question of representations of the Holocaust. I mean, are there representations that people really love on the stage?
AS: I love–or at least, I don’t know if I still love it because I saw it 30 years ago. Joshua Sobol’s play, Ghetto. It’s a play about a theater company in the Vilna ghetto that actually existed. And so it has all of these layers of irony and distancing about plays within the play, and Judenrat, and all of that. And it shows the life and the creative life of Jews in the ghetto, trying to resist through their cultural expression in other ways. When it premiered in New York, it was immediately denounced in the New York Times, by first Frank Rich and then with a big Sunday piece by Eli Wiesel, both of them accusing the play of trivializing the Holocaust–you know, one of those ready-made phrases that shuts down all conversation about things. But I remember it as a very powerful, provocative–in a good way–play about the lives of Vilna Jews rounded up into this ghetto.
AA: The thing that came to mind, I thought about Paula Vogel’s Indecent. And actually like–
AS: Yes, also.
AA: I really love that play. And also, I didn’t know anything about it going in. So when that jump from 1900 to 19-whatever, 38 happens, I was basically just sitting there, like, “Oh, fuck, here we go.” And I love that play, and there’s a lot that I love about it, and yet, I did feel frustrated, in hindsight, or like manipulated in hindsight, by that jump on some level. Because basically, for those who haven’t seen it, it’s about the Sholem Asch play God of Vengeance, which is a Yiddish play that actually contained a lesbian love scene. I mean, it was about, essentially, a brothel, kind of like upstairs-downstairs in the weirdest way, where there’s a brothel downstairs, and the guy who runs it, his daughter falls in love with one of the prostitutes. It was banned and then performed in the United States in the Yiddish theater, and the Jewish community itself had it pressed for the cast to be arrested under obscenity laws. But in the play, which is something that I don’t think is really part of the true story, there’s a character who is a Yiddish guy who becomes devoted to the play and to Sholem Asch. And because of the obscenity trial, and because Asch leaves off of the play, he returns to Eastern Europe, where he ends up performing the play in the ghetto, they keep losing cast members, and this sort of thing. And there’s a very interesting last scene where a young person comes to visit Sholem Asch, and he’s talking about how: What does his writing mean when there’s no Yiddish speakers left? And kind of doubting his whole approach to everything. But basically, I wondered what would happen if that Holocaust part just wasn’t there. Like, it isn’t really a part of the story.
AS: But it was, actually. I mean, that character, that stage manager character–Lemml, is that his name?
AA: Lemml. Yeah, Lemml.
AS: I mean, he’s an invention. But it is actually a fact that Got fun Nekomeh was performed in either one of the ghettos or, I think, a concentration camp. I mean, it did happen.
AA: Am I inflicting my intergenerational trauma in this process? I’m basically like “Stop talking about the Holocaust because I don’t want to hear about it anymore.”
AB: I think what I’m hearing you say is something you were saying after we saw the Stoppard play, which is about the problem of dramatic irony in depictions of the Holocaust on stage, which I think is a broader claim but the same concept as going back to Alisa’s “worn-out anagnorisis” line. Basically, that if theater, in particular, more than film or novel, let’s say, tends to rely on dramatic irony, on the characters not knowing what’s coming even as the audience does, as a central technique, then is there a way that when the tragic surprise for the characters is the arrival of the Nazis, that does get worn out easily? And I mean, clearly, that’s not going to be the case in every single work of Holocaust-related theater. But I did think that was a fascinating point.
GH: We’re also talking around one of my favorite terms and a trend that’s really prevalent in conversations specifically around Yiddish works, which is this idea of backshadowing, of seeing the future shadowed onto the past. I’m sure that Alisa would have a lot to say about how this comes into play when we talk about the work of Sholem Aleichem, for example. But I think that backshadowing is so pervasive around just this topic, and it’s why it makes that kind of “spoiler alert: Holocaust” almost obligatory. It goes back to your question at the beginning, Arielle, of why couldn’t we have stayed in the past in the joy. Why did we have to jump so far into the dystopian past? I would be really interested in a play that depicted early 20th-century European Jewish life without either overt or implicit foreshadowing or depictions of the Holocaust. Because I think audiences–this is just a hunch–I think audiences might have a really hard time with it. Because that impulse to backshadow is so strong, even my reading Brooks Atkinson and reading what he’s saying about the horror of Nazism in the 30s and thinking, “Oh, you don’t even know, man.”
AS: So I’m visiting my mom right now in a suburb of Chicago. And one of my favorite things to do when I visit my mom is to randomly pull off the shelf a volume, any volume, of a Jewish Encyclopedia that her father, who was a Talmudic scholar, had purchased that was published around 1900. And it’s so much fun to read because Herzl isn’t even an entry in this encyclopedia. Hitler isn’t an entry in this encyclopedia.
AA: So, a wide-open future.
AS: Yes, it’s a wide-open future. But also, in the sense of what Gabrielle was just talking about, it’s a wide-open past.
AS: It’s just really interesting to read that past without the shadow of the Holocaust over it. I mean, of course, that’s in my mind. It’s inescapable. But it’s just a really cool thing.
AA: Well, I think that’s a good place to stop. Thank you all for talking about Leopoldstadt with us today. This has been On the Nose. If you liked it, share it. Leave us a review. As always, subscribe to Jewish Currents, visit JewishCurrents.org, and read Alisa’s wonderful review of Leopoldstadt. Thank you, Alisa and Gabrielle, for joining Ari and I.