Stoppard has been called the most
important playwright since Shakespeare. I have not sought out his work because
reviews I've read have suggested to me that Stoppard's work is, as it is often called,
"clever" and "cerebral." He has been influenced by
absurdism, a style that doesn't interest me. Work that is called clever and
cerebral tends to leave me cold. In short, I am no expert on Stoppard and what
I write here is my impression of one play, not an in-depth review.
Also, I saw Leopoldstadt just
once. I have not read, and don't plan to read, the script. Leopoldstadt has
about forty speaking parts. It begins in 1899 and ends in 1955. The play is
over two hours long. I couldn't make out facial details and I could not understand
a good forty percent of the dialogue, especially that spoken by women. I could
not easily differentiate characters. Much of the time, I had only a general
idea of what was transpiring onstage. My comments here are fairly typical of
many reviews, both by professionals and by fans. I agree with much of what the New
Yorker said about Leopoldstadt. Given the number of speaking
parts, and the length of time covered, it was difficult for me, for many amateur
reviewers, and for the New Yorker reviewer not only to follow what was
going on, but also to be moved by what was going on. When you're not really
sure which character is speaking, and when you can't identify the older version
of a previously introduced younger character, it's hard to care about the
I thought that, perhaps, given Stoppard's
reputation for clever and cerebral work, that all these challenges might be
intentional. Perhaps Stoppard does not want to move audiences in a conventional
way. Leopoldstadt makes frequent references to mathematics; the current
poster for the play is a child holding up a cat's cradle, a pattern made with
string. I guess there is some message there that eludes me.
One possible interpretation. During the
play, a character says that elements of a cat's cradle are always in a similar
relationship to each other. The play begins and ends with Jews being persecuted
by non-Jews. Perhaps that is the message. Jews and non-Jews are always in the
same relationship to each other, but periods of persecution wax and wane as
history changes. Of course I could be wrong and that might not be the message that
Stoppard, or the person who designed the play's poster, intended at all.
In any case, given the play's
difficulties, I have to guess that if an unknown playwright wrote the exact
same play, with a few minor tweaks to make it about the Armenian Genocide by
Turks rather than about the Holocaust, it might never have been produced, and
it would certainly not receive the laudatory reviews it has received from some
reviewers. Again, I could be wrong, and I'm totally open to hearing an
alternative point of view.
One of my biggest impressions was this.
Given that my parents are from Eastern Europe and their families lived through
Nazi occupation, I have been exposed to material about Nazi crimes since I was
about five years old. Such material is difficult. When I pick up a book or
watch media about Nazi crimes, I know it is going to be hard for me and I want
to get something from that material that I have not gotten from previous
material. Otherwise, I don't want to be exposed to it.
There are a couple of scenes in Leopoldstadt
that are hard to watch. In the early scenes, a family member challenges an
anti-Semite to a duel, and is humiliated. Later, As the Nazis are coming to
power, family members reveal how naïve they are about their fate. Later, Nazis
enter the family apartment and bully the residents. The Nazis also detail how
they are going to steal the family's business and render this formerly
successful family paupers. And of course, eventually, most of the family
members are killed in Dachau, Auschwitz, and on transports or death marches.
The simple truth is other works have
covered this material and I think have done a better job. I think of The
Pianist, Nazi Billionaires, and multiple memoirs by survivors.
The play opens on a busy scene in 1899
with many characters onstage. They are in an apartment in Vienna. They are all
related. There is a large Christmas tree in the corner. Again, I could not make
out a lot of the dialogue, but I did hear snarky comments about Christianity, Jesus
and, I think, Mary. One character says that Jews who convert are still wet from
baptism, a baptism they underwent insincerely in order to gain wider societal
rights and acceptance. Another says that Jesus was a Jewish boy with an
exaggerated idea of himself, or words to that effect.
These comments are interspersed with
comments about how Jews have been oppressed throughout history and how Jews can
never feel safe among non-Jews. Other characters reject this idea and celebrate
the rights and freedoms that they enjoy.
These scenes did not work for me. Again,
given the distance between my seat and the stage, and also given how the play
works, I could not relate to the characters in any real way. They were little
figures on a distant stage speaking lines that I couldn't place with any given
characterization because I was often not sure who was speaking. No doubt
someone closer to the stage would react differently.
These scenes also didn't work for me
because I don't understand history the way the play seemed, to me, to be
presenting it. I don't understand the Holocaust as the inevitable next link in
a chain in a series of comparable events. I think the Holocaust happened
because of a perfect storm of historical events including WW I, the Versailles
Treaty, the Russian Revolution and mass killings by communists, the Depression,
the Weimer Republic, the rise of scientific racism aka eugenics aka social
I also don't see Vienna's Jews in 1899
as the only suffering or threatened group in a world of non-Jews all of whom
are safe and comfortable and like each other and face no impending mass death.
Many subpopulations in the Austro Hungarian Empire were disenfranchised and
seriously impoverished. Galicia, for example, was actually internationally
famous as a land of poverty and starvation. There were epidemics and famines
that took the lives of a reported 50,000 deaths
a year. The people starving there were largely Christian Polish and
The characters in Leopoldstadt talk
about Jews and political rights. Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II issued the "Edict
of Tolerance" in 1782. This extended religious freedom to Jews. The
Hapsburgs did not abolish serfdom until 1848. The serfs were non-Jewish peasants.
Gustav Mahler, Sigmund Freud, Franz
Kafka, and Tom Stoppard were all born Jewish in what was once Czechoslovakia.
Peasants in that land, some of them whose grandparents were only recently
released from serfdom, were much less likely to become world famous. In other
words, the play's depiction of utterly helpless victimhood as sole and unique
identity is not accurate.
The Russian Empire was about to burst
into diabolical flames and bourgeois and devout Christians there would soon be
dispossessed, tortured, massacred, and marched into camps. Soviet Communism
would kill millions. Exact numbers are debated. And of course the Nazis
crucified Poland, killed handicapped people and Rom, etc etc etc.
I do not mention non-Jewish people's
suffering and death during the time period and in the general geographic region
of the play to diminish the Holocaust. I mention them, rather, because what
struck me as the history lesson of Leopoldstadt – that Jews are uniquely
menaced by non-Jews who are all uniquely menacing and that the Holocaust was
inevitable and preceded by precursors carried out by non-Jews, symbolized by
the Christmas tree in the corner, struck me as simplistic and false.
In scenes, specifically the dueling
scene and the sexual scenes involving the German officer, depicting Jews as
helpless victims and non-Jews as powerful, heartless, Snidely Whiplash
persecutors, I thought of a couple of things.
I thought of a poem
that takes the story of Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar and makes it a story about a Jewish
couple and their Polish servant. In that poem, the non-Jewish servant is the
powerless, victimized one.
I thought of Leon Weliczker Wells who
wrote, that Polish "farmers, who, even considering their low living standards,
couldn't support an entire family, sent their daughters to town to become
servants in the Jewish households. I never knew a Jewish girl to be a servant
in a Polish household, but the reverse was the norm. The gentile maid was
referred to in negative terms as the 'shiksa' (Hebrew for "a vermin like a
cockroach"). There was a repertoire of jokes about these girls. For
example, there was the joke about how Jewish mothers made sure that the
servants were 'clean,' because their sons' first sexual experience was usually
with this girl."
In other words, Leopoldstadt depicts
even wealthy Jews as helpless victims in sexual encounters with non-Jews, who
are contemptuous and heartless. In reality though, in some encounters, it was Jews
who had the upper hand, and the non-Jew who was relatively less powerful. This
reality about life in the Austro-Hungarian Empire does not in any way belittle
the horror of the Holocaust. It just makes the history of Leopoldstadt simplistic
to the point of distortion.
Also, Leopoldstadt mentions only
one cause of tension between Jews and non-Jews: Christianity. In fact, though, middleman
minority issues caused tensions. In Stoppard's natal Czechoslovakia, Czechs and
Slovaks were fighting against domination by larger empires, including Muslim Turks
(in the past) and Germanic Austrians. Nationalists resented Jews for speaking Yiddish
or German, rather than Czech or Slovak. Also the disproportionate role of Jews in
business and industry was a source of tension. These tensions do not excuse
anti-Semitism. They are historical facts, facts that the play ignores. That
Christmas tree in the corner is made to stand for menace, and that is ahistorical.
I saw the play with a friend, and he disagreed
completely with how I read the play. He says that the Christmas tree was there
to show how assimilated the main characters were. I think both his read of the
Christmas tree and my read can be true.
Actions are rushed. A character we may
be expected to care about fights in WW I and loses an arm. He later commits
suicide. Given how little time he had onstage, I never cared about the loss of
his arm or his suicide.
In a weird and perhaps "clever and
cerebral" not to say absurdist plot twist, a Jewish man manipulates his
wife into becoming impregnated by a blond anti-Semite so that the offspring of
this union, whom he will raise as his own, will not suffer anti-Semitism. This
plot twist epitomizes why I don't like "clever" writing. It seems to
me to be more about showing off the writer's complex mind rather than plumbing
A character becomes a Communist and mimes
making a red flag onstage. This communist allegiance is presented as neutral,
if not positive. Again, one thinks about how and why Communism's crimes against
humanity are softened in media while the same approach is not taken in regards
to Nazi crimes. All mass graves are equal, but some mass graves are more equal
The scene where a character challenges a
blond anti-Semite to a duel struck me as more a slice from melodrama. I have to
wonder what impact Stoppard wanted to have with this scene. He makes his Jewish
character appear helpless. During this scene I thought of Franz Boas, "The
Father of American Anthropology." Boas was born in Prussia. He was from a Jewish
family but he was non-observant. Here's an
account of Boas' first duel:
Boas fought his first duel in 1877, when he was nineteen. He was freshly
arrived at the University of Heidelberg, where saber fencing over slights,
known as Mensur, was ingrained in undergraduate culture. And the slight in
question was, indeed, slight: Boas shared the rental payments on his piano with
a classmate, who banged away for hours at a time. The students downstairs
protested, Boas took offense. Words were exchanged, satisfaction demanded.
Three weeks later, he and another student drew swords.
Boas went on to have a great life.
I could go on to how the play's
depiction of Jewish life contrasted with historical facts and memoirs but let's
cut to the final scene. It's 1955 and Leo, Tom Stoppard's stand-in, meets
Nathan, a relative, and an Auschwitz survivor. Nathan is depicted as physically
expressing his interior pain. His clothes are ill fitting and he has many
nervous ticks, for example a bouncing leg. He cries loudly and dramatically
onstage. I didn't feel that Stoppard had earned Nathan's onstage breakdown. The
play did not devote the previous two-plus hours to introducing Nathan to us and
letting us get to know him intimately. He's just the latest character to walk
across a very busy stage.
But that was my reaction. My companion
reacted very differently. So did a theatergoer who posted at the New
York Times website, "The last scene slayed me. I was so
moved I could not even stand up to help give the ovation, and found out what it
is like after two and a half years to sob with a mask on."
During the final scene, Leo mentions
that his mother was killed by the Nazis, during the Nazi bombing on the UK.
Nathan scoffs. It's clear that Nathan assesses Leo's English mother's death as
less worthy of sympathy. Again, this message of the play is one I don't find
worthy. It's especially irksome given that Tom Stoppard, by his own admission,
has lived a charmed life. Stoppard was born in Czechoslovakia. His father was a
doctor who worked for Bata shoes. Jan Antonín Bat'a relocated
Jewish employees in order to protect them. Non-Jewish Bat'a saved Stoppard
when Stoppard was just a toddler. Stoppard's father was killed by the Japanese.
Stoppard's mother remarried and her new husband, a British army major, provided
Stoppard with a comfortable childhood. Stoppard is now 85. He waited a long
time to write a play about his Jewish ancestry. For him to depict a character
deciding that some wartime killings of innocent civilians are less worthy of
sympathy than others didn't work for me. Again, yes, the Holocaust is respected
and taken seriously and it deserves that respect. No one is questioning that
here. But Stoppard has a character scoff at a civilian woman killed by an enemy
bombing. Victims like that deserve sympathy and respect, too.
There was a scene in the play that did
move me. At the end, characters who had earlier moved offstage came back onstage,
again in their turn-of-the-century attire. This scene spoke to me of
resurrection and the immortal soul, in which I do believe. I am a Christian of
the universal salvation variety.
I don't know Tom Stoppard's religious
beliefs. The internet gives me a couple of interesting quotes attributed to
him. " "I don't think of myself as being particularly spiritual. I'm
quite hard-headed in fact, but I have a sense of, with great respect, science
having a long honourable history of self certainty which needs modulating
continually and I'm just very very curious about the unknown" and "Atheism
is a crutch for those who cannot bear the reality of God."
In any case, in a play that references
the Holocaust, to see Jewish characters who had "died" return to "life"
was moving to me.