Tom Stoppard on Leopoldstadt: ‘I think about the Holocaust, it feels like every day’

The playwright has never explored his own Jewish background in his plays. He tells John Nathan why that has changed.


How to define Tom Stoppard? Many would describe him as the greatest living playwright, though his own description is slightly less grand.

“I feel I am a kind of English observer who reads the newspapers,” he says with typical understatement. “I still am,” he adds.

Yet there is another term – Jewish - which it has been possible to apply to Stoppard ever since the lineage to which he had long assumed he was only vaguely attached was revealed in his late-ish middle to be so strong it changed the way he saw himself.

Now for the first time that connection has flared into a play. Called Leopoldstadt it is directed by Patrick Marber who in 2017 directed a revival of Stoppard’s dazzling comedy Travesties. On Saturday, the new play will be performed for the first time in preview before officially opening on February 12.

Set mainly in the first half of the 20th century in Vienna it centres on four generations of two inter-married Jewish, Austrian families who live “at the prosperous end of Viennese bourgeoisie.” Although Marber prefers not to describe this play -  and possibly any other -  as Jewish, this one has a seder, a completely hilarious briss and arguments about assimilation.

“I don’t describe it as autobiographical,” says Stoppard when we meet in a west London members’ club on a morning when rehearsals can manage without him. He is dressed in smart, reassuringly crumpled tweedy attire, and instantly recognisable is that quality that Marber has described as “kingly bonhomie.”

At 82 Stoppard is as eloquent as ever though speaks so softly it is not certain if the recorder used for this interview will separate his voice from the hubbub. Sensing this he sweetly offers to traipse the streets below looking for a quieter venue before it is decided that it might be easier to simply lean in and speak up.

“It’s so far from being the story I lived through,” Stoppard says of his latest work. “It’s a lot to do with being Jewish, knowing you are Jewish, acknowledging you are Jewish, acting like you are Jewish...or not. And that’s the area where I felt I was looking inward rather than outward.”

Stoppard was born not in Austria but Czechoslovakia as Tomas Straussler in 1937. As the Germans invaded their country the family moved to Singapore where there was an outpost of the firm for which his father Eugen worked as a doctor. The Japanese onslaught forced another evacuation, this time to India. But Stoppard, his mother Martha and brother Peter went on ahead. Eugen was killed as he attempted to leave.

Despite all this, Stoppard is often viewed in a way that his English stepfather Kenneth, would have probably approved of – quintessentially English. The extent of Stoppard’s Jewishness, a subject that had long been avoided by his mother, emerged fitfully through a series of revelations. Among those that made the biggest impression was the time a granddaughter of one of his Martha’s four sisters made contact with her English relations and met Stoppard for lunch at the National Theatre in the early 1990s. She drew Stoppard a family tree, the first time his Czech family had been presented to him with names. As he scanned the tree he enquired about the fate of the three aunts he knew nothing about, and other members of his Czech family. The reply was often one word, Auschwitz or the name of a different camp. 

“My grandparents all died at the hands of the Germans,” he wrote in a 1999 article describing the encounter.

The family tree moment is one of two in the new play that represents the author’s own lived experience. It would be a spoiler to say here how it is used. But if its potency on the page is anything to go by, on stage it could be devastating.

So although Leopoldstadt is not autobiographical, there can be no doubt that it is deeply personal. And although one character in Stoppard’s fictional family ends up in England at the age of eight, as did Stoppard, it would be wrong to say that the author has put himself into his latest work in the way he did with Night and Day (1978) which features a journalist who speaks for him, or The Real Thing (1982) with its playwright.

“There is nothing in the other plays which is actually something that happened to me,” he acknowledges. “I went into this play knowing that that is why I am doing it.”

The title is taken from Vienna’s Jewish ghetto. Not that the Merzs live there. Their salubrious apartment is just off the city’s grand Ringstrassee. Rather, the significance of Leopoldstadt is that it symbolises how far the four generations of the play’s families have come.

“My grandfather wore a caftan, my father went to the opera in a top hat, and I have the singers to dinner,” says Hermann, the Merz family head played by Adrian Scarborough in Marber’s production. “We’re the torchbearers of assimilation,” he crows, certain of his position in Austrian bourgeois high society and a city that was the undisputed core of world culture.

His brother-in-law Ludwig (played by Stoppard’s son Ed) is less optimistic. “There isn’t a gentile anywhere who at one moment hasn’t thought ‘Jew’, says Ludwig in one of the play’s heated debates about assimilation – a subject about which Stoppard must surely have an almost unique perspective given how old he was when he began to think of himself as Jewish.

Has this quintessentially English immigrant felt less assimilated since his sense of Jewishness emerged?

“Yes I think that’s true. I never thought of it as assimilation. I just went along with the flow of my mother’s second marriage and my suddenly having a British passport and another name. But I was always to some degree aware that I had come from somewhere else and had been fitted into my English life. One’s otherness became more salient.”

The effect of this emerging identity on Stoppard was a (remove) subtle.  “I just knew things I hadn’t known. And of course, like everybody else, and I think I mean literally everybody else, there are so many undeniably admirable things about the Jewish race and its history, its heroes and heroines, especially culturally and intellectually, that I just shared in a general view of the Jews being a great people and that western civilisation in particular had profited.”

He says this apparently completely unaware that he is one of the heroes of which he speaks. The Jewishness is apparently carried as easily as the brilliance.  Yet the new Jewishness it has brought with it none of the anxiety felt by many of those who have been longer in the job. The talk of antisemitism in the Labour party, for instance, is viewed with objective detachment.

“Significantly I never felt targeted in the arena of antisemitism. I felt like a bystander. I don’t recall a single occasion where I personally have felt that I was being attacked on the grounds of race. Obviously, if I’d lived a Jewish life from childhood there would have been many more opportunities for that to have happened. So it’s impossible to disentangle the psychology of it. But for whatever reason I didn’t feel individually implicated.”

But then there is the Holocaust which did implicate his family, and by extension continues to implicate Stoppard. Leopoldstadt does not avoid it, but nor does it seek to depict it. As a writer’s subject it “stands there as a kind of dare, saying ‘Do you dare get into this?’ And the answer was that I was glad I didn’t have to. I was glad to find a way forward where I didn’t need to be in a camp with my characters.”

Yet there must have been a moment when his relationship to the Shoah changed as his Jewishness emerged. He agrees, and tries to remember when this was.

“There was actually a moment when I understood for the first time that my mother had sisters who were murdered, not to mention her parents and my father’s parents. So [it was] from that day onward. But I’ve been equally thinking about what it felt like from my mother’s point of view, not from mine. Because I had to rethink my mother who had never mentioned that she had sisters apart from one in Argentina, and in fact looking back on all that even now, the very fact that we were constantly reminded of the existence of Aunty Irma in Buenos Aires makes it even more meaningful that the memory of the aunties who died were not kept alive.”

Consequently he thinks more about the Holocaust perhaps more than ever. “I don’t bring it into the conversation but I do think about it, I can’t say every day, but it feels like every day. Just for a moment. Between other things.”

However, it feels like it would be a mistake to describe Stoppard’s new play as a tragedy, not only because it is a brimful of family life but because it has that enlivening quality that since his Hamlet-inspired Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead of 1966 has become known as Stoppardian.

“I’d hate to define it myself,” he says of the adjective. “I know what it is thought to suggest – making different people collide, that is people who are well known for different things,  projected by fiction or fantasy into the same story. That’s part of it."

People, yes. But the collision of ideas, themes and even eras too. Take Arcadia in which Stoppard abuts Classicism with Romanticism, art with nature and the 19th with the 20th century. And language can be Stoppardian too, as in The Invention of Love (1997) in which the poet A E Housman meets his younger self and says “I’m not as young as I was. Whereas you, of course, are.”

For Leopoldstadt there was the new challenge of imbueing his characters with the cadences, rhythms and sensibility of Central European Jews.

“I didn’t make a great effort to check the Jewishness of the dialogue. Occasionally a Jewish formulation might occur to me at a given moment and I would consider that to be a tiny bonus because there was little of that elsewhere. You know, you kind of begin to live in the story with these people around you. I wasn’t brought up in it [ that Jewish sensibility] so I didn’t have it available to write as a Jew. But I have had 60 years to pick up rhythms from anywhere. It all goes in to your subconscious experience.” 

Still, according to Stoppard, two or three times Marber, who was reading various drafts, said “Can we not have this?’ it’s too obvious.” 

"You know, like an ‘Oy Vey,” says Stoppard. 

Was there an Oy Vey?

“I’m ashamed to say there was. Patrick wanted to lose the phrase. I actually just took off the ‘Vey'.”

Leopoldstadt is at the Wyndham’s Theatre from January 25

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive