Tom Stoppard: Unfinished Business

The celebrated playwright draws on his family’s Jewish past in his new play, Leopoldstadt, now a resounding hit on the London stage.

Tom Stoppard: Unfinished Business

The celebrated playwright draws on his family’s Jewish past in his new play, Leopoldstadt, now a resounding hit on the London stage.
February 25, 2020 in Arts & Culture, Spring Issue 2020
2 Comments

Wrapped up against the December chill in a dark coat, a grey scarf around his neck, Sir Tom Stoppard gingerly descends the stairs to the basement of the crowded coffeehouse in Bloomsbury, London’s cultural and intellectual hub. It is lunchtime, and Stoppard, 82, is taking a break from the second day of rehearsals for his hotly anticipated new play, Leopoldstadt, scheduled to open at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre in February. His first original work since 2015’s The Hard Problem, its announcement generated a stir in the British press the likes of which only a new play by the most prolific and accomplished English playwright of his generation could.

“The period between the beginning of rehearsal and having your first audience—that’s theater,” Stoppard says in hushed tones, politely leaning toward my recorder. With the collar of his coat pulled up, his face etched with distinguishable lines, the playwright exudes a certain put-together artistic rumpledness. “I like to be present. I like to be somebody who’s allowed to chip in,” he tells me. “But during rehearsals, I think of myself held in reserve, just watching and trying to make useful comments when asked.” That morning, he says, he’d “phoned in a couple of extra lines to the publisher because they were overnight thoughts.”

Ours is the first interview Stoppard is giving about his new play. When it was announced back in July, he had said that “quite a lot of it is personal to me.” In our interview now, in contrast to the usual verbal acrobatics of his written work, he is somewhat reticent. “I’m not very good at talking about it,” he confesses of his past. As he gives his steady, considered answers, his engaging brown eyes cast off to the side in thought. Born in Zlín, Czechoslovakia, in 1937, he speaks with rounded vowels and a slight roll of his r’s, although his is also the accent of someone educated in the British public school system.

The Merz-Jakobovicz families participate in a Passover seder in early 20th-century Vienna in Stoppard’s new play, Leopoldstadt. (Marc Brenner)

Stoppard became an overnight theatrical sensation when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, his Beckettian take on these two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, hit London’s Old Vic in 1967. One year later, Stoppard took home the Tony Award for Best Play when Rosencrantz played the Eugene O’Neill Theater on Broadway. He went on to win three more Tonys—for Travesties in 1976, The Real Thing in 1984 and The Coast of Utopia in 2007—thus racking up more Best Play awards than any playwright in Tony history. In 1999, Stoppard won an Academy Award for his screenplay for Shakespeare in Love, two years after the British government bestowed a knighthood upon him. His gift to English culture and the English language is a distinguished and lasting one.

“Stoppard’s great contribution has been to tackle serious, heavyweight subjects with enormous wit, erudition and linguistic joy,” says Michael Billington, who has known Stoppard for decades and was, until recently, The Guardian’s chief theater critic. “He’s shown that theater can be simultaneously thought-provoking and fun.” A master of the English language who was not born into it, Stoppard exhibits an arresting verbal dexterity, a mix of joy, wit and wordplay. “A foreign correspondent is someone who lives in foreign parts and corresponds, usually in the form of essays containing no new facts,” he writes in his 1978 journalistic satire, Night and Day. “Otherwise he’s someone who flies around from hotel to hotel and thinks that the most interesting thing about any story is the fact that he has arrived to cover it.”

Actor Ed Stoppard, Tom Stoppard’s son, as Ludwig Jakobovicz in an opening scene of Leopoldstadt, which premiered in London in February. (Marc Brenner)

The excitement on this occasion is driven not merely by the author’s return, or the news that this may be his last play, but by his choice of subject matter. Leopoldstadt is a multigenerational saga about two fictional intermarried bourgeois Jewish families, the Merz and Jakobovicz clans, living in Vienna during the first half of the 20th century. The family patriarch, Hermann Merz, is a prosperous textile manufacturer who has moved up in the world, leaving the Jewish quarter (whose name, Leopoldstadt, gives the play its title) behind for a large apartment in the fashionable center of the city. A baptized Jew, Hermann is married to Gretl, a Catholic.

Directed by Patrick Marber, Leopoldstadt opens with the Merz/Jakobovicz children decorating their Christmas tree. Gretl and Hermann’s son, Jacob, places a Star of David atop it. “It’s a beautiful star, darling,” his aunt Eva says, “but it’s not the star we put at the top of the Christmas tree.” It is 1899, the height of the Jewish golden age—a time when, following emancipation half a century earlier, Vienna’s Jewish community was expanding and flourishing, with luminaries from Sigmund Freud to Gustav Mahler and Theodor Herzl making and shaping the city’s politics, economy and culture. “My grandfather wore a caftan, my father went to the opera in a top hat, and I have the singers to dinner,” Hermann boasts, advocating assimilation over Zionism. “This is the Promised Land, and not because it’s some place on a map where my ancestors came from. We’re Austrians now.”

“A Jew can be a great composer. He can be the toast of the town. But he can’t not be a Jew,” Hermann’s brother-in-law, Ludwig, warns him, and as Leopoldstadt follows four generations of the family, Ludwig’s prophecy bears out. In 1924, with the empire gone and a tumultuous republic in its place, the families try to cope with their loss of wealth and status amid the chaos. Then comes 1938, when Austria is annexed and subsumed into the Greater German Reich, and finally 1955, as the Soviet and Allied military occupation of Austria ends and the country regains its sovereignty. This postwar period in Austria was one of tremendous ambiguity, during which those Jews who survived and returned to Vienna in an attempt to rebuild their lives, families and communities found themselves in a country where it was non-Jewish Austrians who believed they were the true victims of the war. The reconstituted Jewish community was a constant reminder of the falsehood of this narrative and of non-Jewish Austrians’ guilt and complicity.

Leopoldstadt’s cast of almost 40 includes one of Stoppard’s four sons, Ed, whose mother, Stoppard’s second wife, Miriam Stern, was born into an Orthodox family but now considers herself an atheist. The production is elaborate yet intimate, sweeping but focused. Stoppard modestly described the play to me as a “full evening of theater,” and indeed, his canvas is enormous. His characters debate assimilation and Zionism, anti-Semitism and nationalism, war and imperialism. Within the family drama there are extramarital affairs and broken hearts; there is a duel, a seder and a comical bris. All this is set against the backdrop of the collapsing scenery of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust.

When I ask about the play’s origins, Stoppard acknowledges that there’s “an element of unfinished business” about it. For the playwright, who was born into a nonobservant Jewish family, many of whose members perished in the Holocaust, Leopoldstadt is a kind of stocktaking. “In the end, writers tend to use what they’ve got—experience,” he says. “And I’ve never used much of my experience—and I’m only using a little of it now—but it all comes from that. It’s a play about a family, which is certainly not an autobiographical play—there are just aspects of it that, toward the end of the play, fade into things that are more personal to me.”

At the end of our interview, Stoppard and I gather our things and walk back toward the rehearsal space at the London Welsh Centre, a hub of artistic activity on the Grays Inn Road, a few minutes by foot from the British Library, where Stoppard does much of his research. During rehearsals, he lives in London, but otherwise resides in a country home in Dorset with his third wife, Sabrina Guinness, a television producer and heiress of the aristocratic Irish Guinness family. We stop just outside so he can smoke a cigarette before going in. Reluctant to say too much, he leaves me with a parting thought. Although Leopoldstadt was the name he settled on for the play, for a while he had considered another: A Family Album.

It wasn’t until May 1998, and only after the death of his mother, who studiously avoided talking about the past and would give a little frown and go, “Tsk,” if her sons asked if they were Jewish, that Stoppard returned to Zlín for the first time in nearly 60 years. “In the long run, that visit accounted for this play, I guess,” he has said. “It’s not about me, but it’s a play I couldn’t have written if I hadn’t lived the life that fate has dealt me.” Now, a month after our interview, I am following in his footsteps to see where the play, in a sense, began.

I step off the bus in Zlín on a day that is oppressively grey. The journey from the city of Brno through southern Moravia in the Czech Republic traversed a landscape of low, modulating hills, vast expanses of farmland, small villages of church steeples and red-tiled roofs, industrial decay, and ads for new out-of-town shopping centers. Now, in the city of Stoppard’s birth, I wander off in search of a piece of history.

In July 1937, when Stoppard was born Tomáš Straussler to parents Eugen and Martha, Zlín was a boom town, home of the enormous Bata shoe manufacturer. Founded by Tomáš Bata in 1894, the company aped the assembly-line method of mass production pioneered by Henry Ford, turning out shoes that were stylish, comfortable and affordable. Surviving World War I by manufacturing boots for the Austro-Hungarian army, Bata exploded in popularity during the interwar period. In 1935-1936, it exported more than two million pairs of shoes to customers in the United States. The firm’s insatiable appetite for raw materials, from rubber to cotton, turned it into an international operation with plants in India and Southeast Asia, a circumstance that would end up saving Stoppard’s life.

As Bata flourished, so did Zlín. In 1894, 2,834 people lived there. By 1936, the year before Stoppard’s birth, that number had grown to 39,628. Tomáš Bata—a benevolent and farsighted individual—turned Zlín into a model community, replete with a department store, hospital, old-age home, college, sports clubs and artistic and cultural institutions. Based on modernist principles, Bata built whole new neighborhoods to house his workers, including the garden community of Zálešná, where the Straussler family lived.

From the bus station, I walk for about 20 minutes or so, first east, then north, before I reach Zálešná. Bordered by a ridgeline of tall pine trees to the north, the hospital complex to the east, and the river Drevnice to the south, Zálešná is bisected by one two-lane road, off of which sidewalkless residential streets extend like slender tendrils. These streets have systematic names: Zálešná I, Zálešná II, Zálešná III, and so on. Each property, set at a 45-degree angle to the street, stands on its own plot with a garden. The houses, built out of red brick, are boxlike—square with two windows on each side on the ground and first levels.

Today, especially in the winter light, Zálešná has the look of a neighborhood that was once the future and is now the past. Paintwork is peeling, colors fading, ivy overgrown, homes a patchwork of brick and concrete where people have made do and mended. Many of the properties have been extended ad hoc to make space for driveways, garages and sunrooms, while several gardens have been turned into small farms or workshops. Much of the 1930s uniformity has vanished as life has taken over.

Stoppard lived in Zlín from July 1937 until March 1939. His father, Eugen, and  mother, Martha, worked for the Bata Shoe company.

Armed with the address, I turn onto Zálešná III and initially find myself discombobulated. Although I am able to locate Zálešná III 2617, 2618 and 2620, Stoppard’s old house—Zálešná III 2619—is not labeled as such. Moreover, something about the house that (according to the map) must be Zálešná III 2619 is off. The bricks are the wrong color—far too dark, unmarked by time and weather—and the property is too angular. I fear this is not the Zálešná III 2619 of Stoppard’s childhood, but rather, a new-build property that was thrown up in recent years on the same plot. A neighbor up the street eyes me with suspicion and I move on.

Walking back toward town along the trail parallel to the Drevnice, I think about Stoppard’s 1993 play Arcadia. Set in one room of an English country house named Sidley Park, the story alternates between two time periods: 1809, in which a historical incident is taking place, and the present, when contemporaries are researching the history of the house and the incident in question. Circling themes of longing and nostalgia, emotion and intellect, Arcadia asks what is historical truth, what we in the present can know of the past, and to what extent we are in fact able to recreate history.

Stoppard lived in Zlín from early July 1937 until late March 1939. His father, Eugen, was a doctor at the hospital Tomáš Bata had founded for his employees in 1927. His mother, Martha, took a secretarial course after she left school and also worked for Bata. They had met on a ski trip and married in 1934. Martha wrote of her husband that he was “perhaps not handsome in the conventional way, he was very intelligent, had great charm (I was always fighting off the nurses!) and had a first-class brain, but was very modest.”

As early as 1932, Bata had begun to plan for what it might do for its Jewish employees to protect them in the event of Nazism’s rise and takeover of Czechoslovakia. Once Bohemia and Moravia were annexed by Nazi Germany on March 16, 1939, Bata put into action arrangements to disperse its Jewish employees throughout the company’s international network of shoe plants in far-flung locales such as Kenya, Singapore and the Philippines. On March 23, Eugen was formally dismissed from the hospital in Zlín before departing with Martha, Tomáš and older son Petr from the Italian port of Genoa on the SS Victoria on April 19, 1939.  A month later, they docked in Singapore.

Although Stoppard would not know it for many years, not all of his family were as fortunate as he. His mother’s parents, Rudolf and Regina, died in Theresienstadt in the spring and summer of 1944. Her sisters Wilma and Berta died in Auschwitz, while another of her sisters was deported to Minsk or parts unknown, disappearing without a trace. Only her brother, Ota, and one sister, Irma, survived. Eugen’s parents were deported to Theresienstadt on December 2, 1941, before being sent on to the Riga ghetto in January 1942. They were never heard from again.

Meanwhile, Singapore—its warmth, color and exotic fruits—initially provided the Straussler family with some relief. But in the winter of 1942, Japanese forces began to close in on the British colony. As University of British Columbia English professor Ira B. Nadel records in his 2000 biography of Stoppard, Double Act, sometime between January 30 and February 6, 1942, Martha and her two sons once more took to the seas in flight. Amidst the chaos of war, their ship stood for three days off the coast of Singapore, set sail for Australia, turned back, then docked in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where they transferred to another vessel, which set out for Bombay, India, where their voyage ended on February 14, 1942.

As part of Singapore’s total mobilization, and motivated by a sense of duty, Eugen stayed behind, joining the local volunteer force. As part of a general evacuation, he followed in his family’s wake and boarded a ship headed for Australia. He did not make it. On February 13 or 14, 1942, the convoy of vessels that included his ship was spotted by Japanese planes, strafed from the air, torpedoed from the depths and sunk. Singapore fell to the Japanese on February 15.

Martha Beckova, Stoppard’s mother, in 1930, seven years before Tom’s birth. (Family photo courtesy Tom Stoppard)

For the next four years, Martha and her two sons lived in India, in particular Darjeeling, the colonial-era hill station known for its tea, where Martha managed Bata’s shoe shop. It was in India that young Tom can be said to have some of his first memories—images, sounds and smells that he would lend to his 1991 radio play In the Native State, which would be turned into his stage play Indian Ink in 1995. It was also in India that the family finally heard the news of Eugen’s death. Martha wrote of that period, “The four years seem even now like a lifetime of a nightmare.”

In November 1945, Martha married Kenneth Stoppard, a major in the British army who had been stationed in India during the war. Kenneth was the man who would give Tom his name and the country that would come to define him—England. “Don’t you realize,” the major would often say to his stepsons, “that I made you British?” Kenneth Stoppard was the kind of man who believed that to be born an Englishman was to have drawn first prize in the lottery of life, and as such, looked down upon other races and creeds. In February 1946, eight-year-old Tom and his family arrived in Britain. “I felt very English when I grew up here. I didn’t feel I had been transplanted,” Stoppard tells me. “Even my perspective on Leopoldstadt is an English perspective.”

Living in Britain, Stoppard’s mother kept silent about the past. He has described her as remaining “engagingly foreign.” She kept her accent and baked her children Czech specialties such as buchti, sweetened yeast rolls filled with plum jam. But, he has written, “for every homemade cake and knickknack she gave out, my mother held back much more, whole histories.”

“The move to England,” Martha wrote years later at Stoppard’s request, “had been so sudden, unplanned, and drastic that I—perhaps subconsciously—decided the only thing to make it possible to live and truly settle down…was to draw a blind over my past life and start so to speak from scratch. Whether this was realistic or possible I don’t know. I mean whether it was the right thing to do.” It wasn’t until much later that Stoppard would find out he was Jewish.

On the trip en route to Zlín, I had read an article titled “On Turning Out to Be Jewish,” which Stoppard had written for the inaugural September 1999 issue of the short-lived, Tina Brown-edited glossy, Talk. On the article’s opening pages was his family album: his mother, whose eyebrows are described by Stoppard as “carefully plucked,” his bespectacled, dark-haired father, the young Tomáš with his older brother Petr, and then his mother’s family, the Becks, including Stoppard’s grandparents, Rudolf and Regina, aunts Wilma, Berta, Anny and Irma, and uncle Ota.

In the article, Stoppard describes an incident that occurred in 1993 while he was working on Arcadia at London’s National Theatre. He had organized a meal attended by his mother, his half-sister, Fiona, her daughter and Sarka, his mother’s sister Wilma’s granddaughter, whom he was meeting for the first time. At the end of the meal, Sarka sketched out their family tree on a piece of paper, establishing as fact their names and relationships in Stoppard’s memory. Feeling slightly embarrassed, even ashamed, Stoppard asked, “Sarka, were we Jewish?”

“What do you mean?” she responded. 

“I mean, how Jewish were we?”

“You were Jewish.”

“Yes, I know we were Jewish, my father’s family…”

Sarka interrupted, “You were completely Jewish,” she said.

Stoppard wrote of this discovery, “I feel no more Jewish than I felt Czech when [in 1977] I went to Prague for a week to do my bit for [the dissident movement] Charter 77.” That was 20 years ago, and as for feeling Jewish, Stoppard tells me that nothing has changed. The difference today, he says, is the mood music around the world to which he is attuned. “The issue of anti-Semitism in Britain and elsewhere, including the issue of the Labour Party, which became a bigger issue while I was thinking about the play, and while writing it, gave the subject more urgency for me,” he wrote me in an email exchange. Back in London during our interview, he had told me that though the play will end with a given family in a given room in 1955, it is informed by what he reads in the newspapers today. The comparison is not something he “would want to shut out of people’s consciousness.”

An aerial view of the Zálešná suburb looking toward Zlin, as pictured in a 1930s postcard. (Sludge G/Pinterest)

Stoppard has rarely written autobiographically, Nadel tells me.  He “doesn’t really expose himself in the way in which so many other writers do.” Indeed, after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Jumpers (1972) and Travesties (1974), an intellectual jape based on one man’s faulty memories of James Joyce, Lenin and poet Tristan Tzara in Zurich in 1917, Stoppard’s reputation was that of someone whose work was terribly funny and awfully cerebral (parts of Travesties, for example, are written entirely in limerick form) but unsentimental and detached from the hot-button political and social issues of the day.

That changed in 1977, after his first visit to the country of his birth. The man who once described himself as a “bounced Czech” premiered a play for British television, Professional Foul, and a stage work, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, both of which took on the theme of political dissidence in communist Czechoslovakia, an issue that comes up again and again in his work thereafter: in 1979’s Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth and in Rock ‘n’ Roll, his 2006 play of music and revolution in Czechoslovakia, which premiered on Broadway in November 2007.

“Maybe I was just calling my own bluff,” Stoppard acknowledges to me about his previous denials of any relationship between his life and work, “but clearly [Czechoslovakia] was a central interest for me.” Still, his work remained observational, not autobiographical. The text of Rock ‘n’ Roll opens with a rather lengthy disclaimer, explaining that while the play’s leading man, Jan, was born like Stoppard in Zlín, there the parallels end.

Only now does Stoppard draw closer to himself than he ever has before, dealing with his unfinished business.

More direct engagement with his life followed with 1982’s The Real Thing. Cleverly structured to include a play within the play, it deals with “a middle-aged writer not unlike Stoppard himself, wrestling with the entanglements of passion and adultery,” says Billington of his favorite Stoppard play. “It’s a heartfelt play,” he continues, “but it’s also fantastically intricate and clever, as if Stoppard is managing to fuse these two things,” emotion and passion with argument and intellect. “His writing more and more seems to me fueled by its emotional power.”

“Stoppard sneaks up on you,” Ben Brantley, co-chief drama critic for The New York Times, tells me. “I’ll just be sitting there, racing to keep up with what everyone’s saying, and at a certain point, I’ll realize I’m in tears.” He taps into feeling without being hokey or sentimental. There’s an “anguished heart in everything he’s written,” Brantley continues, citing a line from Rock ‘n’ Roll in which the cancer-ridden Eleanor proclaims: “I am undiminished, I’m exactly who I’ve always been. I am not my body.”

In a Stoppard play, there’s that moment, Brantley has said, “where you realize the emotional effort within the intellect, the active intellect that’s shaping this play. He’s very aware of the futility to make sense of it all,” but “the romance and the nobility of the quest is what’s valiant…He’s well aware that at a certain point, words fail. For me, a lot of what gives the dynamic to his work is this absolute luxuriating in words, verbal pyrotechnics, and at the same time realizing how inadequate they are.”

Such a moment occurs in the final scene of Leopoldstadt, when three surviving members of the scattered, shattered family return to Vienna with nothing but names and memories. Only now does Stoppard draw closer to himself than he ever has before, dealing with his unfinished business. By 1955, the character of Leopold Rosenbaum, Hermann’s great-nephew, who was sent to England in 1939, is 24, no longer Viennese but an Englishman with a good haircut, a dated accent and a new name—Leonard Chamberlain. Like the young Tomáš Straussler, he got out of the Third Reich before the walls caved in, and like the boy who became Tom Stoppard, he has a stepfather who believes that “to be stoical was to show character.”

The back-and-forth between Leo and his second cousin Nathan is like an argument Stoppard could have had with himself. “Your name was Leopold. Too Jewish?” Nathan chides. “She never talked about home and family,” Leo, in turn, says of his mother. “She didn’t want me to have a Jewish relative in case Hitler won. She wanted me to be an English boy…Mother and I only spoke English. I didn’t know I had an accent till I lost it.” It is left to Nathan to warn that one’s history is something from which no one can run away. “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.”

As the final scene closes, in a moment that holds tremendous and undeniable emotional force, the Merz and Jakobovicz families’ ghosts come into view, reliving happier, carefree times. And again, Stoppard draws on his own experience, as Leo comprehends for the first time what the Holocaust meant for his family. The connection to Stoppard’s conversation with Sarka at the National Theatre in 1993 is clear—the two of them sitting together, building out the family tree—names and relationships attached to the ghettos and camps to which they were deported and from which they never returned.

“What happened to Wilma?” Stoppard said to Sarka that evening.

“She died in Auschwitz,” her granddaughter replied.

“Berta?”

“Auschwitz.”

“Anny?”

“She died in a different camp. I don’t know where.”

“Ota?”

“He survived.”

Here is his Jewish play,” The Guardian’s Arifa Akbar wrote after opening night, “not directly based on Stoppard’s family, but he says it’s his most personal play and perhaps his last. As such, there is something momentous about Leopoldstadt, which has the weight and majesty of a final drama.” The Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish concluded, “The author has said he cried watching the scenes and I’m not surprised. People have sometimes accused him of being too clever by half, lacking the power to move us beyond words; here is irrefutable evidence to the contrary.”

The choice of setting the play in Vienna creates some distance, but once more Stoppard may be calling his own bluff. Without Zlín, without his family album, Leopoldstadt would not exist. A play like this, Nadel thinks, is long overdue. Stoppard has “had difficulty in understanding what to do” with his Jewish origins, he says, and “I think it’s taken him a very long time for him to establish his identity, which I would distinguish from his connection to being Jewish, and I think he’s still hesitant and that’s why this is a historical play, not a contemporary one.” For Billington, Leopoldstadt seems like a logical culmination of Stoppard’s career. “The play is a sort of journey backward toward his own origins and his acknowledgement that he is a Jewish writer.”

2 Comments
  • Victoria Stadnik 07:26h, 26 February Reply

    Good afternoon. Thanks, very interesting article!

  • Rob Spence 12:55h, 07 March Reply

    Really enjoyed reading this, having seen the play last month. The background detail is crucial to understanding what happens in the play. Thank you.

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