I have been trying to articulate my thoughts about Tom Stoppard’s new play Leopoldstadt which I went to see yesterday. The action consists of scenes from the lives of two affluent and cultured Jewish families living in Vienna between 1899 and 1955 and their attempts to assimilate, some of them by marrying gentiles, some by converting to Christianity.
The one thing everyone knows about the period is what the Nazis did to the Jews, and the roll-call of those of the characters who ended their lives in Auschwitz formed the final scene of the play. An earlier scene, set in 1938, when the two families were evicted by the Nazis from the one unheated and unlighted apartment remaining to them, was really upsetting in its menace and vicious brutality. The more so because there was only verbal violence.
This is a play in which Stoppard attempts to come to terms with his Jewish background in Czechoslovakia before the war. Apparently he knew very little about it until he persuaded his mother, already in her sixties, to write down details of her family. It all has considerable resonances for me, because my own mother was born in Vienna – of Czech parents – and her adoptive mother was a secular Jew who had married a Catholic and fled to Britain in 1938 because of the rising persecution of Jews.
Ultimately though, the play was unsatisfying in spite of the usual Stoppard clever tricks. There were cultural references to Klimt, Mahler, Freud and Schoenberg, and one of the characters, a professor of mathematics played by Stoppard’s son, wandered around the stage worrying about the Riemann Hypothesis – an obscure problem in the distribution of prime numbers.
But for me, it wasn’t enough. Even the chilling conversation involving the central character who challenged a military officer to a duel for insulting his wife. The officer amusedly declines, because being a Jew his challenger is entirely without honour …
I am not, I hope, sufficiently naïve to expect answers as to why these appalling events took place. But when such things happen which defy all rational explanation and logic, we turn to our artists and writers to help us at least to understand the questions. This play had all the promise, and it was a beautiful production, but it failed to deliver.
I felt bereft leaving the theatre but not because of a cathartic experience. And it was with a sense bordering on despair that the first newspaper hoarding I saw while going home announced the murder of ten people in Germany by a Neo Nazi.
This is the slightly edited text of a communication sent to my MP, Vicky Ford, on the status of the BBC.
"I wish to express my extreme concern regarding the government’s apparent attitude to the BBC. News reports say: “Downing Street has told the BBC the licence fee will be scrapped.” I have no idea whether this is Conservative Party policy, I don’t think it is, but it is clear from the anti-BBC rhetoric in the right wing press – particularly the Daily Telegraph – that the BBC is in the firing line, and I wish to lobby you to represent my views on the subject.
I will say that the practice of sending people to prison who have defaulted on their licence payment should end forthwith. We abolished debtors’ prisons in this country in 1869, and it is a scandal that people are still being sent to gaol for debt – and this applies equally to defaulters on council tax. Also, I believe that the possession of a TV set should not be the determining factor in whether a licence is needed. Some sort of login system with a password ought to be perfectly possible to be implemented with the minimum of inconvenience - this could be easily automated as is the login to Netflix.
However to abolish the licence fee for the BBC and replace it with a subscription service would be an act of cultural vandalism.
The benefits that the BBC TV, radio, local radio, world service and website bring to the country – and the world – are incalculable; make it a subscription service, and the BBC’s revenue would nosedive, turning it into the sort of lowest-common-denominator broadcasting familiar to anyone who travels abroad. The BBC is the envy of the world and a lifeline too for many countries with totalitarian regimes. Most people – with the exception of some readers of the above mentioned daily newspaper – know that what is heard on BBC news and current affairs programmes is fair, balanced and unbiased, sometimes almost to a fault. The BBC speaks truth to power.
I suspect that there is a politically motivated move to punish the BBC for its probing, mildly anti-establishment stance during the debate on Europe, spearheaded by the Today programme. Anyone whose memory is capable of winding back 20 years, would know that it was equally probing and questioning towards the Labour Government of Blair before, during and after the Iraq invasion. That position cost the BBC their chairman and managing director.
We need a sensible and grownup public debate on the future of the BBC, not policy made on the hoof to garner instant approval from a minor section of the electorate."
No, this cannot be right; our Prime Minister assured us, promised us, that there would be absolutely no checks on the Irish border after B*****t.
But now, Gove and Javid tell us there definitely will be border checks, and industry will have to get used to it…
Did I miss something?
History gives those who study it the benefit of being able to weigh the significance of simultaneous, or near simultaneous, events. Thus in the early weeks of February 2020, historians will note, that the United Kingdom departed from the European Union, Sinn Féin polled the largest number of first preference votes in the general election in the Irish Republic … and Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, authorized civil servants to spend tax-payer’s money investigating the possibility of building a bridge across the Irish Sea between Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Contemporary observers will note that Sinn Féin is committed to Irish reunification, Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted by substantial majorities to remain in the EU, and the ruling party in Scotland is determined to achieve independence from the United Kingdom.
One can conclude, therefore, that the prime architect of the UK’s departure from the EU, Boris Johnson, seems to be interested in spending upwards of £20 billions of UK money on a bridge between two countries which might very well not be part of the UK by the time that said bridge is built.
If bridge-building is needed, I would respectfully suggest that it needs to be conducted between the split and broken sections of the British electorate, not over 20 miles of stormy sea strewn with unexploded World War II munitions, where the demand for travel surely cannot ever justify such an expense.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs