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.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs