Tom Stoppard’s highly anticipated take on the tragedy of Austro-German Jews is only occasionally riveting
By George Blecher
1899: Two assimilated Viennese Jewish families gather together to celebrate a Judeo-Christian Christmas. A Star of David will soon be hung atop the already festively decorated tree. All production photos by Joan Marcus. . . . . . . . . . . . . . Oct. 17, 2022
If I hadn’t been in the midst of reading The Pity of It all (2003), Amos Elon’s impassioned history of German Jewry, I might have found Leopoldstadt—at the Longacre Theater until January 29th—more gripping. But next to Elon’s book, Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt (named after Vienna’s Jewish quarter) seemed well-intentioned but flat—a polite, intelligent gloss on the complicated feelings of upper-middle-class Jews in early 20th century Germany and Austria. They were a tragic group of people who wanted desperately to fit in, but were constantly thwarted by the shifting political climate and the whims of their hostile fellow countrymen.
What’s more, Stoppard’s best qualities—his skill at extended banter, his love of startling time-shifts—are missing here, and we’re left with what is perhaps his most conventional play. Leopoldstadt is never boring, but it’s only occasionally riveting—and much less emotionally complex than the material calls for.
Like last year’s Lehman Trilogy, the play is structured as a series of historical snapshots, in this case of two Viennese Jewish families, focusing especially on three brothers-in-law: a doctor, a professor, and an industrialist. We follow the two families as they live through a half-century of turbulence, starting just before 1900, as they celebrate a self-conscious Christmas Eve together, then haggling over whether to marry outside the faith, dealing with the economic downturn after World War I, cringing as the family apartment is requisitioned by Hitler’s SS, and returning to Vienna after the War to pick up whatever pieces are left of two shattered, disillusioned families.
1924: Doing the Charleston in Vienna (while Hitler dictates Mein Kampf hours away in Germany). . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Stoppard touches on many of the same themes that appear in Elon’s book: Was it really possible in Germany and Austria to be both Jewish and assimilated? What were the dangers and advantages of converting to Christianity or marrying outside the faith? Was it “better” to try to lose oneself in intellectual pursuits (the professor dreams of a perfect world of numbers) or to outmaneuver the authorities in this imperfect world (the industrialist pays a Christian to pose as father of his child)? Stoppard presents these concerns in a dutiful but hurried manner. Larger issues of Jewish guilt, anger, a nagging sense of inferiority—to say nothing of the leitmotif of Freud’s theories of the Unconscious—are debated rather airily throughout the play, without really being anchored in the characters’ lives.
Leopoldstadt is billed as Stoppard’s most personal play, but what’s curious is how impersonal it is. Though the production supplies the audience with an essay by the author about his Czech Jewish background, it doesn’t have much to do with the play. All 35 characters are given a few distinguishing characteristics (one can dance the Charleston, another loses an arm and an eye in World War I), but these aren’t enough to help us enter into their psyches, and there’s little dramatic tension other than the gathering storm outside the family apartment. There are a few good heightened moments. One occurs early on, when the industrialist (David Krumholtz) writhes in helpless frustration as his demands to duel an Austrian aristocrat are ignored; another, in 1955, when one of the grown grandchildren (Brandon Uranowitz) returns to his family’s emptied apartment and paces around in righteous indignation over a cousin’s ignorance of his heritage. But the play generally moves at a restrained, thoughtful pace, like a history lesson by a sympathetic but slightly distracted college lecturer.
Given the attempt to cover so much ground and touch on so many themes, maybe it’s unavoidable that Stoppard’s latest play feels like notes for a more extended work. Actually it isn’t exactly a play but a verbal requiem directed (by Patrick Marber) with the hand of a sensitive orchestra conductor. The action moves on stage from one cluster of characters to another, like sections of an orchestra. Extended pauses in long speeches feel like the pauses before major themes in a Beethoven or Brahms symphony. The actors are well-rehearsed and sincere, and they convey a nice sense of camaraderie as professionals committed to the same good cause. The set design (by Richard Hudson) is equally intelligent, if predictable: it morphs from a cluttered, prosperous Christmas Eve living room (shades of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander?) into more and more stripped-down versions of the same room until, after World War II, it is stripped bare of nearly everything but sorrow.
1955: Back in the ransacked, now-emptied family apartment, one grandson confronts another about his ignorance of their heritage. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
One of the emotions that feels missing here—to which Amos Elon returns over and over in The Pity of It All—is the intense yearning that Jews felt to be part of the larger Austro-German culture. From the mid 1700s, when they were first let through the gates of major German cities, to when they were deported to death camps 200 years later, thousands of Jews converted to Christianity, hundreds of thousands supported Germany in World War I, and millions couldn’t believe that the society they had tried so hard to assimilate into could turn against them yet again. Perhaps the pathos of their yearning, as well as the constant sense of frustration and uneasiness that haunted them, can only be depicted through a heaping of data, from telling individual story after individual story—from the fascinating career of the brilliant Walther Rathenau, first as a Jewish monarchist (!), then as foreign minister in the liberal Weimar Republic, to the efforts of prosperous German-speaking Jews like Martin Buber and Theodor Herzl to convince their skeptical friends and relatives to build a Jewish state in the desert. Austro-German Jews were like a nation of spurned lovers: never quite German or Austrian, they adored everything Germanic, from Christmas to dueling to the German language itself—which in the hands of great writers like Heinrich Heine and Franz Kafka gained new subtlety, tenderness, irony.
Taking the air on Grabenstrasse in turn-of-the-20th-century Vienna.
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Leopoldstadt is one of a surprising number of plays, films, and TV presentations running this season in New York that approach the Holocaust from different angles. In addition to Stoppard’s play are the recent documentary Three Minutes: A Lengthening (about a long-lost snippet of film from a Polish shtetl); Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski, with David Strathairn (about an unheeded Polish whistle-blower); Four Winters (about the Jewish underground); and Ken Burns’ documentary about the U.S.’s delayed response to news about the slaughter of Jews in Europe.
It’s not immediately obvious why all these have appeared at more or less the same time. In part, they must be a response to the alarming resurgence of antisemitism in the U.S. They could also be inspired by the war in Ukraine and the attempted annihilation of a whole nation. It might be that the divisions in our own society have become so much like those of early 20th century Germany, with its militarism and obsession with power, that a focus on the Holocaust is an indirect but potent way of sounding an alarm. Or maybe we’ve become so fatigued by the complexities of contemporary politics and the assigning of blame everywhere that addressing the Holocaust allows us to locate and express our dismay with human cruelty in a more straightforward, uncontroversial way.
Whatever the reasons—and for all the good intentions—a flood of Holocaust material can also lead to a kind of numbness, and the reduction of yet another minority group to the sum of its suffering. At least Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt offers a more varied view of European Jewish culture. Producers (and readers!) might consider picking up the cue and taking another look at neglected German-speaking Jewish writers like Hermann Broch, Alfred Döblin, Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth—and, in particular, the great early 20th century Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler, who produced work after work that scrutinized the same territory as Leopoldstadt with a piercing, unsentimental eye.
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George Blecher writes for The New York Times and for a number of European publications about American politics and culture. See georgeblecher.com
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