This Is the Promised Land
In Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt, the great playwright finally mourns his own lost Jewish past
In the twilight of the 19th century, in a large and well-appointed apartment in Vienna, two Jews argue across the room. Tossed between them is a copy of Der Judenstaat, Theodor Herzl’s 1896 pamphlet promising that Jews will one day “live at last as free men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes.” The book has enraged Hermann, who throws it down repeatedly, hoping someone will finally take notice. “Don’t fall for this Judenstaat idiocy,” he says to Ludwig, a junior faculty member of the mathematics department at the University of Vienna and his brother-in-law, who takes the bait. Hermann continues, “Do you want to do mathematics in the desert or in the city where Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven overlapped, and Brahms used to come to our house? We’re Austrians. Viennese. Doctors come from all over the world to study here. Philosophers. Architects. A city of art lovers and intellectuals like no other.” Hermann, an Austrian industrialist born Jewish but baptized as an adult, is approaching the inner sanctum of Viennese society and promises that Jews can be the “torchbearers of assimilation,” as they, in less than a century, have advanced from shtetls on the periphery of the Prussian empire into the beating heart of European modernity.
My grandfather wore a caftan, my father went to the opera in a top hat, and I have the singers to dinner—actors, writers, musicians. We buy the books, we look at the paintings, we go to the theatre, the restaurant, we employ music teachers for our children. A new writer, if he’s a great poet like Hofmannsthal, walks among us like a demigod. We literally worship culture. When we make money, that’s what the money is for, to put us at the beating heart of Viennese culture. This is the Promised Land …
Hermann’s interlocutor, however, is less sure. Ludwig notes the constancy and ubiquity of antisemitism, and the rising violence against Jews throughout Europe. “A Jew can be a great composer,” Ludwig concedes, “but he can’t not be a Jew. In the end, if it doesn’t catch up on him, it will catch up on his children. Ordinary Jews understand this.”
So begins Tom Stoppard’s latest masterpiece, Leopoldstadt, which originally premiered in London in 2020 and is now being performed at the Longacre Theatre in New York City through Jan. 29. The play chronicles the lives of one Jewish family of Vienna’s fin de siècle bourgeoisie. Spanning the first half of the 20th century, the play presents four generations of a largely assimilated clan as each navigates the tempest of Jewish life in Europe during this catastrophic period. What begins with an argument between two competing visions of the future—Herzl’s Der Judenstaat or the promised land of Austrian high culture—collapses into the urgencies of World War I, the Nazi Anschluss of Austria in 1938, and the aftermath of the Shoah, ending with a eulogy.
The play thus moves from an argument about the possibilities of the Jewish future to an argument about Jews’ responsibilities to their past. Indeed, Stoppard frames the opening act by situating Hermann and Ludwig’s argument about the future just after a monologue from the family’s matriarch as she ruefully meditates upon history. Leafing through family photos, she talks about how she’s begun to forget the names of people in the album.
I’ve been writing in names that are missing, the ones I know, which
is by no means all of them. That’s what happens, you see. First, there’s no
need to write who they are, because everyone knows that’s Great-Aunt Sophia
or Cousin Rudi, and then only some of us know, and already we’re asking,
“Who’s that with Gertrude?” and “I don’t remember this man with the little dog,”
and you don’t realize how fast they’re disappearing from being remem-
bered … Here’s a couple waving goodbye from the train, but who are they? No idea! That’s why they’re waving goodbye. It’s like a second death, to lose your name in a family album.
Leopolstadt is Stoppard’s most sustained engagement with his own family’s history of upheaval and erasure at the hands of the Nazis, his effort to write in all the names and tell the story of his family and his people. Stoppard’s work to date has long been concerned with questions of politics and history, whether in The Coast of Utopia, a trilogy dramatizing 19th-century Russia and the period leading up to the emancipation of the country’s 23 million serfs, or in his numerous histories of anti-Soviet resistance during the Cold War, from Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth (1979) to Rock ’n’ Roll (2006).
Absent from his oeuvre, however, was any deep engagement with his own biography—especially with his Jewishness and his family’s demise in the Holocaust, which he only fully learned of in his fifties. Up until that time, his life had been one of enormous good fortune: Stoppard was born Tomáš Sträussler on July 3, 1937, in the Czechoslovakian city of Zlín. His father worked as a doctor for Bata, the shoe company. With the Nazis ascendant in Germany, Bata’s president transferred all of his Jewish employees to overseas factories, sending the Sträusslers to a facility in Singapore, then a British colony, just before the Anschluss. When the Japanese invaded and occupied Singapore, the Sträusslers were forced to flee once more, this time to India. The future playwright’s father, however, died in transit—an event that Tomáš was too young to remember.
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In 1945 Tomáš’ mother married a British army major, Kenneth Stoppard. Tomáš would move to England the following year, now rechristened Tom Stoppard and happily British. He was also happily indifferent to his and his mother’s history. “I don’t recall ever consciously resisting finding out about myself,” he recently told Maureen Dowd. “It’s worse than that. I wasn’t actually interested. I was never curious enough. I just looked in one direction: forward.”
I was scooped up out of the world of the Nazis. I was scooped up out of the way of the Japanese, when women and children were put on boats as we were being bombed. I was just put down in India where there was no war. The war ended, my mother married a British army officer, and so instead of ending up back in Czechoslovakia in time for Communism—they took over in 1948 when I was 11—here I was, turned into a privileged boarding-school boy. I was just going on, saying, “Lucky me.”
Leopoldstadt is Stoppard turning back to consider his own good fortune and his family’s abysmal misfortune, between the future he stumbled into and the past he left behind. In the play, it is only after the war, in 1955, when Stoppard’s stand-in—né Leopold, but then anglicized to Leonard (much as Tomáš was anglicized to Tom)—ambles to center stage. We briefly met Leo as a child (when he was still Leopold) just after the Nazis invaded Austria. A Gestapo soldier barges into the once beautiful apartment where the play began—indeed, where the whole play takes place—and which is now in disarray, crowded with four generations of family. Leo is terrified, and he drops a cup in horror, cutting his hand. His great-uncle, a doctor, stitches it up, and the scene ends with the audience knowing that most of this cacophonous and loving family won’t make it to the other side of the war.
When the curtain lifts on 1955, we learn that all but three of the family members are dead. Leo, now “a boyish 24, a middle-class Englishman with a good haircut, comfortably dressed in jacket and flannels,” can’t remember a single detail of his life before England. He is entirely unburdened by the horrors of his history, while his two distant relatives, Nathan and Rosa, the only other survivors of the family, cannot forget a thing.
As the play opened with an argument about assimilation, so it closes with one, with Nathan lambasting Leo for his blithe indifference to history—even for his anglicized name. “Leo, what is it with Leonard? Your name was Leopold. Too Jewish?” Leo, for his part, can’t understand his cousin’s frustration. “But don’t you remember anything?” Nathan begs. Leo protests that he was only 8 when he left Europe. “No one is born 8 years old,” Nathan shouts in response. “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.”
Eventually, Leo does manage to remember, and with the ghosts of all of the family gathered around, he recites the names of his family members as his cousins respond with the horrible fate that befell each: who died in Dachau, who in Auschwitz, who en route to the camps, who by suicide.
The play thus ends in a mood of grief and mourning. The argument that frames the play’s opening is what a Jew should pine for, a Judenstaat or what is imagined to be the full freedom of a Western life. As the curtain falls, a life outside of Israel seems either impossibly dark, haunted by history and by the perennial threat of violence, or simply impossible. “It can’t happen again,” Leo says to his cousin. “I bow to your experience,” Nathan, a survivor of Auschwitz, responds. His words echo his forebear’s from the beginning of the play: “In the end, if it doesn’t catch up on him, it will catch up on his children.”
And yet for these remnants of a ruined family, a life anywhere besides their hostile diaspora home is unfathomable. Leo is British through and through, and Nathan, despite his despair, has returned to Austria. He could have gone anywhere, yet he went home to this impossible place. “Who the hell are they to tell me I’m not wanted?” he asks. All a diaspora Jew can do, this grand tragedy suggests, is argue the future and mourn the past.