Deeds by a Playwright
For us, intellectuals and those in the art world with Central European background, Tom Stoppard always was our essential pride. Sir Tom embodied that impeccable chic of mind, that subtlety of context, and that courage of being himself which is an unmistaken indication of organic essence of freedom. The real thing.
No one who is anyone in the cultural world of Central and Eastern Europe just cannot imagine him- or herself without Stoppard as one’s essentially formative part, most and foremost because of Rosencranz and Guilderstern Are Dead, the brilliant classic of our time.
That play, the playwright’s first one, amazingly, was our primary association with a free world, because of Stoppard’s daring way of thinking. We were taken on the hook in no time. Our professional world, able and rich in its theatrical tradition, from St Petersburg to Warsaw and Prague had a clear definition: Stoppardistas – and the others.
In mid-1970s, more than a decade before the Velvet Revolution in Prague and fell of that damned and damning Wall in Berlin, Tom Stoppard undertook one of principle deeds in his life when he wrote and directed Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, the play emanating passion towards people who meant to be crushed by cold and mighty Kremlin machinery because of their different opinions. The play is an ode to great Soviet dissidents, late Vladimir Bukovsky and Victor Fainberg who were meant to be “re-educated” in the Soviet Union by the means of punitive medicine, in a plain language – by attempting to make them, both exceptionally bright individuals, a vegetables at infamous Soviet psychiatric clinics. Their destiny was shared by many in the USSR, DDR and other grim places at the time.
Stoppard who has become a friend with Bukovsky, my close friend, decided that it was necessary to speak publicly, from the theatrical stage, in defence of human dignity and against cruel violation of it. His moral compass was orientated correctly in many things that he has done during his long and productive life. Stoppard is unknown for things ‘fashionable’. He is known for essential things. And very timely ones.
Because of our background, we felt an extra-affinity with Stoppard and just loved the fact that this brilliant man was a Czech by origin. So we thought. The great playwright did not know the destiny of his family until reaching his 60s.
From Sussex to Leopoldstadt: a Personal Journey
It is hard for me to imagine the feelings which Tom Stoppard must have had upon learning about the tragic loss of the major part of his family in the Shoah in the early 1990s. Stoppard is a very private person, and he does not chat about his life at ease, in this case being an essentially British. He lives in Britain for 75 years by now, coming there as a 8-year old boy after escape with his parents from soon-to-be occupied by the Nazis Europe in 1937. His father, a doctor, was killed by Japanese in Singapore when he was trying to get to his wife and two sons who were lucky to escape again, just in time, now from Singapore to India. The man whom the world knows as Tom Stoppard was born as Tomas Straussler in Zlin, Moravia.
After their miraculous escape from Singapore to India, Tom’s mother Martha later on married the British officer whose surname was Stoppard. The abbreviated story of the XX century. Tom was brought to England in 1945, aged 8.
In early 1990s, Tom Stoppard was contacted by a great niece of his mother who did tell him on the tragic destiny of a major part of his family. He needed some time to adjust to this revelation, and he also did not publish a thing until his mother who never spoke on her murdered family, was alive. In 1999, three years after his mother’s death, Stoppard published his only article on the subject. He needed twenty more years of inner work for doing yet another, very powerful deed in his life, both professionally and personally.
2019 was the year which Tom Stoppard decided to dedicate to the all-consuming work on a big play, the largest in cast among all his works , with 41 actors on the stage, 15 of whom are children.
Stoppard created a panoramic play about Jewishness – or not – in the XX century in Central Europe and in the UK. He had chosen Austria, so absolutely rightly, as it epitomises the story of cultured, semi-, or fully, or illusionary assimilated strata of the brilliant European Jewry, the creme a la creme of the world’s culture, for this matter.
Every word, a slight measurable accent of Viennese Jewry brought to the stage, every photograph on the screen, the way of dressing and moving, the world of Leopoldstadt is recreated in the performance directed by Patrick Marber with powerful craft and deep understanding. It resonated with me instantly and magnetically. It is also about my family of the great musical Mahler-Rose-Buyanover dynasty, the one that brought so much glory to Austria, the one that was so cruelly destroyed in the Shoah.
By shifting the place from his native Moravia to cultural capital Vienna, Tom Stoppard had in mind, as he mentioned, to fence his inner self off the direct associations with his life and family. Or so he hoped for. I cannot see how this fence works, because the play’s personal dimension is unmistaken. It gets straight to one’s heart. It makes one’s heart cringe overwhelmingly.
Leopoldstadt is the only Jewish play in a very rich legacy of the famous playwright. The play is Jewish to the core, to the smallest detail, to a syllable. The play’s after-taste is powerful and enduring. It creates all-engulfing thinking on what was said and what was performed on the stage for a long time after the curtain falls down. This alone is an unmistaken sign of the fact that Tom Stoppard has created one more classic. But there is so much more in it.
Leopoldstadt is a two and half hour monologue of Tom Stoppard who happened to learn about the destiny of his family quite late in his life, and who went through a long inside process of processing his thoughts and knowledge before he finally put it in words and actions for the stage.
Is pain articulable? – I was thinking while watching Leopoldstadt in London. There was so much behind the actors’ lines. I do not think it is, but in a master drama, the atmosphere is always present. And in this case, the stage was emanating pain doing it in classic Stoppard motion: subtly, elegantly, fine. In a low voice. With sharp thoughts. And with non-compromised for an inch moral position.
Tom Stoppard in his recent play has said everything that many of us would say with regard to our ever-opened wound: on Austria and Anschluss, on Roosevelt and unfilled American quotas for hunted Jews of Europe, on Britain and some of its Jewry self-censorship with regard to their origin. He said it all. In a low voice. In a laconic way. It is all there. It will always be there. Stoppard knew precisely what he was writing in those understated lines. Why he was writing it and what for.
I salute the hero of our youth with a double-enthusiasm of absorbed experience decades later. I am so glad that we loved the right man.
Five Stages of Life
When we are talking on a stage life of Tom Stoppard’s pain – and pain of all those of us who and whose families had been affected by the Shoah, – one should not forget a steady hand, a top professionalism, and a very deeply engagement into that act of lovingly restored memory put in by the Leopoldstadt director Patrick Marber . His role in bringing Leopolstadt into our reality cannot and should not be underestimated.
In a few interviews with regard to Leopoldstadt premiere, Stoppard did mention that he was brought up not in a Jewish tradition and has lived the most of his long and productive life out of the context of Judaism.
That can be recognised in his first Jewish play where in the opening and middle episodes, three of the five of the play – 1899, 1900, 1924 – for the people who are practicing Judaism the play’s narrative might seem to be similar to a scenic version of a brief lecture of a history of Zionism. For many others, this approach has its merits as it revives the Jewish history and heritage for a wide public.
The play’s classical scenography produced by experienced Richard Hudson is solid and works well. It is done with a good taste, thorough authenticity, and it has an elegant dimension of perfect understanding of the author’s intentions.
The sound design and music of Leopoldstadt, the original score composed by Adam Cork is astounding. It does the trick even before the first word is uttered on the stage, it works incredibly during all two hours of a performance. It keeps the action on the stage together throughout the play, and also, most importantly, it powerfully communicates with every single person in the audience in a completely packed theatre, which is a serious achievement for an original theatrical score.
Adam Cork’s ‘ music and sound design also has a rare quality of uneasy and far from obvious synergy between personified scores corresponding to the certain characters on the stage and the general theme, in this case, a musical expression of the tragedy of the Shoah that did strike the people in the way that it reverberates today as powerfully, as if it had happened just yesterday, not 80 years and four generations back.
The music and sound design for Leopoldstadt composed and produced by Adam Cork is a mighty achievement that deserved all possible theatre awards in Britain and everywhere else.
Among 26 characters on the stage in this largest by its cast play of Stoppard, several are producing very memorable performances, with indisputable lead of well-known actor Adrian Scarborough who plays dramatic role of Hermann who did believe with his innermost on how Austrian that Jewish banker was, in his own perception. Faye Castelow playing Herman’s Catholic and non-Jewish wife Gretl did succeed in sculpting the character of non-Jewish wife who happened to be more Jewish than Jews in a well-known and always touching phenomenon. Sebastian Armesto, another well-known actor on the stage, is bringing effortless brilliance in both roles he plays, Jacob and Natan. Jenna Augen who plays Rosa, almost sole survivor of a big family, who was saved as she happened to emigrate to the USA in time, obviously has put a part of her own soul in the character who would tell us all from the stage on the grim destiny of the rest of the family: “Auschwitz… Maidanek… Treblinka… Teresin… Auschwitz… Auschwitz… Auschwitz…”
In order to infuse his actors, all of them, with the authentic atmosphere of the first half of the XX century, director Patrick Marber used an academic approach: he tasked each of his 26 actors with making a study of one particular aspect from an array of matters woven into the Tom Stoppard’s play. Once their studies were completed, the actors, including Stoppard’s son Ed, shared their knowledge with the entire ensemble. It turned out to be a very productive way of work as you see that the acting ensemble on the Leopoldstadt stage does have wholesomeness which is especially desirable as they are playing the same family, this family, in turn, represents Jewish people. This wholesomeness that we are seeing on the stage brings the authenticity of Tom Stoppard’s most important solo in his life very close to his audience.
Camps Without Camps
The last two episodes from the play’s five ones, 1938 and especially 1955 are the strongest ones. Stoppard, being a master playwright, has created a very efficient play which explodes in the end. There is no coincidence in the fact that Tom Stoppard is known as a superb translator of main plays by Checkhov.
In a subtle way of presenting the tragedy, Stoppard decided to show the crush of Austrian Jewry in 1938, both by the Anschluss and KristallNacht, and then takes a viewer to what we know as the beginning of post-Holocaust, in 1955.
Tom Stoppard has mentioned that he is ‘glad that he did not need to be with his heroes in the camps’ – and I do understand him completely. We were not there. We should not pretend we were.
In the way he addresses the tragedy of our people in the final scene of his play set in Vienna in 1955, the moment when the Soviet occupying forces has left, and the Austrians , with that meager number of miraculously survived Jews among them, were facing themselves and what had they done, for the first time in a decade, portrays the unspeakable, tormenting tragedy of the Shoah in the most heart-breaking way I have ever seen on the stage, and on the screen too, for that matter.
In cinema, we are having a luxury of a distance and certain neutrality of a screen. In theatre, with people on the stage in an immediate proximity to you and in the same-time- same-place live presence, co-existence is imminent and is shared. That is the core of the theatre emotion. That is why every good theatre director demands from his actor to live on a stage, not to perform there. In Leopoldstadt, it all is done in an elegant, fine, noble and quite-essentially human way. In a low voice and with an emphatic laconism. The only way to speak on the Shoah, if and when one chooses to do so.
The master-stroke of both Stoppard and Marber in Leopoldstadt is a pre-final scene when all those 41 members of once happy family are returned to the stage in an imagination of its three survived members, thus making a classical closing of a circle from the first scene in the beginning of the play and their lives back to 1899. In a beautiful, telling theatrical metaphor Stoppard, Marber and their actors are showing us as only best of a theatre can do, on what it all was about: life, aspirations, children, family gatherings – and what it has come to, made by supposedly-people: no life, just bottomless harrowing screaming with no voice emptiness which we all would never ever being cured of.
Tom Stoppard did not know any grandmother. He did not know any grandfather. He had no chance to know most of his cousins, both those existed and murdered, and those who should be born but never did. As many and many and many of Jewish people around the globe whose families were affected by the Shoah so badly. It is always bad. It is always finite. It never amends, does not matter how many generations are passed. Because they annihilated millions of innocent souls whose potency in life had never been materialised. They eradicated life. Doing it in the most barbarian way. Was the Nuremberg Trial and its verdict enough? The more we learn about it – and about those numerous barbarians who were not taken responsible – the more it sounds like a nasty joke.
Another brilliant detail of the finale of Leopoldstadt is a simple phrase of aunt Rosa who survived by living in the States: “Oh, and I really did forget where I hide the Afikoman!..” – referring to the happy Pesach seder a half of a century before. Every Jewish heart itched at the simple phrase connecting us to our world which is our family which is not anymore.
At the end of Leopoldstadt, one’s heart is about to explode. I am a theatre professional with a very long international experience of it. I never experienced anything like that. There was no single dry face around me in Wyndham’s stalls. We were all taken so much by the “Auschwitz… Maidanek… Treblinka… Teresin…Auschwitz… Auschwitz… Auschwitz…” list pronounced on the stage in such quiet dignity and such bottomless sorrow and such definite quietly unforgiving statement of the heart that we were unable to applaud as one would expect it to be in the case of preview of such extraordinary play. Who can be loud at the moment like that?.. The young attendant who was seeing several previews of Leopoldstadt by now, was staying seemingly in shock, with her hand grasping her chest as if trying to keep her heart in place.
We were leaving Wyndham’s theatre as one big family returning from a funeral. This was a common feeling between us, a common tissue called memory . And the air above us was our common air at that moment.
I always knew that Tom Stoppard is a special man. Now I feel him as a brother. And I bet that the same would feel hundreds and thousands of the people who would be lucky to see his Leopoldstadt, another classic he has created.
But this was one that had been written by his heart, as a Kaddish to his family. The Kaddish that they have never had. Until now.