Sunday afternoon, 24 hours after seeing the fourth preview of Tom Stoppard’s New York premiere of his flawed masterpiece, I watched opening of the Unterberg Poetry Center’s 84th season with a conversation about “Leopoldstadt”, his most personal play to date. He is interviewed by novelist Daniel Kehlmann, who translated Leopoldstadt into German and whose family history, like Stoppard’s own, informed the writing of the play. It was interesting rather than illuminating while including a bone chilling announcement, after claiming “Leopoldstadt” would be his final play earlier this year he reneged and said he might write another and Sunday said he was blocked and might never write another. For we Stoppard lovers even less than great Stoppard is very important.
Stoppard’s last great work was 1997’s “The Invention Of Love” and not “The Coast Of Utopia” (which I watched over nine hours one Saturday at the Vivian Beaumont). But if “Rock N Roll” (“Leopoldstadt” via Czechoslovakia) and “The Hard Problem” (“Arcadia” if it was only about science) faltered, they remain must sees. Sill in the 21st Century, there were disappointing revivals of “The Real Thing” and “Arcadia” -the latter inaudible for stretches at a time.
But “Leopoldstadt” is beyond important, it is an act of remembrance of those who were loved, got on the train to Auschwitz, and were never seen again. The play time shifts from 1899 to 1955, with the Merz family first met as an assimilated Jewish family in Upper Middle Class Vienna before they are slaughtered by the Nazis, those first two scenes from 1899 and 1890 feel like sepia photographs of a wonderful and vibrant family lost in time. The play moves inexorably to the Merz’s being thrown out of their home and rounded up to the Jewish ghetto Leopoldstadt on their way to the camps and death in the most horrifying scene Stoppard has ever written, and finally to 1955 where Leo, who had escaped to England as a child, discovers his roots.
So what’s the problem?
None of the characters are well defined and since, while admitting I was in the upper balcony, it was also hard to hear the dialogue, beyond a generic sense it was difficult to care about their ending. The result is that we don’t know who is what and worse, Stoppard fails to do what he had to do, spell out who his stand in for him in the 1955 scene, Leo’s parents, are. I bought the publication of the play in 2020 and had at least a feel for it, of the forty characters I recognized the goyim Gretl and her husband Hermann and despite Tom’s efforts, maybe only the mathematician Ludwig, he would have been better cutting the exposition to the bone and filling in the characters: the proof of the lack of definition is that only one cast member made the move from the West End to Broadway. Why? Because there isn’t a meaty role in the lot. This is a major flaw. If Stoppard needed to show the large Jewish family borderline assimilated, interfaith marriage, Star Of David on a Christmas Tree (on Christmas Day 1899), he needed more time, he needed to draw out these people by giving them more time. The two who seriously register are Hermann Merz as the head of the household business and Gretl (Faye Castelow -the only actor to cross the pond, not even Tom’s son Ed made it) his Catholic, adulterous wife.
If the autobiographical (to a degree) is to lead us to Leo in 1955, it loses its resonance if we don’t remember who is parents are. Grandma Emelia is the matriarch of the Merzs, her children are Hermann and his sister Eva, that’s in 1899-1900, in 1924 Eva and her husband Ludwig (the mathematician who discusses cat’s cradles) have a child Nellie married to Aaron and it is their child Leo who cuts his hand in 1938 (Stoppard based this incident on meeting a woman with a scar on her hand from where Stoppard’s real father, a doctor, stitched her up: the only thing Tom has ever seen created by the father he never knew) that leads to the play’s conclusion. Leo escapes to England but the roll call of murdered Merzes at the end tells us who didn’t (only three people survived). Nellie should be hugely important but she has less than 300 words and her longest speech is all exposition. AND WE CAN’T HEAR IT. Her husband Aaron is barely there at all.
It took me forever to figure out who was who. A play that relies on research not of the past history in which it lies (that’s fine, pace “The Coast Of Utopia”) but who the fictional characters are in relationship to each other and to us, is not doing its job.
“Leopoldstadt” is still a masterpiece of sorts. As important a subject matter as anyone has ever used, Stoppard brings to life dozens of people who made up a long passed strata of society, the Jews in Vienna distinguished themselves from the Jewish refugees from Russia in the Jewish ghetto Leopoldstadt: they weren’t them until they were and disappeared into trains. The most powerful scene occurs in 1938 when the Nazi’s arrive to tell them they have 24 hours to leave their home – nearly the entire play occurs in the Merz’s huge living room room over 55 years). The inhumanity is devastating, it is brutal and heartbreaking though Hermann, forced to sign away his business, gets the last laugh there at least.
“Leopoldstadt” is 130 minutes without intermission, cut from its West End production; Stoppard claims there are text revisions and that’s an underestimation, the final act is gutted and streamlined for maximum effect and while I understand audience members cried at the revised last act it seemed to me Stoppard doesn’t trust us. He didn’t need to worry about intensity, he should have widened the story and he should have put back the intermission: he need to give it the time for us to know who is who. The thing about death and time is that it is far from unique, neither is genocide (Rwanda was relatively recent), however, the Holocaust does not compute and it was Stoppard’s duty to make us feel what happened to the Merzs -the characters are anonymous. In “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” Stoppard turned minor characters into major characters, here he reverses the trajectory… why? Like the metaphor of cat’s cradle (order beneath chaos) it means more to him than to us.
Still, for everything said here, it is a masterpiece resurrecting the past, bringing back those lost for no reason, lost in their millions. Stoppard is one of the greatest playwrights of all time, and at the Unterberg Poetry Center he seemed tired and old and at 82 years of age that brilliant brain appeared to be eroding. If “Leopoldstadt” is the end of the road, well, it is a great play to end with: it is a major work by a master. The play is still in previews and they need to fix making the words audible, that’s the second play on Broadway harmed by not being able to hear it, there is nothing to do about being unable to see who precisely is who. Both of these things are what they are, I will accept them both for this flawed masterpiece.
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