Tom Stoppard Faces His Family’s Past

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” the play that made Tom Stoppard’s name, in 1966, begins with a perfect stage image: Ros and Guil, those identikit functionaries borrowed from “Hamlet,” are passing the time by flipping coins. Their fate having been scripted by Shakespeare, the outcome is never in doubt: it’s heads every time. “Getting a bit of a bore, isn’t it,” Ros says, with an embarrassed laugh.

More than fifty years later, Stoppard, a master of meta-theatrics, could be forgiven for feeling a touch of the Rosencrantzes. His newest play, “Leopoldstadt,” opened in London in January, 2020, to reverential reviews; there were rumors that it would rapidly move to Broadway. Then, of course, came the pandemic, and the closure of theatres everywhere. When the show reopened, in a COVID-spooked London, last year, it was onstage for just twelve more weeks. Plans for a North American première, in Toronto, at the beginning of this year, were full steam ahead until, abruptly, they weren’t: COVID, again. Tails, tails, tails.

At long last, “Leopoldstadt” is making its entrance on Broadway. American audiences who have waited a long time for their chance to see the latest Stoppard might be surprised. After the exuberant, cartwheeling theatrics of his most famous plays—not just “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” but “Jumpers,” “Travesties,” “Arcadia,” and more—the tone of Stoppard’s work has darkened and deepened throughout the years, and become more intimately personal. This happened gradually: his 2006 play “Rock ’n’ Roll,” which opened at the Royal Court, in London, was a rueful take on the collapse of Communism in what was then Czechoslovakia, the country that Stoppard’s family fled when he was a child; its central character might have been Stoppard himself, had he moved back instead of settling in England. The play that followed, “The Hard Problem,” from 2015, was a disquisition-heavy examination of consciousness, faith, and the mind-body divide, featuring a researcher attempting to reconcile her belief in God with her interest in brain science. Was the playwright reckoning with his own mortality?

“Leopoldstadt” is painted in even darker tones, and seems more intimate still. Swooping across half a century, from 1899 to 1955, it chronicles multiple generations of a wealthy Jewish family, the Merzes, who live in the titular Vienna district. When the Nazis arrive, the well-networked and proudly assimilated Merzes seem to believe that history will not repeat itself, that they’ll somehow get out. Of course, it does and they don’t. A tide of sorrow and loss floods the play.

Though the Merzes are Viennese, not Czech, Stoppard has acknowledged the autobiographical nature of the play’s source material: all four of his grandparents and three of his mother’s sisters died in the Holocaust, a topic that his mother spent a lifetime trying not to talk about. Her son didn’t discover the full truth about his past until the early nineties, when he was a middle-aged man.

Is “Leopoldstadt” a form of recompense for not having looked this history fully in the face until now? It’s tempting to think so. There’s also a sense of having sidestepped calamity without realizing, or wanting to realize, how close it came. (In our interview, Stoppard quibbled about the appropriateness of the term “survivor’s guilt,” but admitted that the play’s sorrows are very much his own.) As his first play to focus so closely on Jewish experience, “Leopoldstadt” does feel like a reckoning, one he has been contemplating in some form for nearly thirty years. When it first opened, Stoppard hinted that it might be his last play; when we spoke, he seemed less certain. As before, time will presumably tell.

We first spoke in January, via Zoom, while Stoppard was safely holed up in his grand Dorset home. We talked again in September, as “Leopoldstadt” was preparing to open in New York. These conversations have been condensed and edited.

Do you still get those butterflies when you’re waiting for an audience to come in? Do you still think about what they’re going to think, how they’re going to respond?

The answer is that I stopped being nervous a few plays ago, but, with this one, I feel a few butterflies. When I was much younger and newer, I was much more nervous than I am nowadays. I probably felt I had more to prove.

But I’m glad I’m not a director. I like being behind the director’s shoulder, but I don’t want to be in charge. I really would be frightened.

“Leopoldstadt” is all about time—it’s this journey through nearly sixty years of history, from 1899 to 1955, the story of one Jewish family over several generations, as it is slowly sucked into the horrors of the Holocaust. What made you want to write on that kind of scale?

I knew I wanted to write a version of my family background. And, more particularly, I wanted to write about coming to England at the age of eight. And I thought, when I set off with the play, that the second half would be set in England and would take me through the first twenty years of my life. It didn’t work out like that. Plays never do; they find their own architecture. And their own story, even.

I ended up writing about myself in 1955, but that young man’s family history is only in the broadest sense like mine. As I found, as soon as the play was out there, there’s enough shared experience to go around—tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of families, who all can say, “You’re writing about my family.” They know I’m not, and I know that I’m not, but it’s also true that, yes, I’m writing about their families, too.

“Leopoldstadt” seems braided into the fabric of your own life, and your family history—it’s hard to disentangle where the play begins and real life ends.

If I could remember how I got into “Leopoldstadt,” I’d do it again. I wrote a play called “Rock ’n’ Roll,” which was about a kind of alternative me going back to, I guess, the nineteen-eighties. But I wasn’t thinking autobiographically—I was thinking of what my life might have been if I had gone back to Czechoslovakia. In other words, I never got near thinking about my Jewish heritage. It was about ideology.

When Communism fell, in Czechoslovakia, I began to find out more about one or two people who are related to me, and in some cases were still living there. I wouldn’t have written about my heritage—that’s the word for it nowadays—while my mother was alive, because she’d always avoided getting into it herself. When she died, I went to my birthplace, and I didn’t remember anything. I was around eighteen months old when I left Zlín, in Czechoslovakia. I didn’t go back thinking, You know, here’s something I can use.

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