A review and personal familial reflection on Tom Stoppard’s touching play
Words by Rob Barrie
I have experienced very few plays that extend as intrinsically on a personal level as Tom Stoppard’s latest – and possibly last – play. During reflection, it also reaffirmed the sombre reality that anti-Semitism is not just secluded to the dark chapters of World War 2.
Tom Stoppard has not actually said that Leopoldstadt is based directly on his own Jewish past. Indeed, despite many of his Czech family perishing in the Holocaust, I personally don’t think it is either. It feels instead more a reflection – a reminder both to himself and to the audience of the perception of Jews in wider society; his own family, of course, providing the inspiration. We follow the ‘Merz’ family, and its extended relatives, through six decades in Vienna. A family, at the start of the play, made up of high-ranking members of society who are seemingly, effortlessly, assimilated into the Viennese community. Though through the medium of onstage debates and intellectual discussions, we understand all is not as it seems. Even more than thirty years before Adolf Hitler came to power, we see the instability that being Jewish places on a family – and the turbulence that ensues between its members. We are told, for example, of workplace positions being untenable if one were Jewish. It is through this institutional and social marginalisation that Jews are treated differently, and though they were not yet being persecuted, racism still permeated through Central Europe within the early 20th century. The cast portray this struggle magnificently and balance the close-knit affection within the family to the concern that lingers at the end of every conversation.
As we progress past the First World War and into the inter-war period, the effects from the rise of the Bolsheviks starts to seep into Austria. The red wave sweeps up one of the daughters into political activism, and it also ultimately provides the scapegoat for Hitler to assume power.
By the 1940s, members of the family are reduced to huddling in their now bare house, a house that once saw majestic parties and Shabbats, as Nazi SS officers racially profile inhabitants of the city. The philosophical mathematician, the empathic doctor and the intelligent business owner are reduced to vessels. The attire the family wear is reduced to plain rags – a distant spectacle to the grandeur of suits and dresses worn years earlier. The costume design portrays this sad change beautifully.
It was here that I first thought of my family. I have always been proud of my mixed heritage and, growing older, that pride has transformed to also include active research. My mother is Indian and my father is of Austro-Hungarian descent – the latter often taking others by surprise when paired with my skin colour.
Moving from their native countries and bringing up two sons in Berlin in the 1930s for school and job prospects, my Hungarian great-grandfather (Emil) and Polish great-grandmother (Itta) would never have envisaged having to flee their adoptive country ten years later. It was only my great-grandfather’s acute sense of Jews disappearing in the community that alerted him to an unwelcome danger that was gathering like a distant storm over the horizon, and they managed to flee a few months before the borders closed.
Leopoldstadt’s final scene is in post-war Austria, still in the same Merz family house. The opulent opening set has been whittled down to four plain walls. The set design by Richard Hudson is nothing revolutionary, but it illustrates the change of the house as much as the family through the decades with elegant simplicity – the very soul of the house and family both exposed. We learn that concentration camps, Auschwitz primarily, claimed the lives of all but three of the Merz family. This final scene sees a discussion, sometimes deteriorating into an argument, between one of the grandchildren, Nathan, who survived Auschwitz, and a younger cousin, Leo, the son of the relatives who managed to flee, who was brought up comfortably in England. The latter is not fully aware of his Jewish roots but eventually recognises what runs through his blood and emotion sweeps over him. It is emotion not simply just for his grandparents, uncles and cousins – but for all Jews, everywhere.
Like Stoppard’s Nathan, my great-grandmother lost her entire family in the Holocaust – nine members. She neither fully recovered from her loss nor truly ever forgave Germany. Indeed, along with my brother and two grandchildren from her other son, there are only four descendants from an entire Polish and Hungarian lineage.
Nathan Merz himself is a deeply traumatised young man. Not just from surviving a concentration camp, but because his family were nearly wiped from existence. In parallel, I understand my great-grandparents’ anger. Even after fleeing Berlin and settling in England away from the persecution from the SS and the Gestapo, the visible aspects of their Jewish soul vanished. Scared of being labelled as spies, speaking German was completely banned by my great-grandfather until the English equivalent for an item was learnt – until then, pointing would suffice. I wonder if, with their still heavy accents, my great-grandparents suffered discrimination from a wary British public emerging from a damaging world war.
The last tangible Jewish remnant disappeared when my grandfather anglicised his surname due to the discrimination experienced when applying for hospital posts in London – Bihari to Barrie. His brother, my great-uncle, kept his surname – incidentally became a successful surgeon in Wales – and whose surviving grandchildren carry the Bihari name. Unlike my great-uncle, however, many colleagues who knew my late grandfather never knew until after his death that he was Jewish. He spoke in a soft, eloquent English voice without any trace of a residual accent and he would seldom volunteer any of his experiences in the mid to late 1930s unless asked.
It is here that I find myself in the final scene of Leopoldstadt standing onstage with the fellow remaining members of a once-extensive family. I do not really see Leo as a parallel to my grandfather. Whereas Leo was simply unaware, I imagine the pain my grandfather experienced, both personal and shared from his mother – who never recovered from her loss – was the curtain that occluded any meaningful ownership of being a ‘Jew’. Nevertheless, like an eternal flame simply out of view, the glow of his ancestry still radiated inside him, his brother and his parents. It is here where the innate beauty, sadness and majesty of Stoppard’s play bears itself. I wrote earlier that Stoppard utilised the play as a reminder to the persecution of Jews in society, but I realise it also serves as a potent reminder of core family values and hereditary strength. One can strip a family down to its bare bones, a dilapidated house and a few surviving descendants, but the ancestral soul always lives on.
Leopoldstadt runs until 30th October at Wyndham’s Theatre.
Image Credit – https://leopoldstadtplay.com