In five acts spanning the years from 1899 through 1955, Tom Stoppard focuses on a wealthy Jewish Viennese family as they navigate the turbulent waters of social and cultural transformation in Leopoldstadt. Stoppard’s latest play begins at the turn of the century and moves through two World Wars. In it the playwright heightens the most salient themes about antisemitism, social responsibility, discrimination, human rights, family, ancestry and ever-changing political power structures which promote tribalism.
Stoppard weaves these concepts into the story of the the multi-generational Merz and Jakobovicz families. With a panoramic view, Stoppard shadows their journey forward and backward, as Jews who attempt to maintain their identity and place in the culture and society of Vienna, Austria. Stoppard’s masterwork which first premiered in London, is currently in its Broadway run at the Longacre Theatre, coming in at 2 hours, 10 minutes with no intermission. Leopoldstadt is one of Stoppard’s finest works.
When we meet the members of the two families in the large Merz drawing room as they celebrate Christmas 1899, Hermann Merz (David Krumholtz), affirms that they can be grateful for Emperor Franz-Joseph’s new freedoms. For over fifty years as Jews, they have said “goodbye” to massacres and pogroms, and must only withstand discrimination now and then. Wealthy textile manufacturer Hermann, baptized a Christian, has married the elegant and lovely blonde-haired Gretl (Faye Castelow), who is having her likeness painted by the foremost artist of the Vienna Succession, Gustav Klimt.
During the conversations we note the prosperity and culture of these two families who inhabit the same social circles as the foremost professionals and artists in Viennese society. They name-drop Mahler, Schoenberg, Schnitzler and Freud. Hermann affirms his evolution as a Jew. “My grandfather wore a caftan, my father went to the opera and wore a top hat, and I have the singers to dinner-actors, writers, musicians.” Professor Ludwig Jakobovicz (Brandon Uranowitz), is a patient of Sigmund Freud and interested in his own dreams. Ludwig, shows his theoretical mathematical prowess by questioning Hermann and Gretl’s son Jacob about Reimann sums. Doctor Ernst Jakobovicz (Aaron Neil), is meeting the lecturers for a Christmas drink, but then this is protocol, for he is a Christian.
To emphasize his full embrace of the cultured Vienna as the Promised Land, Hermann repudiates any interest as a Jew in Theodore Herzl’s Zionist idea of a liberal state in Palestine. Ludwig agrees that no one would want to go to the desert, certainly not the Jews who are part of Austrian bourgeois high society. Obviously, Hermann is not prejudiced. He practices the dictim that Jews in business should to be opened-minded to all cultures and religions to expand their opportunities, if they are to succeed. We discover later in the play that success is paramount in Hermann’s life. With forward momentum, Hermann’s wealth and cultural aspirations have been bolstered by his marriage to his Christian wife Gretl. He is the first Christian of Jewish descent in the family.
However, Grandma Emilia (Betsy Aidem), reminds Hermann of the cost of his sacrifice for his children to be Christian. He has thrown over what he should have valued most, family and ancestry. But it’s no matter because attitudes toward Jews have shifted. Grandma Emilia points out that once “hated as Christ-killers, Jews are now hated for being Jews.” Illustrating how much Hermann has changed for the sake of his career, Ludwig supports her comment with the terrible reality: he will always be a Jew. Grandma and Ludwig toast to a future territory for Jews where they might be safe. That their wish comes true after the horrific Holocaust and murder of millions gives us chilling pause. However, safety, even in modern Israel, is elusive.
In this first act Stoppard has laid out the ground rules, intimating how the principle theme, “it can happen here and it can happen again” will come to resonate as an irrevocable truth. As a family member states toward the play’s end, “barbarism can’t be eradicated by culture.” Indeed, the rational is often supplanted by the irrational. In the subsequent acts we understand how this becomes a reality for the two Jewish families in the play. They ignore the the burgeoning antisemitism in Vienna and ineffectively attempt to navigate around it by sticking together and celebrating tradition, until it is too late to leave.
In Act 2 (1900), Stoppard unspools his themes revealing that the discrimination that Hermann refers to runs deeper than “now and then.” Fritz (Arty Froushan), an Austrian dragoon, eschews the younger Jewess Hanna and falls in love with the older Gretl, Hermann’s wife. They carry on an affair for a time, until she tells him she must break it off because Klimt’s painting of her will be finished and she will be recognized sneaking around with him. When Fritz boasts about his affair making a Jewish slur in the company of gentlemen and in Hermann’s presence, Hermann initially doesn’t realize Gretl is his lover. He thinks Fritz is insulting Gretl and attempts to recover their honor by proposing a duel. Refusing to engage Hermann because he is a Jew, Fritz insults him further by telling him his military status forbids him dueling with Jews.
Humiliated and doubly stripped of his honor, Hermann must bow to Friz, whose antisemitism holds sway. This prejudice is a warning that Hermann will always be an inferior in a culture that despises his heritage. Though Fritz’s rejection saves Hermann’s life, Hermann is gravely affronted and embittered because he doesn’t consider himself a Jew. However, Hermann later exploits the situation to his and his family’s advantage, after he realizes that Gretl and Fritz have had an affair. Ironically, being identified as a Jew upsets Hermann more than his wife’s infidelity. From this moment afterward, the situation worsens for Viennese Jews and members of these two families.
In subsequent acts we see the families experiencing events with less emphasis on the culture, as they uplift the Jewish traditions to humorous effect because they are not religious. For example Stoppard has them confuse the banker Otto with the Mohel who is late to Nathan’s brit milah, as Sally runs to and fro conflicted about her son’s painful circumcision. She is not mindful about the symbolism of the circumcision which means he is bound to God. Instead, she wants him to “be like his father,” following tradition. Interestingly, her decision is fateful. Stoppard intimates the importance of his being bound to God at the conclusion of the play.
Richard Hudson’s set design manifests the transformations in the society and family fortunes from 1899 to 1955, as we note the movement in time from Belle Époque opulence (1899, 1900), to spare minimalism after World War I (1924), to the Anschluss (annexation), of Austria and Krystallnacht (night of broken glass, 1938), after the room is stripped of valuables. Finally, the once elegant drawing room is completely bare and stark when we come upon the reunion of three remaining family members in 1955, (Act 5). However, we are reminded of the once glorious decor via flashback to the 1900 Seder of Act II, when Rosa remembers her shame at forgetting where she hid the afikomen (a symbol of redemption). The scene in Act 5 then flashes forward as Rosa enumerates the family members murdered by the Nazis, family she couldn’t get out because of quotas, though as a citizen of the United States, she was willing to sponsor them on her meager salary. Stoppard’s irony about Rosa losing the afikomen runs parallel to her inability to save any of her family from dying at Auschwitz.
It is Gretl, clueless about the Seder and the afikomen’s meaning, who produces another matzo to calm everyone, though the ceremony’s meaning is blown apart. In later years Gretl has brain cancer. She dies unable to save herself or Hermann with her Christianity, as Hermann’s conversion is not recognized under the race laws of a unified Austria/Germany. Like Ludwig said, regardless, Hermann is a Jew. The ancestors he has rejected are irrevocably his relatives through blood ties. However, he doesn’t fully realize he has rejected one world for entrance into another. But he remains in “no man’s land,” without a ‘territory” because the antisemites will not allow him to gain entry.
Effectively using the drawing room set to reveal the Merz family’s dwindling fortunes with fewer and fewer adornments as time marches on, the family members age before our eyes, though there are always four of the youngest generation present to carry on the bloodline. Stoppard continues building on the themes he introduced in Act I, as political and social issues become more complex after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the aftermath of WW I the losing nations rally and attempt to recoup their power. Austria becomes a Republic overrun by various political parties (communists, democratic socialists, nationalists), who struggle for ultimate control.
In Act 3 (1924), as the family is in an uproar with Nathan’s brit milah, Hermann makes arrangements with his banker to adjust to gyrating markets in an Austria roiling with the demands of WWI reparations payments. Otto (humorously, ironically mistaken for the Mohel), warns Hermann about the country’s nationalistic future. Austrians are voting for uniting Austria and Germany to “restore their destiny together as one Christian nation leading in science and culture.” Where will the Jews fit in? When Hermann questions this, Otto suggests that class war turns people against each other, but nationalism binds them together. Austria is embracing German nationalism as its own. As they conclude the discussion, Nathan’s circumcision is cheered by family.
The celebration has an air of ironic doom. As one more Jewish male is bound to God, it is one more Jew who will be subjected to oppression and persecution in a society that will strengthen itself by excluding him as “the other.” In a seamless movement between Act 3 and Act 4, the circumcised Nathan emerges fourteen years later and stands in the street, looking in the sky to see bombers flying overhead. The family has not immigrated to another country. Only Rosa is in New York. The net is closing in on them.
As predicted by Otto and intimated by Ludwig, things have gotten worse and are heading backward toward the time when yellow patches were worn on clothing in the 1830s in the Jewish ghetto of Leopoldstadt. The drawing room is stripped of valuable items and Klimt’s painting of Gretl is gone, as the family gathers once more united for strength and information.
Act 4 (1938) is the devastation of an Austria in lockstep with Hitler’s despotism, manifesting even greater antisemitism than that shown in Berlin, which still allows Jews to go to cafes, movies, etc. The underlying discrimination which appeared to be residual is no longer sub rosa in Austria. That which Hermann and others said wouldn’t happen again is striking up the band in their faces, indecently, aggressively, proudly. But what are they doing about it?
Percy (Seth Numrich), a journalist and fiancee of Nellie (Tedra Millan), tells them that as Jews, they are political refugees. They are subject to quotas dictated by 32 countries that met at a conference to discuss what to do about receiving Austrian Jews. Particularly appalling is the antisemitism in the countries who shrink their quotas to receive Jews based upon the will of the trade unions. Members of the family hear that their cultured friends and colleagues are leaving on special visas. Shouldn’t they also leave?
Stoppard intermingles Percy’s admonitions with Sally (Sara Topham), reading Grimm’s fairy tales to the children (an ironic symbol), while Ludwig discusses the knots on a cat’s cradle puzzle with Leo and Nathan. The juxtaposition of their calm interactions with the children, and Percy’s insistence that Nellie must marry him and leave her parents to then help family immigrate to England, creates tension. As Ernst adds his information, the tensions increases. In treating writers and artists and interpreting their dreams, Dr. Freud sensed the underlying tribal chaos to come. He decides to leave. Additionally, Ernst discusses Klimt’s wild paintings for the university that suggest, on a subliminal level, that the “rational is at the mercy of the irrational,” and “barbarism will not be eradicated by culture.” Once in fashion, the paintings are considered subversive.
In a vast and growing conservatism, Klimt’s art is labeled as nonsensical and offensive. The labels are a harbinger of the Third Reich’s future confiscation of valuable paintings censored then banned as decadent. It is a ruse to steal millions of dollars of valuable art, that wealthy Jewish merchants and families purchased in the golden years of cultural blossoming. As the “now and then” discrimination has increased, culture has been supplanted by tribalism and propaganda that “proves” Jews’ dirty inferiority. Not only does Dr, Freud leave, so do other bright lights, once the “toast” of Viennese culture and society.
Percy tells them the discrimination will only worsen but Nellie ignores him, insisting that things will get better. As if to punctuate Percy’s accuracy, an Austrian civilian (Corey Brill), with a swastika armband abruptly enters. He checks their racial identity as Jews, stipulating Hermann is not exempt from his blood heritage. He insults Ernst for “hanging around” and doesn’t allow him to accompany his wife Eva to the mental asylum though she is deaf and blind. After the Civilian harasses and demeans the children with epithets, he directs Hermann to sign over the business to the state because he has used it to commit crimes (convenient lies to justify theft). As the Civilian leaves, he warns them they are to be evicted the following day and can only take one suitcase with valuables under 15 reichsmarks. It is then Hermann discusses how he has protected his business from legal confiscation and tells the family they must go to live in Leopoldstadt. As sounds of “the night of broken glass” increase, little Heini plays on his toy piano to drown out the terror, a symbol of culture’s diminuitve power against barbaric acts of tyranny.
One hundred years before, the Merz and Jakobovicz family’s ancestors were forced to wear a yellow patch of exclusion that justified the limitations of their easy movement in Viennese society. Only for a brief period were the Merz and Jakobovicz’s free thanks to Emperor Franz Joseph. Sadly, they were duped because the hatred and antisemitism was always bubbling underneath, despite their great contributions creating an amazing culture. At this point, Grandma Emilia’s adjurations come home to roost. Jews are hated for their bloodline, a fact which Hermann nor the others can accept. That they are not Orthodox nor very religious makes their bloodline even more damnable. Stoppard’s irony hits with a double impact.
In the last act (1955), during the reunion of American Aunt Rosa (Jenna Augen), Nathan (Brandon Uranowitz), and Englishman Leo (Arty Froushan), we watch these family members attempt to reconcile their different experiences as Jews during the Holocaust. Rosa and Nathan almost indict Leo for not understanding the heartbreak they’ve experienced. Only until Leo remembers an incident in the drawing room, when Ernst stitched a wound on his hand after he broke a cup, does he remember the family, the drawing room, Ludwig and the cat’s cradle. It is then Leo breaks down in tears at the revelation of feeling. It is then that he begins to understand the import and impact of the Holocaust and the hatreds that stole his family from him.
The three conclude with uncertainty about Austria which acts the innocent victim, though many complict Austrians were guards in concentration camps and helped round up Jews for transports to the camps. Aunt Rosa, who purchased Hermann’s apartment, vows to get back what was stolen, Klimt’s painting of Gretl. Nathan counters that there will difficulty proving the painting’s provenance. As Aunt Rosa, Leo and Nathan look over the family tree, they review how family members (Ernst, Grtl, Hermann, Jacob, Eva,Hanna, etc.), we’ve come to know and empathize with died, many at Auschwitz, some in Vienna, one committing suicide in Leopoldstadt, one committing suicide after the war is over. Their deaths are a poignant, heartbreaking devastation. The doom revealed in dreams and in artists’ works, warned what was to come. There were many warnings. Family members ignored them until it was too late.
There is much about this production that is astounding. The opening act is spectacular as we see the beauty of that time in Vienna, thanks to Richard Hudson’s scenic design, Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costume design, Neil Austin’s lighting design, Adam Cork’s sound design and original music, Isaac Madge’s projuction design and others. Because of the efforts of the creative team, we recognize how two World Wars smashed the greatness of the people and their contributions of genius to enlighten and uplift. The society that benefited, boiled up with masochistic barbarism to devour that genius. Thus, in seeing the panorama of this time period from (1899-1955), through the lives of family members, it becomes clear how war sets back civilization in unthinkable ways.
Leopoldstadt encapsulates the questions that many have asked. And it answers them. If the Jews had not been “free” under Emperor Franz Joseph, would they have been able to do the exploits they accomplished? The subsequent Acts 2-5 reveal the answer, and affirm the danger to all, especially the antisemites, the prejudiced, the barbarians, the tribalists. By oppressing/destroying others to effect a genocide, what exactly is gained? Is not the loss of talent and brilliance for all time an unequivocal fact? The more limitations on creative freedoms (arts, sciences, etc.), are imposed, the greater becomes the cultural and social liability for the global population.
Stoppard’s work is filled with ironies and quotes that resound with pithy fervor. A final irony is that the most Jewish one in the family is Leo (Leopold), who was taken to England by his mother Nellie, and Percy, his stepfather. His own father was killed by Austrians. However, Leo doesn’t realize his ancestry which his mother fearfully kept from him. Instead, he identified with England and all its blessings (a top country), conveniently, while eschewing its most horrific acts of “still upper lip” genocide, colonialism and crass exploitation of “inferior” non white cultures. When Nathan tells Leo that both his parents and both sets of grandparents were Jewish, it is a revelation. That Leo receives it, at a point when he can most appreciate it, is poignant. For as he joins Nathan and Rosa in remembering those lost, he begins to understand his own history and identity.
As a minor criticism of the production, in Act 4, the scene when the Civilian and two police enter appeared to be restrained. The acting in that section of Act 4 (from all involved), lacked the fervor necessary to reinforce the point that the once enlightened Austrians have revealed themselves to be barbarians. The greater intensity might have strengthened the conclusion and the emotional empathy for the family stolen from him, and for the triumph and hope residing in Nathan, the only one who made it out of Auschwitz to give his testimony that the Holocaust is not a fiction.
Leopoldstadt is an incredible achievement. Kudos to the director Patrick Marber and the creative team who explored the director and Stoppard’s vision. And kudos to the fine actors who portrayed Stoppard’s characters. Their work warns us about ourselves and our penchant for escaping damning, painful, inconvenient truths. The production is horrifically current in revealing that denialism and silence in all its forms will be exploited by opportunistic, political criminals, for whom tribalism and barbarism are the only way to get what they want.
To see this magnificent work, go to their website: https://leopoldstadtplay.com/