Viennese Roles

Tom Stoppard, Leopoldstadt (directed by Patrick Marber, Wyndhams Theatre)

The Stoppard play is a familiar unfamiliar beast: a pastiche of a known genre or text meshed with a philosophical idea or two, told in witty dialogue. Tosh a Beckettean Hamlet at probability theory or quantum mechanics at John Le Carré. The downside for some — I don’t agree — is characters as cyphers and an emotional shallowness.


Maybe it is my training in reading sf.

But this, all too obviously, is a play with emotion at its heart.

Last January, I was looking around the twentieth-century floor of the Belvedere in Vienna and the death dates crept up on me. Some were pre-First World War, some during the war, some from Spanish Flu, some in the Anschluss and some in the death camps. Some did survive, mostly exiles. It wasn’t that all the artists were Jewish, but a fair number were. So, it was obvious that a play set from 1899 to the mid-1950s was going to go to some dark places.

At the heart of the play, there is the Merz family, whose genealogies projected onto the curtain at the start (and it would be useful to have this for a second viewing), who are wealthy and are among the intelligentsia of Vienna – textile entrepreneurs (Hermann), doctors, university lecturers (Ludwig). We are told about artists and playwrights and novelists and so on, and Klimt paints a portrait, and Dr Freud has his consulting rooms, yet Jews are at best tolerated, not really invited to the country clubs. Not all of them are practicing, and some are marrying out — interestingly to a Protestant rather than a Catholic. There is a pamphlet about setting up a Jewish homeland in Madagascar – a suggestion later to be taken up by the Nazis.

So, there are long speeches, setting the scene, telling not showing, but impressing with a poorly treated minority’s achievement. There is a Passover, and a Christmas tree and a Star of David nearly ends up on the tree.

One of the central characters of the current generation is Ludwig (Ed Stoppard) a mathematician, obsessed with the Riemann hypothesis – even today a key unsolved problem in mathematics and relating to the distribution of primes – and cat’s cradles – a serious of string figures which can be transformed to each other and whose relationships to each other can be described with mathematical equations. I think I need to see the play again to see where Stoppard is going with this – in part it can chart the rise and fall of the mathematician’s mind as he ages, and the continuity between generations. But it doesn’t feel as integrated as earlier Stoppard. There is also a sequence involving an extramarital affair, which cites and echoes Arthur Schnitzler’s Reigen — itself set in 1890s Vienna — but this seems to be dropped.

Perhaps that is also the point. Ludwig is looking for the order and pattern in the primes and the strings, and it is tempting to see the algorithm that leads to or out of the Anschluss and the concentration camps, or who dies and who survives. But there is no order. And yet it almost feels inevitable.

Another thread is the assimilation of the family and other Jews into Austrian society as opposed to the maintenance of identity – including in some cases fighting for the Austrians in the First World War at great personal cost. In context, it is not enough. They gave everything and more and it is not enough. And yet – spoilers – we do see on assimilation that has worked, but only to a point. At a cost only visible in hindsight. And if the family here stands in as a version of the ancestors of Stoppard (né Tomáš Straussler), then this character seems to stand in for Stoppard himself.

The play is a work of memorial and memory, for the six million or more who were executed or died on the way to the camps. As we leap across and between generations, as an audience we might identify to maintain those connections ourselves. The three central men can play older versions of themselves, but the toddlers become old and we need to remember who they are. I confess, with a mixed memory for names, I struggled.

Even the characters struggle – the younger characters trying to remember back to the time before the First World War, a false memory of that Klimt painting which sounds so convincing. In the 1950s there were survivors to remember – and clearly survivors who chose not to. By 2020, time has reduced those numbers even further, just as the fin de siècle Vienna is now out of reach. There is a list of names to remember and mourn, but the play reminds us, devastatingly, that there is more to them than just the name.

Yes, this is a talkative play and that is only to be expected from Stoppard. There is a cast of forty. There is little action – but then again, seeing that action might have been unbearable. Even the one point of real action is tough enough to watch.

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