By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Tom Stoppard has long established his credentials as one of the 20th century’s leading playwrights and authors. Raised a proud Englishman with a proper British name and bearing, Stoppard was in his fifties before he ever learned the full extent of his Jewish heritage. His mother, who had remarried in India after the war, had only informed him that his biological father was Jewish. She had not gone into the extent of her own Jewish heritage.
She deliberately withheld the knowledge that all four of his Jewish grandparents and many other relatives had perished during the Holocaust. Being Jewish had led to the death of the doctor husband she had left behind in Singapore. A widow with two small children, she remarried a British colonel who took them all to his ancestral home in England. Soon, Tomáš Sträussler became Tom Stoppard.
Since learning the full bore of his Jewish ancestry in the early 1990s, Stoppard upbraided himself for not pressing his mother for more details. She had obscured his lineage, wishing to spare him of the sordid details and permitting him to move on. In turn, he wanted to consciously spare her from painful memories by not dredging up the past. Yes, a clever playwright like Stoppard might have invented such a plot twist, but this truth loomed larger than fiction.
Stoppard has since become more immersed in his family history and this has led him to pour his heart and industry into Leopoldstadt, a five-generation examination of the life of an assimilated Jewish family in Vienna tied to the noxious antisemitism that fundamentally fueled the Third Reich and laid the groundwork for its final solution.
The title of the play refers to the Jewish section of Vienna named in honor of Leopold I, the Holy Roman emperor and vehement Austrian antisemite who had infamously purged Vienna of its Jews. It was thought, decades later, that honoring him in that manner might obviate further pogroms directed at the Jews. Stoppard peppers in a number of historical figures into this imagined family to give it more substance. Among the figures he mentions is Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler, some of whose works were translated or adapted by Stoppard. When the Nazis came to power, works by dramatists like Schnitzler and Stefan Zweig were burned alongside more famous Jews like Marx, Freud and Einstein.
The arc of Leopoldstadt, which runs more than two hours and without intermission, impresses its audience with one central conceit. No matter how far the Jews of Vienna progressed and how distant they may have become associated with the practice of their faith, the persistent and pernicious undercurrent of antisemitism always played a factor in their lives. They may have traded peddler’s rags for fashionable finery and moved from squalid tenements into fancy apartments, but they were still recognized as the very Jews who were forced to wear yellow patches to identify them during their occupancy of Leopoldstadt. Conversion and intermarriage did not spare them.
When we are first introduced to the characters of Leopoldstadt, we see the extent of the family’s upward mobility in polite Austrian bourgeoisie society. It is the end of the 19th century.
As the matriarch, Grandma Emilia Merz (Betsy Aiden) presides over the family with her proudly assimilated son Hermann (David Krumholtz) and her dutiful daughter Eva (Caissie Levy). Hermann has chosen the path of conversion. He has deliberately shed the mantel of a Jew by marrying Gretl, a woman of consummate beauty and charm, and done so in the church. This is to ensure for him and his progeny a proper path in society and especially to create opportunity for him in business. He and Gretl have one son, Jacob, an impetuous young man who attempts to place a Star of David atop the family’s Christmas tree.
“Poor boy, baptised and circumcised in the same week, what can you expect?” his grandmother remarks.
Eva, married to mathematician Ludwig, is assimilated as well, raising their son Pauli and daughter Nellie as what she calls “bad Jews,” but still “pure-blood sons of Abraham.” In a polite way she notes to her sister-in-law Wilma that her in-laws would have nothing to do with their grandson were he not circumcised. “In fact, if I had myself Christianised like Hermann, Ludwig wouldn’t have married me.” Eva turns to her husband: “Would you, be honest.”
“I would when they were dead,” he answers.
The opening scene has a good deal of exposition as we are introduced to the other characters, several of whom we will see as they mature in the ensuing decades. These include Ludwig’s sisters Hanna (Colleen Litchfield), a pianist, and Wilma (Jenna Augen) and her Protestant husband Ernst (Aaron Neil).
Young actors play Ludwig and Eva’s son Pauli (Drew Squire), while Young Jacob is double cast with Satine and Aaron Shuf. Ernst and Wilma’s two young daughters are also double cast. Sally is played by Reese Bogin and Romy Fay, while Rosa is played by Pearl Scarlett Gold and Ava Michele Hyl.
We also see the middle and upper class trappings of several servants dedicated to the family. These include Poldi (Gina Ferrall), a cook and housekeeper, and Jana, the nursemaid (Sara Topham).
From the very beginning of Leopoldstadt, we are aware that Hermann is not sympathetic to his fellow Jews. He is derisive of Theodor Herzl’s plan for a Jewish homeland and is dismissive of Freud’s latest treatise “The Interpretation of Dreams.” In Ludwig he finds a perfect sparring mate for conversation, someone who can be realistic about being Jewish. Ludwig, in fact, worships at the altar of science and, in particular, mathematics.
“Why do Jews have to choose between pushy and humble?” Hermann asks of Ludwig, denying his own heritage.
To which, Ludwig points out Vienna’s mayor is leading a popular wave of antisemitism. He points out that gentiles will still regard them both as Jews and that he has deluded himself into believing he can evade that reality. “But, Hermann, assimilation doesn’t mean to stop being a Jew. Your incidental effect would be the end of Judaism. Assimilation means to carry on being a Jew without insult.”
Stoppard allows Hermann to realize he has overstepped and unintentionally insulted his brother-in-law and practically everyone else in the family.
But when his mother awakens shortly thereafter from a short nap, she accuses him of giving up his most important treasure.
“What’s that, Mama?”
“Family!,” Emilia retorts. “Jew-hatred is about nothing but blood and kin. They used to hate us for killing Christ. Now they hate us for being Jews.”
Sometime in the next year, Hermann summons Ernst to his home in the middle of the night insisting he must help him settle an insult to his wife by a young lieutenant named Fritz. He must have satisfaction or he will be forced to duel with the officer. Ernst thinks him mad and leaves, but not before Hermann confides in him that the shame of being a Jew was what drew him to Christianity.
Stoppard uses Schnitzler twice as a device in the play when Hermann confronts Fritz at his home. Played by Arty Froushan, the proud and virile Dragoon allows Hermann into his salon to toy with him. Unbeknownst to Hermann, we have already learned he is having an affair with Gretl and that she acted as a chaperone for the young Hannah in Fritz’s quarters pretending to play act from Schnitzler’s latest play while pursuing that affair.
Hermann believes Fritz has insulted an ideal of his wife, but he is shocked to learn first that Fritz won’t satisfy him by dueling with him because his military code won’t have officers fighting with Jews. Fritz goes on to say that a manifesto from his school days stated Jews are devoid of honor; therefore it is impossible to insult them.
“I can’t fight you, twice over!” he exclaims.
In this way Stoppard recalls the Schnitzler novella “Leutnant Gustl,” which emphasized a similar military code of conduct that smacked of antisemitism. The accusatory nature of the piece served as the means by which Schnitzler was drummed out of the medical corps as a reserve officer.
As Hermann is about to depart angrily without satisfaction, he recognizes the volume of Schnitzler’s work accidentally left behind by Gretl and Hannah. It is personally inscribed from the author to the formal name of Hermann’s brother-in-law Ludwig.
“How do you know my brother-in-law?” Hermann inquires after examining the book.
Fritz has no idea who Dr. Ludwig Jakobovicz is. Suddenly, it dawns on Hermann that Fritz may be more involved with Gretl than he ever thought possible and that the musings about the wives of bored Jewish factory owners making great lovers may have had more than a mere element of truth.
The scene that follows is a full-on seder for the family shortly after Hermann has returned from Fritz’s quarters. His disconnection from his own faith coupled with his own fears about his wife’s fidelity is noted when he mistakenly explains to Jacob that the parsley is “the bitter herb.” Stoppard adds a surreal touch as Hermann and Gretl end the scene, embracing and dancing to the Austrian national anthem, “The Radetzy March,” evocative of the coming Great War and the rise of Austrian nationalism.
When the timeline advances another generation, Hanna’s daughter Hermine (Eden Epstein) opens the scene, with another dance, “The Charleston.” The apartment is largely the same, but it is now beyond World War I and into the Jazz Age of 1924. In addition to “Mina,” all the children seen earlier are now fully mature adults and, with the exception of Jacob, are all married. He wears a disheveled, striped pajama top evocative of what future concentration camp victims will wear. Jacob has suffered the loss of an arm and an eye and is undoubtedly a victim of what would today be termed as post traumatic shock disorder. Raised by his father to believe he is a Christian, he spouts much of the antisemitic blather of the Austrian nationalists of the day harboring a desire to recapture the glory of the Hapsburg empire of his youth.
Stoppard’s renowned ability to blend expertly-timed comedy with drama is best seen in this scene with the family gathering for a bris. Ernst and Ludwig’s daughter Sally is nervously vacillating between having the circumcision or fleeing with the baby in abject terror at the thought of the deed being done without anesthesia. Zac, Sally’s husband, tries to reassure her, reminding her they had a Jewish wedding, after all. But she will have nothing to do with it.
There is confusion with the arrival of Otto (Japhet Balaban), a banker who is mistaken for the delayed mohel (Daniel Cantor), At Hermann’s suggestion, the dashing, young banker is there to sign papers for the family’s textile manufacturing plant. Mina eyes him as a potential suitor, especially when she learns he is the only son of the bank’s owner. When Hermann arrives, he expresses his dissatisfaction with the current state of political and economic affairs in Austria. We can easily see from whence Jacob has distilled his overt cynicism.
But the mild-mannered Otto reveals a chilling prescience. Unlike Jacob and Hermann’s nationalism, he expresses a logical desire to unite the two common German-speaking nations into a union to deal with the harsh reality of life in post-war Austria. Otto sees the two great forces of Marxism and nationalism as competing for the soul of Austria and proposes a third way out: the Greater German People’s Party.
Hermann is shocked. “You’d give up Austria’s independence just for logic?” he asks.
It is this pushback against reparations and a perceived European-powers repression that the Nazis would use to gain a significant foothold in Vienna and beyond. Stoppard’s choice of the year 1924 is particularly apt and illustrates how well-intentioned Austrian nationalists might be drawn to Germany as a means of self-preservation.
Whatever humor was found in the family’s bris misadventures fades into the darkness as the sounds of bombers fill the theater and leaflets with swastikas fall from the sky. The timeline advances to Kristallnacht as the family settles into a more spartan apartment, stripped of its finery and without servants. Stoppard introduces a British journalist, Percy Chamberlain (Seth Numrich), as a device to illustrate the hopelessness of the Jews caught in the maelstrom of the Nazis rise to power. Mixed race children of Jews and Christians are regarded as Jews and forbidden from professional life.
Percy points out: “In Berlin the Jews are still allowed to go to the cinema, the theatre, restaurants, cafés, to use the trains, the parks, to go shopping…As anti-Semites the Germans have some catching up to do on the Austrians.”
When the Civilian (Corey Brill) and his thug henchmen enter the apartment, it is terrifying. The scene signifies that life for the family will never be the same as the coming Holocaust is about to descend upon them. The Civilian informs the family that the apartment will be requisitioned and they will all be relocated. Under direct threat, Hermann is required to sign away his beloved mills and factory; the interrogation only ends when Gretl, having escaped from the hospital where she is being cared for by nuns, arrives unexpectedly. Even then, frail and in failing health, her beauty shines through in such a manner that the Civilian is unsettled and leaves.
Percy, who might well represent Stoppard’s own stepfather, tries to find a way out for Nellie and her son Leo, who is frightened. He offers to take them to England, much like Stoppard’s own stepfather famously told him years later “I made you British.”
The final scene allows us to examine the plight of the family ten years after the war. At 31, Nathan, like Ludwig before him, is a mathematician and orphaned. He is obviously suffering from the anguish of survivor’s guilt. Leo, who is now 24, has changed his surname (like Stoppard) to a proper English one: Chamberlain. With tongue-in-cheek, Stoppard gives Leo the same name sported by the English prime minister who meliorated the Nazis after they illegally annexed the Sudetenland.
Nathan attempts to indoctrinate Leo, who has all but forgotten the terror of living in pre-war Austria. Rosa is there to keep Leo’s anger in check and to reach out to her British cousin who has no recollection of or connection to his former family.
Directed by Patrick Marber, Leopoldstadt is an extremely moving piece with extraordinary performances by a stellar ensemble cast. Especially memorable are David Krumholtz and Seth Numrich as father and adult son Hermann and Jacob Merz. Though they do not share scenes, together they are most essential to showing the tragic end of Austrian’s assimilated Jewish community. Faye Catelow, as Gretl, is also impressive as the unapproachable beauty who comes to represent the glory of Austria’s past destroyed by its tragic romanticism of pan-Germany under the Nazis.
Impeccable costume designs are rendered by Brigitte Reiffenstuel with superb support by Neil Austin with lighting designs and Adam Cork, who provided sound designs and original music for “Leopoldstadt.”
As one of a few survivors, Brandon Uranowitz plays Nathan with more than a hint of underlying anger and contempt for his cousin, who escaped via the kindertransport thanks to his stepfather Percy. In an irony of sorts, Nathan points out that Rosa is only half-Jewish and that he is three-quarters Jewish.
“But you’re the whole catastrophe,” he tells Leo, who like Stoppard late in life, realizes perhaps for the first time how very lucky he was to have escaped the Holocaust.
Stoppard tells us many things about Austria and Jewish assimilation, most of which are not only true, but damnable. But there is one thing he never tells us and it is the biggest truth never uttered throughout the nine scenes and two hours and ten minutes of Leopoldstadt. Simply put, Hitler was born in Austria!
Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard (2 hours and 10 minutes, no intermission) has extended its Broadway limited run at the Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th St. in New York City from now through July 2, 2023. For tickets call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or click here.
Cast: Jesse Aaronson (Aaron), Betsy Aidem (Grandma Emilia), Jenna Augen (Rosa), Japhet Balaban (Otto), Reese Bogin/Romy Fay (Young Sally), Corey Brill (Civilian), Daniel Cantor (mohel), Faye Castelow (Gretl), Eden Epstein (Hermine), Gina Ferrall (Poldi), Arty Foushan (Leo), Pearl Scarlett Gold/Ava MIchele Hyl (Young Rosa), Matt Harrington, (Zac), David Krumholtz (Hermann), Caissie Levy (Eva), Colleen Litchfield (Hanna), Tedra Millan (Nellie), Aaron Neil (Ernst), Seth Numrich (Percy), Anthony Rosenthal (Young Nathan), Joshua Satine/Aaron Shuf (Young Jacob), Sara Topham (Jana), Brandon Uranowitz (Nathan)
Creative Team: Director: Patrick Marber; Scenic Design: Richard Hudson; Costume Design: Brigitte Reiffensteul; Lighting Design: Neil Austin; Sound Design and Original Music: Adam Cork: Projection Design: Issac Madge; Movement: Emily Jane Boyle.