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Tom Stoppard and Tony Kushner Wander Around Mitteleuropa

Suspended productions of ‘Leopoldstadt’ and ‘The Visit’ try to update the traumas that broke families in World War II

A.J. Goldmann
September 09, 2020
Marc Brenner
Actor Noof McEwan in Tom Stoppard’s ‘Leopoldstadt’Marc Brenner
Marc Brenner
Actor Noof McEwan in Tom Stoppard’s ‘Leopoldstadt’Marc Brenner

“To be fascinated by fin-de-siècle Vienna is, quite simply, to seek out the sources of our present consciousness,” George Steiner wrote in The New Yorker in 1985, “the close woven roots of much of what is best and worst in our culture.”

Tom Stoppard’s new play, Leopoldstadt, the multigenerational saga of a Jewish-Viennese family that premiered in London at the Wyndham’s Theatre just as the COVID-19 crisis began, revisits what Steiner referred to as “the most creative and tragic chapter in the history of post-exilic Judaism.”

Stoppard’s title refers to Vienna’s second district, the former site of the medieval ghetto and a heavily Jewish district to this very day. Yet none of the play actually takes place in Leopoldstadt, which makes the title both ironic and symbolic.

On Christmas Eve 1899 a large clan gathers at a fashionable apartment off of the Ringstrasse, the monumental ring road that was liberal Vienna’s most stunning and recognizable triumph of urban planning. This is the home of Hermann Merz (Adrian Scarborough, in a performance that balances arrogance with anxiety), a prosperous textile manufacturer whose entrée into the glittering and sophisticated society of the time has been crowned with baptism.

As the house lights dim, a slideshow of photos from Old Vienna projected on the curtain plays out amid the low string rumble of Arnold Schoenberg’s 1899 tone poem “Verklärte Nacht” (Transfigured Night), whose transfixing, diaphanous textures provide a perfect soundtrack for the overripe hothouse of fin de siècle Vienna.

The curtain rises on “twelve members of two intermarried Jewish families,” as Stoppard’s note puts it. At breakneck speed, we are introduced to these dozen characters during the holiday commotion. Stoppard does a deft job of presenting his large dramatis personae and of establishing their relationships against the frantic, off-kilter backdrop of this very Jewish Christmas.

There is Gretl (a finely shaded performance by Faye Castelow), Hermann’s non-Jewish wife, a beauty whose portrait by Klimt will soon adorn the wall (the stage directions go as far as to indicate a manner closer to the painter’s earlier portraits of either Serena Lederer or Marie Henneberg, rather than the gilt Adele Bloch-Bauer).

As the children decorate the Christmas tree, the family matriarch, Emilia, serves them chocolate cake with whipped cream and adds photos to the family album. When Hermann’s son Jacob tries to hang a Star of David at the top of the tree, she offers the following commentary; “Poor boy, baptized and circumcised in the same week, what can you expect?”

Similar witty observations properly situate us among the assimilated and cultured Jewish upper bourgeoisie. From the dawn of the new century, Stoppard leaps daringly from decade to decade. Leopoldstadt has a curiously circular form and a sort of composite protagonist in the various Jewish and non-Jewish members of the extended Merz family. Holidays and family gatherings lend the play its unusual structure, with a Seder and a bris yet to come.

In the whirr of conversation, small talk and banter of the open scene, Stoppard gives us a breezy potpourri of upper-middle-class Jewish conversation. Freud is compared to the biblical Joseph, another interpreter of dreams. The talk veers from a Jewish homeland in Madagascar to foreskin. Mahler is derided as “another Christian still wet from his baptism.” “We’re Jews. Bad Jews, but pure-blood sons of Abraham,” Hermann’s sister Eva explains about her decision not to follow him into Christianity.

Hermann’s brother-in-law, Ludwig (an avuncular performance by Ed Stoppard, the playwright’s son), a mathematician obsessed with proving the Riemann hypothesis, likes to josh Hermann about his decision to convert.

Hermann: You seem to think that becoming a Catholic is like joining the Jockey Club.
Ludwig: It’s not unlike, except that anyone can become a Catholic.

Despite the jocular tone, Stoppard plants seeds of worry and apprehension. We learn that Gretl can’t have more children and that Hermann has staked everything on his son Jacob. Hermann would like him to be a composer, piano virtuoso or a great mathematician, but will settle with him taking over Merz & Co. And the grandmother and Wilma, poring over the family album, struggle to put names to all the faces. “You don’t realize how fast they’re disappearing from being remembered. … It’s like a second death, to lose your name in a family album.”

Ludwig, who has yet to be made full professor at the university, is more angst ridden than the overconfident Hermann. When the discussion turns to Herzl, Hermann reprimands him:

Why do Jews have to choose between pushy and humble? You’re probably in line for the next Jew-slot. So don’t fall for this Judenstaat idiocy. Do you want to do mathematics in the desert or in the city where Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven overlapped, and Brahms used to come to our house? We’re Austrians. Viennese. Doctors come from all over the world to study here. Philosophers. Architects. A city of art lovers and intellectuals like no other.

As far as dialogue goes, it’s pretty weak, even if it gets the point across quite clearly. As elsewhere, Stoppard’s writing is most stilted and least convincing when characters start lecturing one another.

While Ludwig worries about the specter of prejudice, Hermann draws strength from the unprecedented and rapid assimilation that has happened “in one lifetime.” Stoppard gives him a monologue where admiration mixes with triumphalism and which echoes much of what has been written of the time and place by artists and intellectuals, including Stefan Zweig in his tender if somewhat hazy-eyed memoir, The World of Yesterday.

My grandfather wore a caftan, my father went to the opera in a top hat, and I have the singers to dinner—actors, writers, musicians. We buy the books, we look at the paintings, we go to the theatre, the restaurant, we employ music teachers for our children. A new writer, if he’s a great poet like Hofmannsthal, walks among us like a demi-god. We literally worship culture. When we make money, that’s what the money is for, to put us at the beating heart of Viennese culture. This is the Promised Land, and not because it’s some place on the map where my ancestors came from. We’re Austrians now. Austrians of Jewish descent! We’re only one in ten but without us Austria would be the Patagonia of banking, science, the law, the arts, literature, journalism.

As Leopoldstadt shows, however, “one lifetime” isn’t even how long it will take for everything to unravel. Ludwig, who intuits that the family’s security and success is fleeting, argues that true assimilation would mean to “carry on being a Jew without insult.”

This is, of course, precisely what Hermann will never achieve, despite baptism and intermarriage. In his fanatical belief in culture and progress at the dawning of a new century, he is unable to fathom the dark, irrational forces that shatter his world twice over.

Stoppard’s degree of erudition (not to mention name-dropping) is familiar from plays like Jumpers, The Real Thing, and The Invention of Love; yet here he seems to wear his learning more lightly than in those other works. For a dramatist whose works can often seem too clever by half, Leopoldstadt is unusually grounded in pathos and sentimentality. It’s the closest that Stoppard has ever come to writing a melodrama.

The earliest scenes of the play, set in 1899 and 1900 find Stoppard channeling Arthur Schnitzler, the great fin de siècle Jewish Viennese writer whose scandalous play Reigen (“La Ronde” or “Round Dance”) is casually lying around in the author’s self-published edition during the Christmas preparations. Soon afterward, Gretl betrays Hermann with a young cadet; when the cuckolded husband confronts his wife’s lover, the soldier’s virulent anti-Semitism adds insult to injury. (Beyond Reigen, Leopoldstadt also owes much to Schnitzler’s one novel, The Road to the Open, an unflinching examination of fin de siècle Jewish Viennese society whose protagonists engage in wide-ranging conversations about Zionism and “die Judenfrage.”)

The early post-coital scene between Gretl and Fritz, a much-younger officer (a lieutenant in the Dragoons), is pure Schnitzler. (In fact, Reigen is used to aphrodisiac effect. Later, the inscribed volume, left behind in Fritz’s apartment, becomes an incriminating piece of evidence.)

Schnitzler’s sophisticated erotic games have inspired Jewish artists from Max Ophuls to Stanley Kubrick. A year before appearing in Eyes Wide Shut, adapted from Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, Nicole Kidman created a scandal on the West End by performing naked in David Hare’s The Blue Room, the English playwright’s version of Reigen.

With Hermann’s agony over his wife’s infidelity front and center for most of these early scenes, it often feels as though Stoppard is trying his hand at writing a Schnitzler play of his own. When Hermann and Fritz meet by chance over a game of cards, the young cadet ruefully proclaims that the “wives of rich Jews” make the best lovers. When Hermann, sensing an insult to his honor, demands satisfaction, Fritz disappoints him by revealing that his regiment does not permit duels with Jews, who are born without honor.

For his part, Hermann feels that his personal and family history leaves him no choice but to challenge the officer. He tells his brother-in-law Ernst:

My great grandfather was a peddler of cloth. His son had a tailor’s shop in Leopoldstadt. My father imported the first steam-driven loom from America. They strove to lift me high. Absurd as it is, I would be repudiating them if I flinched now.

Hermann’s interlocutor tries to call his bluff by asking whether that repudiation had already come through baptism. Hermann’s response is the play’s most wicked comedic rejoinder: “No. They were Jews, they knew a bargain when they saw it.”

(Spoiler alert: Decades later, Hermann will use his wife’s affair to have Jacob declared and certified as Aryan so the Merz firm can remain in the family.)

When the play picks up again in 1924, Strauss waltzes have been replaced by the Charleston. The family is gathered together for a cousin’s bris. As topics of conversation, Mahler and Freud take a backseat to the recently founded Salzburg Festival and Red Vienna.

The Merz family has made it through the war mostly in one piece, but like the empire to which they once belonged, their dazzling splendor is a thing of the past. They’ve gone from being rich to merely well off. They discuss the Balfour Declaration and communism and the carving up of the empire to Italy, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.

Hermann’s son Jacob is cynical and bitter, predicting—rightly—that the Jews will take the rap for everything from “strikes, inflation, bank failures, Bolshivism, the black market, modern art”:

The Jews got blamed for everything before the war and when the war was lost they got blamed for that. War was going to make Jews Austrian once and for all, not just the assimilated, the baptized, the mischlinge, but even the refugees pouring in from Galicia and the Eastern Front. War fever made us all patriots. We offered up our lives to the Emperor. We didn’t think he would take it literally, we meant just till Christmas when we’d won.

This postwar scene is less absorbing and convincing than the 1900 sequences, in part because Stoppard overdoes the bris jokes. The misunderstandings pile up when a banker who shows up to deal with paperwork for the Merz firm is mistaken for the mohel. Given permission to smoke, he requests a cigar cutter, but says that he’s also fine just biting the tip off if need be. Mirth and confusion ensue. A hollow character whose function is to espouse a pan-German nationalist ideology, the banker nevertheless gets one of the play’s best one-liners. Clarifying to Hermann how the Viennese’s perverse nostalgia works, he explains, “We missed Mahler when we heard Schoenberg.”

From there the play pivots to the eve of Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938. Now that the world is topsy-turvy, Ernst, Hermann’s brother-in-law, endorses Freud’s theories in another stilted monologue that Stoppard might consider revising for the subsequent performances.

In a discussion of Klimt’s controversial university paintings that recalls Carl Schorske’s analysis in “Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, Politics and Culture,” Ernst now sees the scandal that surrounded “Philosophy,” ridiculed as “le gout juif” and an aesthetic and moral affront to decent Austrians, as indicative of the dark forces of repressed nationalism. “By God, it was all there. A dream is the fulfillment in disguise of a suppressed wish. The rational is at the mercy of the irrational. Barbarism will not be eradicated by culture.”

I find myself wholly in agreement, but also wish that Stoppard hadn’t laid it on quite so thick.

However, this is also the point in the play where Stoppard begins to tighten his dramatic coils most ingeniously, as a child’s game of cat’s cradle becomes a powerful metaphor for the threads of fate that bind the Merz family—and, by extension, the Jewish people. The vicissitudes and displacements of history that appear to be random are anything but.

“Each state came out of the previous one. So there is order underneath,” explains Ludwig, the mathematician, to his nephew Nathan (the character circumcised in the previous scene). The shifting knots in the game of cat’s cradle not only represent the various temporalities of the play, but the innumerable way stations in the millennial experience of diaspora.

The various family members, all of whom have aged significantly since the start of the play, begin to contemplate their future after the Anschluss. A British journalist in love with Ludwig’s daughter Nellie has just returned from the Evian Conference and tries in vain to convince the family members of the necessity to flee. Shanghai is proposed and rejected. “I don’t even like the food,” an aunt objects.

As Kristallnacht erupts outside its windows, the Merz apartment is confiscated by Nazis in a scene of generalized brutality that brings to mind a high school production of Anne Frank in director Patrick Marber’s otherwise elegant and effectively simple production. Luckily the awkward moment passes. After Nathan’s cousin Leopold slices his hand on a shattered teacup, the stitches that Ernst administers drive home Stoppard’s central metaphor of the interweaving of fate with immediate and unstinting emotional weight.

Stoppard sustains and deepens its power in the play’s incredible final scene, set 10 years after the war. It starts with a long monologue for Nathan, who has survived the camps and returned to Vienna to study mathematics. Gradually we understand that he is rehearsing a deposition for a restitution suit over the Klimt portrait of his aunt Gretl, now displayed at the Belvedere as “Woman With a Green Shawl.”

Also present is Nathan’s cousin Leopold, who has spent the war as a boy in England and is now a posh young Englishman who goes by the name of Leonard. He can’t remember anything about his life in Vienna before the war. Nathan is flabbergasted. Rosa, an older cousin who is a shrink in New York comments incredulously: “Do I believe in suppressed memory? In Austria?

As numerous reviews before me have pointed out, Leonard is a clear stand-in for Stoppard himself, who was born in Czechoslovakia and raised in England by his British stepfather. (Stoppard only found out he was Jewish in the 1990s.)

Leonard muses on his Britishness: “I loved being English. … English books, and the seaside and listening to the radio. … Mother and I only spoke English. I didn’t know I had an accent till I lost it.”

Pressed by his cousins, Leo admits that he knew he was Jewish, but claims it wasn’t a relevant topic in England. “Being made British was the greatest good fortune that could possibly have happened to me,” he tells them. At the same time, being a Jew remains a secret badge of pride for him. “I was quite pleased to have Jewish blood. To my mind it’s a little bit of a distinction, a … an exotic fact from my life gone by.” Nathan gives Leo the sobering truth than he’s more Jewish than any of them. “I’m three-quarters Jewish. But you’re the whole catastrophe.”

When Leo asks his cousin why he returned after the war, Nathan’s answer mirrors Hermann’s proud assessment of Jewish Vienna circa 1900 from the play’s first scene.

Who the hell are they to tell me I’m not wanted? We were ten per cent of the Viennese and fifty per cent of the university graduates, of lawyers, doctors, writers, philosophers, artists, architects, composers. … Without the Jews, Vienna was mothballed like a carnival costume.

This final act could well be titled “The Return of the Repressed,” as Nathan and Rosa coax long submerged memories, triggered by the scar left on Leo’s hand by the porcelain teacup that shattered on Nov. 9, 1938. Not only is the finale powerful and beautifully written, the scene seems to elevate the acting to a feverish level of intensity and brilliance as Sebastian Armesto and Luke Thallon as Nathan and Leo bring wounds fresh and faded to the surface.

And then Stoppard adds an unexpected something else to the play’s metaphorical tool kit. Alongside Nathan’s cat’s cradle and Leo’s shattered teacup, Rosa reveals her first traumatic memory, which she calls “the most shameful thing that ever happened to me, the absolute worst thing.”

“I’d forgotten where I’d hid the afikomen,” she confesses.

A brief flashback to the 1900 shows the boisterous and carefree Merz family reunited onstage. Aside from 7-year-old Rosa, bawling over the mislaid afikomen, no one is taking the Seder too seriously. Rosa cuts the reverie short with a litany of the dead. Nathan and Leo join her in chanting the names of the dead and where or how they met their fate: Verdun, the blitz, suicide, Steinhof, Auschwitz.

In this game of hide-and-seek, things misplaced and lost forever live on inside a history freighted by triumph and tragedy.

Surprisingly enough, Stoppard wasn’t the only Jewish playwright revisiting Mitteleuropa on the interrupted London stage. On the opposite bank from the West End, Tony Kushner adapted Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit for the National Theatre.

Originally staged in 1956, The Visit (“Der Besuch der alten Dame”) has had many lives. It was the Swiss writer’s most famous play and is one the best-known works of 20th-century German theater, a distinction owed largely to its perverse and unsettling plot. The world’s richest woman returns to her impoverished hometown seeking long-sought vengeance. She offers the townspeople a million dollars to kill the ex-lover who wronged her nearly half a century ago, leaving them to choose between literal and moral bankruptcy. The resulting play is chilling and funny at the same time, with both a parablelike simplicity and a down-to-earth naturalism that can be hard to achieve onstage.

Dürrenmatt, who felt that the inherently tragic nature of life could only be dealt with in comedy called The Visit a “tragische Komödie.” The curious blend of comic and tragic elements is largely the source of the play’s popularity, but they can also be difficult to reconcile in production.

Two years after its world premiere in Zurich, The Visit arrived on Broadway in Peter Brooks’ London production. Numerous others followed, including Harold Prince’s acclaimed 1973 staging. It was filmed by Bernhard Wicki in 1964 starring Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn. In 1971, the Austrian composer Gottfried von Einem turned it into an opera with a libretto by Dürrenmatt himself. More recently, it was the subject of the last musical by Ebb and Kander (with a book by the late Terrence McNally), a bizarre and sinister vehicle for Chita Rivera, who performed the leading role of Claire Zachanassian on Broadway in 2015.

The Visit or The Old Lady Comes to Call, as Kushner’s version is called, transposes the original play from a fictional town in postwar Europe to mid-20th-century America. Perhaps Kushner expects the change of location to help revive interest in a contemporary audience in a play that has fallen somewhat out of fashion. To help in this effort, the NT enlisted the brilliant actress Leslie Manville, who is best in her collaborations with Mike Leigh and, more recently, her withering performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread as Daniel Day Lewis’ severe sister.

On paper it must have sounded like a good idea. The two earlier English-language performing versions of the play have serious limitations. Maurice Valency’s 1958 adaptation strays considerably from Dürrenmatt’s original text. The language of Patrick Bowles’ far more faithful translation, from 1962, sounds stiff and out-of-date. (I recall using Xeroxed copies of the Bowles’ translation for a college production where I played the village priest and being driven to frustration, along with most of the cast, at how stilted the dialogue was.)

Though it certainly reads more smoothly, Kushner’s version fails to capture the play’s grotesque humor and wicked irony. Curiously, Kushner has chosen to work off of Valency’s version, which makes this latest incarnation an adaptation of an adaptation. Underneath the various changes that Kushner makes, the plot remains virtually unchanged, though. One of the most welcome of these changes is a simple place-name change: Dürrenmatt’s fictional township, Güllen (indicated simply as “somewhere in central Europe”), becomes Slurry, in upstate New York. (In Swiss dialect Güllen means “liquid manure” which makes Slurry a clever English equivalent.)

It’s difficult to see what larger meaning accrues from Kushner’s change of locale. Lifting the play from its original European context can be seen as a universalizing gesture, yet the playwright also risks losing some of the specific meaning that the play, written in 1956, had in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust. Dürrenmatt’s parable about vengeance and greed has a timeless existential quality, yet the time and place of its creation, a mere decade after Auschwitz, makes it resonate in a particular way. Shorn of this context, The Visit doesn’t quite hit its mark.

It is worth comparing the two versions of the mayor’s speech at the end of the first act where he, along with all the villagers, shudders at Zachanassian’s murderous proposal. (I quote here from Joel Agee’s highly accurate 2006 translation, which, to my knowledge, hasn’t yet been used for performance.)

Mrs. Zachanassian: you forget, we are still in Europe, we’re not savages yet. In the name of the town of Güllen I reject your offer. In the name of humanity. We would rather be poor than have blood on our hands.

And here is Kushner’s considerably longer version.

Mrs. Zachanassian, we are not in Europe, where you’ve lived so long, not in Switzerland where you sheltered for the war. We’re in America. You’re in America. Mrs. Zachanassian, you’re in the town of Slurry, in Chautauqua Country, in Western New York State, on the shore of Lake Erie, in the United States of America, and in the name of all of the above, in the name of humanity itself, Mrs. Zachanassian, and in my official capacity as mayor, elected by these good people here:
There’s no shame in poverty. We don’t want blood money. Your offer is rejected, flat out.

The way Kushner reworks the passage is revealing: the folksy American speech (“elected by these good people”); the specificity of the setting; and, most critically, the superiority of American to European values that the mayor invokes. All these point to Kushner’s intentions in giving the play an American makeover.

Kushner busily sets about domesticating much of the dialogue and details. Dürrenmatt’s Güllen was a place where Goethe spent the night and Brahms composed a quartet; Kushner’s Slurry is where “Mischa Elman set a world record for ‘The Flight of the Bumblebee’” and which, in its halcyon days, hosted Bertrand Russell, Billy Graham and “Blackstone the Magician and his Levitating Donkey.”

Kushner largely operates as Dürrenmatt’s—or, more accurately, as Valency’s—rewrite man, and his new dialogue is, by turns, slangy and profane, or prim and polished. Aside from a handful of brand new monologues that tip their hat to doyens of midcentury American drama, like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, classic Hollywood seems a greater source of inspiration. The rapid-fire barbs he gives Zachanassian are razor sharp and it’s a delight to hear Manville chew them and spit them out in her acid-laced delivery, but Kushner’s version struggles to establish a consistent and persuasive tone.

The Swiss writer managed to make The Visit unsettling and riotous at the same time. Kushner does his sardonic best to inject dose after dose of dark humor, while missing the particularly grotesque qualities of his source material. He also bogs his version down with endless allusions to classical myth and mythology that seem to be his way of showing that he has picked up on Dürrenmatt’s debt to both Euripides and Aristophanes. Not only do these references pile up irritatingly: They are especially conspicuous by seeming so out of place in the context of a depressed 1950s American town.

Unable to sustain Dürrenmatt’s heightened sense of unease and perversity, Kushner seems content to reduce the play to a tidy parable of the morality-sapping effects of capitalism and debt. We lose The Visit’s spellbinding blend of Greek tragedy and comedy, Trauerspiel and Theater of the Absurd.

I suppose trying to improve a masterpiece is a fool’s errand. If Kushner’s attempt smacks not a little of folly, it doesn’t exactly augur well for his upcoming project: the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, which is due in theaters later this year.

Both Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard, directed by Patrick Marber, at the Wyndham’s Theatre, and The Visit or The Old Lady Comes to Call, based on the play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, adapted by Tony Kushner, at the National Theatre, are currently suspended in response to COVID-19.

A.J. Goldmann is a writer based in Munich. His articles on art and culture have appeared in, among other publications, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Opera News Magazine, and The Forward.