Jewish district inspires Tom Stoppard in 'personal' new play
26 June 2019
An article about Leopoldstadt, written by Mark Brown published in The Guardian.
Tom Stoppard, whose four Jewish grandparents and much of his family from his parents’ generation died in Nazi concentration camps, is returning to the West End with what is likely to be his most personal play.
The 81-year-old playwright has spent the last year writing Leopoldstadt, his first play since The Hard Problem at the National Theatre in early 2015. It is set in 1900 in Vienna, then the most vibrant city in Europe where about a 10th of the population were Jewish.
Stoppard is known for being an impersonal writer, rarely drawing on autobiography. When asked where he got his ideas from, he has often replied: “Harrods.”
His new play is different. “It took a year to write but the gestation was much longer,” he said. “Quite a lot of it is personal to me but I made it about a Viennese family so that it wouldn’t seem to be about me.”
He said the play, directed by Patrick Marber and produced by Sonia Friedman, was a big one that needed a large company. “Sonia wants to go straight into the West End with it, which I find quite exciting – like the old days with [the producer] Michael Codron.
“I’m astonished to see that it’s five years since my last play The Hard Problem. I’ll have to get a move on or I’ll be pushing 90 before the next one.”
Friedman, who has produced some of the biggest commercial theatre hits of recent years including The Ferryman and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, said she had known Stoppard for years. “I’ve always been badgering him, saying: ‘When you do your next play, please can I produce it’.
She said she was amazed when he asked “in a jokey way” for six tickets to Harry Potter, offering to write a play in return. She told him it seemed “like quite a good deal … he was as good as his word”.
A new play by Stoppard, who has written more than 30, from his debut Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to The Real Thing and Jumpers, is always a big deal. “He is without question our greatest living playwright and alongside two or three others the greatest playwright of the 20th and 21st century,” said Friedman. “Just look at his body of work. He is one of the great minds, one of the great thinkers of our time.
“He has worked solidly for a year on this play but it’s been a play that’s been gestating with him for many years.”
Friedman said both she and Stoppard loved the idea of opening in a “great, grand playhouse”. She added: “It is a beautiful, epic, sweeping play that is going to sit like a gleaming jewel in the West End, it is a remarkable play, it’s a personal play.”
In what way it is personal, audiences will have to wait and see. “There’s so much I want to say but don’t feel I can just yet,” she said. “It will feel very relevant, very timely, very pertinent.”
Stoppard has written about the “charmed life” he feels he has led. He was born Tomas Straussler in 1937 in Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic, and in 1939 his parents fled the Nazis and moved to Singapore. In 1942, as the Japanese were about to invade, he and his mother and brother were put on a boat to Australia that was diverted and landed in Bombay (now Mumbai). His father was killed in Singapore.
His mother married a British army officer, Kenneth Stoppard, in 1946 and after four happy years in India the family moved to England.
Leopoldstadt, which begins previews at Wyndham’s theatre in January, takes its name from the old Jewish quarter of Vienna. A generation before 1900 Jewish people had been granted full civil rights by Emperor Franz Josef and hundreds of thousands of Jews sought sanctuary from pogroms in Leopoldstadt’s crowded tenements.
The play has been described by producers as “an intimate drama with an epic sweep; the story of a family who made good”. Publicity material will quote Hermann, a factory owner: “My grandfather wore a caftan. My father went to the opera in a top hat, and I have the singers to dinner.”
It continues: “It was not to last. Half a century later, this family, like millions of others, has rediscovered what it means to be Jewish in the first half of the 20th century. Leopoldstadt is a passionate drama of love, family and endurance.”