To Know the Faces of the Dead

When Tom Stoppard was in his mid-fifties and in the middle of rehearsals for Arcadia, he learned, at the end of lunch one day, that he is Jewish.  His first cousin once removed, Sarka, drew him a family tree.  “What happened to Wilma?” he asked her.  “Auschwitz.”  “Berta?”  “Auschwitz.”  “Anny?”  “She died in a different camp,” Sarka said.  The next year, he met a relative in Prague who presented him with family photos.  In retrospect, he realized he was guilty of “almost willful purblindness” about his mother’s family.

For a playwright who always struggled to find material, this news must have been irresistible.  Almost thirty years later, Leopoldstadt is premiering in New York City.  The play is an account of a family of prosperous Viennese Jews between 1899 and 1955.  Assimilation has followed success, and in the opening scene, a young boy (Joshua Satine) places a Star of David atop a Christmas tree; his grandma (Betsy Aidem) says, “Poor boy, baptised and circumcised in the same week, what can you expect?”  The adults debate Theodor Herzl and the merits of conversion.  “You seem to think becoming a Catholic is like joining the Jockey Club,” one (David Krumholtz) jokes to another (Brandon Uranowitz).

As it turns out, it is not like joining a Jockey Club, and Leopoldstadt—the name of the old Jewish ghetto, from the first half of the nineteenth century—becomes darker as it progresses.  A life of bourgeois luxury disappears overnight, and the focus shifts to survival.  Stoppard offers, through a series of vignettes, a sweeping picture of Jewish life in Vienna before the war, in much the same way Thomas Mann does in Buddenbrooks and John Galsworthy in The Forsyte Saga.  The fifty-year time frame allows us to watch these characters grow up, fall in love, fall out and back into love, age, and die, all of which happens while we wait for the inevitable tragedy.

In a coda set in 1955, the Stoppard stand-in (Arty Froushan) looks at a family tree, while his European relatives recite the fates of their family members.  The one-word answer “Auschwitz” is spoken seven times, two times more than Lear’s famous “Thou’lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never!”  Though the scene as a whole is, I think, unnecessary, an intrusion from the author that tears through the verisimilitude, this moment is devastating, a brutal capstone to a heartbreaking story of a family that never met its descendants.

Leopoldstadt originally premiered in January 2020, just shy of Stoppard eighty-third birthday.  This is an age when some celebrate their Bar Mitzvah, as the Book of Psalms notes that the average lifespan is “threescore years and ten.”  It seems a fitting coincidence.

Leopoldstadt runs through July 2nd at the Longacre Theatre.  220 W. 48th Street  New York, NY.  2 hours 10 minutes.  No intermission. Photograph by Joan Marcus.


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