“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” the play that gave Tom Stoppard his name in 1966, opens with a perfect stage image: Ros and Guil, those identikit officials borrowed from “Hamlet,” are passing the time flipping coins. Your destiny has been written by Shakespeare, the result is never in doubt: it is always head. “He’s a bit bored, isn’t he?” says Ros, with an embarrassed laugh.
More than fifty years later, Stoppard, a master of metatheatre, could be forgiven for feeling a touch of Rosencrantze. His most recent play, “Leopoldstadt,” opened in London in January 2020, to awe-inspiring reviews; there were rumors that he would quickly move to Broadway. Then, of course, came the pandemic and the closing of theaters everywhere. When the show reopened, in a COVID-19– Spooked London, last year, was on stage only twelve more weeks. Plans for a North American premiere in Toronto earlier this year were going full steam ahead until suddenly they weren’t: COVID-19, again. Tails, tails, tails.
Finally, “Leopoldstadt” makes its entrance on Broadway. The American public who has long awaited the chance to see the latest Stoppard might be in for a surprise. After the sweeping, exuberant theatrics of his most famous works, not only “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,” but also “Jumpers,” “Travesties,” “Arcadia” and more, the tone of Stoppard’s work has darkened and deepened over time. over the years, and has become more intimately personal. This happened gradually: His 2006 play “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which premiered at London’s Royal Court, was a sad version of the collapse of communism in what was then Czechoslovakia, the country Stoppard’s family fled. When I was a kid; the central character in it might have been Stoppard himself, had he returned instead of settling in England. The work that followed, 2015’s “The Hard Problem,” was an examination of consciousness, faith, and the mind-body divide, featuring a researcher trying to reconcile her belief in God with her interest in brain science. . Was the playwright counting on his own mortality?
“Leopoldstadt” is painted in even darker tones and looks even more intimate. Spanning half a century, from 1899 to 1955, it chronicles multiple generations of a wealthy Jewish family, the Merzes, living in the titular district of Vienna. When the Nazis arrive, the well-connected and proudly assimilated Merzes seem to believe that history will not repeat itself, that they will somehow get out. Of course he does and they don’t. A tide of sadness and loss floods the work.
Although the Merzes are Viennese, not Czech, Stoppard has acknowledged the autobiographical nature of the play’s source material: all four of her grandparents and three of her mother’s sisters died in the Holocaust, a subject her mother spent her entire life trying to deal with. not speak. . His son didn’t discover the full truth about his past until the early 1990s, when he was a middle-aged man.
Is “Leopoldstadt” a form of reward for not looking this story in the face until now? It’s tempting to think so. There’s also a sense of having dodged calamity without realizing, or wanting to realize, how close you came. (In our interview, Stoppard questioned the adequacy of the term “survivor’s guilt,” but admitted that the play’s sorrows are very much his own.) As his first work to focus so closely on the Jewish experience, “Leopoldstadt” feels like a calculating one, one he’s been contemplating in some form for almost thirty years. When it was first released, Stoppard hinted that it might be his last work; when we spoke, he seemed less sure. As before, time will presumably tell.
We first spoke in January, via Zoom, while Stoppard was safely in his large Dorset home. We spoke again in September, when “Leopoldstadt” was preparing to open in New York. These conversations have been condensed and edited.
Do you still get those butterflies when you expect an audience to walk in? Do you still think about what they are going to think, how they are going to respond?
The answer is that I stopped being nervous a few moves ago, but with this one I get some butterflies. When I was much younger and newer, I was much more nervous than now. I probably felt like I had more to prove.
But I’m glad I’m not a director. I like being behind the director’s shoulder, but I don’t want to be in charge. I would really be scared.
“Leopoldstadt” is about time: it is this journey through almost sixty years of history, from 1899 to 1955, the story of a Jewish family over several generations, as it is slowly absorbed by the horrors of the Holocaust. What made you want to write on that kind of scale?
I knew I wanted to write a version of my family history. And, more specifically, I wanted to write about my arrival in England at the age of eight. And I thought, when I started the play, that the second half would be set in England and would take me through the first twenty years of my life. It didn’t work like that. Plays never do; find their own architecture. And his own story, even.
I ended up writing about myself in 1955, but that young man’s family history is only in the broadest sense like mine. As I discovered, as soon as the work became available, there is enough shared experience for everyone: tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of families, who can say, “You’re writing about my family.” They know I’m not, and I know I’m not, but it’s also true that yes, I also write about their families.
“Leopoldstadt” seems to be intertwined with the plot of his own life and his family’s history; it’s hard to fathom where the play begins and real life ends.
If I could remember how I got to “Leopoldstadt”, I would do it again. I wrote a play called “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which was about some sort of alternate me that went back to, I guess, the ’80s. But I wasn’t thinking autobiographically, I was thinking about what my life could have been like if I had gone back to Czechoslovakia. In other words, I never came close to thinking about my Jewish heritage. It was about ideology.
When communism fell, in Czechoslovakia, I started to find out more about one or two people who are related to me and, in some cases, still lived there. I wouldn’t have written about my heritage, that’s the word for it today, while my mother was alive, because she had always avoided getting into it. When she died, I went to my birthplace and didn’t remember anything. I was about eighteen months old when I left Zlín, in Czechoslovakia. I didn’t think again, you know, here’s something I can use.