Last works by great artists are often disappointing. For every De Profundis or Blackstar, there is a Mystery of Edwin Drood or What Where. Often, the success or failure of the final expression of an artistic vision depends on whether its creator knows that it is likely to be his or her last testament. Of course, there are strange anomalies – the Beatles should have ended their career with Abbey Road, but Let It Be ended up being released afterwards, meaning that their swansong was one of their weakest albums. Yet, sometimes, a truly talented figure, advancing boldly into old age or ill health, will rally the spirit once more and produce a truly great valedictory effort, which acts as a culmination of a remarkable career while hinting at greater, inevitably unexplored achievements still.
It is too soon to describe Tom Stoppard’s new play Leopoldstadt as his last work, but given that Stoppard is now 82 and has been pessimistic about the chances of writing another drama, it is distinctly possible that this, by far his most personal and accessible work, will come to be regarded as his epitaph. While it is not his greatest play, it is rich in wit and humanity, even as it explores the fate of an Austrian Jewish family throughout the first half of the 20th century. We begin with them in 1899 in their pomp, with the wealthy industrialist patriarch Hermann announcing that they have fully assimilated into society – ‘my grandfather wore a kaftan, my father went to the opera in a top hat and I have the singers to dinner’ – but from the outset, there is an unease to his boastfulness. Initially, he is denied membership of the Jockey Club, reminding him that there will always be an inner circle that he cannot reach, but, by the time that Kristellnacht comes around, it is horribly clear what the family’s fates will be.
Leopoldstadt is his first and presumably last attempt to deal with his own family’s origins
Stoppard has previously shyed away from writing autobiographical works, allowing such brilliant jeux d’esprit as Jumpers, Travesties and Arcadia to show off his dazzling erudition, undercut with fleeting but profound moments of emotion. Leopoldstadt is, however, his first and presumably last attempt to deal with his own family’s origins. He was born Tomas Straussler in Czechoslovakia in 1937, and his family fled to Singapore when the Nazis invaded in 1939. Shortly after his father died as a prisoner-of-war, his mother married the army major Kenneth Stoppard, and Tomas Straussler became Tom Stoppard. It is this assimilation from one culture and country into another that has always given his work, as it has his life, a slight quality of remove and distance. Even today, Stoppard speaks in an accent that is equal parts English gentleman and Eastern European immigrant; little wonder that he once described himself, with the brilliant wit that has been his trademark for decades, as a ‘bounced Czech’.
Many people will think of Stoppard, like Woody Allen, as being synonymous with his ‘early, funny ones’. When he first began writing plays such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and The Real Inspector Hound, his work was offering something entirely different to playwrights such as Beckett and Pinter, to say nothing of the more realistic likes of Osborne and Rattigan. One did not go and see a Stoppard play and expect to be given a didactic lesson in left-wing politics, or in grim existentialism, but instead one could enjoy wit, wordplay and a sense that, for a couple of hours at least, an audience could believe themselves to be cleverer than they were, thanks to a writer who simultaneously challenged and indulged them.
Stoppard himself, a charismatic and striking-looking young man with something of the Mick Jaggers about him, forever seen in the company of beautiful woman smoking a rolled-up cigarette, intentionally made himself something of an enigma. He answered earnest questions about his work with sly deflections; there is an apocryphal story that, when asked what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was about, he replied ‘it’s about to make me very rich’. Unlike Pinter, who wore his class-conscious left-wing politics on his sleeve, Stoppard seemed to be above all those tiresome things, as he revelled in his status as the Oscar Wilde of his day. And then, in 1977, things began to change.
Perhaps stung by accusations that he was disengaged with real-life issues, Stoppard began visiting Eastern Europe and corresponding and meeting with political dissidents in the communist-controlled Czechoslovakia. He formed a friendship with the playwright Vaclav Havel, whose highly principled anti-communist stance had resulted in his being arrested, imprisoned and followed by the secret police. The result of this friendship was Stoppard writing politically engaged works such as Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and Professional Foul, which deal with the repression of the individual by the totalitarian state. The plays were heartfelt and a riposte to those who had accused him of being obsessed by intellectual ostentation to the exclusion of examining the world as it stood, but they did not inspire audiences the way in which his earlier work had done. By his mid-forties, Stoppard might have been forgiven for wondering if he was to be bounced out of his own career.
And then Britain changed. While most playwrights reacted to Thatcherism with horror and disapproval, Stoppard did not. He described Mrs Thatcher approvingly as ‘a subversive influence’, and openly referred to the period before her, the time of ‘Sunny Jim’ Callaghan and three-day weeks, as ‘nauseating’. Although he was good friends with the anti-Thatcher likes of David Hare (who calls him ‘an extraordinary man’) and Pinter, he went on to write his first purely realistic play, The Real Thing, in 1982. Although it flirts with Pirandellian distancing techniques – the first scene turns out to be from a play which the playwright protagonist, and Stoppard’s alter ego, Henry has written – it was Stoppard’s most autobiographical work, and one that, rather surprisingly, saw him out himself as a conservative, if not quite a Conservative.
The play not only lauds the traditional virtues of Englishness – cricket, good writing, love – but presents as its antagonist a snivelling failure of a would-be playwright, Brodie. As Henry says of his terrible writing, ‘it’s balls…when he gets into his stride, or rather his lurch, announcing every stale revelation of the newly enlightened, like stout Cortez coming upon the Pacific – war is profit, politicians are puppets, Parliament is a farce … you can’t fool Brodie!’ The play ends with Henry triumphant, Brodie humiliated and ‘I’m A Believer’ playing on stage. Although it is regularly revived – most recently with woke-bater-in-chief Laurence Fox as Henry – it seems extremely unlikely that such a play would be staged at a subsidised theatre in 2020, so opposed to any ideas of conservatism are the artistic directors at the National, RSC, Royal Court and others.
Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy and Emily Thornberry should all clear an evening to see Leopoldstadt
Yet simply describing Tom Stoppard as right wing is to misunderstand and misrepresent a nuanced position. He calls himself ‘a timid libertarian’, and campaigns for human rights rather than party politics, although at various times in interviews he has had warm things to say about David Cameron, Nick Clegg and, of course, Thatcher. He said of his own stance that ‘I feel a bit sheepish about it, but I’m not politically engaged enough to have a political position’. One feels that he could have been intrigued by the Corbyn surge in 2015, which briefly seemed to make politics a more interesting place, but Leopoldstadt, and its denunciation of intolerance and anti-Semitism, will leave one in no doubt about his attitude towards a leader whose attitude towards dispelling the festering bigotry in his party’s ranks seemed to be, to use his own phrase, ‘present but not involved’.
The likes of Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy and Emily Thornberry should all clear an evening out of their schedules to go and see Leopoldstadt, as its depiction of a world in which intolerance and bigotry can thrive unchecked is a salutary reminder that, until very recently, their party was one that found space for the likes of Chris Williamson and Ken Livingstone. If Stoppard ever does write another play, and his political antennae show every sign of being highly attuned to what is happening, despite his own protestations of non-engagement, it is tempting to wonder whether he will attempt to deal with the topsy-turvy world that we inhabit, one of Brexit and Momentum and Trump. The results would be fascinating.
Until then, Stoppard aficionados have a new play of his to enjoy, if that’s the right word, and to appreciate his skilful handling of a hugely emotive subject. In its final scene, a character called Leo appears. In the play’s text he is described as ‘a boyish twenty-four, a middle-class Englishman with a good haircut, comfortably dressed in jacket and flannels. His ‘public-school’ accent is a little dated’. Leo, it transpires, is an Anglicised Jew, who left Austria when he was four, and now states (to some laughter from the audience) ‘I’m proud to be British, to belong to a nation which is looked up to for…you know…fair play and parliament and freedom of everything, asylum for exiles and refugees, the Royal Navy, the royal family…oh, I forgot Shakespeare’. Yet he goes on to qualify this by saying ‘I was quite pleased to have Jewish blood. To my mind it’s a little bit of distinction, an exotic fact from my life gone by.’
It is no especial revelation to imagine that Stoppard sees Leo as a self-portrait, especially when he goes on to reveal that he writes ‘funny books…short but funny, or not funny but short’. It would be unfair to reveal the devastating way in which the scene ends, but Stoppard engages simultaneously with his earlier, more frivolous persona and the mournful sage that he has become, offering a deeply personal and heartfelt examination of his own Jewish identity. Like his hero Wilde, he has finally realised the vital importance of being earnest, and if Leopoldstadt is to be his final literary will and testament, it’s certainly a lot closer to De Profundis than Let It Be.
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