Sir Tom Stoppard’s new play Leopoldstadt is a momentous story of family, loss and survivorship set in Vienna in the first half of the 20th century. Supported by Bruno Wang Productions, the play has been hailed as a masterpiece for the 82-year-old playwright, who has revealed this may well be his final work after a career spanning more than half a century.
It is an unusually personal story for Stoppard, who is known principally as a more esoteric playwright and rarely looks to his own life for inspiration.
But Leopoldstadt explores the experience of a central-European Jewish family as they attempt to assimilate into society. The play follows them as they live through two world wars and the Holocaust, with events making it ever harder for the family to survive, let alone thrive.
Stoppard himself was born Tomáš Straussler in 1937 in Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic. Although his parents fled the Nazis in 1939, moving to Singapore, all his grandparents died in Nazi concentration camps.
“It took a year to write, but the gestation was much longer,” he has 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.”
Adding a further twist, the playwright’s son, Ed Stoppard, has a cameo role in the play.
Stoppard has admitted that he didn’t have a strong sense of his Jewish heritage until mid-way through life, as his own mother avoided talking about the past.
However, a relative came to visit in the early 1990s and drew Stoppard a family tree. As he examined it, the playwright asked about the fate of three aunts he knew nothing about, along with other members of his extended family. The reply was often one word: Auschwitz.
For Stoppard, this emerging identity seemed to awaken new feelings. He has said: “One’s otherness became more salient.”
Leopoldstadt is the culmination of his writing career as well as his sense of identity, it seems. No wonder it has been hailed as a masterwork.
Stoppard says: “It’s a play I couldn’t have written if I hadn’t lived the life that fate has dealt me.”
The play will run until June at Wyndham’s Theatre, London. It is directed by Patrick Marber, a long-term friend of the playwright.
Marber also directed the recent revival of Stoppard’s Travesties in 2017. Stoppard’s last new play was The Hard Problem, which explores the nature of consciousness.