Tom Stoppard’s play “Leopoldstadt” in Vienna – culture

Tom Stoppard was almost fifty years old when he found out that he came from a Jewish family and had lost almost his entire family of origin in the Holocaust. His mother had escaped the Nazis and married a British man in her second marriage. Stoppard, now 84, became one very british boy – and one of Britain’s best-known authors. He received an Oscar for the screenplay of “Shakespeare in Love” and co-wrote “Indiana Jones”. Its “coming out” like it’s the New York Review of Books called, but had Stoppard only with the play “Leopoldstadt”. It premiered in London’s West End in 2020 and was a huge success. Now the Theater in der Josefstadt in Vienna dared to present a German-language premiere with a version translated by Daniel Kehlmann.

And that’s where the problem begins. The play works in London. It tells the story of an assimilated Jewish family in Vienna between 1899 and 1955 in a somewhat schematic and adult-school-like way. When in doubt, the British public is familiar with the history of the rise and fall of National Socialism, but less with the kuk times and the First Republic. It therefore absorbed the touchingly told history lesson with fascination and eagerness to learn, especially since the premiere in February 2020 fell at a time when the fight against Nazi Germany, Britain’s entry into the war and the legend of Winston Churchill had only just been extensively celebrated.

The title refers to the Jewish ghetto in Leopoldstadt in the second district of Vienna

Stoppard, born Tomáš Straussler in 1937 in Zlín in what is now the Czech Republic, transferred his story to the extended family of entrepreneur Hermann Merz and their numerous relatives, whose fates he roughly traces. The tableau of figures is colorful and emphatically representative: There is the baptized Jew Hermann Merz, who believes himself to be a full member of better society and yet has to learn painfully that in the event of a conflict he will always remain a Jew. There is his mother, who adheres to Jewish rituals, a Zionist, a socialist, a World War II soldier, a relative from Galicia, where the ancestors come from, children, grandchildren who celebrate both Christmas and a circumcision together.

Almost all of them are Austrians, patriots, climbers, artists, patrons, academics in a world that only appears to be tolerant. They are disenfranchised and dispossessed, resettled in the ghetto in Leopoldstadt – which gives the play its name – in the second district of Vienna, and finally taken to a euthanasia program, to Dachau, to Auschwitz, or driven to suicide. At the end there are three survivors on the stage. One has returned to Vienna, an aunt is visiting from Brooklyn. The third witnessed as a boy in 1938 how a Nazi man requisitioned the Merz apartment and immediately brought the contract for the “Aryanization” of the company with him.

Theatrical history lesson: The stage and costumes designed by Karin Fritz are also historically correct. Moritz Shell

(Photo: Moritz Schell)

The boy from back then emigrated to London with his stepfather shortly afterwards, so he is most likely an alter ego of Tom Stoppard. “You live as if you had no history,” his Viennese cousin accuses him, “as if you didn’t cast a shadow.” Stoppard wanted to cast that shadow, he wanted, as he put it, to bring “memory and false memory” together.

Imperial, Nazi, post-war times: the play also reflects the history of Austria

Memory and false memory – these are definitely worthwhile topoi in Austria, which for decades staged itself in the role of victim and negated the role of perpetrator. But Stoppard’s Tour d’Horizon, with its stereotypes, is no basis for an afterthought or thoughtful discourse. It leads from the Kaiser era, the anti-Semitism of a Karl Lueger and the debates about Herzl’s Jewish state, the First World War, Red Vienna, the civil war in 1934 and the basement Nazis to the “Anschluss” and the Reichspogromnacht – everything is negotiated, told, described and discussed in the salons of the Merz family. The noise of marching Nazis, rolling tanks – it just seeps through windows and doors like an irritatingly unreal threat. The end is known. “Vienna without Jews is,” as one survivor put it in a somewhat strange comparison, “like a mothballed carnival costume.”

The fact that director Janusz Kica and set designer Karin Fritz backed off on a well-done but very conventional, well-behaved production doesn’t help against the increasing fatigue in the auditorium over three hours, where there was nevertheless very friendly applause afterwards. The Josefstadt puts a large, well-rehearsed ensemble on the stage, theater director Herbert Föttinger and Maria Köstlinger, who is also popular in Germany through the ORF series “Vorstadtweiber”, are, as so often, the fixed points of a routinely played, but too little laconic and too demonstrative history lesson. “Repressed memories in Austria – I know that,” says Sona MacDonald, who plays the psychoanalyst who emigrated to New York in the final scene. These memories could have been uncovered in a more subtle and powerful way.

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