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Tom Stoppard at 85: ‘Without the writing, life isn’t purposeful’

The playwright’s sprawling ‘Leopoldstadt,’ now on Broadway, heartachingly explores his Jewish roots

Tom Stoppard stands at the Longacre Theatre in Manhattan on Sept. 15, 2022. (Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — Tom Stoppard sounded sincerely perplexed when Patrick Marber, the director of his latest Broadway play, declared that he had always known that Stoppard was Jewish.

“I’m fascinated by it,” Stoppard said of the assertion. How, he wondered, could Marber have been so sure of this when Stoppard himself hadn’t known it? Marber, a British Jewish dramatist (“Closer”) and director, was adamant.

“My two heroes were the Jewish playwrights Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard,” Marber recounted. “I always knew [Stoppard] was being claimed as a Jew, certainly by my proud Jewish father. It was just a known thing.”

Stoppard listened, marveling at the observation. “I’ve never had this conversation with Patrick,” he remarked during a recent joint Zoom interview.

Now we’re all receiving instruction on the evolution of Stoppard’s ethnic identity by virtue of “Leopoldstadt,” the renowned playwright’s new, sprawling drama. It lays bare his coming to terms with a heritage that had been suppressed, of one that perhaps he wasn’t capable of fully absorbing until midlife.

Review: ‘Leopoldstadt’ on Broadway is simply devastating

The play, which had its official opening Oct. 2 at the Longacre Theatre after a sustained success in London, is easily the 85-year-old Stoppard’s most anguishing work, in a canon that includes some of the most intellectually adventurous mainstream drama of the past half-century. Plays of glittering urbanity, such as “Arcadia,” “Travesties,” “The Invention of Love,” “Rock ’n’ Roll,” “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” (Not to mention an Oscar-winning screenplay for “Shakespeare in Love.”)

“Leopoldstadt” — which Stoppard originally thought to title “A Family Album” — portrays in epic fashion a large, extended family of well-to-do Viennese Jews between 1899 and 1955, the decades leading up to and after the advance of antisemitism and Nazi atrocity. It’s a story of devotion wrapped in doom. Some 30 actors, American and British, populate the stage in the $8 million production, stats that place this venture, imported by British producer Sonia Friedman, wildly above the normal scale for a Broadway play.

“Sonia gave me carte blanche,” Stoppard said, “and she gave me the opportunity to write a play which was, as a business model, insanity.”

The successive generations depicted over the two hours and 10 minutes (performed without an intermission) are fictionalized. But through his gallery of characters, Stoppard refracts something searingly vivid about the indelible truth of one’s roots, about the erasures time and circumstance and neglect impose on memory, about the guilt that attends the survival of a genocide, like an insistent guest at a perpetual memorial. Even as the shattering events depicted here ring familiar, especially to Jews, who have the intimations of annihilation soldered onto their souls, Stoppard’s words contribute another poetic verse to a long and tragic elegy.

“The play grew out of the related self-reproach about seeing my life as a charmed life,” Stoppard said during our long conversation. Marber and I were on video, but Stoppard was unseen, his throaty vowels and clipped consonants wafting in, as if over a PA system.

“It was a phrase I’ve used over the years, because I was thinking to myself, I got scooped out of the way of the Nazis, then out of the way of the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, and then instead of going back to Communist Czechoslovakia, I found myself an English schoolboy. Of course it was a charmed life. I finally realized I should write about this because, yes, this notion of having a charmed life ignores my early history and completely erases a family background.”

In 1999, Stoppard wrote a magazine article, “On Turning Out to Be Jewish,” as the coming-out event of what has become a protracted, candid effort to explain an aspect of his life he long failed to explore.

He was born Tomás Straussler in 1937 in what was then Czechoslovakia to Jewish parents. But he wouldn’t learn of the Jewishness on both sides of his family until decades later, in 1993, when a cousin revealed, among other things, that all four of his grandparents had died in Nazi killing centers. His mother, having been widowed after escaping Europe and resettling in Singapore, married an English army officer, Ken Stoppard, a crusty non-Jew and apparent antisemite, when the boy was 8. As Stoppard biographer Hermione Lee and others have recounted, any Jewish identity evaporated in the new family life.

The life story has complexities that beggar volumes of analysis: To many Jews, the notion of not knowing (as in the famous case of the late U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright) is hard to fathom. I asked Stoppard, in view of the subject of his latest play, whether he now thinks of himself as a Jewish playwright.

“No,” he said, “and I never have done. I think of myself as an English playwright.”

Stoppard was transfixed for the moment by Marber’s father’s notion that he was always a Jew in plain sight. Wrestling with that idea, Stoppard cited “Travesties,” his cerebral 1974 play about Dadaism, and the metaphysical musings in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,” in which two secondary “Hamlet” characters are promoted to center stage.

“I’m asking myself, thinking about ‘Travesties’ … where did he see the Jewishness in that?” Stoppard said, referring to Marber’s father. “If you went back to ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,’ where are the Jews?

“I’m intrigued by this whole conversation,” he continued. “When I said I always think of myself as an English playwright more than a Jewish playwright, that’s nothing but the truth. Partly because there’s a kind of pride in it. It’s actually the kind of pride in being associated with a great British tradition.”

That these questions are turbulently alive for Stoppard seems undeniable, on the evidence of the play. In “Leopoldstadt’s” final act, three family survivors, played by Jenna Augen, Arty Froushan and Brandon Uranowitz, gather in their looted ancestral home in Vienna 10 years after World War II. Froushan’s Leo — a transparent stand-in for Stoppard — has arrived from England, to which he was whisked away as a child, his Austrian Jewish identity long since Anglicized. When Leo professes ignorance about the family’s fate under the Nazis, Augen’s Rosa erupts: “That’s not an excuse, Leo!” she cries. “You knew you were Jewish.”

“When?” Leo replies. “Yes, obviously I knew. But you don’t understand. In England it wasn’t something you had to know, or something people had to know about other people. I can’t remember anyone asking me. It was the Book of Common Prayer if you could be bothered, and a carol service at Christmas.”

The thorny issues the play raises about assimilation, collective responsibility and one’s sense of self feel especially relevant in an America experiencing a rise in antisemitism and a breakdown into tribal factions. It comes across as a play that could speak to many audiences, not just Jewish ones.

The cast of “Leopoldstadt” — many of them Jewish — is keenly aware of the resonances. Uranowitz, who plays two central roles — Ludwig, a Jewish mathematician in the first and second acts, and Nathan, a half-Jewish family descendant 50 years later — said in a separate interview that the piece is “incredibly taxing but incredibly rewarding.”

“The questions that we’re asking are such distinctly American Jewish questions that are really bubbling to the surface, particularly right now,” he said. “There’s something for multiple generations of American Jews in this play. There are the generation of survivors and children of survivors that want to honor their families. And then I think there’s also the generation, like my generation and younger generations, who are contending with what it means to be Jewish in this country, and particularly in the context of what’s going on politically and culturally.”

It’s a testament to Stoppard’s esteem as a dramatist that such a massive play could be staged in a commercial run, without an acting star, on Broadway in 2022; the odds against financial success are astronomical. “We have a very brave and passionate producer in Sonia Friedman, who had said to Tom, ‘Write the play you want to write,’ ” Marber said.

So Stoppard did. But as to whether this is an octogenarian playwright’s last play, well, the man with the diamond-cut precision with language is imprecise. “I would like to write something new, but it’s hard to imagine how it can avoid being a setback in scale and ambition and profundity,” he said. “Because there’s nothing more profound than the Holocaust.

“When I finished ‘Leopoldstadt,’ my feeling was that if I didn’t write anything else, that’s okay. Because I ended up with a big play. That was three years ago, and I don’t feel at all like that now. Without the writing, life isn’t purposeful in a vital way. And therefore, I cannot announce to myself that I’ve stopped.”

Leopoldstadt, by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Patrick Marber. At Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., New York.