"Is my play yesterday's news?"

https://www.profil.at/kultur/tom-stoppard-leopoldstadt-brexit-11346876

“Is my play yesterday’s news?”

British play wright Tom Stoppard about his new play “Leopoldstadt” which just opened in the Westend in London. A drama set in Vienna following the fate of a Jewish family over three generations.

 

Stoppard: Hello! I just got a text from Patrick saying that you told him we are pronouncing Leopoldstadt in the wrong way?

 

Profil: I am not quite sure what he meant. I think your cast is saying the name of the second district in Vienna quite well, but he seemed to have heard something in my Viennese pronounciation, which seemed to be different than what he thought it was.

 

Stoppard: He said: Shall we tell the actors? He is telling them now, while we sit here. In any case it must be not Liopold but Leopold. We already told them it is not Leopoldstadt but Leopoldschtadt.

 

Profil: Everything in the play seems very authentic, the jokes and traditions on the Jewish side, but also the Austrian setting in general. Did you do a lot of research in Vienna?

Stoppard: I did not do any research in Vienna. There is lots of movies and novels which deal with the subject.

 

Profil: “Leopoldstadt” plays in Vienna, where you were actually not born. But your family is Jewish. Is the play very autobiographical?

 

Stoppard: This is not an autobiographical story. My own story does not work for this play. I think is just covered by the young man right in the last part of Leopoldstadt who comes back to Vienna and has forgotten his previous life as a Jewish child. I was 18 months old, when we escaped from Zlin to Singapore. When we came to England I was eight years old and I could speak English. There is only on one or two pages my own personal experience.

 

Profil: You were born in Zlin, about 200 kilometers Northeast of Vienna in Bohemia. I read that your father worked for the shoe company Bata and the owner saved his Jewish employees by sending them to the company abroad.

 

Stoppard: It was actually the head of the hospital who took the pro-active step. My father was a doctor in the Bata hospital. Yes, full marks them. Our neighbors from Zlin went to Nairobi. We went to Singapore.

 

Profil: Most of the personalities of your drama suffer a fate much worse, they miss the moment to leave because they presume as assimilated Jews – “Christian Austrians with Jewish roots” – they are safe from prosecution. Is this what happened to your Grandparents, too?

 

Stoppard: Yes, all four died in concentration camps. We always assumed that this is how they died. We just did not see the documents for a long time. My Ma died in 1996 and I never spoke to her about anything concerning the history of the family. When she died I think this gave me the permission to investigate our story. Before that I knew my brother and I had Jewish blood, otherwise we did not need to leave. While my mother was alive I did not want to seemingly reproach her or accuse her. I had no desire to. My mother obviously found it difficult to come to terms with the past. So I did not want to inquire what happened to her parents and her sisters. Surprising how many people did not confront their own personal history. Like me. Averted their eyes and carried on with their life.

 

Profil: Your plays are full of wit and philosophy – your new play Leopoldstadt is a tragedy, but you still inject your sense of humour to lighten up the doomsday atmosphere. The Jewish jokes are flying back and forth. We think we can feel that you grew up in a family like this.

Stoppard: Not at all. I am fully Jewish from my blood, but I have no Jewish identity. In England you don’t have to know these things, its not such a big deal.

 

 

Profil: Why did you write “Leopoldstadt” now?

Stoppard: I began writing the play in January 2018 after a long period of how to get into it. I got to a point three years ago when I was no longer working on anything. So I wanted to write a new one.

 

Profil: But it is not your own family story, why still write about the Jews in Europe?

Stoppard: Maybe I wanted to write about being delighted of being British. The audience reaction is now quite interesting when the boy says: How great Britain is, saving Europe and saving asylum seekers and refugees.

 

Profil: The audience is laughing sarcastically because Brexit-Island is closing itself off from the EU and did not take many refugees in 2015. In January the House of Commons voted to cross out the right of child refugees to be reunited with family members in Britain in the Withdrawal Act Bill. The request was brought in by a Lord who came to Britain as Jewish refugee child wih a Kindertransport.

Stoppard: Yes. The phrase “We stood alone” comes from English mythology of the 20th century. There is a kind of triumphalism in government now. The people who wanted Brexit were in the end in the majority. I met lots of wealthy people who think that this is going to be wonderful. On the surface they are not saying to hell with the working class and the middle class. But they are saying: It is great for everyone! We shall see, won’t we.

 

Profil: Was it the rise of antisemitism in England which prompted you to write your play?

Stoppard: No, not at all. The antisemitism story hadn’t taken off. It was a coincidence that the play opens now…

 

Profil: … in the middle of the antisemitic storm?

Stoppard: Yes, exactly.

 

Profil: Do you feel threatened by antisemitism now?

Stoppard: I could be wrong, but no. I don’t feel that Jewish life is under threat here. To the same degree that I feel that there is an antagonism towards foreigners….It’s more about Muslims than Jews.

 

Profil: Could this be your next play?

Stoppard: My next play could be about women.

 

Profil: Because of the he #Metoo-Debate? So many directors exploited their power with actresses…

Stoppard: But they gave them also work.

 

Profil: That does not make it better.

Stoppard: Of course not. I just had a request a few days ago from some theatre who wanted to stage my play “Rosenkranz & Guildenstern are dead” with two women. Ten, fifteen years ago we would have said: Why? But today, this is not shocking anymore, it is common place. Glenda Jackson just played King Lear.

 

Profil: Why then do you want to write a play about women?

Stoppard: I am interested in the fact how the role of women has changed. At my age I grew up with a civil ethos about women. The men that kept women down thought they did them a favour as an act of chivalry. The women were protected in the house, they did not go out to work. But they had not understanding that the women were furious that they kept them like that. So you, Tessa, tell me, what year shall I set this play in?

 

Profil: Feminist debate is so interesting today: Everything is possible today but the backlash is also severe. So you could put your play in the here and now.

 

Stoppard: Ok, yes, I will do that. Would I get into trouble if I wrote it?

 

Profil: You would get into trouble, but it also depends how the play turns out.

Stoppard: True! It takes me 4 to 5 years to write a play, so I will be 88 and beyond reproach. I will be a national treasure and I will be safe from severe criticism.

 

Profil: Will Leopoldstadt be played at Burgtheater?

Stoppard: I would think so, there were already contacts established. But I don’t know which theatre will get it. I can imagine that you will either want to particularly present in Vienna or most particularly not. I don't know what the attitude will be.

 

Profil: It is still a topic of discussion in Austria how Austrian behaved in the Third Reich. We still have these scandals till today – like the fact that Ankerbrot was arynized and this history was covered up a little. The story was just in the papers today. On the other hand the author Thomas Bernhard wrote the play Heldenplatz for Burgtheater in 1988 and Prime minister Franz Vrantizky took responsibility for Austrians role in the Third Reich.

 

Stoppard: You think my play is yesterday’s news?

 

Profil: No, I think it is a very good drama over three generations, which has the quality of a period drama with reflections on today. As you say: “Austria presented itself after the war as first victim.”

 

Stoppard: That was Churchill’s phrase. One of the books I read said that it was almost like an accident that Austria was seen in this sympathetic light. There was a presentation of Austrians to Churchill in 1942 and they were lucky, he had a few brandies with lunch and an hour to spare and then he said it.

 

Profil: It also worked for Stalin and so Austria was kept neutral and out of everyone’s influence zone.

 

 

Stoppard: I used to go to Vienna in the 70ties and 80ties when my plays were performed there. So I went there several times. Not any more. I would like it if “Leopoldstadt” would be performed in Vienna. The play needs a translator. Do you know Daniel Kehlmann?

 

Profil: Would you like him to translate it?

Stoppard: Daniel wrote a stage play called “The Voyage of the St. Louis”

 

Profil: It is about a boat with Jewish refugees from Germany, who are not let off the boat in Cuba or the US and are being sent back to Europe.

 

Stoppard: Yes. He sent it to me and I then said this could be a really nice radio play and this is what I did and it will be broadcast later this year. On Monday I am going to the first reading in the radio. We had a nice cooperation. I don’t know if Daniel wants to translate “Leopoldstadt”. But it would be a nice idea.

 

 

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz