Stoppard comes to Leopoldstadt
Tom Stoppard is the indispensable playwright of my generation. He is rather more: he is one of the key British cultural figures of my times. He ranks with the other knights Sir Mick Jagger and Sir Roy Strong as a person of style. As a creative talent, he ranks with George Harrison or David Hockney. He is intellectually perhaps quite slight: he doesn’t rank with professionals such as Roger Scruton in philosophy or the quantum physicists for mathematical insight. Even as a liberal who understands the key problem of our time (that liberalism can be dangerously illiberal), Stoppard does little more than follow Isaiah Berlin. To have grasped those few strands and made theatre of them was a triumph, and to outshine even Michael Frayn in the work simply calibrates his stature.
I think I saw the 1972 Michael Hordern Jumpers, and marvelled; I certainly saw the Ed Berman/InterAction 15 Minute Hamlet on the Embankment outside the National Theatre in 1976, and loved the lark. With my third wife I revelled in the Stephen Delane The Real Thing (the night an American usefully stopped the show with his demand that the lead actor, “”Speak up man”). I took my son to the marathon Coast of Utopia (2002) at the National and was stirred by Stoppard’s charmed cleverness and my boy’s patience. I saw Arcadia (1993) and supposed it The Essential Stoppard Play, but it was the Invention of Love (1997) which more moved me, with its portrayal of the poet and classicist AE Housman, and his milieu. (We left Invention half way through: hip troubles, but it shines from the page anyway.)
Stoppard didn’t invent a new language for the theatre. It has been remarked that Samuel Becket and even Harold Pinter pioneered ways of putting a firework show into the poetic and intellectual – the existential – chasms which live within us. Stoppard was shown an open door to our clever misty interiorities and was, so to speak, born to leap through it. Like Clive James he had an easy middlebrow grasp of great difficulties, and even more than James a dazzlingly clever way of playing with them. And to cap it all, he and his tortoises were the antidote to Hare, as to so many other lefties who from Wesker to Bond threatened to nationalise the psyche.
The genius of Stoppard is to have fizzed with the varieties of relativism which so liberate and perplex us. In the recent Yentob BBC documentary, someone describes the playwright as putting his hand into a fiery cocktail of intellectual insights and pulling it out encrusted as though by a crystal of many elements, clustered for our pleasure. He said himself that the theatre is a place for events not lectures (or some such). It matters very greatly that Stoppard renounces opinionising: his plays are scenes of debate, fencing matches, sparring contests. He is Shavian and Wildean. We of even the Civilised Right can’t claim him, but we delight that the left-luvvies have always abhorred him. Pinning him down is properly hard: he batted away Yentob’s giggling presumptions with cool strokes. And yet he has allowed himself a creeping self-exposure: a glint here and there, and Hermione Lee (to judge by Radio 4 Extra’s omnibus show of extracts from her Stoppard biography) was there to catch and run with them.
I have not yet read Leopoldstadt and I find myself hoping it is more Coast of Utopia than Rock ’n’ Roll (2006) or even the human rights plays he wrote (not visited by me). In any case, the story of his lifelong struggle with (or is it away from, or the postponement of?) his Jewishness, and its becoming this grand play, is so beautiful that it barely matters if the work doesn’t live up to its creative origins. I long for it to be “live” streamed.
It is a kind of rich extra serving of Stoppardiana that he was the Czech boy who was saved by the Bata shoe empire, and then by the British Empire and then by the English boarding school system and the Beano. He says his private schools had their darker elements. Mine did too, a little later, with ghastly pecking orders, some pederasty, a bit of bullying, and for some reason I didn’t mind any of it much. Perhaps his experience was worse. His extraordinary locution (the actual sound of his voice) must have made it likely that he was some sort of foreigner, and his wit may have riled weaker vessels. Anyway, we have the benefit of the result: his energetic observational remoteness. He has had the luxury of being lionised but not categorised. He has miraculously preserved his freedom of manoeuvre.
Though native-born, I know a little about not belonging and can attest that it takes many forms. Stoppard may have several of them. Thank goodness, he is an auto-didact. He was a tyro regional journalist and after that a freelance dramatist. Thank goodness, too, that (like Robert Harris) he loves the affluence of literary success. He seems to have longed for top echelon glamour and not to have been corrupted by it. All sorts of influences and tendencies seem to have secured for him an articulate reticence and a waspish refusal to be contrarian. It is also wonderful that he is drawn to jokes and disciplined by the awareness that they may be cheap laughs.
I have spent several years skirting round Jewishness, absorbing some histories and biographies, and wondering what can be usefully said, and not least as to whether there are worthwhile generalisations to be made about Jews. (Herman Wouk is the best guide I have found.) So it is doubly moving to find that Stoppard has been looking back (as though through a reverse telescope) and peering at his own Jewishness that was always in plain sight though for whatever reasons never made the main event of his life. This, it seems to me, is a wonderful addition to his life’s arc. It might have been tedious for us and limiting for him had he been banging on about his Jewishness for decades. He would perhaps have been robbed of the right to take such delight in the human condition, a key feature of almost all his work. At any rate it is a treat for us that he saved it up for a last act. It is beautiful that his own life makes a story to match the plays he has given us. It makes a story of Jewish assimilation to match that of Ludwig Wittgenstein or Edith Stein or Charlotte Salomon or Gustav Mahler, and lots of furriers, pedlars and bankers and so many others.
Footnote #1: Alfred E Housman is a complicated and tantalising figure. His own reticence makes speculation about him an impertinence, however tempting. I haven’t revisited The Invention of Love since I first saw and read it. I am reassured that Stoppard gets the Housman problem by his 2006 Guardian review of a book of recently discovered letters from Housman to one of his lifelong friends.
A sensible gentile is nervous about writing about “the nature of Jewishness”. I take comfort that Herman Wouk took the trouble to say a good deal of the matter in his This Is My God (1959) and seemed relaxed about sharing what are often taken to be gentile stereotypes about Jewishness.
My impression that Hadley Freeman in her House of Glass (2020) is more Woke in her view of gentile views of Jewishness. But her account of her own family’s quite various experiences of the 20th Century is very compelling indeed (not least in portraying the range of talents on display, in fashion, engineering and entrepreneurship).
Vienna’s 19th and 20th Century history allow and force one to consider both the force of modernity and its shallowness. I came across Frederic Morton’s A Nervous Splendour (1976) in a Folio re-issue of 2006 and thought it a splendid match for Wittgenstein’s Vienna (1973) by Allan Janik & Stephen Toulmin which I am sure was given to me by Manny Hirschhorn, a London clothing wholesaler of great modesty and charm. Both make a case study in how Jews are damned if they do and if they don’t assimilate.
I found myself awakened by the Life? or Theatre? of Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943): it is a sort of bio-pic in nearly 800 paintings. It is a German story, with a tense French Riviera interlude but culminating in Auschwitz. The philosopher and nun Edith Stein (1891-1942) was another German Jew (arguably, German-Polish granted her family home was in Breslau, now Wroclow). She was a great spirit killed in Auschwitz, and her autobiography Life In a Jewish Family covered the first 25 years of her life and would have been continued had the Nazis not caught up with her in her Dutch convent.
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