I grew up as a theatregoer with Tom Stoppard. Arriving in London in 1975 I gorged myself on plays. In that golden age of theatre, he still stood out for his verbal felicity, ingenious plot and literary reference. After Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, came The Real Inspector Hound, After Magritte, Jumpers, Travesties. More recently there has been Night and Day, The Real Thing, Hapgood, Arcadia, Indian Ink, The Invention of Love, The Coast of Utopia, Rock ‘n’ Roll and The Hard Problem.
Stoppard’s homage to turn of the century Vienna celebrates its national diversity. An extended family in Leopoldstadt, the Viennese destination of pogrom-fleeing Jews, meets in 1899, 1900, 1924 and 1938 (on the night of Kristallnacht); their survivors gather in 1955. Stoppard assumes a literate, historically aware audience. Why not in your ninth decade? After overhearing the conversation of two young people in neighbouring seats, I was less sure. The play largely assumes this knowledge except for the 1938 scene.
In a key 1899 exchange two patriarchs juxtapose the merits of Herzl’s proposed homeland to the promise of the alternative: full acceptance of Jews at the highest cultural and political levels of the empire. After this the action slowly reveals the increasingly ghastly reality; 1938 shows us the post-Anschluss version of Herzl as strutting Nazis strip the family of all their goods. The 1955 scene powerfully evokes memory and the lost identity of the diaspora now submerged in Englishness and Americana. Structurally these shifts are not satisfying but how else can one produce the sheer sweep of historical explanation?
It has been argued that art cannot comprehend the Holocaust, that the language does not exist to express its scale and horror. Stoppard gives us something else: the early stirrings of the racist beast in Europe’s most sophisticated capital; the destruction of Old Austria; Nazi triumphalism – ‘that is all over now’, a Nazi gloats at a woman concert pianist to whom an assumed name has allowed success. Europe has eviscerated itself in one war; now, thanks to the Nazis and their global fellow-travellers, it will repeat the experience. It is like watching Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday dramatized on stage.