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LEOPOLDSTADT by Tom Stoppard (directed Patrick Marber)

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.

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18 June isn’t a well-known date, for all the efforts of Britain’s Francophobe press, which is celebrating the bicentenary of Waterloo in true apolitical style. Occasionally reality breaks through: it has, for example, emerged that the casualty rate in the battle surpassed the first day of the Somme. Will there be similar same flag-waving on 1 July next year I wonder? Certainly Wellington’s victory was a triumph for combined command not to be repeated until the last half of 1918. Whether this gifted general’s final win puts him in the same league as Napoleon (victor at Toulon, Austerlitz, Jena, Wagram, Borodino) I leave to the military historians, but squeezing Waterloo into the dreary narrative of ‘our island story’ should not obscure its politics.

Back to the Bourbons

Waterloo was greeted with relief by every crowned head in Europe (bar one) and rightly so. Once confirmed by the Congress of Vienna, it meant the Continental restoration of the ancien regime. These restored (or imposed) tyrants could not of course occupy their thrones with the same confidence as before 1789, but they could still combine to frustrate and suppress popular expression.

A foretaste had come in Spain, theatre of Wellington’s earlier triumphs, where the ludicrous Ferdinand VII had been restored, returning the country to its trajectory of decline: within two decades it sank into civil war. But at least in Spain the monarchy (however undeservedly) truly focused national feeling against the Napoleonic invasion. Elsewhere this was true only of Prussia, and perhaps Russia. Generally Waterloo and Vienna meant that national self-expression and bourgeois right – the political expressions of the Enlightenment – would be subordinated to Order and Legitimacy.

Bernadotte, King of Sweden, was rewarded for betraying Napoleon with the gift of Norway, whose people had to wait a century for independence. When the Belgians were subordinated to the Dutch in an artificially united province the arrangement lasted just 15 years. Poland, dismembered in the 18th century but given cause for hope by Napleon, was redistributed between the restored great powers. Italian self-determination was not even considered: the north (excepting Piemonte) went to Hapsburg Austria, the middle to the Pope and the south to the restored Bourbon monarchy, notable only for its cruelty and stupidity.

Distorting Germany

Prussia which had experienced powerful national renewal under French occupation now had to play second fiddle to a bloated Austrian Empire which, under the preposterous Hapsburgs, spread its ample bottom over most of central Europe. Hapsburg supremacy brought Metternich’s police state and national division. Within three decades this produced the revolutions of 1848, drowned in blood in every country. The flawed liberals of the Frankfurt Parliament might have fashioned an all-German republic; this path blocked, a deformed united Germany emerged in the ugly shape of a greater Prussia with its strutting military caste. This new Germany now excluded Hapsburg Austria, which strove the harder to retain its other territories, suppressing national minorities from Bohemia to the Ukraine. Its final expansionist clutch precipitated World War One.

In France, the restored Bourbons lasted just 15 years, swept away by popular revolution in 1830. It took two more huge revolutions – and several experimental regimes – to restore the republic, France’s proper form of government. In Russia Tsar Alexander, who had once presumed to treat Napoleon as an equal, soon relapsed into mere reaction. The serfs who had saved his throne were not emancipated and he ceased to dally with the Enlightenment. In 1825 he was succeeded by his brother, the noted brute Nicholas I, the very essence of unapologetic reaction.

Britain no exception

And what of Britain? Its huge army was rapidly demobilised with no provision made for their homecoming. Excess labour at home drove down wages sparking successive revolts in the years following Wellington’s triumph. The restoration of the Corn Laws fattened landlords and starved the people into demanding bread and reform. At Peterloo the terrified militia emulated the Tsar’s Cossacks when they freely sabred a peaceful assembly, women and children not excepted. Wellington drifted into Tory administrations, even becoming prime minister during 1828-30. From this position he opposed all change. Only with his removal did the British state begin a process of gradual reform, the very thing it had denied to all the other countries of Europe on 18 June 1815.

President Hollande is unavailable for today’s Waterloo jamboree. He will attend events marking De Gaulle’s defiant speech of June 18 1940. Now that’s an anniversary worth celebrating.

german history opera


Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Royal Opera House, Covent Garden)

March brings a Kurt Weill score with libretto by Bertolt Brecht, from 1930 Leipzig, just as the Weimar Republic started to die. London’s Royal Opera House (ROH) took 85 years to catch up with a rollocking modernist production supporting Jeremy Sams’ street-wise translation. Has it made up for lost time?

The opera might be considered a morality tale. Three crooks on the run found a settlement where anything goes: one, the widow (and brothel madam) Begbick, has seven ‘girls’ available.  Four Alaskan lumberjacks also arrive seeking a better life.  Given the location (‘Amerika’) this might be the Puritans’ ‘shining city on a hill’, the perfectible Susquehanna society of Southey and Coleridge, a socialist utopia.

But Brecht doesn’t do bromides.  At first the utopian project founders on its economic contradictions and an excess of rules (‘no happy songs after nine o’ clock’). One lumberjack, Jimmy McIntyre (Kurt Streit), becomes so disillusioned he calls for re-foundation of Mahagonny as a city of licence.  You can have your dream provided you can pay: it is a bourgeois republic of rights, a new Sodom where men find food, sex, fighting and drink.  The crooked accountant Fatty eats himself to death; Depression-era queues await Begbick’s girls; lumberjack Alaska Joe briefly tastes boxing glory before dying in a bare-knuckle fight.  The only two female ‘characters’ are Begbick (an underpowered Anne Sofie von Otter), a maker of markets and Jimmy’s girlfriend Jenny (Christine Rice), a woman on the make. The waitresses assisting Fatty’s gastro-suicide are in supportive roles.  Begbick’s other girls don’t even have names,

When free-spending Jimmy can’t pay his whisky bill, there’s a reckoning.  In court he finds Begbick presiding.  Earlier she took a bribe to acquit a murderer because no injured party had come forward to complain! But Jimmy is skint so gets blamed for crimes he has not committed.  Worse, for buying whisky without paying – his only property crime – he is condemned to death.  The law exists solely to ensure the process of exchange is unimpeded: justice itself is merely another traded commodity. The only capital crime is to lack the means of exchange. No one who has drunk with Jimmy now offers their own money to save him.  Jenny betrays him too and returns to whoring. A commentator sneers that the opera audience wouldn’t stump up either, and the Covent Garden cameras switch to the expensive stalls front row to underline the point. Jimmy gets the chair, his electrocuted body mangled like Christ’s on the cross.

The classically-trained Weill was not a musical revolutionary.  His slightly older contemporaries – Schoenberg, Bartok, Berg – all pushed the boundaries more.  Even Brecht smocked his conservatism. But Mahagonny brilliantly references a range of musical modes from Beethoven to jazz, anticipating his Hollywood years when he was a father of the musical.  His lyrical gifts are heard in Jenny’s haunting ‘O Moon of Alabama’. Weill and Brecht also produced the sung ballet The Seven Deadly Sins and The Threepenny Opera, debunking high culture and holding a mirror to the venal audience.  We don’t need to imagine them, only look at Georg Grosz’s Weimar caricatures. The Brownshirts demonstrating at Mahagonny’s premiere and disrupting later performances knew what was going on.  In 1933 Brecht and Weill (who was Jewish) left Germany just in time.


Georg Grosz, The Pillars of Society (1926)

Sometimes the ROH production of Mahagonny forces its audience to think, not wallow.  Begbick’s giant lorry is straight out of a Calais truck-park. Spun round it’s a nightclub where a virtuoso black pianist plays jazz.  Spun again it’s a brothel shuffling men queue for.  Clever graphics depict the stock market and a hurricane that menaces – but hilariously avoids – Mahagonny. The Jimmy/Jenny romance ends with his money and is barely redeemed.   But did the audience leave unsettled? Perhaps Mahagonny comes too early in Brecht’s career for this question, and it was after all a co-production. And in our era, when no-one at HSBC is to blame and we still haven’t sent any bankers to the chair, perhaps we are unshockable.  Our reality makes this dystopia tame, for all the jokes and virtuoso singing.

(This is an edited version of a review to appear in the April 2015 number of Labour Briefing)