Leopoldstadt – Footnotes
The Footnotes to our episode on Tom Stoppard’s majestic play Leopoldstadt include observations on the origins of its title, the metaphoric resonances of the child’s game, Cat’s Cradle, and how Gustav Klimt’s art is an apt choice to help paint the play’s story.
The title of the play
In our conversation Patrick revealed that Leopoldstadt had not been the original working title of the play, but it was an appropriate title. The checkered history of the Leopoldstadt area of Vienna certainly reflects the historical vicissitudes of Jews in Austria. It’s association with the Jews goes back to 1625 when Jews were banned from living within the city walls, and huddled together in a ghetto on the other side of the Danube. They were evicted again in 1669 by Emperor Leopold 1, and the site of their synagogue was cleared to make way for a church dedicated to St Leopold. The area was named Leopoldstadt by the Christian population in gratitude to the Emperor.
After Emperor Joseph issued his Edict of Tolerance in 1782, Jews began to return to Leopoldstadt, although they were still generally banned from the city itself for another century. By the late 19th and early 20th century the area was again associated with the Jews, particularly following the first world war by the poorest people.
In the Reichskristallnacht pogrom of 1938 the area was once again the focus of persecution when six synagogues and thirty-one prayer houses were destroyed. Today, the Leopoldstadt area of Vienna is no longer Jewish: following the 20th century wave of expulsions only 3% of the population is Jewish.
So the origin of the name Leopoldstadt represents a bitter irony in its association with the Jews of Vienna. The title of the play is a short-hand for targeted discrimination, but it is also a definition of community; a place where people of a kind live together whether by choice or necessity. It’s history also testifies to the way that the identity and interpretation of a place and people can change almost arbitrarily through the currents of history. As the play itself asserts, it is important not to forget the realities of the past that can be lost or obscured over time.
The string game that Nathan and Leo play with Ludwig in 1938, and which they remember together when they meet again in 1955 is not only a poignant personal touchstone; it also has metaphoric resonance in the themes of the play. In typical fashion Stoppard gives us a few clues to these thematic reverberations, such as Ludwig’s observation that there seems to be “no rhyme or reason” in the progress of the game, but in fact “each state comes from the previous state”, as do the events that follow in the flow of history. There is actually a pattern in the game, a mathematical order that is hard to discern underneath the apparent randomness, as the mathematics professor likes to believe there is in nature, despite the chaos of the world they are living in.
Ludwig also points out that the knots in the string in the game “always stay the same distance from each other”, because they never cut the string – a metaphor I think for the fixed links in the family tree that cannot be broken. The individual knots are “not allowed to show up anywhere they like”, just as Leo cannot disown his ancestral origins no matter how far away he travels.
The Cat’s Cradle is a small but glinting example of Stoppard’s art, in that it adds beauty and emotional depth to the personal stories, at the same time as it elaborates on the largest questions in the play.
In the play Gretl is having her portrait painted by none other than Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), one of the founders of the Viennese Seccesion movement and most famously the painter of The Kiss (1907). His work is renowned for its symbolist imagery as well as for its eroticism, which adds an appropriate frisson to Gretl’s choice of artist. Klimt painted a number of portraits of women from the highest ranks of Viennese society, including two illustrious portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the wife of wealthy Austrian industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. Bloch-Bauer who was one of Klimt’s most important patrons, and a respected member of fin de siecle Viennese society. Although Adele’s portraits post-date Gretl’s sitting, they may have partially been a model for the story of her painting. Like Hermann Merz, Bloch-Bauer was Jewish, and in 1938 he fled Austria and his art collection was subsequently seized by the Nazis. After the war the Bloch-Bauer portraits became the subject of a long-running dispute over their ownership, which was only finally resolved in 2006 when the family reclaimed and sold them.
As we learn in the last act of Leopoldstrasse, Gretl’s portrait was also the victim of Nazi pilferage, and Rosa is embroiled years later in a determined battle to recover it from the Austrian state. The fate of the painting is symbolic not only of the lost possessions and lives of the Jews, but of the erased identities of the individuals of the past, one of the running themes of the play. As Nathan tells us, the painting was originally titled “Portrait of Margarete Merz”, but it now hangs in the Belverdere gallery in Vienna known only as “Woman with a Green Shawl”.
There is another reference to Klimt in the play, specifically to his paintings of ‘Philosophy’, Medicine’ and ‘Jurisprudence’, which he was commissioned to produce for the great hall of the University of Vienna. The paintings were greeted by outrage because of their allegorical imagery which many deemed pornographic, and they were never displayed at the university. The painting of ‘Philosophy’ has been described as illustrating an idea prominent at the time that the “purposeful progress of history was ultimately governed by incomprehensible and uncontrollable cyclical forces of nature.” A meaning that sounds particularly fitting for the cycles of persecution and devastation that we witness repeated in the play and over the history of the century. Are these uncontrollable, destructive forces part of our fundamental character as human beings? As Ernst says about the meaning of the paintings: “The rational is at the mercy of the irrational. Barbarism will not be eradicated by culture.” As if to highlight his point, a postscript to the story is that Klimt’s three university paintings were deliberately destroyed by the Nazis on their retreat from Vienna in 1945. Barbarism indeed.
Tom Stoppard’s ambitious new play Leopoldstadt is a sweeping work of history and ideas which charts the diaspora and decline of an Austrian Jewish family through the convulsive events of the first half of the twentieth century. It addresses profound moral questions of identity, memory and prejudice that are insistently relevant in our time. It is not only a towering intellectual achievement, it is also very personally poignant because it is based partly on Stoppard’s own remarkable family history.
Leopoldstadt opened in the West End in January 2020, only to be closed prematurely by the pandemic a few weeks later. Happily it has returned to the London stage this Autumn, and I am privileged and delighted to talk in this episode with the director of the London productions, playwright Patrick Marber.
Footnotes Volume 3 is a recording of the facts and observations that we’ve published on the website to supplement the plays that we’ve covered in episodes 24-31. A smorgasbord of trivia and analysis ranging from Greek Tragedy to the stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte , through the music of Bob Dylan, the filming of Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone during lockdown, and the theatrical installations of Samuel Beckett.
A compendium of dramatic intelligence!
Samuel Beckett’s third great dramatic masterpiece Happy Days is a timeless exploration of existential threat and personal survival. It’s central image of Winnie buried in a mound of scorched earth also speaks to our own time when many have endured enforced confinement in a world struck by collective disaster.
Irish actress and Beckett scholar Lisa Dwan, fresh from her triumphant performance as Winnie at the Riverside Studios in London, joins us to share her unique experience of playing Beckett and this majestic play.
Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.
Another great mix of shows this month, from Tom Stoppard’s new play, to Ibsen, Beckett and newer plays in smaller London venues.
The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country …