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Tom Stoppard’s early genius and late reckoning with Jewish identity

Tom Stoppard: A Life.

By Hermione Lee.

Knopf, 896 pages

In 1993, Tom Stoppard was in rehearsals at London’s National Theatre for “Arcadia,” his epoch-hopping and mind-bending tale of love, mathematics, poetry and landscape design which is often considered his finest play.

One day, during a lunch break at the National, the celebrated British playwright met for the first time with visiting Czech relatives. His cousin Sarka provided him with a stunning revelation: His parents were both Jewish. (Stoppard’s mother had told him only his father was a Jew.) And many of his blood relations — including all four grandparents, a great-grandparent, three of his mother’s sisters — perished in Nazi death camps.

So how did one of the world’s most esteemed dramatists, who conducted massive historical and scientific research for many of his works including the Tony Award-honored “Arcadia” and the Oscar-winning film “Shakespeare in Love,” a man who had close Jewish friends and had married a woman raised in an Orthodox Jewish household, not discover the truth about his own Jewishness and family’s Holocaust tragedies until he was in his late 50s? And how did the new knowledge of his background affect his art, and sense of self?

A hefty doorstop-sized new biography of Stoppard wrestles with these questions as it offers a large-scale, vivid portrait of a supremely gifted author, an attractive and acutely intelligent man both reticent and gregarious, a doting father, generous and loyal friend, an ardent human rights advocate and where women are concerned, a serial romantic.

However, threading thorough Hermione Lee’s scrupulous, sympathetic account of Stoppard’s dazzling artistic and rewarding private life, is the matter of suppressed and elusive identity — a subject addressed, albeit more obliquely, in some Stoppard plays long before he understood the full nature of his own identity.

After learning he was Jewish, “Stoppard began to have the feeling that since his childhood, he had been in a state of ‘almost willful purblindness’ with “an endless willingness not to disturb my mother by questioning her.” This would later come back to him “in the form of self-reproach,” an emotion that Lee writes “would settle into his life and gradually become insistent.”

In the inaugural 1999 issue of Tina Brown’s Talk Magazine, Stoppard outed himself in a rare autobiographical essay, “On Turning Out to Be Jewish.” He didn’t confront the matter directly as a dramatist until more than two decades later. “Leopoldstadt,” the now 83-year old Stoppard’s play about an extended Eastern European Jewish clan devastated by World War II, debuted in London last year.

This milestone fortunately made it into the final chapter of Lee’s “Tom Stoppard: A Life,” which actually chronicles two very separate lives. Good fortune played a substantial role in both.

He was born Tomás Straüssler, to Jewish parents Dr. Eugen and Marta Straüssler, in the city of Zlin, Czechoslovakia in 1937. At age eight, however, he became Tom Stoppard, a proper British lad educated in English boarding schools, bookish and brainy but also mad about cricket. At home, only English was spoken. And the only religion on offer was the Church of England.

Stoppard has long been ambivalent, even dismissive of someone rummaging through his back pages. A character in his 1995 play “India Ink” calls biography “the worst possible excuse for getting people wrong.”

But he finally did entrust long-obscured Czech family saga, as well as the rest of his colorful, productive and (his word) charmed life, to hand-picked biographer Lee, author of acclaimed books on Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf and other literary lions.

It was a wise choice. And if Lee has gotten it wrong, it’s not for lack of industry or resources. Stoppard gave her full access to his archives, and “helped not hindered” her exhaustive research, which included over 100 interviews with his relations, friends and colleagues, and close readings of his more than 30 stage plays (and additional scripts for film and radio), his voluminous correspondence (he may be one of the last of the literati to be an avid pen-and-paper letter writer), his journals and datebooks.

Lee has come through with a richly detailed, sympathetic and (for theater nerds) indispensible account of Stoppard’s life and career. Well-covered are the raffish early years as a reporter for a regional English paper, the Western Daily Press, his alternative to a university education (despite a clearly Oxbridge-ready intellect). A dogged theatrical apprenticeship (his break-through hit, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” debuted when he was 27) gets much attention. The inspiration for and creation story of every work in his canon is conveyed — along with lengthy synopses of all his serio-comical scripts, minor and major (including such wonky, inventive literary meta-fests as “Travesties,” featuring James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin and seminal DaDa artist Tristan Tzara, to his sprawling trilogy on momentous and ineffectual 19th-century Russian philosophers, “The Coast of Utopia”).

There’s not a great deal of critical analysis of Stoppard’s oeuvre here, but that’s easily found elsewhere. What’s not are portraits of Stoppard’s three marriages, significant love affairs and relations with his four sons — all of whom he stayed on close, good terms with, despite break-ups and divorces.

We get a taste of (but not gossipy emphasis on) the heady social whirl Stoppard enjoyed, working and hobnobbing with the likes of Mick Jagger, Mike Nichols and Steven Spielberg, among the many A-listers who appreciated his keen wit, thoughtfulness, erudition and creative energy. (He often has juggled four or five projects at once). His charm and politesse also are in evidence – as I experienced firsthand in 1992, while interviewing Stoppard for the Seattle Times. Though weary from a cross-country publicity jaunt for the film of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” (which he wrote and directed), Stoppard was unfailingly polite – while emphatic in his unfashionable admiration for UK’s divisive ex-prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

Lee does her best to contextualize the tricky matter of Stoppard’s eclectic political leanings. Stemming from his U.K. patriotism as a successful immigrant, he’s been passionately anti-Communist and a staunch public advocate for human rights, especially freedom of expression. He wrote and protested on behalf of such Czech dissident writers as his friend, playwright-politician Vaclav Havel, and on general humanitarian grounds protested USSR’s mistreatment of Jewish dissidents.

Though Stoppard did not share the vigorously leftist views of many of his theatrical peers (i.e., Harold Pinter and David Hare), he characteristically remained friendly with them. Lee contends his politics have not been doctrinaire, or (as some charged in the 1980s) right-wing conservative, but based more on his emotional allegiances (and, though she doesn’t spell it out, class privilege). In British elections over the years he has voted Conservative, Labour, Green Party. Recently, he came out as anti-Brexit.

But it wasn’t until “Leopoldstadt” (named for a historically Jewish district in Vienna) that Stoppard the writer and thinker dealt squarely with antisemitism, and the predicament of Jews caught up in the maelstrom of the Holocaust. And if it is more fiction than family memoir (Lee notes he “used names and family stories, lines and scenes and cultural details from many sources”), the play represents his growing engagement with his Jewish past, and sense of shame that it took him so long. As he told London’s Jewish Chronicle recently, “I think about the Holocaust, it seems like every day.”

“Leopoldstadt” considers two cultured, educated, intertwined Viennese families, the Merz and Jakobovicz clans, between 1899 (when they had full civil rights under Austria’s Emperor Franz Josef), to 1955 (after their ranks were decimated by the Nazis). Like the Hungarian Jewish family in István Szabó’s 1992 film “Sunshine,” the Italian family in the novel and movie, “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” and the German relations in the influential American TV-miniseries “Holocaust,” these are highly assimilated, largely secular Jews who identify more by nationality than with their inherited religion.

In this, they resemble Stoppard’s own parents Dr. Eugen Straüssler and Marta Beckova. In 1938, as the German Army marched to the Czech border, Eugen and his Jewish coworkers for the prosperous Bata shoe company were urged by their gentile employer to quickly flee the country, and promised employment abroad.

As Lee chronicles, Marta and Eugen went first by ship, with 18-month old Tomas and his 3-year old brother Petr, to Singapore. And here good and tragically bad luck kicked in: Japan invaded Malaysia. And though his wife and children managed a chaotic escape to India, Eugen followed later by ship but perished in a bombing raid.

Widowed and no doubt traumatized, Marta spent several footloose, scrambling years in India with her young sons. In 1945 she met and married Major Ken Stoppard, a “handsome, clean-cut Englishman,” a military man with “a passion for King and Country.” His stepsons would come to view him as a “bitter, disappointed man, bigoted, xenophobic” and, ironically, antisemitic. But to a stateless single mother he was a savior who “represented safety and control” — and knew or cared little about her background.

Like her sons, Marta had a new post-war identity too: In England she was called Bobby. And Bobby remained tight-lipped with her children (including two more by Ken) about her past. Every so often, notes Lee, “they would ask their mother, ‘Mum, are we Jewish?’” She would reply vaguely or inconclusively, or evade answering altogether. “To her, being ‘Jewish’ meant being a believer in Judaism,” Lee writes. “Being Jewish did not figure in her life until it became the cause of displacement, chaos and bereavement.”

Marta wanted to shield her children from such horrors. And she was likely aware of the British National Party and the National Socialist Movement, both formed in the early 1960s, who campaigned against Jews and immigrants much like the pre-war, pro-Hitler English groups like the British Union of Fascists.

For the most part, Stoppard would “face away from his family’s past” in order to please and calm his loving, anxious mother. Until that 1993 meeting with Sarka, and a subsequent trip with family members to the Czech Republic, made it emotionally and morally untenable for him to do so.

For a writer known for the cerebral streak and intellectual playfulness in his stage works it’s no surprise that Stoppard invested years of research and weaved many concerns and influences, as well as moments of humor and satire, into “Leopoldstadt.” But he acknowledged that the plays was special, as a kind of personal reckoning.

“It’s not a play about me,” he said in a program interview for the London premiere, “but it’s a play I could not have written if I hadn’t lived the life that fate has dealt me.”

“Leopoldstadt” struck chords with Jewish critics. The Times of Israel reviewer called it “devastating,” “riveting” and “heartrending yet resolutely non-melodramatic,” and described how it resonated with his own German-Jewish immigrant past.

Only a month into its run at London’s Wyndham Theatre, however, fate intervened: The production was closed down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But this latest, and perhaps last major work by one of the world’s most popular living playwrights, will hopefully soon return to the London stage. (Performances are set to restart at the Wyndham Theatre in June 2021.) And it will invariably cross the pond to America and be produced in many other countries. “Leopoldstadt” has arrived at a propitious time: when antisemitism is again on the rise, and new generations need to hear the Jewish family stories that a dwindling number of Holocaust survivors and their adult children are alive to tell – or tell with the brilliance and hard-won emotional investment of a Tom Stoppard. His confrontation with the past is a gift to the present.

Misha Berson is the former theatre critic of The Seattle Times, and the author of several books on theater including “Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination.” She is currently a freelance writer and an instructor at the University of Washington.

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