The power of art
Art helps us more fully understand the world we live in – and what drives and motivates us as humans
I am constantly amazed by the power of art to make us stop and think about what is important. World-renowned British playwright Tom Stoppard’s latest play, Leopoldstadt, does just that.
This dazzling, devastating play about an extended Jewish family in the 20th century reminds us that hope helps us believe in the future, no matter how dark the past. Hope is a lifeline. It enables the persecuted to keep going in the face of adversity and powerlessness. It enables us to carry on believing that our fellow humans can change.
Hope inspires us to take action
As Charles Dickens, another celebrated chronicler of the human spirit, put it in Nicholas Nickleby:
“It is always something, to know you’ve done the most you could. But, don’t leave off hoping, or it’s of no use doing anything. Hope, hope to the last.”
Stoppard has taken action by writing Leopoldstadt. This gut-wrenching multi-generational saga is a stark reminder, if one were needed, that antisemitism never seems to go away.
The drama opens in a spirit of optimism in 1899. The large family of largely secular Jews loves life. They relish the cultural highs of the time, from music by Mahler to dazzling art by Gustav Klimt to Freud’s exciting new theories of the unconscious.
One leading member of the family is an avowed optimist. His name is Hermann, a baptised Jew married to a Catholic. He is forever telling friends and family that this is a good time for the Jewish community. He is convinced that complete assimilation is in their grasp.
He believes times are changing. He believes that historic antisemitism is in the past. He believes the future is bright.
Warning from the past
But the audience knows what’s coming. The spectre of the Holocaust looms over the family’s hopes and dreams.
Hermann’s optimism is heartbreaking.
The play takes us from Kristallnacht to the Second World War, in which 65,000 Austrians were murdered by the Nazis, and ends in 1955. Here’s where Tom Stoppard’s bravery as an artist and a man really kicks in.
He uses this elegiac play to tell us the truth about his own past.
A young man takes centre stage at the end of the play. We’ve already met him earlier, as one of the bright children in Hermann’s extended family. He has grown up into an English gentleman and seems quite unaware of the fact of his Jewishness. He has put it behind him, or someone in his family has enabled him to do so.
Something very similar happened to Stoppard when he was growing up. Stoppard was born in Czechoslovakia. Both his parents were Jewish. To escape the Nazis, Stoppard’s parents fled with their children to Singapore. After the Japanese invaded, Stoppard’s mother fled once again, this time to India. Stoppard’s father was to follow, but was killed in a bombing raid while trying to escape by ship.
Stoppard’s mother later married an Englishman and the couple brought their children up in middle-class English society. Their mother hid the fact of the family’s Jewish identity from the children.
Tom Stoppard is now 83 years old. Growing up, the young Tom knew only that his father was Jewish. Every now and then he would ask his mother if they were all Jewish.
“I once asked my mother to write down what she remembered and she said ‘wrongly or rightly, I decided to draw a line and never looked back’. So she never practised as a Jew.”
When Stoppard was in his late fifties one of his mother’s Czech relatives confirmed his Jewish identity. Only then did the famous playwright discover that all four of his grandparents and his mother’s sisters had been killed in the Holocaust.
Stoppard has said: “The thing that I feel I still need to explain to myself, let alone to anyone else, is that I didn’t go up to [my mother] and say, ‘what is all this about then?’ I felt she would feel I was rebuking her.”
“She had her own reasons for not talking about it. And so we never did talk about it in any comprehensive or deep way, which I think I regret now.”
Leopoldstadt is Stoppard’s way of talking about it now. It’s his way of reminding us of the horrors of the Holocaust and of what humans are capable.
It reminds us that people still have to hide the truth about who they are.
A survey, conducted by the Campaign Against Antisemitism and King’s College London at the beginning of 2021, found that almost half of British Jews avoided displaying any outward signs of their Jewishness, such as a Star of David or a kippah (skullcap).
That’s something we need to talk about. No one should have to hide their identity or their beliefs.
We need to keep talking, lest we forget.
Whether it’s a play or a novel or a painting, art helps us do just that.
- Leopoldstadt is screening in cinemas nationwide from January 27, 2022 – see ntlive.com for tickets
Bruno Wang Productions