Life, love and Leopoldstadt: don't be surprised if Tom Stoppard gets emotional

Michael Billington
Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

What kind of writer is Tom Stoppard? In countless profiles and reviews he has been characterised as an intellectual gymnast, a dazzling wordsmith, a glamoriser of thought: a man who can take such subjects as linguistic philosophy, Latin love poetry and quantum mechanics and turn them into the stuff of drama. If anything has been missing, it is implied, it is self-revelation and strong emotion – both of which are evident in Leopoldstadt, Stoppard’s latest, and possibly last, play.

I would argue, however, that there has always been a fierce, if largely unacknowledged, emotional ground-base to Stoppard’s work. What is new about Leopoldstadt is its element of autobiography. Stoppard once told an interviewer, in an uncharacteristically clumsy phrase: “I don’t think of my life as a well into which I drop my bucket with a sense of going deeply into myself.” But in Leopoldstadt he not only traces the fortunes of an Austrian-Jewish family whose experience is analogous to that of his own Czech forebears. He also dramatises his own predicament in the character of Leo Chamberlain, a cricket and Shakespeare-loving anglophile whose parents escaped Nazi persecution in the nick of time.

What makes the play so moving is the sense that it is an act of atonement for Stoppard’s belated recognition of his Jewish inheritance. But I don’t think we should be surprised at Leopoldstadt’s emotional leverage: that element has always been present in Stoppard’s work. Even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is partly about what John Wood, who played one of the two leads on Broadway, described to me as “the bravery of these two attendant lords beating back the darkness”. The play has been classified as a piece of neo-Beckettian absurdism. If it is regularly revived, it is because it is about two people trying to discover who exactly they are while speeding inexorably towards death, which is pretty much the human condition.

Marriage in crisis … Michael Hordern and Diana Rigg in Jumpers for the National Theatre at the Old Vic in 1972. Photograph: Donald Cooper/Alamy

It is true that most of Stoppard’s plays are based on intense research. I once met him outside the London Library, where he was returning a huge pile of books he was holding up to his chin. “That’s my next play,” he joked. But the play in question, Jumpers, is far from being an academic exercise. At heart it is a play about a moral philosopher who is trying to find logical support for his belief in God. At the same time the character, George Moore, is a cuckolded husband distraught at the idea of his wife’s infidelity. At the first performance, in 1972, we were all magnetised by the play’s verbal and physical razzle-dazzle. But in later revivals, with first Paul Eddington and then Simon Russell Beale, we began to see that the play is both an affirmation of moral values and a portrait of a marriage in crisis. We are emotionally moved and intellectually stimulated.

I see a parallel between Tom Stoppard and George Bernard Shaw. Both are sometimes accused of being theatrical brainboxes who are all head and no heart. But, just as Shaw’s best plays have a Dionysiac fervour or emotional dynamism – think of Candida or Heartbreak House – so Stoppard’s omnivorous appetite for ideas is imbued with a sense of mortality and the waywardness of passion. One example rarely quoted is Undiscovered Country, Stoppard’s brilliant 1979 adaptation of a play by Arthur Schnitzler. Like Leopoldstadt, this is a play about the Viennese bourgeoisie. This time we see them on holiday in the Dolomites and there are plenty of characteristic Stoppard jokes. Asked if a self-slaughtering Russian pianist has left behind any explanation, someone replies: “Korsakow wouldn’t be seen dead with a suicide note.” But ultimately this is a play that shows that under the decorous Viennese politeness lurk panic, death and an insane preoccupation with honour. Very much, in fact, like Leopoldstadt.

The most palpable proof of Stoppard’s emotional power comes in his 1982 play The Real Thing. In the opening play-within-a-play scene we see a fictional character reacting with exquisite insouciance to his wife’s adultery. But in the main body of the play a dramatist named Henry, famed for his verbal mastery, is poleaxed by the realisation that his lover, Annie, is having an affair. Left alone while Annie goes off to an assignation, Henry puts on a Procul Harum record and utters a pained cry of: “Oh please, please, please, please DON’T.” Prior to Leopoldstadt, this is Stoppard’s most self-revelatory play, showing its writer-hero learning that “the real thing” in love is not an idealised passion but a recognition by each partner of the other’s flawed individuality.

Greatly as I admire Stoppard, I concede there are times when his research seems to sit on top of a play rather being embedded into it. At his best, though, he combines intellectual fireworks with an appeal to the heart. Arcadia (1993) is a play that tackles the contest between determinism and free will, Enlightenment order and chaos theory, the classical and the romantic. But it is also about the presence of death even in Arcadia and comes to a tremendous climax with the interweaving of two worlds – that of 1812 and the present – and a poignant exchange between the characters of Thomasina and her tutor, Septimus. We realise that Thomasina, who has precociously anticipated the idea of iterated algorithms, will die in a fire while Septimus, whom she ardently loves, will fail to forestall her death and end up as a hermit. After that, who could say Stoppard was a writer without heart?

For final confirmation, one has only to turn to his play about AE Housman, The Invention of Love (1998). This is a work about Housman’s love of textual scholarship and his sense of pain at life’s missed chances. The most famous scene shows the dead AEH communing with his younger self and urging him to live passionately in the moment. “If I had my time again,” he says, “I would pay more regard to those poems of Horace which tell you you will not have your time again.” The supreme irony is that the older man knows that he is incapable of altering his own character or the circumstances of late Victorian England that led his younger self to nurse a hopeless passion for Moses Jackson.

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Quite rightly, Leopoldstadt has been acclaimed for its ability to confront Stoppard’s own family history and his unease over his delayed awareness of his Jewish identity. But, for all its power, I don’t see the play as marking a radical change in its combination of historical scholarship and intense feeling. All Stoppard’s work is grounded strongly in human and moral concerns and, in that sense, Leopoldstadt is not so much a revolutionary volte-face as the fulfilment of a lifetime’s theatrical journey.