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Playwright Tom Stoppard grapples with his hidden past in latest work


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Judy Woodruff: In a new Broadway play, one of the world's greatest writers grapples with his own hidden past and its implications for our time.

Jeffrey Brown talks with playwright Sir Tom Stoppard for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Speaker: You are not looking.


Jeffrey Brown: The year is 1899, Vienna.

Speaker: It is a beautiful star, darling, but it's not the star we put at the top of our Christmas tree.

Jeffrey Brown: The members of the Merz clan, an assimilated Jewish family in which a confused grandchild can put a Star of David atop a Christmas tree, feel themselves full members of our highly cultured Viennese society and Austro-Hungarian empire.

Over the coming years and generations, they will learn how wrong they are.

Speaker: To a Gentile, I am a Jew. There isn't a Gentile anywhere who at one moment or another hasn't thought Jew.

Jeffrey Brown: Nearly every family member we meet in the play "Leopoldstadt" will be killed or die as a result of the Holocaust.

It's a devastating story of a family tree cut down, one that's impacting audiences and playwright Tom Stoppard himself in ways he hadn't expected.

Sir Tom Stoppard, Playwright: I came out very dry-eyed and quite happy with the show. A woman approached me. And she was drenched in tears. And I suddenly started crying with her.

I just went -- I just switched straight into her state of mind. And, actually, this is new with me. I have shed more tears over watching "Leopoldstadt" than the rest of my work put together.

Jeffrey Brown: Stoppard, now 85 and often described as the greatest living English playwright, has written some 37 plays and earned four Tony Awards.

Speaker: That woman is a woman!

Jeffrey Brown: He also won an Oscar for the screenplay of the movie "Shakespeare in Love."

"Leopoldstadt" is different and more personal, a kind of coming to terms with what he saw as the charmed life he'd lived and all that it concealed.

We talked recently at famed Broadway restaurant Sardi's.

Sir Tom Stoppard: And by the time I was an English schoolboy, then an English journalist, and then an English playwright, the idea of having a kind of charmed life was familiar to me, until it turned and bit me, because, finally, I felt rebuked by the attitude.

Jeffrey Brown: Tom Stoppard, the English playwright, was born Tomas Straussler in 1937 in Czechoslovakia. His parents, Jewish on both sides, took him and his brother to Singapore to escape the Nazi invasion. His father was killed by the Japanese, and his mother fled again, taking her sons to India, where she later married an Englishman.

At age 8, young Tom was brought to England, his Jewish past and family left behind.

Was it a question of knowing, or a suppressed past, or a lack of desire to know about it?

Sir Tom Stoppard: All of the above. My mother was very relieved to have found sanctuary for herself and her two sons when the war ended. She didn't want to look back, and she never spoke about the past, except just very casually occasionally.

And I also have to own up to not really having sufficient curiosity about it, partly because my mother didn't want to talk about it.

Speaker: There are thousands leaving every month. The Office of Jewish Immigration can't get rid of the Jews fast enough.

Jeffrey Brown: "Leopoldstadt" is the result of years of reckoning with a history Stoppard only learned about in full in his 50s, when a Czech relative told him that all four of his Jewish grandparents and three of his mother's sisters had been murdered by the Nazis.

The play's family is not his, but their experiences would have been similar.

Speaker: By miracle, Hermann has kept the business going through war, revolution, inflation and now Anschluss, and saved it for Jacob. Why give it all away now?

Speaker: The Nazis will take it.

Jeffrey Brown: The Nazis do take, all of it, the business, the home, and most of their lives.

And then Stoppard gives us a final scene set after the war in 1955.

Speaker: No more family business.

Speaker: And not much family, a New Yorker, an Austrian, and a clean young Englishman.

Jeffrey Brown: With three survivors, one of them a young Englishman, who'd come to his new country at age 8 and was oblivious to the Holocaust horror and toll on his own family.

Speaker: I'm sorry you had a rotten war.

Speaker: A rotten war?

Speaker: Yes, I'm sorry.

Jeffrey Brown: A stand-in for Stoppard himself.

Sir Tom Stoppard: The boy in the play is rebuked in the woods, you live as if without history. And that was rather me.

Jeffrey Brown: The specific line is: "You live as if without history, as if you throw no shadow behind you."

That was you?

Sir Tom Stoppard: Yes. Yes.

And I guess this play "Leopoldstadt" is the shadow behind me.

Jeffrey Brown: The play also, he knows, has a new relevance and force to it...

Marchers: Jews will not replace us!

Jeffrey Brown: .. as overt antisemitism has been on the rise around the globe.

Sir Tom Stoppard: There's a line in the play where the young man says to the Jewish survivor, he says, it can't happen again. And it feels such a clunky line. It's a line plucked from the clunkiness of how long people have been in the past.

But it's inescapable now.

Jeffrey Brown: It's resonating again.

Sir Tom Stoppard: It's certainly resonating. And all kinds of things are now happening in America, as in Europe, which you would not have anticipated a generation ago, half-a-generation ago.

Jeffrey Brown: After "Leopoldstadt" premiered in London just before the pandemic began, Stoppard caused tremors in the theater world by suggesting this could be his final play.

Now, as it stuns audiences on Broadway, he's resolved to continue.

Sir Tom Stoppard: I don't know what the thing is that I'm going to be turned on by. And it could be anything. And that is my situation as I sit here talking to you, Jeff. It could be anything. And

I'd like to get back to my desk and write another play.

Jeffrey Brown: "Leopoldstadt" is scheduled to run through March 12.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown on Broadway.

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