Sir Tom Stoppard has revealed how his staunch criticism of communist regimes in his plays, born out of his own past as a Jewish child refugee from Czechoslovakia, set him at odds with the “lively” leftwing strain of the UK theatre scene.
His passionate defence of writers and journalists under threat by communist and totalitarian regimes, as well as his pride in being British, did little to endear him to some parts of the British theatre establishment, Stoppard told the Radio Times.
“There was a very strong, lively, leftwing side to English life and particularly English theatre. At some point I began to resent my sanctuary [in Britain] being pissed on by everybody I knew. Thanks a bunch. You know, [without the UK] I would have been in Communist Czechoslovakia now!”
Stoppard, 84, told interviewer Alan Yentob he finally addresses a long-neglected aspect of his life in his latest and most personal play, Leopoldstadt, which has returned to the West End after a pandemic-induced hiatus.
The play centres on the unease of not quite belonging, which reflects Stoppard’s upbringing – along with subsequently growing up reconstituted as a proud Englishman and knowing little about his heritage.
“I make an appearance [in the play] as a young Englishman, Leo,” Stoppard said. The character, Leonard, had been, before his childhood escape from the Jewish quarter of Vienna before the war, a European Jew called Leopold, who doesn’t know his own history: “In Vienna they say to him, ‘By the way, what is it with Leonard? Your name was Leopold. Too Jewish? You know you had another name and you are the continuation of that person.’”
Stoppard, who is best known for plays such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and his screenplays for films such as Shakespeare in Love, was born Tomas Sträussler in 1937.
His Jewish family fled Czechoslovakia after the Nazi invasion, eventually settling in England after his mother remarried a British army officer, Ken Stoppard, a man the playwright describes as having had “an innate antisemitism”. His stepfather believed “to be born an Englishman was to have drawn first prize in the lottery of life” and told young Tom: “Don’t you realise that I made you British?”
“Why he married a Jewess with two children I have no idea, but he did,” said Stoppard.
This question of identity came to a head five decades after he came to Britain, when Stoppard asked his cousin how Jewish they were. “What do you mean? You are completely Jewish. What is this question?” she responded, drawing his family tree and revealing that most of his closest relatives had perished in Auschwitz and other camps.
“I think I’d been somewhat conditioned by my mother to draw a line behind me when I stepped on to the English shore,” Stoppard reflects. “Essentially the message [to myself] was, ‘This is what happened to your family and you just swanned along with a different name, a different nationality. Wake up!’”
The long wake-up call to begin to reconcile his layered identities was summed up 20 years later, when he texted his producer to say he’d started working on a new play. What had he written about? “Being Jewish.”