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How Tom Stoppard's life inspired his play 'Leopoldstadt'

His award-winning show is not autobiographical, but it is inspired by the playwright's family history.

Diep Tran
Diep Tran

Tom Stoppard wasn’t always Tom Stoppard, six-time Tony Award winner. The renowned British playwright was actually born in Czechoslovakia as Tomáš Sträussler. He was Jewish, but after his family fled the Nazis, his mother changed his name. That story is fictionalized in Stoppard’s newest play, Leopoldstadt, currently running on Broadway.

This show is Stoppard’s most personal work ever. And at 85 years old, Leopoldstadt is his 19th Broadway production (after hits such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Arcadia). And Leopoldstadt is huge in every sense: it spans half a century and contains a cast of 38 actors, including Broadway favorites Caissie Levy, Brandon Uranowitz, and Betsy Aidem.

The play follows one extended Jewish family from 1899 to 1955, showing how their wealthy lives in Vienna devolve amid the Holocaust and its aftermath. Below, learn more about the personal family history that inspired Leopoldstadt, as well as the play's recent, award-winning production history.

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Leopoldstadt is based on Tom Stoppard’s life.

Stoppard was born to a Jewish family, but he didn’t realize it until he was in his 50s. When the Nazis invaded the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) in 1941, his family fled and eventually settled in England. His father died, while working as a doctor in the British Navy; his ship was bombed by the Japanese forces. His mother remarried Kenneth Stoppard, and Tomáš Sträussler became Tom Stoppard. The family hid the fact that they were Jewish.

As Stoppard’s mother later wrote, “The move to England had been so sudden, unplanned and drastic that I – perhaps subconsciously – decided the only thing to make it possible to live and truly settle down (I mean the three of us) was to draw a blind over my past life and start, so to speak, from scratch.”

It wasn’t until 1993 that Stoppard learned from a Czech relative that he had Jewish grandparents on both sides, and they had died in a concentration camp. Three of his aunts also died during the Holocaust.

“The play grew out of the related self-reproach about seeing my life as a charmed life,” Stoppard told the Washington Post. “I got scooped out of the way of the Nazis, then out of the way of the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, and then instead of going back to Communist Czechoslovakia, I found myself an English schoolboy. Of course it was a charmed life. I finally realized I should write about this because, yes, this notion of having a charmed life ignores my early history and completely erases a family background.”

And in fact, though the play is set in Austria, it features a character that Stoppard modeled on himself, as he told Entertainment Weekly. “There's a character in the play who comes to England when he's eight. And when he's a young man, he comes back to Vienna. He says a few things which speak for me.”

Leopoldstadt is not autobiographical.

Though Stoppard's family history inspired him to write Leopoldstadt, it’s not an autobiography, and he didn’t want the play to be about him. In his play, the Jewish family — the fictional Merz-Jacobovitzes — lives in Austria, and they own a textile business.

“It doesn't involve my real parents or siblings or anything like that," Stoppard said to EW. "I started with a clean slate of a family in Vienna, which I just found much more interesting than my own life. Because Vienna at the period I'm writing about is one of the most interesting places on God's earth because of the culture."

The play takes place over half a century, with scenes set in 1899, 1900, 1924, 1938, and 1955. This means characters who are adults in the first scene grow old in the subsequent scenes, and characters who are children grow up to be adults who then have their own children. So the play is about generations of a family, and how that expansive family tree is chopped down during the Holocaust.

“There’s something for multiple generations of American Jews in this play,” said Brandon Uranowitz, who plays two characters in Leopoldstadt. “There are the generation of survivors and children of survivors that want to honor their families. And then I think there’s also the generation, like my generation and younger generations, who are contending with what it means to be Jewish in this country, and particularly in the context of what’s going on politically and culturally.”

Leopoldstadt is named for a real place.

Leopoldstadt is named after Vienna’s Jewish neighborhood, which is located on an island between the Danube River and the Donaukanal canal. The Jews actually called it Mazzesinsel ("Matzo Island," named after the unleavened Jewish bread). Following the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938, all the neighborhood's synogogues were destroyed. Many inhabitants of Leopoldstadt were taken to concentration camps. Prior to the Holocaust, several thousand Jews lived in Leopoldstadt; immediately afterward, there were only a handful.

In the decades since, Leopoldstadt has become a Jewish neighborhood again, filled with kosher food and kosher restaurants. There is also a Holocaust memorial site.

Leopoldstadt has been critically acclaimed.

Leopoldstadt was a hit when it premiered in London's West End in 2020. The show had one sold-out run pre-pandemic and another when theatres reopened in 2021. It also won the Olivier Award for Best Play.

The West End run of Leopoldstadt got a five-star review in London Theatre: "This is a powerful, important new play from one of our greatest living playwrights that, should it prove to be his swansong, means he has gone out on a significant high, even as he dramatises a low point on world history." (Stoppard has suggested Leopoldstadt might be his last play.)

The Broadway run followed suit, with the five-star New York Theatre Guide review of Leopoldstadt reading, "With Leopoldstadt, the playwright declares his own heritage in first-rate, epic, and urgent fashion, seemingly atoning for lost time."

Stoppard won an Oscar for his screenplay for Shakespeare in Love, so he knows how to make people laugh and then cry. Considering the subject matter of Leopoldstadt, which Stoppard calls “a very tragic history,” one thing’s for sure: if you attend, bring tissues. And perhaps a phone, to call your relatives afterward and learn more about your own family history.

Get Leopoldstadt tickets now.

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