If the announcement of new plays was measured according to the Richter scale, it's safe to say the news Sir Tom Stoppard has written a new drama — Leopoldstadt, premiering in London's West End next year — would rank as top-end seismic activity.

It's all the more startling for the fact that some of us had impertinently concluded that the man often hailed as Britain's greatest living playwright was in his dotage, winding down (he's 81).

Stoppard has brought rigour to the business of theatre-going, writing work of commercial viability that has challenged audiences to explore demanding subject areas, galvanising a sense of what is possible in the art form.

His impulse to think big can be detected in the courageousness of younger playwrights such as Rupert Goold, Nick Payne and Lucy Prebble. His brain-boxiness was there at the start in 1966 with his name-making, absurdist spin on Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.


He put a pyramid of acrobats and a moral philosopher with an unfashionable faith in God centre-stage in Jumpers (1972), performed intellectual gymnastics with Joyce, Lenin, and dada founder Tristan Tzara in World War I Zurich in Travesties (1974) and reached a peak of knowledge-crammed ingenuity with Arcadia (1993), which shuttled between centuries interweaving thoughts on Newtonian physics, chaos theory and more.

It was full of heart as well as art, a feat achieved in other works too: The Real Thing (1982), about the quest for something "real" onstage and off, and The Invention of Love (1997) about classical scholarship and the emotional repression of AE Housman, as contrasted with Oscar Wilde.

Does Stoppard the man largely stand outside his work? Given how diffuse the subject-matter is, it's tempting to see his career that way; yet his work tells much about him.

Rock 'n' Roll (2006) about a Cambridge university lecturer who returns to Czechoslovakia in 1968 at the time of the Soviet-steered invasion, floated thoughts about what Stoppard's life might have been like had he stayed in his homeland instead of fleeing (with his immediate family, before the Nazi invasion in 1938).

With Leopoldstadt, Stoppard — born Toma Straussler in 1937 — will bring back from the past the district of Vienna that was, in 1900, home to a substantial Jewish population. He has acknowledged it as a means of summoning his ancestral ghosts.

As his biographer, Ira Nadel, noted: "The first eight and a half years of Stoppard's life are a story of 20th-century displacement and loss."

His maternal grandparents died at Terezin deportation camp, his paternal grandparents likely did too; two of his aunts died at Auschwitz.

Stoppard, who took the surname of the British Army major his widowed mother married at the end of the war, has thrived in his adoptive country. Yet his personality as an artist bears strong traces of what was left behind — you could say it's in the DNA of his writing.


"[It is] essential to remember that Stoppard is an emigre," critic Kenneth Tynan wrote in a 1977 profile in the New Yorker, citing a director who told him: "You have to be foreign to write English with that kind of hypnotised brilliance."

Stoppard's European (Jewish) heritage, the loss of it and exile from it, is expressed in his writing, just as, to this day, he retains a Middle European accent.

He is preoccupied with personal freedom, fate, choice. Billed as a "passionate drama of love, endurance and loss", there may be something of a knowing swansong about Leopoldstadt, a coming full circle.

It may prove his most intimate work. Yet rather than being regarded as an anomaly, it should bring to the fore the role that the vanished arcadia of familial and cultural connection has played across his thinking — and feeling — as a dramatist. He once joked that he was a "bounced Czech".

Above all, it should underline that his ancestry has been the subtle wellspring of his artistic distinction.

The play opens at Wyndham's Theatre in January 2020.