Friday, November 21, 2008

Has Tom Stoppard gone soft?

Lenin, meet Lennon: René Augesen and Manoel Felciano in Rock 'n' Roll.

Sometimes the set at the Huntington is better than the play it was designed for. At least I'm afraid that's the case with Rock 'n' Roll, this year's model from Tom Stoppard, on the theatre's main stage through December 13. Douglas W. Schmidt's set is fantastic - a gray, Communist-era courtyard, turned on its side so we're gazing up, as if from its drab floor, at a bright patch of empty sky. Here, in a nutshell, is Stoppard's hook: the promise of freedom that rock 'n' roll has always held for anyone, anywhere, trapped in a life of denial.

But then the play starts, and Schmidt's beautiful sketch of an idea slowly drifts through an exegesis so muddled and self-mythologizing that you have to wonder:

Has Tom Stoppard gone soft?

Now I know what you've heard from the other critics: that in this play the author balances his "heart" with his "head." Not really. Oh, the head is chattering away as ever, but basically, whatever the "heart" - or rather the ego - wants it gets in this sometimes witty, and sometimes touching, but ultimately silly pseudo-intellectual epic. And what that heart wants is to imagine that by listening to Syd Barrett and the Rolling Stones, the baby boomers - or perhaps Tom Stoppard himself - brought down the Berlin Wall. Yes, Stoppard has actually borrowed the theme of Rock 'n' Roll from Hairspray (although the conceit of that musical probably had more validity).

But first, a little background. Stoppard's plays (the author, at left) have always been a mix of critique and pastiche - the big ideas in them always came from other people. At his best, however, the playwright conjured stage metaphors for this recycled content that glittered almost as brilliantly as the borrowed ideology. Re-imagining modernism via Oscar Wilde, for instance, is savage and inspired (Travesties), while the landscape that slowly reveals the tension between classicism and romanticism comes to seem heartbreaking (Arcadia).

But eventually Stoppard's method hardened into formula: pull together a group of intellectuals (Lenin, Joyce, A.E. Houseman, Magritte, Bakunin, whoever), find a forum in which they can all intersect (a country house, Zurich, the text of Hamlet), and then set the Oxford Union top spinning (although surprisingly, Stoppard never attended university; like Shaw, he's an autodidact). The results were often dazzling, but it's also been true that when it comes to his own deep desires, Stoppard could suddenly be a little stupid: in Arcadia, for instance, the author insisted that sex would somehow overcome the power of entropy because - well, just because, that's why; because otherwise it would be really too bad.

And alas, much of Rock 'n' Roll is devoted to similarly wishful thinking, much of it driven, perhaps, by regrets regarding his own biography. Born in 1937 in Czechoslovakia, Stoppard was spirited out of the country soon after the Nazis marched in and didn't return until the late 70s. Yet despite this family history of dodging fascism (or perhaps because of it) Stoppard at first insisted proudly on his prerogative to be completely apolitical as a writer: ""I must stop compromising my plays with this whiff of social application," he said early in his career. "They must be entirely untouched by any suspicion of usefulness."

But it seems a longing for usefulness began to creep up on the playwright anyway. He met Václav Havel in the late seventies, and began to speak out about civil rights abuses in Eastern Europe and in general. And political content - generally anti-Communist, and extolling individual rights - began to appear in works like Dogg's Hamlet/Cahoot's Macbeth.

Now, in Rock 'n' Roll, we have a forced union of these two personae - the apolitical libertarian becomes, in effect, the accidental revolutionary. Stoppard's alter ego in the play, Jan, bounces back and forth between Cambridge and Czechoslovakia, arguing for apolitical individualism with England's academic left, all the while becoming more and more drawn to the underground Czech rock scene, his true passion. But alas, his fave band, the Plastic People of the Universe, are eventually arrested, and Jan along with them, because the fact that they blow their minds via secondhand psychedelia is somehow considered a threat to the state (perhaps because such inward noodling refuses to even acknowledge the state).

Years pass; through various slightly-boring intrigues (some involving the Cambridge leftists he once opposed), Jan is freed. And then eventually, Czechoslovakia is freed, too, in the "Velvet Revolution" following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Jan once again hooks up (à la Howards End) with the daughter of his opponents in Cambridge, in an atmosphere of tentative, slightly fatuous, mutual forgiveness. And the Rolling Stones play Prague. Rock 'n' roll triumphs. The end.

An early Floyd hit, "See Emily Play," with Barrett goofing on guitar.

And if history were really as simple as the lyrics on a single, Rock 'n' Roll might be convincing in its passion and its pretensions. But alas, it's not. Of course, along the way, there have been many conversations on politics in the incisive Stoppard manner, some ironically diverting, some less so - but the author's overriding theme seems to be that the "spirit" of rock 'n' roll, rather than any particular ideology or course of action, brought down the Wall. What's more, that "spirit" seems to have been embodied most purely in the person of Syd Barrett, one of the founders - and christener (he dreamed up the name) - of Pink Floyd (see above). After contributing much to Floyd's techno-psychedelic sound, however, Barrett sank into psychological instability (see below) and had to be ejected from its ranks - a trauma which inspired much of the band's best work on Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here (itself a guilty valentine to Barrett). And now Stoppard has hopped aboard this particular meme, perhaps sensing it could be bent in the service of his usual method, and worked Barrett into the background of his play (Barrett lived in Cambridge until his death; here, the characters are obsessed with him, and he even makes a cameo, perched like Pan on a garden wall).

A very-cute Barrett trips out on magic mushrooms in this home movie.

The insinuation seems to be that it was actually Syd Barrett rather than, say, Václav Havel (or Mikhail Gorbachev!) who brought freedom to Eastern Europe. Which is a sweet, old-fashioned notion that the sharp, old-fashioned Stoppard would have torn to shreds (hence, it's always insinuated rather than actually stated). True, rock 'n' roll's individualism had a particular resonance in Czechoslovakia (its "Lennon Wall" - evoked in photo at top - stood for years as an anti-Communist pop protest). And true too, Syd Barrett was a major figure in rock 'n' roll. And - gasp - Pink Floyd even put out a post-Barrett album called (wait for it) The Wall. But Stoppard's thesis is, alas, rather like seeing the face of Jesus in a piece of toast on eBay - he pulls together three suggestive coincidences, adds a half-baked case against reductionism (via a touching, but dubious, discussion of the mind-body problem) - and voilà! You're a hero if you bought The Piper at the Gates of Dawn!

Only funny, communists still control China, despite the fact that the Stones keep going through the motions in stadiums across the globe. And after the Velvet Revolution, the Czech Republic rocked on, but sans Slovakia, while much of Eastern Europe melted down economically - and today Russia is essentially held together as a quasi-dictatorship floating on petrodollars. Why can't Syd fix that? And don't Rush Limbaugh - and neo-Nazi skinheads - love rock 'n' roll too? Yes, I think they do, along with ne'er-do-wells the world over. So it's a funny thing, this idea of a "world spirit" of rock - it may match up to the disparate points of personal biography Stoppard has assembled, but does the resulting pastiche really conjure the wider vision of his earlier work? No, not nearly. In fact, I'd argue, it only conjures a nostalgic illusion - and a very narrow one at that, and nowhere more reductive than in its vision of rock 'n' roll itself. Even though the show covers two decades, its soundtrack is almost entirely limited to bands playing during the Prague Spring (essentially the Microsoft version of rock); there's no room in Stoppard's history for punk, or funk, or metal or grunge - well, the list goes on. I suppose you could justify this in terms of the fact that Czechoslovakia seems to have seen rock as frozen in 1968, too - but really, what can you say about a playwright who calls Syd Barrett "the great god Pan" except, "Has he never heard of Prince?"

Okay, so Rock 'n' Roll is a big love letter to self-centered boomers and their 60s-era rock tastes disguised as a thoughtful play. Still, on the bright side, Stoppard has made the disguise pretty elaborate, and the Huntington puts the dialogue over with intelligence, and even at times inspiration, and has dressed the play up beautifully (that set keeps doing wonderful things). And the production features one superb turn, from René Augesen, that is, simply put, the best performance of the Boston season; every actor and actress in this town should see this show, if only to see, once and for all, How It's Done. Please bring back Ms. Augesen in a better play, ye Huntington gods, and as soon as possible, too; if I could see her in Shakespeare, Shaw or Chekhov, I'd die happy. Elsewhere the large cast is a bit more variable, but never below a high standard. Jack Willis manages to keep the part of the blowhard Marxist going, even though Stoppard doesn't give him any top-drawer arguments to make (to be fair, I'm sure there are members of the British left who approximate this character). A somewhat more serious problem registers in the central performance of Manoel Felciano as Jan - Mr. Felciano is a talented actor, but perhaps not quite charismatic enough to hold us through the rambling scenes Stoppard has devised for him (he's not helped by Carey Perloff's slightly vague direction).

And if I sound particularly riled by what I think of as the "bad faith" of Rock 'n' Roll, perhaps that's because the play really couldn't come at a worse time. The heyday of Stoppard's aesthetic position - that of the navel-gazing, hard-rocking libertarian - has suddenly ended. Like so many gods before it, libertarianism has failed, and failed utterly - just check out the Dow Jones if you doubt me. These days everyone is looking toward some revision of the leftist tropes of the New Deal for salvation - and no one more so than the free market players who once used libertarianism for political cover (if the play had one more scene, set in 2008, imagine what an ironic coda it would make!). Tellingly, Syd Barrett (at left, near the end of his life) died just after Rock 'n' Roll premiered in London. If I were Stoppard, I'd take that as an omen.


  1. Of course, the story Stoppard tells is particular to what happened in Czechoslovakia and it really doesn't apply to the circumstances in the other nations you named. You are correct that rock'n'roll did not liberate the world of totalitarianism.

    However, the Plastics did serve as icons for Czechoslovakian activists to rally behind. This doesn't mean they were the most important-- but it does mean that they are part of the story (at least how it's been told since the the dust settled from the Velvet Revolution.) In this one instance, rock music did have a political impact that ten-thousand punk bands only fantasize about, but this was the exception and not the rule. Normally, rock'n'roll is too escapist, too utopian, or too viscerally rebellous to actually be politically dangerous-- it took a regime where all escapism was banned to make traction.

    (Has glam-rock liberated the queer nation yet?)

    Is Stoppard really an economic libertarian as you suggest? The few political positions he takes that are clearly articulated seem to make him a civil libertarian-- and it seems ridiculous to extrapolate one from the other. Perhaps there's something I've not come upon, but there's hardly a defense of bourgeois complacency and consumerism to be found in the script.

    Yes, there's a lot of rummaging in Stoppard's personal record collection and he clearly has a thing for Syd.

    Bottom line is that I enjoyed the play immensely, but will be critically evaluating it for months to come.

  2. Hi Ian -

    I'm sorry, but I'm afraid Rock'n'Roll does keep insinuating big woozy ideas about the "spirit of rock;" it's not really content to be a story about the Czech Republic. If it were, I think it would have to be much more specific and complex, and really an entirely different sort of play (one that also admitted, for instance, that Czechs are far to the left of most libertarians when it comes to the economy). But then I think you realize this when you say that Czechoslovakia was "the exception, not the rule." If Stoppard had only admitted that, or limned with his usual intelligence what made the case of Czechoslovakia special, Rock 'n' Roll would be a much stronger, but also much less commercially successful, play.

    As for "civil" vs. "economic" libertarianism - it's important to make that distinction, of course, and perhaps I should have made it - but then Stoppard doesn't really make it himself, does he, because he's constantly bickering in a generalized way with various leftist dinosaurs, and because it was largely economic pressures - not Syd Barrett - that doomed the Soviet Union, and the Berlin Wall, and he's got to dodge that historical fact. So it's not ridiculous to "extrapolate one from the other" - he's doing it himself (albeit behind his back). And right now I think most people realize that the navel-gazing of the Plastic People of the Universe is not the political stance we should be celebrating right now. Civil libertarianism today - the struggle over gay marriage, for instance - will require just the kind of cooperative engagement that I think deep down Stoppard is uncomfortable with.

  3. But does Stoppard really not make the case that the story he tells is specific to Czechoslovakia? The play is too particular with proper names and well-known events for anyone to mistake the setting for "generic Warsaw Pact country" like that used in a Vaclav Havel play like Largo Desoloto (which is playing at Zero Arrow Street this weekend) or in Stoppard's on Dogg's Hamlet/Cahoot's Macbeth.

    I still don't buy the idea that Stoppard is advocating bourgeois economic libertarism along with his civil libertarianism: Ferdinand and Jan talk too much about independent trade unions and Esme and Alice about the vulgarity of consummer culture for that message to come through. Maybe it was toned down in this production-- but it's there in the dialogue. And even if Max's defense of communist orthodoxy is pathetic some of his critique of liberalism is valid.

    It's those "libertarians" whose philosophy hasn't left the 18th century and have hijacked much of U.S. foreign policy who confuse civil liberty and economic liberty.

    For that matter, to be fair to Stoppard, even if he limits his musical selections largely to the late-60s, a good number of the artists he picked are on the fringes of baby-boomer consciousness and not included in the standard classic rock format: The Fugs, The Mothers of Invention, The Velvet Underground, and Syd Barret-era Floyd.

    It was economic pressures that made it difficult for the Soviets to control their empire (and lets not forget that Gorby was still sending tanks and paratroopers into the Baltic states to put down peaceful revolts) but ultimately it was indiginous political movements that had labored for decades that overthrew the communist regimes of Eastern Europe (and not Ronald Reagan as conservatives would have us believe.)

    I still see some more textual evidence for collective action than you do-- when Jan, as much as he denies it, becomes political, for instance.

  4. Yes, Stoppard makes the case that he's writing about something general, not merely about the history of Czechoslovakia; other wise, how could Syd Barrett be anything other than a footnote to a footnote in his story? True, he makes his case by implication (because it wouldn't stand up otherwise), but said implication is the real content of his play.

    You're right, of course, that Stoppard is too sophisticated to promote "bourgeois economic libertarianism;" still, I think he definitely blurs the line between civil and economic libertarianism; indeed he has to, as his leftists are making arguments about freedom (such as the freedom to travel to find your own job) that impinge directly on the economy. Of course I agree that the fall of the Berlin Wall was the result of the economic troubles of the Soviets, coupled with long-standing political activity from indigenous Eastern European groups - uh, that's what I'M saying, not Stoppard. History tells us that revolutions occur because of war or money - not music.

    You know, Ian, you're clearly puzzling through an intriguing argument about the Velvet Revolution - only Tom Stoppard hasn't written that play!

  5. Well Thomas, you are perhaps correct that I'm bringing in more outside knowledge (and theorizing) than the typical play-goer and thus seeing a very different play on the stage, but isn't that part of the theatre experience? '89 was a heady time for me.

    I have to concede that "the implication" you identify is a legitimate interpretation of the play-- it's certainly something that Jan and Lenka seem to believe (and seems to be an interpretation that some critics have bought into as gospel.)

    I think there could be a very interesting play someday that features Ivan Jirous, Vaclav Havel, and the Plastics as onstage characters-- and in the process of this exchange, I realized that what Stoppard did write was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead of that hypothetical play-- where the action is told entirely through tertiary characters.