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.