6 December 2008: Stoppard, Rock ‘n Roll

Huntington Theatre Company, Boston University. Produced in association with American Conservatory Theatre, San Francisco. Carey Perloff, director

I made the mistake of not obtaining audio assistance, the result being that I missed or wasn’t sure of a fair amount that was being said. I obtained a copy of the “Broadway Edition” (New York: Grove, rev. ed. 2007; original ed. 2006). It would be interesting to find out what differences Stoppard subsequently imposed on the original text.

I am still unsure of my comprehension of the play; I would prefer to read it again once more. Still, there are basic clarities to be seen, with regard to the profile, shape, and structure of the play. In this respect there is a similarity to Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia: it is a historical drama covering almost a quarter-century, with contrasting settings in which a single character emerges as central — or, what happens to him takes on a kind of thematic centrality. Stoppard likes to generate a dense, heavily laden script, fraught with thematic complexity and conflict. He likes exploration of action for meaning. Above all, he likes creating characters whose needs and goals are very concrete and specific to them but who at the same time take on meaning and significance so much larger than them­selves that they end up seeming representative.

The plot — if that’s the word — is too detailed and complex for summary. It is an episodic play, acted out in a series of scenes almost entirely in two locations, in Cambridge, England (the back garden and patio of a Cambridge don’s house) and Prague, Czechoslovakia (the bleak apartment of Jan, a Czech student who is studying at Cambridge but who then returns to Prague and is caught up in the maelstrom of events that occur in Prague and the country as a whole over the mom­entous years from 1968 to 1990). Plus a few exterior scenes in Prague.

The Huntington / ACT production mounts this in wonderfully well-realized form by means of two set-wagons that roll out alternatively from stage right (the Cambridge scene) and stage left (Prague). The director was evidently concerned that the audience might not be able to understand by inference the specifics of the forward march of time, and so legends indicating place and time were projec­ted onto the walls of the set (e.g. “Cambridge – Summer 1987”).

The settings were really quite fine and either beautifully or grimly decorated: the contrast of upper-middle-class Cambridge and the near-squalor Communist-era drab of Prague was most effective. The acting was exceptionally good, espec­ial­ly that of Jack Willis as Max, the superannuated, unashamed Communist don who must come to grips with the failure of communism, and Manoel Felciano as Jan, the Czech student who is compromised by the Prague government into spying on Max while pretending to accept his hospitality and friendship. There is a stark, bitter, and sad scene in which, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Jan returns to Cambridge and gives Max the thick file of notes from the results of spying on him that turned up in the purge of the secret police.

I was able to make sense, in a kind of retrospective way, of what I had seen on the Huntington stage by reading the play, post-performance, and meditating on it. Some of the scenes, like the one just mentioned, seem to me to constitute some of the best writing Stoppard has done for the theatre. I read some time ago, in an interview with Stoppard, about how he writes. He says — if this is to be believed — that he writes slowly, until he gets one line or speech right, before he goes on to the next. And so, by the time he reaches the end of his first draft, the play is done.

Be that as it may, what I observe about Stoppard’s carefully crafted dialogue is its sustained transparency. In a way similar to Shakespeare’s way of capturing character through language, Stoppard gives the actor all the information he or she needs to get meaning, emphasis, and emotional tenor just right. In scanning a Shakespearean line — as I always used to instruct my students — one must decide what syllable or word gets the most emphasis; and then decide which one gets the second-most emphasis. Such a straightforward analysis, though some­times demanding, brings out the truly best and most meaningful way to say the line, thus illuminating and capturing a character in the moment and context of the action. An example:

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king.
( King Richard II)

My italicizing shows the primary and secondary emphasis that most fully illuminates Richard’s meaning and his stubborn, inflexible opposition to Boling­broke’s attempt to take away the crown that is his by virtue of the application of the balm, the ointment, that anointed his brow in the ceremony of coronation.

Even though Stoppard writes in prose and not blank verse, and even though his is a spare modern idiom that, at first glance, strikes the unwary reader as indistinguishable from ordinary conversation, his dialogue can survive “Shake­spear­ean” analysis. Max’s speech in the next-to-last scene of the play (Broadway edition, page 104), in which he conjures up an image of a communist never-never-land, an image of a time long gone — and in fact a fantasy that never truly existed — captures the yearning and the sadness that, despite Max’s hard-as-nails professed materialism, speaks to the common humanity that he shares with those from whom he appears to differ politically in such strident ways. And the speech simultaneously exhibits a kind of world-weary but ultimately accepting sense of loss that, I often think, is what lies at the root of Stoppard’s vision and sensitivity. As in Arcadia, it summons up the Virgilian image of the mute pres­ence of death in what appears to be an unexceptionable pastoral landscape: “Et in arcadia ego”: Even in Arcadia, death is not absent. We are, all of us, at once cir­cum­scribed and energized and made fully human by our very mortality.

In this play, energy takes the particular form of opposition, protest, rebellion; and the concrete metaphor for rising up against oppressive, life-denying govern­ment is rock ‘n’ roll, the musical — and also social and cultural — phenomenon that came along in the 1960s and transformed the landscape of popular music, led by the earliest expression of seemingly harmless, a-political offerings of the Beatles, the name a playoff on the “Beat” generation of Jack Kerouac and others who resigned from modern mainstream middle-class respectability, let their hair grow long, and went “on the road” in search of adventure, freedom, and self-relief. Stoppard uses the icons of rock ‘n’ roll music (Pink Floyd and numerous others) as a means of focusing the continuing action of the play — Jan is an avid collector of rock ‘n’ roll LPs — but also of shaping the ends and beginnings of scenes by having the music played, in very precisely described cuts, between scenes, as one of the set wagons is rolled back and the other is rolled on. And so this high-profile music with its sharp cultural ambience stands both thematically and structurally as the heart and soul and even the bones and sinew of the play that purports to rise up and stand as a complex icon of a generation’s worth of western history.

It is a lot to take in, in a matter of two or three hours. I feel sure a re-reading of the play will reap some further understanding and the rewards of closer acquaintance with the playwright who, to my mind anyway, is the most inter­esting dramatist active in the English-speaking world of today.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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