National Theatre, Lyttleton
Tom Stoppard’s new play about A. E. Houseman. Not quite on a par with Stoppard’s three best plays (in my opinion, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Travesties, and Arcadia) but much better than most new plays (for instance, Art, a trendy, rather vacuous thing seen a year ago here at Wyndham’s and still playing). The idea of making a play at all of the seemingly thin and unpromising material of Housman’s life would probably not have struck anyone else as worthwhile, but Stoppard is different. He emphasizes the paradoxical, divided nature of the man at the outset, as Housman, having just died, is appropriately met by the boatman who will carry him across the river Styx to the Elysian Fields: the boatman says he is waiting for two persons, a scholar and a poet. But the two are one: Housman. And so we are invited to take a backwards look over the life of this scholar-poet, in a setting of an immense half-circular library lined floor to ceiling with books, but painted all over a dusty gray-black. Onto this appropriate cyclorama are projected the scenes of Housman’s life, accompanied by such spare properties as a park bench and a table in London lodgings.
And so we swiftly meet the young A. E. Housman — the dead Housman, known as AEH in the program (initials reminiscent of cryptic scholarly signatures at the bottom of reviews in learned journals), actually meets and has a long conversation with his younger self. The boat of the first scene is one that glides smoothly over the stage floor, and another boat “rowed” by Housman’s fellow students along the river Cherwell, in Oxford, is cleverly designed to be propelled by foot. There is a fluidity of motion established by this boating that is further articulated in the movement (and simplicity) of scenes. It is a long play, three full hours and then some, but so engrossing that the time passes almost unnoticed. Only Stoppard, I think, has the wit, intelligence, and dramaturgical knack to make dry-as-dust Latin textual cruxes of interest. But they are so because of the passion for knowledge that Housman old and young exhibits.
But it is only a part of the whole. The play is really built around the painful experience of Housman the man and the great love of his life, his fellow student Moses Jackson. He confesses his love for him in a moving scene set in the London lodgings the two share; Housman proposes to move out but to keep up contact. He knows he is homosexual (though he deplores the barbarity of the word as made up of half Latin and half Greek!) but never acts on his feelings. The running contrast through much of the play is with the figure of Oscar Wilde, in this incarnation a most antipathetic figure, fat, pasty-faced, decadent, and surly, who presumes to lecture Housman offensively. When it comes out about the Labouchère amendment and its consequences for Wilde (mention is made of Queensberry’s calling card — misquoted by Stoppard as “ … posing as a sodomite” — and “all that followed”), the point is obvious: Housman’s decision not to “come out” was crucial for his survival.
But it was critical also for him, since he thereby lost the one chance in life to articulate and satisfy his passions. Well, finally, not so, in fact; for it appears that those libidinous passions were ferociously engaged and expressed in Housman’s scholarly writings, including the notoriously venomous diatribes he launched against his fellow scholars, all of whom, in some way or other, he found lacking and inadequate. The play leaves us with the perennial question asked by every Stoppard play: given our moral nature, was it all worth it? “Et in Arcadia ego.” Even in Arcadia, death has his dominion. One can see that Housman’s poems, and their melancholy celebration of the fleetingness of life, paired with Horatian verses about being a long time dead, have spoken eloquently to Stoppard. And he has responded in kind. There are scenes in this play fully the equal, for eloquence and depth of realized feeling, of anything he has ever written. The first, very long scene between Housman dead and Housman young is the most notable, but there are others as well. John Wood is absolutely the Stoppard actor for the role of AEH, and he is perfectly well matched by Paul Rhys as his younger self. There is fine, characteristic acting of other historical personages too — Frank Harris, Jowett, Pollard, Jackson, Pater, Ruskin, Labouchère, Stead. Michael Fitzgerald’s patter song of Bunthorne in Patience — a take-off on Wilde — is a nice Stoppard characterological pun, but the words are indistinct. Fitzgerald complies with the requirements of the play, however, by making Wilde a sleazy, offensive prig. This seems to me the one wrong note in the play; it’s something of a cheap shot to make Wilde so repulsive in order to garner sympathy for Housman’s much more reticent choice of self-abnegation — or, I suppose, sublimation. But the play, and especially the two chief performances, are mesmerizingly good, and not to be missed.
— more notes after a conversation with my companion: Stoppard’s plays are epistemological: concerned with questions of knowledge, how we obtain it, how certain we can be of it, and what it is worth to us. See Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the two central characters’ obsessive search, futile as it turns out, for certainty. Instead of dying, as the closing lines of Hamlet call for them to do, they merely disappear: “Now you see me, now you don’t.” In the case of The Invention of Love, Housman seems a perfect subject for Stoppard: a man hungry for knowledge and obsessed with the getting of it. Yet from the start the question of indeterminacy intrudes: is Housman one dead man or two? Poet or scholar? Both, Stoppard insists, and that insistence is what drives him, and the play, against fearful odds.