Saturday, August 26, 2006

STOPPARD'S THIRD WAY. I got to see Tom Stoppard's new play, Rock 'n' Roll, at the Duke of York's. Rock ‘n’ Roll adheres to the usual Stoppard formula: a dramatic conflict corresponding to some actual social/political/aesthetic/scientific conflict of the 20th Century. The combatants in this case are Max, an Oxford prof Communist loyalist, and Jan, his former student, a Czech reverse-refugee dreamer. Each of them plays a little part in the decline of Soviet empire from 1967 to 1990. We know from long experience how Stoppard feels about Commies, but we also know that he's been trying to define more specifically what he hoped would be, and then what he hoped had been, saved from Communism. This time he goes in a very unexpected direction.

Through the inglorious Soviet decline, Max clings to his Marxism and his tenure, becoming "the last white rhino," contemptuous of all "bed-wetters" who can't accept the pitiless logic of dialectical materialism. This (seemingly) includes Jan, who leaves Oxford, and Max, unexpectedly and (seemingly) without motivation to return to his native Prague. Despite his philosophical talents, Jan adopts a kind of hippie mysticism based on rock music -- which puts him among, but not of, the reformers who rally behind Dubcek and Havel.

This reduces, not too unfairly, to a good old head-vs.-heart dust-up. Max is a thoroughgoing materialist, and longtime Stoppard fans can already hear the boo-hiss coming there. When his wife is fighting cancer and her body is cut to pieces, Stoppard forces Max to admit that he loves her with his mind -- implicitly because he has no ready access to what we capitalists would call our hearts. And of course he is deaf to Jan's rock music.

But Stoppard is, as usual, generous with his wrong-thinking characters. He gives the old Bolshie credit for intellectual consistency, for human decency, and resiliency, the ability to hold fast not only when the going gets tough, but when it gets ridiculous. In fact, as other characters flip among identities as the times dictate, Max's stubborn streak becomes rather attractive.

Jan, meanwhile, gets beat up by the occupiers, but hangs on to his music-love and even makes speeches about it. Jan is given some character-deepening foibles, too -- though on the right side of history, he suffers injuries to his spirit that, while topically administered by the Government, originate in his weak and unthoughtful character. He is not heroic at all, just persecuted, and his emergence into the sunlight of freedom is a redemption by grace rather than by merit.

I could swallow most of this, happily and with a yum-yum, but something bugged me very much throughout. When Stoppard uses Fermat's theorem or the Third Law of Thermodynamics to carry his case, I can accept his presentation, conditionally, so long as the drama is sustained. But rock 'n' roll is something I know about, and nearly every reference to it in the play -- every musical quote, every panegyric of Jan's, and especially the end in which (I shit you not) Jan’s final triumph comes at a fucking Mixed Emotions-era Rolling Stones concert in Prague -- felt totally false.

Now, come on. If it were anyone else symbolizing the triumph of the human spirit with gummy old Mick and Keef playing a stadium show, I’d say he was kidding. But Stoppard doesn't know enough about the subject to kid -- at least, his writing doesn't show it. I didn't feel any of the divine madness or spiritual sap-rising that was being attributed to rock music. I don't think Stoppard really felt it either. He probably liked the idea of rock music. But rock and the idea of rock are two different things. If Stoppard knew that, Rock 'n' Roll would be a different play -- and Stoppard a different writer. So, in the long run, maybe it's just as well that they aren't.

No comments:

Post a Comment