“Heretics give meaning to defenders of the faith.”

This past weekend, my First Reader and I went back into D.C. to see Tom Stoppard’s new play “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” at The Studio Theater.

It’s about a Czech dissident in Cambridge, who returns home during the 1968 unrest, and his mentor, a British communist university professor. Stoppard himself was born in Czechoslovakia before fleeing the Nazis, and the play mixed twenty years of Czech opposition with the Western rock music that was an important symbol for the dissidents.

It was an interesting play and an engaging production in the round, and there were lots of wry truths about totalitarianism of all stripes, but for me this play was nowhere near as brilliant as Stoppard’s “Arcadia.” “Rock ‘n’ Roll” seemed mostly about ideas–the Czech opposition movement, communism in Britain, 60s and 70s rock in general and the music and life of Syd Barrett (the Pink Floyd founder and Cambridge native who became mentally unstable) in particular. The parallels, to me as a musician and a student of history and literature, were fascinating.

But other than some tender moments with the British communist Max and his extended family, the play didn’t seem to be as much also about the characters. Perhaps it was the long lapses of narrative time between scenes, often three or more years. Perhaps it’s that the essence of rock or of winning societal freedom is hard to dramatize. Perhaps it was that the dissident protagonist didn’t seem to have a clear goal–he went home to Czechoslovakia but didn’t know exactly why; he vacillated about signing a political petition then got talked into it; he spent time between scenes in prison but didn’t seem much changed for it; and his running off with another character at the end of the play seemed sudden to me and not fully motivated.

Arcadia” is likewise about ideas, but at the same time it’s also about the characters. Thomasina is aching to learn, Septimus is driven to teach her, Bernard aches to prove that Byron stayed at Sidley Park, and Hannah is driven to endure Bernard’s blather. That may be that play’s higher genius, that it’s about both ideas and people at the same time.

Which is definitely the combination I prefer. I don’t care for SF that’s purely about ideas or fantasy that’s purely about a milieu. I’ve got to have dynamic people (or aliens) amongst those ideas or that milieu, rife with their own core hopes and fears, driven to pursue something, so I can empathize with their core humanness while they’re wrestling with ideas or moving through a milieu.

For me, it all comes down to that line from Faulkner’s Nobel acceptance speech–the only thing worth writing (or reading) about is the human heart in conflict with itself.

Tags: ,

Comments are closed.