Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Invention of Stoppard

Reflections on Tom Stoppard's play THE INVENTION OF LOVE (Grove Press 1998).

A.E.Housman advises his younger self in THE INVENTION OF LOVE on Broadway, 2001. Photo from
The moment of greatest emotional impact in Tom Stoppard's play THE INVENTION OF LOVE  occurs four-fifths of the way through the script.   It follows debate concerning the value of knowledge for knowledge's sake, art for art's sake, choices for editing ancient Latin texts, and the ambivalence of Victorian English gentlemen to the Greek vice (referred to in this script as "spooniness," if not "beastliness").  Settings change from rivers (Styx, Charwell) to games (croquet, billiards, track and field), but never stem the flow of words.   So it is ironic that the most important line is left unspoken.  It comes in the brief silence between two monosyllables: "Why?  Oh!"

The immediate context is a question from the speaker's roommate and longtime best friend, A. E. Housman, best known today as author of the poems collected in A Shropshire Lad.  Housman has just asked his roommate, Moses Jackson, "Will you mind if I go to live somewhere but close by?"

Jackson asks "Why?" as in, "Why would you go to live somewhere else?  Why should I mind if you live close by?"    Then Jackson makes the leap:  Housman has been evading a direct response to the suggestion, made by Jackson's fiancee, that he's "sweet on" Jackson.  Housman has skipped past confession straight to sentencing, exile.  In a flash, Jackson understands why Housman sacrificed a promising career in academia to take a clerical job in Jackson's office; why Housman, uninterested in sports, cheered Jackson at track competitions for years; and why Housman, a classics scholar, made so much of Theseus and his friend who "loved each other, as men loved each other in the heroic age, in virtue."  All of that goes into the syllable, "Oh!"

After Jackson recovers somewhat from the shock, he behaves decently.  "It's terrible, but it's not your fault. ... We'll be just like before."  Jackson offers his hand and says, "All right?  Shake on it?"  But here the playwright inserts a blackout on the scene, leaving a spotlight on the actor playing Housman, who recites verse that summarizes the scene, and the rest of the poet's own life:
He would not stay for me; and who can wonder?
He would not stay for me to stand and gaze.
I shook his hand and tore my heart in sunder
And went with half my life about my ways. 
This scene, the emotional core of Stoppard's play, was not enough to save THE INVENTION OF LOVE for me when I saw it on Broadway in the spring of 2001. All I recall from the production is the stage itself, black and reflective as patent leather, suggesting the surface of water for many episodes on rivers.

Nonetheless, since I studied Stoppard at Duke, I've wanted to write at least one play in his manner. That means, as Stoppard once explained to critic Kenneth Tynan (in Tynan's book Show People), thinking of a play as a shattered ashtray. Stoppard finds a central image or idea, and rummages around for fragments to fit with it. The pieces often relate, not to the characters or story, but to a tangent suggested by a word or allusion. The scenes (some, mere blackout sketches) run a course of seemingly free association, zig-zagging from present to past, from serious to silly, from serious disputation to gags. Like discourse among clever friends, a Stoppard play may not lead to a clear destination, but it covers a lot of ground in convivial company.

Arcadia is the exceptional Stoppard play: delightful,  thought-provoking, but also moving and memorable.  It is no less discursive than Invention, skipping around through topics of British gardening, chaos theory, fractiles, contemporary academic writing, and the life of Shelley.  When I first saw it at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, I was amused but unmoved.  I saw it again in a more intimate theatre at the Alabama's Shakespeare Festival, and was moved and elated.  (So moved was I that I cast thrift to the wind and booked a second vacation that year, to catch Arcadia's final performance.)

Other plays of Stoppard that I've seen -- Invention, Rosencrantz..., The Real Thing, Travesties, and Jumpers -- did not delight so much in the theatre as when I was reading and marking the scripts.  Were the productions at fault?  Was I expecting too much?  Or do Stoppard's worst critics have it right, that his cleverness overlays the script and smothers the drama?  Tynan wrote, more gently, that, in Stoppard, "simplicity of idea often underlies complexity of style."   A favorable reviewer of Invention on Broadway advised viewers to enjoy the story and to ignore all the intellectual stuff that Stoppard threw in just to meet critics' expectations.
Incisive critic John Simon, writing in New York magazine about the production of Invention that I saw, wishes that he had read the play first:  
[The Invention of Love] is remarkable but not really a play, if by play we mean something that can be followed by an audience with a standard education and average intelligence. By followed, I do not mean getting the general drift, but catching at least a good part of the allusions, quotations, parodistic references, wordplay, and other fine points, for fine points are Stoppard's stock-in-trade. Plot and characterization are not completely lacking but are minimal in importance.  ("Stoppard Un-stoppered")
Yet Stoppard does not fail to tell his story with feeling.  Not five pages into the script, we have a foreshadowing of the emotional climax:  the shade of old Housman, in a boat with Charon crossing the Styx, encounters his younger self during a boat ride with Oxford friends Pollard and Moses "Mo" Jackson, with a dog.  Dumbstruck, the elder Housman utters just one syllable: "Mo!"  The young men's banter explicitly recalls Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog).  As they glide off,  Housman speaks words that could be his epitaph, "I had only to stretch out my hand! -- ripae ulterioris amore!  (cries out) Oh, Mo! Mo! I would have died for you but never had the luck!"  Later, after several variations on this same scene, we understand that it was in that boat on that afternoon that young Housman made his pivotal choice to abandon the academic course laid out for him, to devote himself -- platonically -- to Jackson.   
In between that early scene and that handshake, we get scenes that develop the drama in a more or less conventional way, making clear how difficult and ruinous it would have been for Housman to "stretch out his hand" to Jackson.   Much is made of Housman's contemporary Oscar Wilde who displayed what Jackson repressed, and of the new law that would ruin Wilde -- imprisoned "for the color of his hair," Housman's coded reference to an inborn trait.   More than once, Jackson blithely expresses disdain for Wilde and his ilk, while Housman keeps uncomfortably silent.   
But Stoppard steps on the story with long speeches, lectures even, about the value of "useless" knowledge.   Perhaps it could be made more clear what connection there is between Housman's vigorous lifelong devotion to recovering the exact original phrasing (down to the commas!) of ancient authors, and his other lifelong devotion.   Is it that both passions were "futile," and thus heroic, like the 150 soldier-couples alluded to a few times, who died in futile defense of their homeland?  

And what do we do with the one topic that Stoppard's characters barely mention, A Shropshire Lad?  In the fifth part of the script, Oscar Wilde joins Housman in Charon's boat, and says, just before his exit, "You didn't mention your poems.  How can you be unhappy when you know you wrote them?  They are all that will still matter."   Moments later, Old Housman teaches his younger self about Gallus, the first to write love elegies, though only one line of his remains of all his poems.  His younger self is struck by the sadness of it: "Only one line for his monument."  The older Housman replies, after Virgil, "How much immortality does a man need? -- his own poetry, all but a line, as if he had never been, but his memory alive in a garden in the northernmost province of an empire that disappeared fifteen hundred years ago.  To do as much for a friend would be no small thing."

These topics are interesting.  I underlined my script and wrote "Ha!" and "Ah!" many times in the margins.  Yet the fact remains, as a student once said to me about a New Yorker cartoon, "I understand it, but I don't get it."


W. Scott Smoot said...

Ironically, critic Richard Corliss had a reaction opposite to mine back in 2001. He reviewed the revival of Sondheim's FOLLIES, which was the prime attraction that brought me to NYC that spring, and concluded:

Put it this way: I was transfixed but not transported. (For sublime transportation, rush to Tom Stoppard's "The Invention of Love," a block up from "Follies." Both works portray the pain of the road not taken; Stoppard pushes the trope further, into an epic meditation on the twin tragedies of repressing desire and following it. The play so seduced me into its wit and heartbreak, I could feel my face literally flush; its radiance made me feel sunburnt.)

Read more:,8599,106309,00.html#ixzz20LSWgXv9

Susan said...

This makes me think of the way in which we come to realize in "Arcadia" that we've been seeing the lead- up to the pivotal event in the past -- the fire that kills Thomasina. Granted that it's not all on one afternoon, but it gives us that sense of shock-- and the inevitable--, once we understand what has happened. And like the handshake (or lack of it?), the fire occurs offstage and in the past.