[As usual, notes to myself that may be of interest to you]
I try to make a point of seeing any production
of a Tom Stoppard play; last night I saw his The Invention of Love at
the Studio Theater on 13th
Street. I believe its been produced in San Francisco but that this was only the second time the show's been done in the United States.
The plot is apparently the life of A.E. Housman, who I knew only as the poet and writer of A Shropshire Lad but who was also - as I learned last night - one of the major classicists of the 19th and 20th Centuries. The play has two actors playing Housman, one the dying and dead Housman, the other Housman in his late teens and early 20s. The play opens with Housman being ferried by Charon over the Styx, switches to the young Housman with colleagues punting on whatever river flows through Oxford, and switches back and forth in time and memory and reality and death's delirium to present his life.
The majority of the scenes are in the
university circles of Oxford [if you were a graduate student in the
humanities right now, you'd find a lot of the jabs at academia
especially pertinent] and everything keeps referring back to that
focus; but because it isn't a linear play there are also scenes in
London, in Housman's home province and Wilde's exile in France as well
as on the Styx.
Besides Housman and his friends, the characters are the leading intellectuals of the age, all of whom had connections with one another as well as with Housman and Oscar Wilde: some were just famous names to me, like John Ruskin and Walter Pater, others had a little more resonance, since they were connected with things I studied / had to study, Benjamin Jowett.
Because of Stoppard's quick wit, complicated ideas and language and depth of knowledge, I'm also going to have to read the play [just ordered it from Amazon] but a snap judgment just from seeing it once: a very good and interesting play; the production and acting were both better than good.
One theme in the play is scholar vs. poet, partially presented inside Housman who himself was both, and partially in a contrast between Housman and Oscar Wilde.
Housman as a scholar was fascinated with the text of classical works, even to the exclusion of the content. All the allusions to the corrupted texts and critical editions of text brought up a lot of memories in me of all the studies I did in literature during the very tail end of the Housman-like literary period , just before the academic world changed and so much was blown away. One of the Stoppard comments in Housman's mouth was how knowledge, even knowledge of non-practical things, improves the world and makes everything and everyone better.
Another strand is personal relationships. Housman was shy and had few relationships. In his private life, Housman was in love with a heterosexual student. Apparently in reality the student never knew about this [Housman's love was the classical Achilles/Patrokles kind not the physical kind]; but in the play Stoppard has the student's girl friend become suspicious, causing a confrontation between the two men that ended [in a polite and civilized manner] whatever relationship there was. The love remained unrequited and unconsummated even in its non-physical way.
A third strand was the role of the artist in society, using Housman and Wilde as counterpoints. I know you're supposed to stay inside a play and not bring reality into it but this part was the weakest to me. Stoppard presents Wilde as the misunderstood artist who lives freely and as a result is penalized by a coarse society and Housman as the withdrawn, closeted artist who suffers from unrequited and unrevealed love.
In one conversation between the two Wilde mentions all his friendships and Housman comments on how few he had. But the "friendships": Lily Langtry, Prince of Wales, that Wilde presents are really just hobnobbing on a superficial level with celebrities, while Housman's friendships were small in number and long lasting - although not very deep. And when Wilde talks about his own blaze and destruction to advance art and his life, it looks so much more heroic than Housman's dull secretive existence. But I was ready to stand up and yell at Wilde: But what about your wife and your children that you destroyed with your posturing and feasting with panthers. Its fine for an independent artist to flaunt and fight society but married Wilde was trying to have it more than one way. But since that was historical reality outside the play I decided I better not stand up and fight with Wilde.
The show was staged in the round on what first appeared to be a smooth bare black/brown mottled surface. Since I was sitting in the front row at one of the two stage entrances, I realized there also were slots running across the stage which had mechanisms to move Charon's ferry and the Oxford punts back and forth, very ingenious. In a billiard scene there was a full size table – but it had no middle. It was very effective as a prop and also easy and fast to put up and take off.
All the major roles were very good, some of the don roles were just good. The only name I recognized at first was Ted Griethuysen, playing the dead Housman [who seemed to be given top billing and prominence, although I found the actor playing the young Housman more impressive. ] but as the show went on I recognized one or two others from previous Stoppard shows done here in DC. A petty annoyance: the advertising for the show and the cover of the playbill [it should be at the upper left] mislead you into thinking there is some sexual activity that isn't there. Does Studio have to try to sell a serious play using sexual innuendo?
The show was sold out, even on a Tuesday night, with an audience not as elderly as I've been seeing recently.