While other critics are enchanted with Stoppard's new play (see page 71), Herb Greer thinks it is tedious and untheatrical, "enjoyed" by intimidated punters straining to be in on somethingby Herb Greer / November 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
As the lights went up on Tom Stoppard’s new work, AE Housman stepped forward, announced he was dead, and quite a few members of the audience giggled. A few laughed. I smiled, remembering some lines from Ezra Pound’s Mr Housman’s Message: “O woe, woe/People are born and die/ We also shall be dead pretty soon/ Therefore let us act as if we were dead already.”
Did that inspire (or provoke) Stoppard to write The Invention of Love? And did the audience laugh because they too had read Pound?
Similar riddles make up a lot of the play: who was right or wrong about some point of Latin grammar in Catullus, a line of Horace, a text of Propertius, or a lost line (we are on to Greek now) from Aeschylus. Stoppard gives Housman large mouthfuls of passionate rhetoric, argument and declamation about all this, plus adamant insistence on the importance of textual scholarship as a science (sic). John Wood, in an engaging performance, manages to stuff-by force majeure-quantities of fierce emotion into these verbal balloons. I was reminded of an anecdote about the legendary actress Madame Modjeska who was said to have moved an English audience to tears by reciting, in Polish, the contents of the telephone book.
Unfortunately, Wood was performing in English and the spectacle went on for three hours. At the interval I exchanged wary glances with the woman sitting next to me. It transpired that she worked for one of the most cultured newspapers on the continent. I asked her how she liked the play. She hesitated and then said, rather shyly, that she was bored. I nodded: “So am I. To death.” A glow of gratitude brightened the lady’s smile. “Oh, I’m so relieved,” she said, “I was feeling so guilty because I was afraid no one else felt that way.”
Let me say right here that I have immense respect for Sir Tom as a playwright. He has an amusing, often delightful way with the English language, especially when (in Arcadia, for instance) he is making highly cultured jokes. Uniquely among contemporary British dramatists, he has managed to absorb and play with material that might seem impossible for the stage: philosophy; probability theory; the curious mathematics of fractals and their metaphorical implications for historical research.
There are a few nice touches in The Invention of Love, including one typical Stoppard joke, during an argument about paying for two goes at a young virgin. “You can’t,” comes the reply, “have two goes at the same virgin.” Most of the other jokes had a hasty, snatched quality, forcing the audience to clutch at facetious remarks, raised eyebrows, curled lips, even at Housman’s statement that he was dead. There was an air of intimidated punters straining to be in on something, which they anxiously felt ought to be serious and uplifting and very important: Stoppard’s latest play which-so the critics had assured us-was a deep and rich experience. It is, after all, a comfort to mingle with such company. Among other benefits, one shares the illusory cachet of appreciating (not necessarily understanding) obscure mysteries, while avoiding the guilt which tormented my continental colleague.
In fact this play is not very deep, although some of the dialogue is thorny, being in Latin. There is much discussion of love as treated by the Roman poets. None of it is very obscure if, like me, you happen to have read them already. But the spontaneous relationship of a theatrical audience to the dogged exegesis of Latin texts-whether they know them or not-seems, well, problematic. The few bits of English verse, Housman’s or translation from Latin, accompanied by mood music, are precisely the sort of thing satirised by Pound. But in the prevailing atmosphere of tedium, they came as a relief.
The Invention of Love has fundamental flaws. First, it is not really a play at all. There is a profound difference between a drama and an extended fictional seminar, with scenes entirely composed of dialogue and too much 19th century name-dropping. Second, the central character, despite the valiant efforts of John Wood, remains an arid, nit-picking scholastic husk, a ridiculus mus whose only unacademic emotion-homosexual passion-goes nowhere. This is intended to be tragic, no doubt, or to cast light on Housman’s own glum verse and on the invention of love in classical poetry. But there are better, more dramatic sources and objects of illumination. There is one decent-if lugubrious-scene: a brief comic sketch in which Housman confesses his unrequited passion to a straight Oxford athlete, who is mildly unsettled but says they can still be friends. Otherwise the script’s handling of love, gay or straight, ran from academic and banal to dull and bathetic. An awful caricature of Oscar Wilde which reduced him to a tubby lachrymose bore was so embarrassing that I could hardly believe Stoppard had written it.
And the gushing critics? When the emperor leaves his clothes at home, his fawning tailors form a cheering mob. There is a kind of pleasure at the Cottesloe-for some. Do go if you feel you must; but you have been warned. Sir Tom, with (once more) great respect: Never mind; you can’t win ’em all. May your muse serve you better next time, and tum erit bibendum. The invention of love
Cottesloe Theatre, 0171 928 2252