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…