Although Tom Stoppard is something of a Clever Clive, it’s curious that his real topic is so frequently missed–or, if not entirely overlooked, then regarded as being of negligible importance. Yes, he often seems occupied with the life of the mind and is quicker with the quips than almost any playwright living or dead, but what has increasingly concerned him as he’s gotten older are the heart’s passions. In his supernal Arcadia there is ceaseless talk of Fermat’s Theorem; but humanity’s ability to make honest expressions of love is what he’s primarily concerned with, as the final-curtain lovers waltz attests. He takes up the same subject–even slots it into his title–with The Invention of Love. Indeed this comedy-drama serves as an equally accomplished companion piece to its predecessor.
In order to illustrate the conflicts and conciliations of mind and heart in The Invention
of Love, Stoppard introduces poet and scholar A. E. Housman, whose literary life at the end of the 19th century and the first third of the 20th was divided between his devotion to Greek and Roman classics and his renown as a writer of romantic and homoerotic poetry–most notably, the wildly successful collection A Shropshire Lad. As Stoppard has explained in interviews, he tapped Housman as subject because he found in the lifelong bachelor’s diaries some terse entries that obliquely indicated an unrequited longing for one of his Oxford chums, the thoroughly heterosexual athlete and engineer Moses Jackson. Allowing his stupendous imagination to roam free, the playwright conjured two Housmans: the just-deceased 77-year-old looking back on his life from Charon’s punt as it crosses the Styx, and the living Housman as he journeys from young manhood to middle age.
Stoppard’s intention is to dramatize the damage done to the soul when a man suppresses
his natural desires in order to assure himself of a relatively safe existence. So he shows how Housman went about befriending Jackson in their undergraduate days, rooming with the object of his affection in London. There he finds a single, melancholy occasion on
which to speak his guilty secret, eventually deciding to re-orient his energies to the scrupulous translation of famous and obscure classical poetry.
In The Invention of Love, Stoppard gives a particularized demonstration of
how a workaholic is born and the extent to which his condition can pay off both
constructively and destructively. His Housman is a deeply feeling man who deliberately chooses to bury himself in scholarship. The arc of his endeavors is shown in scenes that even involve his giving a lecture on the minutiae of translating Horace to students whose interest in the subject is nowhere near as committed as his. As he rises to the top of his field, he triumphantly accumulates admiration and kudos–whether grudgingly or not–but his victory is bought at a cost to his libido.
Stoppard places his two Housmans within a loose, non-linear framework that allows the author to show off not only his concern with matters of the heart but also his fathomless knowledge and wit. As the Housmen pass through the narrative, stopping along the circuitous was to have a rangy, ironical chat with each other, Stoppard slips in other aspects of the late Victorian era. He throws in a music hall turn based on Jerome K. Jerome’s popular novel Three Men in a Boat and nods at the Oscar Wilde send-up in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience. John Ruskin, Benjamin Jowett and Walter Pater, gregarious and contentious Oxford dons all, carry on high-flown discourse and are satirized in the act. W. T. Stead, Frank Harris, and Henry Labouchere, Victorian caricatures all, discuss matters leading to fin-de-siecle decency legislation that ultimately caught the ubiquitous Wilde in its tentacles. (The scene has a nice relevance at the moment, what with Rudolph Giuliani’s decency commission folly in progress.)
Serving as notorious contrast to Housman’s debilitating reserve, Oscar Wilde himself
makes two appearances–one silent, and one anything but silent. He’s also talked about
at length, his sensational behavior at Oxford having provided peers with much to admire
and denounce. It’s about Wilde that the young Housman makes one of those remarks that
give Stoppard his deserved reputation for scintillating lines that soar high and dig deep.
Housman hears that, in response to someone’s casual remark that London’s Paddington Station in London resembles Hades, Wilde had retorted something about Hades
perhaps looking much like Paddington. To this, Housman says: “It would be a pity if
inversion is all he’s known for.” The crack is a wonderfully Stoppardesque pun: The word “inversion” refers Wilde’s glibly switching the words “Paddington” and “Hades” to achieve his bon mot, but it is also a synonym for homosexuality. Of course, it was Wilde’s confessed inversion that became his undoing. But Housman also indirectly condemns himself through the remark, since he is remembered now–certainly, as long as this play is unfolding–for his own inverted feelings.
Stoppard’s got a million of ’em. Later he has Housman mock a new word coming into
the lexicon, “homosexual,” for being half Latin and half Greek. The wry joke gets a big
laugh, but it also works as another instance of Housman’s denying homosexuality–which, Stoppard submits, is at the core of his problems. The far-reaching implications of the joke are also at the core of Stoppard’s skill and, it has to be mentioned, the resistance
audiences might have to him. For as he goes about couching his probe of the heart in a
text of surpassing erudition, he risks giving the erroneous impression that his play is
inaccessible. It is undeniably demanding and would be enhanced by a little preparatory
homework, but it is far from inaccessible. What Stoppard is driving at with The Invention of Love should be instantly graspable to anyone who recognizes sexual ardor as a human, often shame-inducing trait. On the other hand, it would be misleading to say that the average theatergoing Jack and Jill will get every reference and allusion Stoppard includes as blithely as if he were scattering confetti over his manuscript’s pages. In order to appreciate Stoppard fully, an education in late 19th-century history, politics, and arts would help. Failing that, a close read-through of the informative Playbill notes is a definite learning aid.
There’s another thing the smart Invention of Love ticket buyer ought to know: Sit
in the mezzanine or balcony in order to get the full strength of Bob Crowley’s ingenious
set. Because so much of the play’s action takes place on water–Charon’s ride, the flat
boats punting around Oxford–the always-ingenious Crowley has outfitted his abstract
design with a reflecting floor. From the orchestra, the deliquescent effect he’s after can’t
be appreciated; but, from above, it’s breathtaking. (Crowley loves the idea of water on stage and keeps coming up with new ways to show it; see also his designs for Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center and the Disney travesty of Aida.) Into a world that looks both Byzantine and Venetian, Crowley has dropped sight gags as amusing as Stoppard’s sound gags. When Ruskin, Jowett, and Pater bicker, they climb towers made of books and topped (respectively) by a column, a statue of David, and a Gothic Revival spire; these capitals are symbols of their fields of study. When Stead, Harris, and Labouchere lock horns, they sit on a settee shaped like Westminster Abbey, with Big Ben serving as a covered ashtray. In his costumes, Crowley has hued closer to the reality of Oxford wardrobes: caps and gowns and bicycling ensembles, and for Wilde–natch!–plum-colored pantaloons.
Jack O’Brien has seen to it that his actors and actress (Mireille Enos, charming as Housman’s sister) convey the mixture of effervescent spirits and campus pretensions that Stoppard calls for. Richard Easton as the very corporeal ghost of Housman is the first among equals; his ability to make the Stoppard-Housman language his, to have it flow with conviction and humor from his bulky person, is remarkable. Whether trading saucy remarks with Charon (the funny Jeff Weiss), addressing his students, or conversing with his young self, he commands both the stage and our sympathy for the man he represents.
Robert Sean Leonard is handed the job of playing Housman as a young man in his confusing amorous throes. He’s particularly adept in the sequence when, despite everything telling him not to, he admits his love to Jackson. David Harbour’s Jackson is robust but possibly a little more obtuse than is necessary. Appearing as the other figures in Housman’s life are some of Manhattan’s best actors–Daniel Davis, Byron Jennings, Paul Hecht, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark Nelson–and they’re right on the nose with their characters.
It would be unfair to judge O’Brien’s version of The Invention of Love as anything less than extremely proficient. Yet, as seen in Manhattan, the play does seem to lack an element that was manifest in the London production. There, the play’s end was much more moving than it is here. As good as Easton is, he doesn’t plumb the most profound levels of Housman’s continuing grief; but this may not be his fault. Apparently, Stoppard has trimmed his script, possibly because Lincoln Center Theater head André Bishop was legitimately concerned with the play’s generous dose of arcana.
Whatever The Invention of Love lacks, it is still an admirable invention, and may
even be an autobiographical one. Surely, the arguments that take place between the
classicists and the romantics, between the esthetes and the anti-esthetes, is similar to the
very impulses that make Stoppard write. They seem somehow in line with his knack for cerebration counterbalanced by his inclination, or lingering disinclination, to bare his heart in his work–or in his life? Whatever is going on inside Stoppard, the plays he creates are magnetic.
In one of the older Housman’s many pithy asides in The Invention of Love, he notes: “We are always living in someone’s golden age.” Right now, we are living in Tom Stoppard’s.