Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Love Affair is Over

I am about to say the unsayable: Tom Stoppard needs to hang up his pen, throw out his quill, break his pencil, or electrocute his laptop. Put another way, his time these days would be better spent cruising Facebook than writing plays.

You have no idea how much it pains me to say this (and no bad puns on my name please--I've heard them all). I discovered Stoppard in the seventies when I was a student at University College London. One day I caught a matinee of Jumpers starring Michael Hordern and Diana Rigg at the National Theatre. I was, to borrow Rod's colonialism, "gobsmacked." I went back to see the show two more times, so astounded was I by the intellectual play, the verbal pyrotechnics, and the forays into absurdist dramatic structure. For an American girl, brought up on a diet of Arthur Miller, Shakespeare, and musicals (with the usual odd dash of Chekhov or Aeschylus), the notion that one could pen a play that veered wildly from farce to philosophy was a revelation. Jumpers, well, jumped from the moon landing, to a murder, to a failed nightclub singer (who may or may not have committed said murder), to gymnastically adept philosophers, all the while musing on the possibility of philosophical positivism in a world of uncertainty. The National, as always, did a stellar job, and to this day I remember vividly Michael Hordern's bumbling, brilliant philosopher and Diana Rigg's singer-on-the-verge.

From that day forward I became a Stoppard groupie, and it was true, deep, unshakeable love: it outlasted husbands, family members, and pets. For thirty years I worshipped this man and saw every production and read every play. When I glimpsed him several years ago in a small Indian restaurant in South Kensington (dining with then squeeze, Felicity Kendall), I just about squealed and did a little dance right on the spot. Stoppard affected me the way that Mick Jagger did other women of my generation. Let me put it this way: I would have run off with the guy in a nanosecond, throwing sanity and reputation to the wind.

The first sign that my ardor had cooled came last year when I saw The Coast of Utopia at the Lincoln Center in NYC. Yes, the acting was stellar and Billy Crudup et al. were fabulous, no doubt about it. The script? Unwieldy and ponderous, it sounded like something penned by a recent grad from the Yale School of Drama wanting to show off how much he had read about the philosophical origins of the Russian Revolution.  It was a dissertation in the making, not a dramatic trilogy.

I just read Rock and Roll, and while it isn't as hopelessly baggy as The Coast of Utopia, the play displays many of the same problems. Now Stoppard has never been a master of tight dramatic structure, and his ideas often exceed the limits of his form; still, one was able to forgive the occasional digression or weak ending since Stoppard, even when he stumbled, was still so much better than everyone else. There's a difference, however, between weak moments in an otherwise brilliant script and a play that just doesn't add up to much. I'm not actually sure what Rock and Roll is about. As with Utopia, Stoppard seems to have done so much reading (this time, Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel) that it's completely overwhelmed his imagination, not to mention any sense of creative discipline.  Despite the inherent pathos of the material--the '68 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia--I didn't give a damn about the characters or their plight. The episodic structure, the leaps in time, the bittiness of the action doesn't give the reader (or spectator) the chance to settle in and think about these people.  And the old Stoppard linguistic magic, that verbal sleight-of-hand, is nowhere apparent, a criticism of Utopia as well.

Unless the old boy finds his mojo, I guess the affair is over.

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