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What is to be Fun?: A Review of Tom Stoppard’s “Rock ‘n Roll”

Tej Nagaraja Feb 3, 2008

Rock ‘n’ Roll, a play by Tom Stoppard
At the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th Street; through March 9.

Tom Stoppard, having explored the ideas and milieu behind the revolutions of 1848 and 1871 in Coast of Utopia, and 1917 in Travesties, takes on 1968 (and ’89) in Rock ‘n’ Roll, which comes to Broadway with major cast and crew intact from its 2006 London debut.

The action shifts between England and Czechoslovakia, clinging to Jan (Rufus Sewell), a Czech at Cambridge, studying under Masses and Materialism author Max Morrow (played by Brian Cox). Max, who also wrote Class and Consciousness, is most distinguished as an unrepentant tankie: insisting the Stalinist state’s achievements trump its crimes, he stayed in the Communist Party of Great Britain after the Soviet invasion crushed the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Max – like the real-life historian and CPGB stalwart Eric Hobsbawm – shares a birthyear with the Bolshevik state. When the Prague Spring of 1968 inspires a sequel suppression, he’ll do what he did a decade prior: “ate shit and shut up.”

The general tendencies we meet in Prague are the ‘political’ opposition and the ‘cultural’ underground. The former (like Jan’s friend Ferdinand) earnestly petition on behalf of their prisoner comrades; the latter (like Jan himself) are bored with self-righteous politicking. Their fates are to coalesce, as the regime seeks to squelch the rock scene – centrally the Zappa-inspired Plastic People of the Universe – ultimately helping spark the Charter ’77 civic resistance. As the dogged Soviet satellite regime finally bows with all the rest in ’89, Jan and Max have a tense, moving reunion.

Stoppard is noted for staging formidable intellectual skirmishes over politics and art that patiently recite timely and timeless debates, capturing a zeitgeist. Though he doesn’t have Bakunin or Lenin on hand this time for the real first-rate stuff, Jan v. Max is more than serviceable; an occasional repartee or parry does seem a cheap crowd-ingratiating one-liner (Max inserting Lenin’s “What is to be done?” into casual conversation). Though not by definition a melodrama, it reminds one of the term’s Greek origin: the use of song to heighten emotional response. If you can endure the Pink Floyd, the Stones satisfy within the plot and on the score.

Having caught director Trevor Nunn’s previous gig at BAM, I felt like Sewell’s Jan at times could be inappropriately as erratic as King Lear! Sinead Cusack is delightful as Max’s wife Eleanor and more than holds her own; her struggle with cancer is thematically eloquent, interwoven with the weighty rest. Cox, a fine villain in X-Men and Bourne movies, rises above the archetypal Cambridge (or Communist) cantankerous crank and offers the play’s most affecting characterization. Stoppard, though his sympathies plainly lie elsewhere, duly gives Max his fair share of solid (if well-rehearsed) jabs about the farcical ‘freedom’ and ‘rights’ promised under democracy. The shrillest anticommunist should be moved to sympathy when Max laments, “What remains of those bright days of certainty?”

Stoppard’s conceit here rests not only on Jan’s left-democratic stance against Max’s left-authoritarianism. We’re also to celebrate Jan’s punkish defiance as a spirited fuse under Ferdinand’s more typical activism – steeped as he was in dialectics, Jan’s epiphany is “I should have learned to play guitar.” He sees the real Czech opposition as the repressed “fags and rockers,” the latter being individualistic libertines who reluctantly resist only cause they have to. The Plastics just want to be famous; their fans just want to be left alone.

As my theatergoing companion remarked, the ethos glorified is more license than liberation. Hedonistic counterculture, though tricky to disentangle from movement counterpolitics, was hardly a transformative model, often as proud of its indifference to resistance as its resentment of the establishment. Consider a couple period pieces, Czech New Wave films shot/censored in the late sixties. The Jires/Kundera film The Joke is about a man persecuted for sending a “Long Live Trotsky!” postcard to a girl he liked (as the title suggests, his motives were totally apolitical). Though he’s moved by the repression, his response is a nihilistic scheme of misogynistic revenge. Vera Chytilova’s uproarious avant-garde Daisies follows a giggling pair in mod dresses who – while eating way more apples than Eve did – decide to follow society’s lead and “go bad.” After a few practice rounds gorging on cakes at the expense of pathetic sugar daddies, they pillage a banquet that could only have been for Party apparatchiks. But then they clean up after themselves – contrarian to be sure, they never approach ungovernability. Chytilova closes with images of war, and the sardonic text: “Dedicated to those whose sole source of indignation is a messed-up trifle.”

Max’s Morrow’s dismissive assessment of the generation Godard called “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola” is: “You drop out or you fit in. In the end, you fitted in.” As the critic Susan Sontag reflected back on the sixties: “The ever more triumphant values of consumer capitalism promote – indeed, impose – the cultural mixes and insolence and defense of pleasure that I was advocating for quite different reasons.”

Bohemia’s bohemians fare better than their U.S./U.K. precursors in the political appraisal, instructing that the most dynamic responses prove varied from context to context. On Stoppard’s soundtrack we hear the Plastics cover the Velvet Underground – when they sing Lou Reed’s character’s lines, “Hey white boy, what you doing uptown?” on “Lexington & 125” – in a Czech accent! – it’s a hilarious metaphor for how some things get mixed-up in the smuggling. They should have also used the Velvets’ “Beginning to See the Light,” with the naughty line: “There are problems in these times, but none of them are mine!”

Another tricky concern is that the Czech-born Stoppard seems to conflate the Prague Spring (led by Dubcek), the Plastics’ scene of ’68-’77 (boldface name: Ivan Jirous) and the Charter 77 civic campaigners (led by Vaclav Havel) as a harmonious trajectory ultimately realized in the ’89 Velvet Revolution corrective to the Soviet system. Distinctions are important, as resistance to Soviet regimes varied in character and goal: coming from above or below, from right or left. By 1968, as the U.S. and U.S.S.R. came to a détente and focused energies on internal repression, the Soviet hegemony over leftism was near-completely hollow, as ruling ‘Marxists’ from West Bengal to South Yemen faced ‘Marxist’ challenges of their own.

Stoppard’s (also Zappa’s, Reed’s, Madeline Albright’s) pal Havel, well-funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, achieved a sainthood somewhere between Gandhi and Bono as he cheered NATO militarism in the 1990s; he remains a symbol for the ideologists of the ‘end of history’ triumph of U.S.-dominated capitalism. The Czech government’s current deal with the Pentagon to play host to Bush’s ‘missile shield’ should give us pause; this is far from the liberated socialism many of the anti-Nazi partisans and Prague Spring’ers were fighting for.

Egon Bondy – influential samizdat writer and namesake of the Plastics’ Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned – died last year. Bondy remained in the opposition camp after the Velvet Revolution, calling the Czech state a “banana republic.” He also criticized the European Disneyland for having a fake castle in a land of real ones. Bondy’s eclecticism and imagination might best capture the underground’s visionary chaos.

It’s heavy that in the poignant massacre we see in Rock ‘n’ Roll, the casualties are not bodies in the street but Jan’s LPs on the floor, vindictively smashed in a police raid. Max reminisces about the earlier decades, before drugs and sex unleashed youth liberty so confusedly. The U.S. fifties issued a singular spirit and bond – about cars, good sex, good hair, bad hair (on display here!), and some kinds of freedom. Always whimsical, sensual in every way, usually arrogant, sometimes obnoxious – whether you had your license yet or not, licentious. This is the rebellious ask-questions-later universality Stoppard celebrates. Max is “embarrassed by the sixties.” Jan wouldn’t have it any other way.