Saturday, September 20, 2008

Stoppard's Rock 'n Roll

Saw Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n Roll at American Conservatory Theater today. So a few quick notes while it is fresh in my mind. I'd love to get my hands on the script and go over some of the dialog again, but we shall see if my "vast leisure" permits such a luxuriant excursion.

The play concerns the life of one Jan (Manoel Felciano), a young Czech Jew who had left his homeland before the Nazis invaded and then spent his youth in England before returning. He was in England as a student in 1968 but chose to return just after the Soviets invaded. His Cambridge professor, Max (the incomparable Jack Willis) is an unrepentant Stalinist prone to rage and in-your-face rage at the lily-livered who have abandoned the party line. Jan, by contrast, clings to the notion that ignoring the power makes it go away or at least disempowers it. He hangs on to rock 'n roll and, as it turns out, even provides some info to the authorities in order to preserve his precious record collection.

The dialog was a little stilted for Stoppard, but I thought that it accurately represented the sort of intense political rhetoric that saturated the lives of politicos in the era ... I certainly recognized it from personal experience. I found the whole thing intensely nostalgic in that sense. I was both a hippie and a lefty at the time, which made for uncomfortable moments in both camps. Eventually my hippiedom devolved into the free love dynamic of the early "heroic" gay movement even as my politics tended to get a little more sectarian and strident than I would prefer to remember at this rather later stage of my life.

So I was impressed by the depiction of the conflict between the explosion of creativity in music and its social effect as against the explosion of the left and its social effect. And the inconclusiveness of the conclusion (everybody gets older, communism lost out, and the two key characters end up in love in a liberated Prague ... but the ideological conflict was unresolved) mirrors the fogginess of how stuff happens in real life. Perhaps those looking for a pleasant afternoon in the theater were satisfied by the love conclusion, but I kept thinking about how empty must be the soul of a man who had been so defeated and stripped of dignity as Jan was.

The rock and roll theme has to touch anyone who lived through the era. I especially grooved to the Pink Floyd stuff (although the references to Syd Barrett would be lost on anyone who had not read the program). We are so cynical now that it is hard to remember what an era of cheeky optimism was the 70s. On the other hand, it would be hard to underestimate what a body blow to lefties was the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia ... I was 15, but I wept when my father told me. The conflicted feelings of liberationists ... if I can use that as a broad term ... was not a dark conflict of the soul, but a bright confidence that no matter the problem, no matter the forces at work, there had to be, there would be, a great historic solution and it would be soon.

Didn't turn out that way, but life went on anyway. Perhaps that is why Jan ends up with his interrupted childhood love interest, but this time in Prague, this time middle-aged, this time listening to the Rolling Stones in the same venue where his previous Communist overlords had vainly celebrated their supremacy.

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