Songs in the key of a playwright's life

In 'Rock 'n' Roll,' Tom Stoppard links music, politics, and his own past

(Kevin berne)
By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / November 2, 2008
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Tom Stoppard thought he might write a play about a rock star living like a hermit in suburbia. The inspirational recluse was Syd Barrett, fallen cofounder of Pink Floyd. The British playwright, a lover of music and chronicler of the intersection of personal and political identity, became fixated on two photos of Barrett: one a beautiful young romantic, the other a thickset bald man pedaling home from the supermarket.

"The knowledge that they are the same person, or that one person turns into the other person, is something which I find affecting," Stoppard says. "As usual with me, the play turned out to be about a lot of different thoughts I was having."

Specifically, it took him to his native Czechoslovakia during the pivotal years between 1968 and 1990. "Rock 'n' Roll," Stoppard's latest theatrical brain tickler, is a heady collision: of politics, poetry, the nature of consciousness, cancer, family dynamics, human spirit, and yes, rock 'n' roll. Yet the play isn't without a throughline. Near the end, a Czech intellectual named Lenka sits at a table in Cambridge, England, with an aging communist, a Sappho scholar, and a music fanatic, among others, and offers this tidy summation of the preceding hours and decades: " 'Make love, not war' was more important than 'Workers of the world unite.' "

It would be foolhardy to reduce "Rock 'n' Roll" to such a simplistic cultural legacy. But Lenka's line is a window on what makes this play - and Stoppard at 71 - tick. Set in Cambridge and Prague, "Rock 'n' Roll" ultimately asks: What lasts?

Music does, and watershed recordings by the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, John Lennon, the Doors, and Bob Dylan serenade every scene change. But rock is more than a symbolic soundtrack to the revolutions of heart, mind, and state in "Rock 'n' Roll," which opens Friday at the Huntington Theatre. Barrett is a character in the play, albeit one seen only fleetingly: The young, beautiful incarnation opens the play with a pan flute, playing "Golden Hair" to a teenage flower child whose daughter, 22 years on, will become the bald Barrett's self-appointed guardian. (Drug-addled and mentally ill, Barrett was booted out of Pink Floyd in 1968; he died a month after "Rock 'n' Roll" opened in 2006.)

Even more integral to the plot is the Plastic People of the Universe, a Czech band that became a symbol of resistance under the communist government during the 1970s. At the end of Act I, when the young Czech academic Jan finds his treasured record collection has been smashed by the authorities, he says to his friend: "It's only rock 'n' roll."

For Stoppard, there's a deeper sentiment, a creed for living, really, that courses beneath the feel-good surface of that cliche.

"Rock 'n' roll is a potent phrase for me," says the playwright. "It's much more than a description of a certain kind of music. It also has implications of a certain kind of lifestyle, of wishing to live more freely from the conventions of society. And when things go wrong it implies an attitude of philosophical stoicism."

That spirit is the connective thread in "Rock 'n' Roll," as Stoppard chronicles 22 turbulent years (bookended by the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution) in the life of Max, a brilliant Marxist professor; his music-obsessed protege Jan; Max's cancer-stricken wife, Eleanor, a Greek poetry teacher; and their daughter Esme.

Like Jan, whom the author concedes is something of an alter-ego, Stoppard was born in Prague, in 1939. His family fled to Singapore, then India when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia; his father, who remained behind, was killed during the invasion. Stoppard moved to England in 1946, when his mother married a British army officer.

"If I'd gone back to Czechoslovakia at the age of 8 I don't know what kind of life I would have had, but in one way Jan's could be considered a pseudo-autobiographical life I never had to live," Stoppard says.

For that reason, and others, "Rock 'n' Roll" is described by many as the playwright's most personal work to date - a shift away from more abstract politically themed works such as "Every Good Boy Deserves Favour," about a dissident imprisoned in a mental hospital; "Indian Ink," which examines British rule in India; and "The Coast of Utopia," a trilogy about the origins of modern political radicalism in 19th-century Russia.

"As he gets older I think he's thought a great deal more about himself, what it means to come from that background, how he feels about England," says director Carey Perloff, widely considered to be Stoppard's leading American interpreter and the artistic director at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, with which the Huntington collaborated on this production. "Also about mortality and love, and what is constant about the human heart. The things you think are going to be important turn out not to be so important. Things that look permanent disappear, like the Soviet Union. And things that seem transient, like a moment between a young girl and a man, last."

And things that would by all logic be cast in stone - say, the script for a hit play - are not. Stoppard and Perloff tinkered with dialogue, scene structure, the placement of music - over the phone, no less. They took a scalpel to the ending.

"I have never heard of this," says Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois. "I have never heard of a writer revisiting a work after their West End and Broadway premieres. It's a testament to Tom's work ethic and his belief that a play is a constantly evolving thing."

Interestingly, Stoppard describes the changes as "insignificant" and Perloff calls the A.C.T./Huntington production "radically different."

"The main thing was the dynamics of bringing it to a close without things spilling over and getting lumpy," says Stoppard. "We had a long discussion about whether to change 'biscuit' to 'cookie'. And the production has a new design, thank goodness."

"Who am I to tell Tom Stoppard to change his play?" Perloff asks rhetorically. But she reports that their relationship is built on such a fruitful history of collaboration and trust that the director felt free to make numerous (and well-received) suggestions, such as giving one character's line to another, adding dialogue to clarify a veiled exchange, and making more pointed use of songs.

"Music is the currency of Jan and Esme's love. It's their code," Perloff says. "It couldn't just be casual. Sometimes Tom is very subtle and buried in those relationships and you really have to piece it together."

Stoppard's plays are famously cerebral, and while "Rock 'n' Roll" is perhaps the most sentimental of his works, it's packed with ideas and references that may well elude the casual theatergoer. In the lobby at the recent Philadelphia production, playgoers could purchase a 60-page glossary covering Czech history, Greek poetry, Stalinist vocabulary, and Cartesian Dualism. The New York Playbill included an insert explaining playwright and former Czech president Vaclav Havel's relationship with the Plastic People of the Universe, a primer on Marx and brain function, and a Syd Barrett bio.

"I don't think I could actually rationalize how all the bits fit together, and I'm not really very interested in doing that," Stoppard says. "Theater is the event while it's happening. It's not really a text, except in a secondary way, and if you were interested in writing a text in which these different parts of the map were connected in some interesting, intelligent way, then the text would be an essay and not a play. The thing which really holds everything together is the personal narrative. The play can be described as a love story, principally, a love story in the context of all these other things."

That, notes Perloff, makes "Rock 'n' Roll" something distinctly un-Stoppardian: an everyman tale.

"Sometimes people are scared of Stoppard's work because they think you need a PhD to see it. Although there's a lot to learn, I think that it's emotionally resonant enough that if you don't know who [the late Czech politician Alexander] Dubcek is you can watch a young music-loving intellectual struggle and a couple grapple with death and a teenager grow up in the shadow of her brilliant parents. Anyone can connect to that," Perloff says. "Those are very human experiences."

Not unlike the experience - primal, galvanizing, and cathartic - of listening to a rock song.

ROCK 'N' ROLL At the Huntington Theatre Friday through Dec. 7 . Tickets: $20-$82.50. 617-266-0800,

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