Rock 'N' Roll
by Margaret Croyden
Rock 'N' Roll by
Directed by Trevor Nunn
Bernard Jacobs Theatre
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden November 10, 2007
In "Rock 'N' Roll," Tom Stoppard, Britain's most erudite and scholarly playwright, has once again tackled political and historical problems, not unlike his nine-hour "Coast of Utopia," which explored similar themes albeit in 19th century Russia. This time his subject is repression and revolution in 20th century Czechoslovakia during the Cold war--a perfect background for arguments about Marxism, socialism, Soviet oppression, and revolution and its effect on human character. In some way the play is autobiographical, at least parts of it. Stoppard was a child when his mother, a Jew-ish woman, fled Prague, emigrated to Australia, married a man named Stoppard, and wound up in England; there Tom Stoppard became an Englishman.
One of the main characters in "Rock n' Roll" is Jan a Czech, an ardent collector of rock and roll despite the government's ban on "decadent" music. Jan manages somehow to get a fellowship to Cambridge (for reasons explained later in the play), and meets his tutor, Max, a brilliant scholar who, despite the failures of the communist system and the brutality of the Russians, remains in the British communist party. Proud of his choice, Max as the antagonist, will argue throughout the play with Jan, and others, about Marxism, revolution, the value of Soviet Russia. the virtues of socialism, and the defense of the communist party line. In the course of the play, Czechoslovakia takes a turn and a liberal communist, Dubcek, takes power promising to loosen up the system. As a result Jan decides to return to his native country hoping to put "a human face" on socialism, a slogan then popular. But the Soviets have other ideas: they send their troops into Prague, depose Dubeck, and a new repression begins. Jan, caught up in the fight, is arrested, his records smashed by the police, and is thrown into jail. The good fight is lost until Vaslav Havel enters the picture with his anti-fascist charterist movement of 1977. And finally the velvet revolution is on. Czechoslovakia wins its freedom, but only when the Soviet Union itself crashes. And with that momentous moment communism sees its last days.
Stoppard likes putting opposites on stage to encourage dialectal arguments. One wonders why Max, a brilliant scholar would remain a communist despite the defeat and repression of the Soviets. This is not quite explained in the play, only stated. As in the nine hour "Coast of Utopia," his characters discuss, argue, fight, ramble on: each one trying to convince the other with his or her theoretical and intellectual position, so that the play becomes a philosophic, political history lesson. But there are no emotional underpinnings to the characters' arguments. Max is the most argumentative and the most paradoxical. Jan is his weak liberal opponent, particularly when later he refuses to sign on to the Charist movement. By putting these two on stage as opponents, the talk never ceases. The discussion rages on: the folly of the British masses, the virtues of communism, the bravery of the Soviets during the war, the rise of Margaret Thatcher, and its dire effects on England, the value of individual protests, the relationship of human character to revolution. Max's wife, a scholar in Greek history, adds to the scene with long speeches about the ancients. Soon the talk becomes more esoteric and the play more tedious. Besides the narrative is so loosely constructed that one never knows precisely where the action is taking place; the scenes constantly shift from Prague to Cambridge. Hence confusion.
The British cast are all very fine, particularly Brian Cox as the Marxist scholar. Rufus Sewell as Jan is sometimes appealing, but his justifications and motivations are unclear. So are his politics. Sinead Cusak who doubles as Max's wife (and later as her daughter) is astounding in a dramatic scene depicting her agony as a cancer victim-- the most emotionally moving scene in the play. And actually the only one.
Using Rock as a metaphor for freedom since under communism, such music was outlawed, Stoppard makes a useful point. For him, and for the Czechs, rock and roll is the real revolution. Rock represents freedom, vitality, innovation, sensuality and abandonment--all missing in the dreary and oppressive communist life. So using bands as the Velvet Underground, the Plastic people, the Beach Boys, to name a few, and their music throughout the play, while flashing on a scrim the years they became famous which coincided with the events in Czechoslovakia, is the most imaginative and original part of the play. Too bad that in later years, the rise of rock and roll ushered in drugs, misogyny, lewd behavior on and off the stage, and an anti-intellectual atmosphere among the youth: For them, a rock star has became God-like. Mick Jagger who, at the end of the play comes to Prague to celebrate its freedom, is a questionable metaphor for freedom. He is free all right to be outlandish, vulgar, and absurdly wealthy.
Nevertheless Stoppard gets credit for daring to write about complex subjects. Few playwrights can compete with him, and although he uintellecualizies everything thus depriving his work from being a dynamic theater piece, he does arouse interest and fascination. And this is no small achievement. But one wishes he would convey his philosophical powers in a form more suitable for the stage rather than in a play that sounds like an essay for "The New York Review of Books."
Margaret Croyden's latest book is "Conversations with Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
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