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Rock 'n' Roll

By Alec Harrington

Addressing the United States Congress in February 1990, newly-elected Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel said his “one great certainty” is that “consciousness precedes being, and not the other way around, as the Marxists claim.” It is this idea that is debated and ultimately upheld in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77 movement and Velvet Revolution were informed by a particular kind of consciousness: a mix of aestheticism and the Dionysian spirit of rock and roll. The fact that the revolt was headed by a playwright highlighted its aesthetic aspect.

I was introduced to this dimension of the Czech resistance back in 1990 when I coordinated a speaking tour of Eastern European dissidents (dissidents no longer in 1990) for the Democratic Socialists of America. At one engagement, the speaker -– a very polished Czech student leader -– met a friend of his who happened to be in the United States. The friend was named Andra (I’m rendering the name phonetically) and was thin, pale, and bespectacled, with a distracted manner and scarf looped many times around his neck. Somehow Andra ended up staying at my apartment. He explained to my roommate and me that he belonged to a movement called the Purple Elephant and that the Velvet Revolution was different from other political movements because it was about the, ah, purple elephant. He was making some point about the revolution being aesthetic, cultural, and spiritual -– but exactly what that point was, I’m still not sure.

As for the role of rock in Charter 77 and the Velvet Revolution, readers may recall that one of President Havel’s first guests of state was Frank Zappa who became an unofficial cultural attaché of Czechoslovakia. Now Tom Stoppard has brought home to theatergoers in Britain and the U.S. that Charter 77 protested against the imprisonment of a rock group, The Plastic People of the Universe, who were influenced by Zappa, the Velvet Underground, and the Fugs. According to Stoppard, The Plastic People were not political; they were persecuted by the Communist government for a non-conformity that was about style, not ideology.

The way Stoppard presents it, The Plastic People and their fans were the true spiritual/cultural/aesthetic resistance, and Havel and his colleagues were a bunch of well-intentioned, ineffectual, politically-minded fuddy-duddies. The lead character, a PhD named Jan (Rufus Sewell) (who is reduced to unemployment and, later, to working in a bakery because he failed to satisfy the demands of the secret police) is repeatedly asked to sign petitions associated with Havel and other conscientious, politically-minded dissidents. But the only petition that matters is Charter 77, calling for the release of The Plastic People.

Jan’s focus is on cultural/aesthetic aspects of consciousness. The case for consciousness as spirit is made by Eleanor (Sinead Cusack), a Cambridge classicist dying from multiple cancers, married to Jan’s Cambridge Marxist mentor Max (Brian Cox). As more of her body decays and is cut away, she becomes upset by Max’s Marxist materialism that sees human beings as purely biological. In a speech (more an aria), breathtakingly performed by Cusack, she argues that she is an essence that has remained intact despite the decay and evisceration of her body. It is that with which she loves Max and which she wants Max to love. Expressing deep emotion without ceding his beliefs -- and making it clear that he is not patronizing her -- Max responds that it is her essence that he loves, but that essence is biological. My mother, with whom I saw the play, backed Max’s side of this argument, noting that that essence would not have remained intact had Eleanor’s cancer been a brain tumor.

Rock ‘n’ Roll is a debate about the philosophies that underlie politics and a specific political event –- the opposition to and overthrow of Communism in Czechoslovakia. Just as the play doesn’t sufficiently develop its philosophical arguments (ignoring the point that a neurological ailment would have diminished the essence of which Eleanor so movingly speaks), it also fails to fully own up to the consequences of Max’s political beliefs. Max is a hard-line Communist who supports the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. He alludes to disagreeing with other aspects of Soviet policy, but condemns Eastern Europeans who have opposed the Soviets, dismissing them as wishy-washy abettors of capitalist imperialism. His disagreements with Soviet policy are never clarified. Max is stubborn, arrogant, narcissistic, and, at times, insensitive, but he is ultimately a lovable curmudgeon who deeply loves his wife and cares for his former student Jan. It’s not impossible imagine a hard-line, pro-Soviet Communist who is sincere in his beliefs and is a good, decent human being. The problem is that Stoppard only superficially addresses the brutality that Max has countenanced and doesn’t delve into his rationales for terror.

The play has other flaws. A massive amount of information is touched on but not sufficiently developed. Leaning on a mythy bit of symbolism, Stoppard begins by walking on the wild Dionysian side. (Though in this case it’s actually more Panic than Dionysian.) The play starts with Eleanor’s and Max’s daughter Esme (Alice Eve) seeing a young man playing a pipe on their garden wall. He disappears, and she identifies him as Pan. Later, the adult Esme (now played by Cusack) informs us that the young man was Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd founder and Cambridge native). This Syd Barrett device leads to over-plotting. Esme’s daughter Alice (played by Alice Eve, who also plays the young Esme) finds and cares for the reclusive, drug-addled Barrett. Stoppard gratuitously introduces a caricatured gossip-columnist (Alexandra Neill) who has married Esme’s ex-husband (Quentin Maré), and who has a written vicious piece about Barrett’s decline. Many of the details of this sub-plot whiz by too quickly.

Then there’s Stoppard’s most precious and intellectually ostentatious conceit. Esme ends up following in her mother’s footsteps, studying classics. At the end of the play, her daughter Alice is helping Esme translate a passage from Plutarch -- well-known to classicists but obscure to the vast majority of theatergoers -- in which a sailor hears a voice telling him to proclaim that “great Pan is dead.” What’s this noise? In the play, great Pan seems to have triumphed. Pan (Mick Jagger, with his satyrs, the Rolling Stones) plays Prague. Perhaps the Panic reference points to Syd Barrett’s demise. Or it may be meant to resonate with a quick line about a member of The Plastic People (and/or the whole band) going to the United States. But connection is never established.

Rock ‘n’ Roll moves you, though, despite its missteps. Eleanor’s speech about her essence (though logically flawed) and Max’s response pack a wallop. The images flashed on a scrim of the Rolling Stones playing Prague as their music blares and Jan, Esme, and their friends cheer behind the scrim is as powerful as the "Marseillaise" scene in Casablanca.

Another strength of Rock ‘n’ Roll is that it leaves politically engaged people and philosophical folk with much to think and argue about. This sets it apart from other excellently acted productions of straight plays in this Broadway season. Tracy Letts’ August Osage County is an entertaining retread of 40 years of serio-comic white-trash gothic in the spirit of the substantial Sam Shepard and the insubstantial Beth Henley, the slight substance of which, unlike Rock ‘n’ Roll, cannot sustain its three-and-a-half hours. The terrific cast of the current revival of The Homecoming by the eternally overrated Harold Pinter fails to compensate for the play’s self-conscious and, ultimately meaningless, obscurity.

Rock ‘n’ Roll is excellently acted too, and the performances of its leads make it a truly great production. Rufus Sewell achieves a supreme triumph: without make-up (except for hair extensions in some scenes and age make-up at the end of the play), he completely transforms himself. When Jan speaks English, his childishly effusive way, his use of broad mimicry to make points, and his near-spastic gestures make him uncannily like several Eastern European intellectuals and artists I've met. When he is ostensibly speaking in Czech to his compatriots, his manner is more restrained, suggesting the exuberance compensates for the difficulties of communicating in a second language. These mannerisms render Sewell radically different from his screen persona. Sewell is beautiful and intense-looking to the point of caricature on screen (in fact, his looks were employed for caricature when he played the smoldering and fecund farm lad in the D.H. Lawrence parody Cold Comfort Farm). In Rock ‘n’ Roll his unapproachable movie star looks vanish into amiable goofiness.

Sewell’s one slip could have been corrected by director Trevor Nunn. While Sewell convincingly ages himself by the end of the play, he seems fifteen to twenty years older than Jan should be. This is probably intentional –- an attempt to show how Jan has been prematurely aged by imprisonment, marginalization, and menial labor. But there are other persecuted dissidents in the play who are not similarly wizened.

The issue of the age of the play’s characters relative to each other also undercuts Cusack’s portrayal of the adult Esme. By time of her appearance in the 1980’s, the character should have aged into her 40s given her youthful presence as a late-teen/early 20-something in 1968. But Cusack is in her 50s; Brian Cox, who plays her father, is two years older than she. In early scenes of the play Cox is playing younger than he is. I couldn’t buy Cusack as being in her 40s, nor could I buy her as Cox’s daughter. It is not impossible to accept actors of similar age as parent and child. When he played Hamlet, Laurence Olivier was thirteen years’ older than Eileen Herlie who played Gertrude, and Angela Lansbury was only two years’ older than Laurence Harvey when she played his mother in The Manchurian Candidate (though both of these were Oedipal relationships which the youthfulness of the mothers served). But Cusack, Cox, and Nunn couldn’t persuade me to suspend disbelief. And Cusack’s age affected the substance of Esme as a character. She is supposed to be a burnt out, lost soul, but Cusack’s actual age hyped up the pathos.

This is not meant to diminish Cusack’s great accomplishment as Eleanor. In her hands, the character is intelligent, passionate, tough, funny, eccentric, and charismatic. She more than earned the applause she received after delivering Eleanor’s aria on the spirit. Her portrayal of Eleanor stands out as a magnificent performance.

Brian Cox is excellent as Max; another wonderful performance in a remarkable career, (though not as striking as Sewell’s or Cusack’s).

A production as successful as this is a testament to the director. The recorded snippets of rock songs accompanied by projections of recording credits are effective -- the songs and projections may have been required by Stoppard’s script, but are definitively executed by Nunn and sound designer Ian Dickinson, probably in collaboration with lighting designer Howard Harrison and set designer Robert Jones. Nunn’s collaboration with set designer Jones isn’t all perfection. The two opt for realism though the sets are incomplete, lacking walls downstage right and downstage left. This works fine for Eleanor’s and Max’s comfortable Cambridge house and garden, but less well for Jan’s cramped Prague apartment where the claustrophobic quality is undermined by the open space characters have to travel to get to the bathroom door set in what appears to be the actual stage right wall of the stage’s wings.

Another well-intentioned idea that fails (not unlike socialism) is Nunn’s handling of accents. He uses an idea employed in 1993 to brilliant effect in Mark Wing Davey’s New York production of Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest at Manhattan Theatre Club. The first and third acts of that play (which deals with the overthrow of Ceausescu in Romania) depict Romanians speaking Romanian to each other. The second act is a dramatization of interviews with Romanians conducted by Churchill, Wing-Davey, and Wing-Davey’s students’ (from the Central School of Speech and Drama). In the first and third acts, the American actors spoke English with their own accents, since Romanians speaking Romanian would not hear their own language as accented. In the second act, when Romanians talked with English interviewers, the actors spoke English with Romanian accents –- the distinction between speaking one’s own language without an accent and speaking a foreign language with an accent was clear. Nunn borrows this linguistic strategy in Rock ‘n’ Roll. But it’s problematic for two reasons. First, the distinction between Czechs’ speaking their own language and speaking English is not as stark as it was for the Romanians in Mad Forest. Second, when I saw Mad Forest it was performed by American actors for an American audience; in this production of Rock ‘n’ Roll, the leads are English and the supporting actors use English accents. Thus, when talking among themselves, the Czechs have English accents which is confusing to an American audience.

But these are relatively minor quibbles. Thanks to the outstanding performances of its lead actors, and the fact that both the strengths and weaknesses of Stoppard’s script provide food for thought, Rock ‘n’Roll is the most satisfying production I've seen in New York this season.

From February, 2008