Rock and a Hard Place

Special Features   Rock and a Hard Place
 
A British professor's old guard Marxism and the emerging anti-Communism of a Czech rock band form the backdrop for Tom Stoppard's new play, Rock 'n' Roll.

Rufus Sewell in Rock 'n' Roll.
Rufus Sewell in Rock 'n' Roll. Photo by Joan Marcus

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Tom Stoppard has given us many dazzling plays, but in perhaps none of them, until now, does there exist any single figure as strong, as boldly limned, as domineering over all the others as Max Morrow, the unreconstructed old British Communist of Rock 'n' Roll.

It is bred-in-the-bone anti-Fascist, anti-capitalist Cambridge University professor emeritus Morrow — "exactly as old as the October Revolution," i.e., born in 1917 — who divides the whole world into haves and have nots; who looks down on the entire cultural–political–sexual revolt of the 1950s and '60s as sophomoric "street theatre"; who still clings to long-gone Soviet-film images of "a huge country where square-jawed workers swung sledgehammers and smiling buxom girls with kerchiefs on their heads lifted sheaves of wheat"; who bitterly deplores ("You bedwetter . . . you anarchist arsewipe") the hard-earned, ultimate anti-communism of two younger leftists in his entourage, a Czech-born former student of his named Jan and an ambitious British journalist named Stephen; yet who, before the play is out, will plaintively enquire, "When did it [Soviet communism] go wrong?" before tacking on the wry coda: "It seems I've devoted my life to a mistake."

For all the dialectics, weaving through Rock 'n' Roll from first to last is a Pan-like piper who, atop a garden wall as the lights come up, thrills a 16-year-old flower child, Max's daughter Esme (Jan's future wife), with a verse or two of "Lean out of your window, Golden Hair" and presently turns out to be Britain's strange, much-worshipped 1960s Pink Floyd composer–musician Syd Barrett, who sort of disappeared into himself in the 1970s. And this Syd Barrett — the actual rocker — was in fact, for playwright Stoppard, one of the starting points of Rock 'n' Roll, a show that lives up to its title through snatches of Bob Dylan, the Velvet Underground, the Stones, the Beatles, the Doors and a slew of other rock stars or groups.

"It's always good news for me," Czech-born, British-bred playwright Stoppard said over the phone from London as Rock 'n' Roll was preparing for its opening at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, "when two things clap together. In this case it was, one: the music, two: communism in Czechoslovakia. "Syd Barrett. I caught up to him quite late, when my children started listening." (Twice-married, twice-divorced Stoppard has four sons, now in their 30s and 40s.) "I didn't like his records so much, but bit by bit he grew on me. He died July a year ago, in Cambridge, as in the play, while Rock 'n' Roll was running in London."

What also grew on Stoppard — an even weirder phenomenon than Syd Barrett — was the psychedelic 1960s Czech rock group The Plastic People of the Universe, target of oppression and even jailed as "undesirable elements" by the commissars who had been installed by Soviet tanks.

Somewhat more subtle is the Interior Ministry apparatchik who, upon sociologist Jan's political, curiosity-driven return to Czechoslovakia, where he was a state-enforced bakery worker for 12 years, grills the visitor for bringing in luggage crammed with "socially negative music" — rock recordings of all sorts. "We're supposed to know what's going on inside people," the interrogator says. "That's why it's the Ministry of the Interior." Only Tom Stoppard could come up with a sunbeam like that.

On the phone this interlocutor said he never before had heard of The Plastic People of the Universe. "No way you should," Stoppard replied. "Very few people outside of Czechoslovakia have ever heard of them. But they were brought back together in 1997 when Havel" — his friend, fellow playwright and ex-president of the Czech Republic Václav Havel — "reunited them at a big Charter 77 twentieth anniversary party at the palace. I saw them in New York, where they did a gig while Coast of Utopia was playing."

When Havel himself, in years past, was under one sort or another of arrest or imprisonment, Stoppard did "what one used to do" — through plays, articles, letters, talks — to bring pressure for his release. "I read him long before I met him," Stoppard says now. "I first met him in 1977 when he was under house arrest at his country cottage. He was being watched by state security. They'd actually built a tower to watch him. I'd gone back to Czechoslovakia to write a piece for The New York Review of Books — the first time I ever went back, and the only time during communism there."

Is Max Morrow totally a creation of your mind?

"Yes. They're all fictitious people. I mean, it's a play. I look on it as a love story [Jan and Esme's]. It's something of a mistake to take it as all Czech or all British. It's actually about half and half.

"I'm interested in the English Communist who kept what he called his faith. There were people who left the party in 1956, after Hungary, and there were people who left the party after Prague '68, and then there were people like Max Morrow who really considered communism to be a kind of family — a family that sometimes didn't behave well, but still a family."

This fellow Jan — might it not be said that he's not altogether unlike a fellow named Stoppard?

"Well, yeah, quite a bit. But he isn't me. He might have been a little like me if I'd gone back to Czechoslovakia when he did. But I left Czechoslovakia as a baby, as you know. By the end of 1938 — at 18 months — I had gone with my family, first to Singapore and then to India." Tom's actual father, Eugene Straussler, was killed by the Japanese in World War II; Jan's father, we're told in the play, died in that same war. "I used bits and pieces of my childhood," Stoppard says on the phone. Jan in the play is fingered by the Interior interrogator as Jewish. "That too."

Deep into Rock 'n' Roll a woman named Lenka — strong-minded companion, first of Max's wife, then of Max — pinpoints the old comrade. "Don't try to put me on your side, Max," she says. "'Make love, not war' was more important than 'Workers of the World Unite.'"

That's the pivot of the whole play, isn't it, Tom?

"Yes . . . Yes . . . I'm reluctant to say anything is particularly central. But yes" — as the guitar chords of the Rolling Stones slash through the crowd noise into blackout.

Alice Eve and Sinead Cusack in Tom Stoppard's <i>Rock 'n' Roll</i>.
Alice Eve and Sinead Cusack in Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll. Photo by Joan Marcus
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