Lincoln Center Doesn’t Want to Make You Think Too Hard

Today I shall be asking why our friend Andre Bishop, the artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater, thinks we’re all stupid.

He thinks so-as does the board of the theater-in the nicest possible way, of course. They think we should be spared Tom Stoppard’s latest play, The Invention of Love , lest it prove too testing for us. Mr. Stoppard’s celebrated drama about the British classicist and poet A.E. Housman, and much else besides, proved a great success at the Royal National Theatre in London and subsequently at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. But the folks at Lincoln Center think New Yorkers aren’t-what’s the word?-intelligent enough to appreciate it. As my Uncle Louis, himself a classicist at Oxford, used to say: “Have you ever heard such crap in your entire life?”

The New York Times first reported (without comment) that Mr. Bishop and his executive producer, Bernard Gersten, saw The Invention of Love in London, but “shied away from staging it in New York.” Mr. Stoppard masked his surprise and disappointment in ironic good humor, as is the Stoppardian way. “A sensible playwright would write a play with three or four people,” he said of his own 23-character drama. “Three is best. A man and his dog is even better.”

But the size of the cast wasn’t decisive. “Bernie [Gersten] was up front about it,” he explained. “He said, ‘I’m not sure how to do this play in New York because I’m not sure whether it would fit our audience.'”

And there we have it. They thought, and they thought, and they concluded in the name of our own cultural protection and woozy well-being that The Invention of Love doesn’t make the cut. It doesn’t fit. It was a perfect fit for audiences in London and San Francisco. But that’s their problem, I imagine. We won’t be seeing it in New York-unless, that is, some foolish producer decides we’re as smart as the fun-loving San Franciscans and even the intellectual English.

Would Tom Stoppard’s l982 The Real Thing , currently sparkling on Broadway, have proved too complicated for Lincoln Center? Surely not. However, it wasn’t actually written by Tom Stoppard. It was written by his identical twin, Tim. Tim writes the easy ones ( Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead , Dogg’s Hamlet , The Real Inspector Hound , The Real Thing ), and Tom writes the difficult ones ( Jumpers , Travesties , Arcadia , The Invention of Love ). On the other hand, Hapgood was written jointly by Tom and Tim, which is only right as it’s about various sets of twins. I shouldn’t be telling you any of this. It’s a secret.

I can only guess that Lincoln Center would have run more than a mile from Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen , the absorbing drama about Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle versus Niels Bohr’s theories of “complementarity.” Quantum mechanics might not qualify as a good fit around West 65th Street. Yet the rapt audiences attending the play on Broadway are clearly glad to be there.

Copenhagen was first produced at the National Theatre, as are all Mr. Stoppard’s plays as well. Lincoln Center Theater, like the National, is nonprofit. Its concerns aren’t-or shouldn’t be-the strictly commercial. It can dare to fail. A few seasons ago, for example, it trusted the intelligence of New Yorkers enough to stage a first-rate production of Arcadia . To be sure, the play was intellectually challenging. Do we go to the theater to sleep? Mr. Stoppard, a dramatist of champagne ideas, surpassed himself with his fizzing, loftily witty play about such things as the disappearance of Byron, the Newtonian vision of the universe versus the modern mathematics of deterministic chaos, goings-on in gazebos, the scholarly hunt for a hermit, the computerization of historic grouse shoots, the nature of biography, the symbolism of English gardens from classical symmetry to the aesthetic of irregularity and romantic wildness, and the unfolding of the secrets of an unknowable universe.

But I summarize. My point is that no one went into nervous collapse at Arcadia . It was a smashing success, for New Yorkers are bright and curious-and much more enthusiastic than their English counterparts-and we are all, of course, extremely well-educated in metaphysics. No, the complaints weren’t about the challenging nature of the play, but about the Vivian Beaumont Theater’s notoriously poor acoustics. They fixed the sound.

But they lost sight of the audience. What’s the right “fit” for Lincoln Center today? Currently limping toward the end of its run after an abstemious diet of A.R. Gurney and Spalding Gray is the revival of Arthur Laurents’ l952 Broadway potboiler, The Time of the Cuckoo . (You may know it as a vehicle for Katharine Hepburn in the labored l955 screen version, Summertime .) As the city held its breath for the bishops of Lincoln Center to reach their solemn decision, how did the puffs of smoke come to anoint Cuckoo ? No disrespect, but Mr. Laurents, the distinguished librettist of West Side Story and Gypsy , is not widely considered a major dramatist. I’m afraid the forgotten Cuckoo is a poor, dated thing with its lonely, spinsterish American tourist in search of love in Venice, where the plaintive cries of “Gondola! Gondola!” haunt the misty air. Its ideas about culture and national identity aren’t exhilarating. (Italians=romantic; Americans=puritan). Its sentiment and melodramatic-showdowns and pseudo wisdom about this crazy thing called life are frankly second-rate.

Cuckoo is a pudding, not a play. But you can understand it! Where does all this leave Tom Stoppard? It leaves him having a wonderful time, I trust, in San Francisco. And us? It leaves us simpletons in New York without the pleasure of seeing his The Invention of Love .

I feel fortunate to have seen it in London, and with a supreme performance from John Wood as A.E. Housman. I can report that one shouldn’t concern oneself too much with the bits Mr. Stoppard has written in Latin. Time flies when you’re having fun. Tempus fugit , as we Latin scholars put it. Or if I may say so: Ne quid detrimenti respublica capiat (Take care to protect the republic from harm). Of course it’s a challenging play! What would be the point of writing it otherwise?

In The Invention of Love , Mr. Stoppard has taken on nothing less than Victorian scholarship and morality in the Age of Aestheticism while portraying the world of dry, self-deceiving Oxford academics like Jowett and crash-and-burn sensualists like Wilde. At its center is the Latinist and repressed homosexual A.E. Housman and his one true unrequited love.

Personally, I would value the play for this favorite exchange between the older Housman chatting to his younger self on a park bench. “I’m not as young as I was,” he says. “Whereas you, of course, are.”

Mr. Stoppard’s big play is about many things. It is about love and ideas, and the ecstasy of language and discovery. It is about knowledge. “I don’t think writers are sacred,” says the dramatist-hero of The Real Thing . “But words are. They deserve respect.”

Audiences deserve respect, too, as Andre Bishop well knows. That is why I would like to have seen The Invention of Love at Lincoln Center Theater.

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