I Was a Shropshire Lad, But Stoppard Bored Me

The other day, I fell to talking about A.E. Housman with a friend who’d also been to see The Invention of Love , Tom Stoppard’s play about A.E. Housman. I wasn’t as crazy about it as my friend, but then the only show for which I had been able to get tickets was the first night of previews, and the performance I saw went on forever, at least 20 minutes longer than the version current audiences seem to be thrilling to.

To be less than entranced was deeply disappointing. I can recall as if it were yesterday being introduced at Exeter to A Shropshire Lad by the unforgettable H. Darcy Curwen. For most of the ensuing decades, until the World According to Greenspan would finally wear away the last vestiges of my capacity to sustain romantic illusion, Housman sat on the table next to the coziest, deepest armchair of my soul. Not only was it bracing verse, it had its uses in the cause of venery. Indeed, at one moment in the course of our conversation about Invention , my friend and I looked at each other with a wild, gleeful surmise and simultaneously observed how ironic it was that, considering how helpful Housman’s poetry had been in getting us and thousands of other young men laid in the century following its first publication, it never got the poet himself laid.

This is a point, a sad point, that Mr. Stoppard might have chosen for his play’s emotional center, in preference to showing off what he knows about Jowett, Pollard, late Victorian newspapering, etc. To paraphrase a famous line from Dickens, “he do the pedants in diff’rent voices,” and he does it very well. But all this nimble skipping around the edges of a situation rich in human (and not merely epigrammatic) possibility strikes this playgoer as the dramaturgical equivalent of an expensive dry hole. It is, as John Simon observed in his New York review, “too clever by three quarters.” It is why I, practically alone, it appears, found Arcadia all but unendurable. It’s intoxicating stuff, but hollow somehow: a panoply of words as gaudy as an Inca feathered cape hung on an armature of not very much.

Actually, there is another play that Mr. Stoppard might have written–that he might still write–which occurred to me when I was doing a bit of Housman looking-up a few days after seeing Invention . As anyone who’s seen the play or read the reviews must know, while an undergraduate at Cambridge, Housman conceived a passion for a classmate, Moses Jackson–an agony of feeling that went unresolved by completion or fulfillment. It was this longing that, in the summer of 1887, unleashed the poetic urges in the emotionally clenched Housman that led to A Shropshire Lad.

These urges would not make themselves felt again for a quarter-century, until 1922, when Housman heard that Jackson was dying in Canada of cancer. The muse kicked down the door of the Cambridge college study in which the Kennedy Professor beavered away at his studies of forgettable Roman writers and took Housman by the heart. Later that year, he would publish Last Poems ; in a prefatory note he observes (writing this in Jamaica, I am working from not-very-accurate memory) that he did not expect to be revisited by the emotional excitement of 1895, but it seems to me he was. Among the poems published in Last Poems was “Epithalamium,” begun a rough quarter-century earlier to celebrate Jackson’s wedding–which Housman did not attend, nor seem to have been invited to.

This means that Housman would have been writing Last Poems in Cambridge at almost the exact same time as, 80 miles to the southwest in London, T.S. Eliot would have been putting the finishing touches on The Waste Land , the work which by common agreement is the gravestone for the gut-it-up Victorian era for which Housman’s verse is both celebration and elegy. What a pairing! If ever there was a made-for-Stoppard juxtaposition, wouldn’t it be these two men, dry in a dry season? The invention of love and its disinvention! And the next logical step for the author of Travesties , which took its inspiration from the accident of destiny that located Lenin, Joyce and Tzara in Zurich in 1915.

(At this point, I must confess that it’s a juxtaposition of the sort celebrated by Nancy and Edward Sorel in their marvelous First Encounters of a few years ago. Since I’m prey nowadays to one “senior moment” after another, it’s possible I got the idea from them–but as I’m an ocean away from my library, I have no way of checking. So if I’ve inadvertently pinched the notion from the Sorels, I apologize.)

Whatever one feels about Mr. Stoppard’s emotional hollowness, there’s no denying his work is smart. Smart in the fashion of another émigré to English, Nabokov, which is also to say: sometimes exhausting, but usually worth thinking about.

This column has always plumped for “smart” as–generally–a good thing. The wonder of Dame Edna was that it was so smart, especially in its touches, in Barry Humphries’ little throwaway asides. Gilbert & Sullivan is smart; at one point in Invention , Oscar Wilde comes in the character of Bunthorne in G&S’s Patience , and the patter aria he sings from that operetta is more on point than, and every bit as clever as, any of the millennial verbal confectionery that comes before or after. Smart–in a word.

The contest between smart and dumb these days is riveting for us spectators, and conflicting for people caught in the middle. One of the problems Tina Brown’s Talk is faced with arises from what I see as a basic internal conflict: It’s a pretty smart magazine, editorially, that’s trying to sell itself to advertisers who want dumb. The former think contents, the latter think cover, so you end up with Heather Graham’s cleavage, so to speak, shilling for some intelligent, interesting stories–which only leads to audience confusion, an 18 percent newsstand sell-through and a really vicious business cycle.

Even when it misses the mark, smart is O.K. Dumb is not. The other night I found myself thinking, “Broadway audiences must be the stupidest in the world.” Prompting this reflection was something called Stones in His Pocket , which I had allowed myself to be dragged to in flagrant spite of an injunction delivered years ago by my late father. At all costs, he abjured me, avoid anything that hints of Irish whimsy.

By and large, I have–and with a broadened definition that includes Riverdance and anything written by the brothers McCourt (although I did read the page in Malachy’s A Monk Swimming that mentions me). Excluded, obviously, are Yeats, Joyce, Tullamore Dew, the prose of my colleague Terry Golway and the great Irish golf courses. Anyway, there I sat, watching two medium-talented Irish gentlemen pretend, not very convincingly, to be the different characters in a sort of Celtic amalgam of Sweet Liberty and that David Mamet movie about the movie crew disrupting a small Vermont town, listening in disbelief as the audience pounded its palms into hamburger with riotous delight. For this theatergoer, as an entertainment value, Stones is something you’d pay, oh, $4 to see in a church basement if a relative were in the cast. Dumb.

Watching it, I wondered if maybe I’ve lived too long. There was a time it seemed we asked more of art. If something came on as smart, we wanted it to be really smart. If its pretensions were scaled somewhat lower, we wanted it at least not to suggest that we–its audience–were idiots.

Ah well, so it goes. Let me close by wishing myself a happy birthday. The day this is published, I will turn 65. A big birthday, one from which a man looks back. In my mind’s eye, I see that Exeter classroom and Darcy Curwen, looking for all the world like Major Hoople, reading out loud from A Shropshire Lad , and then I ponder all the eyes I’ve gazed longingly into, all the times I’ve felt compelled to recite “On Wenlock Edge, the wood’s in trouble / His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves …” and I recognize sadly that those moments are gone, that they’re mere paving stones in the roads that cut through the Land of Lost Content, “the happy highways where I went / And cannot come again.” Somehow, looking at one’s shiny new Medicare card doesn’t cause the heart to turn over the same way.