I come reeling a bit from Tom Stoppard’s dazzling The Invention of Love , his new play at the Lyceum that begins so brilliantly–with a nod to Aristophanes–when the dead A.E. Housman, poet and scholar, is rowed over the Styx by the sometimes jolly boatman Charon. “Look alive, then! Get it?” says Charon, hurrying the recently departed aboard.
The Stoppardian Stoppard describes Housman as “seventy-seven and getting no older.” “I’m dead, then. Good,” are his opening words, and from that heady moment we’re in for a play that is particularly welcome for being so irresistibly out of the ordinary. Do not concern yourself in the least with dire warnings about the necessity of locking yourself in a library for a week to mug up the more scholarly aspects of the play. A lifetime will do. But we’re surely all familiar here with Horace’s immortal ” Diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis / arboribusque comae …. “
And those who aren’t soon will be. Housman’s renowned elegy, Shropshire Lad, is a cinch. (“About the woodlands I will go / To see the cherry hung with snow.”) The decadent symmetry of Classical Greece and boy worship are not unknown in these here parts. So, too, the Oxford Aesthetic movement and the rise and rise again of Oscar Wilde. Housman’s five-volume masterpiece, Manilius , is somewhat dull, though it took him 27 years to complete. We can safely leave its study, then, to Mr. Stoppard himself. A working knowledge of the homoerotic jealousy within Sappho 31 would be helpful, however. “Blest as one of the gods is he ….”
The dramatist of champagne ideas and intellectual curiosity can become dense and difficult in his joy of the mind. But the “Shakespeare Defense” will not do. It is said that we don’t always understand Shakespeare’s plays, either. But Shakespeare is a breeze compared to Mr. Stoppard. And Mr. Stoppard doesn’t borrow other dramatists’ plots. He has no need. He has no plots.
Still, he can test us, like earnest Housman himself. “Stop–stop it, Housman!” his Oxford chum protests at his scholarly pedantry. “The sun is shining, it’s Saturday afternoon. I’m happy!”
There are times during The Invention of Love when we might feel tempted to whisper the same thing to Mr. Stoppard. But not too many. There’s so much here to relish–not least the great scene when the 77-year-old Housman meets his younger undergraduate self at Oxford with the greeting: “I’m not as young as I was. Whereas you, of course, are.”
That scintillating scene, which closes Act I, takes us to the intellectual core of the play and of Housman’s repressed life and love. “Literary enthusiasm never made a scholar, and unmade many. Taste is not knowledge. A scholar’s business is to add to what is known. That is all. But it is capable of giving the very greatest satisfaction because knowledge is good. It is good just by being knowledge. And the only thing that makes it knowledge is that it is true. You can’t have too much of it and there is no little too little to be worth having. There is truth and falsehood in a comma.”
Stoppard can make severe textual analysis of dead languages ferociously interesting. Change a single comma of a sacred text and you change all meaning. If only Housman could have done the same to his divided soul–changing the emphasis of his homosexual yearning from suppression to freedom. It’s as if in the rigor of scholarship he found the truth, and in unruly life he lived a lie–or a willing martyrdom to vast, unrequited love.
“I would have died for you but I never had the luck!” goes the older Housman’s refrain, echoing sadly through the play to the unrequited love of Moses Jackson. Housman fell in love with the scientist and athlete Jackson at Oxford, and he worshipped him for the rest of his life in his poetry. (“I, a stranger and afraid / In a world I never made.”) Has Mr. Stoppard written a more affecting scene than the one when Housman breaks down to confess to the heterosexual Jackson that he’s in love with him? The irony is that he’s seen at first playing a willing Cyrano to the lug Jackson, helping him choose a love poem to send to his girlfriend, Rosa. “She thinks you’re sweet on me,” he says innocently.
It’s a short scene, and it breaks our hearts. “You’re half my life,” says Housman, echoing the later poem. And when this decent man Jackson–”It’s terrible but it’s not your fault. You won’t find me casting the first stone”–offers his hand in friendship, Housman recites some of the saddest words ever written:
He would not stay for me; and who can wonder?
He would not stay for me to stand and gaze.
I shook his hand and tore my heart in sunder
And went with half my life about my ways.
The pivotal scene is all the more effective in the restrained hands of Robert Sean Leonard, who’s giving the performance of his career as the young Housman. He couldn’t be better as the earnest Oxford 18-year-old undergraduate, excitedly eager for knowledge, flinching when Jackson innocently tousles his hair. Mr. Leonard’s Housman grows into his mid-20′s, a bachelor-scholar, uncannily aging before our eyes that can already glimpse the gray, older man within, dry as a stick. It’s a measured, beautiful performance. The scenes with the 77-year-old Housman who steps off the river Styx to the banks of the Isis river of a golden Oxford are most fine. But then, in another career-topping performance, Richard Easton is a brilliant older Housman, magisterial in his effortless superiority, vain, passionate, unyielding, priceless. We would willingly attend this Housman’s lectures on the textual corruption of Catullus. Well, we do, actually. Mr. Easton’s warmth as the mythically dry Housman pleasantly surprised me. Perhaps Housman is more convivial in death.
Mirabile visu –wonderful to behold–the designer Bob Crowley has done his very best work creating a dreamscape Oxford idyll that’s shimmeringly pretty and witty, even in Stygian gloom. He wisely avoids the usual cloisters and musty libraries, though I missed the croquet games from the London production. What could be more English than buggery and croquet? On the other hand, what could be more Oxonian than bicycles, which here zoom round the stage?
Miserabile dictu –sad to relate–there are lapses in the talky Act I scenes between, among others, Benjamin Jowett, the celibate Master of Balliol, Walter Pater, fellow of Brasenose and aesthete boy worshipper, and John Ruskin, pre-eminent art critic, Victorian moralist and pederast. Mr. Stoppard has given them too much exposition of the kind he parodied in The Real Inspector Hound when Mrs. Drudge answers the phone: “Hello, the drawing-room of Lady Muldoon’s country residence one morning in early spring?”
There are also too many self-conscious informationals in the second-act scenes between Member of Parliament and journalist Henry Labouchere, editor and journalist W.T. Stead, and everyone’s favorite liar, Frank Harris–as if, for once, Mr. Stoppard has been ambushed by history. The otherwise fluid direction by Jack O’Brien has such characters, and others, speak directly to the audience, publicly declaiming too much. Wit is best served dry between consenting adults in private. I wish too that in the important scene between the older Housman and the wrecked Oscar Wilde–”Better a fallen rocket than a burst of light”–we could have had, for a change, a High Aesthete Oscar who isn’t High Ham.
But, mirabile dictu –wonderful to relate–Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love , all in all, is a thrilling achievement. From its romantic picture of Oxford youth, to its double identity of Housman and his divided, tortured self, to the sheer buoyancy of intellectual ideas, it burns with “this hard, gemlike flame.” It is the best thing Lincoln Center has done since … well, since Mr. Stoppard’s Arcadia .