Customer Reviews: The Invention of Love
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on July 31, 1998
Time is relative in Tom Stoppard's "The Invention of Love." One the one hand, it's a dazzling three-hour journey of many characters and ideas through the years (1859-1936) of A. E. Housman's life; on the other, it's a split second between the moment of the poet's realization of his death on the banks of the river Styx -- "I'm dead, then. Good." -- and his true, cathartic acceptance of it: "How lucky to find myself standing on this empty shore, with the indifferent waters at my feet.
Both a large-scale symphony and delicate chamber music, "Invention" requires thorough understanding of Greek and Latin poetry, the intricacies of the 19th Century academic, social and literary scene, even of the Labouchere amendment to the Criminal Law Act that landed Oscar Wilde in jail - and it allows being dazzled and moved without knowing anything about all that. The play works both on the level of seeing "characters in a play" or appr! eciating (as I couldn't possibly without another lifetime of learning) the full significance of the presence of Walter Pater, John Ruskin, Frank Harris, Jerome K. Jerome... of three generations of famed scholars at Oxford and Cambridge.
Here is the "late Stoppard," the Stoppard of "Arcadia" in his full glory of intellectual brilliance and rich emotional simplicity. Here is a play requiring, demanding, allowing re-reading and re-viewing, a work that keeps growing within the reader, the viewer, culminating in hoped-for (and, in my case, yet unattained) appreciation and understanding, even as old man Housman experiences in breathtaking scenes of conversations by the Styx with his younger self.
In the tiny black rectangle of the Cottlesloe, under Richard Eyre's farewell direction after a decade at the head of the National, "Invention" worked brilliantly, presented by a surprisingly large and uniformly excellent cast, headed by John Wo! od's old Housman and PaulRhys' young one. From Housman's et! ymological exasperation with all the talk about the Wilde controversy ("Homosexuality? What barbarity! It's half Greek and half Latin!") to mindboggling discussions about the role of a comma, to a mini-essay about who "invented" the love elegy (Catullus or Gallus, based on the single surviving line from the work of the latter), the play may be seen as one in the long line of the Clever Stoppard -- "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern," "Jumpers," "The Real Thing" and "Hapgood" - but it is also assuredly in the category of the Great Stoppard of today.
Still, with all the rich complexity and wonderful timewarps that have characterized both plays, may "Invention" by called another "Arcadia"? I don't think so, but the very question may be moot. Both similar and different, the two plays form the foundation of the triumphal arch for a playwright who has progressed on a dislocated time-scale from the fire! works of Wilde to the steady, bright, warm light still shining across two millenia from the poets of Housman's scholarship and passion.
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on October 19, 2000
The Invention of Love, in my opinion, Tom Stoppard's best play, opens with A.E. Housman being ferried across the River Styx by Charon, relieved to be dead at last. Or is he? Perhaps he is only dreaming from his bed in a rest home. One of the things that makes The Invention of Love so outstanding is Stoppard's wonderful mix of fantasy and reality. He combines the two so well, in fact, that we're never quite sure which is which. There are luminous scenes of young men rowing down the Thames to Hades, a marvelous Thameside encounter between the youthful Housman and his older self and an almost transcendent conclusion showing Housman stepping off-shore onto a watery-looking stage.
The Invention of Love successfully combines elements from Stoppard's previous plays: the wit and cleverness of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead with the emotional richness and intensity of The Real Thing to the purity of Arcadia. This is, however, a slower, more meditative and contemplative Stoppard. Even the flamboyant Oscar Wilde is presented in a toned-downed, rather Housmanesque style.
The script, itself, although erudite and intellectual, is so opulently rich in imagery and language (yes, there is a lot of Latin) that we, as an audience, are forced to be attentive. Stoppard rewards us handsomely, though, as we become increasingly aware that certain things (rivers, Hades, dogs, love, inventions, inversions, three men in a boat) circle and then loop back and circle again and again.
Those who think Housman's scholarliness might seem dull couldn't be more wrong. It is, instead, the very essence of this marvelous play. Stoppard uses lost Greek plays and corrupted Latin texts like the master he is. And he delivers a poignant message: Even great art contains within itself the seed of its own mortality. Although the artist (in this case, Housman) strives to produce a coherent and hopefully, immortal, body of work, time, itself, eventually leeches almost everything away until only fragments remain. This is a powerful message, to be sure, but in The Invention of Love, it is one that is both comforting and melancholy and sadly, we come to realize, all too true.
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on May 1, 1999
It's a hard play to read, an easy one to see, and worthwhile in each case. As much wit as may be expected from the writer of Shakespeare in Love (in fact, some of the same jokes) but more depth. Houseman the scholar is devoted to fine translations of classical poetry; Houseman the man is devoted to his friend in an unrequited and hopeless passion, and to expressing the passion in glorious verse.
Oh, and it all takes place in the afterlife. The dead, older Houseman encountering his younger, buoyant self at Oxford is almost too gloriously terrible to take.
Yes, it's erudite. But then this is if you're here, you love books.... and just think of the books you'll want to read after reading this (Pater, Ruskin, Wilde...)
I was so moved when I saw it I could barely breather afterwards.
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on April 27, 2000
I bought it to get ready to attend the SF showing, which I had to miss, so the best experience still awaits me. It was well-reviewed, and I must see it eventually, now that I have read it. I found this play complex and absorbing, with a richness that requires multiple readings and research to understand all the references and to make sense of the characters' interactions and all the flashbacks.
There is a lot of Latin in the play, and understanding it helps - that is one reason I appreciated having the text to reread and pour over. The dialogue with Housman and Jackson, and with his younger self, is wonderful. The humor is just so well done - it skims along on top of the pain underneath it. This is a risky play, and a fine one.
However, for readers or people looking for something lighter, this is *not* as good a pure read as Arcadia; it is more meaty and introspective. I think it is an experience than no Stoppard fan would want to miss.
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on September 26, 2001
As in many of his recent plays, Stoppard plays with and juxtaposes two eras, but this one has more humanity and depth of character than even Arcadia. This is only the second Stoppard play during which I have found myself, at various times, smiling broadly, laughing, and weeping. It contains several little bon mots that epitomize not only the action, but larger issues. For example, at one point a character askes another if he wants to do something. The other replies "I don't mind." The first ripostes "But you should: life is in the minding." (approximate quote)Some reviewers have been put off by the fact there are brief lines in classical Greek and in Latin. These are always explained, or their content is not relevant to the plot, but they do add to the sense of deep scholarship and love of learning that pervade this play. Anyone who cares about learning, individual freedom, and the lifelong development of character will appreciate this play. And it will keep you thinking what it would be like to apply the central device of the play to your own life: what person more than a couple decades old would not like to go back and anonymously meet his younger self?! What would you say?
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on April 26, 2000
At first glance, Tom Stoppard's newest work, THE INVENTION OF LOVE, exists as a scholarly presentation of A.E. Housman and the poetry which motivated the bulk of his life. However, Tom Stoppard does not blithely present Housman's life in lecture form. Instead, readers and audiences take a powerful journey beyond the life of Housman's poetry. In it, Stoppard shows us the (im)possibilities of love and friendship, and the indelible events which motivate our later lives. While Stoppard is well known for more intellectual drama, his ability to create heart-breaking moments of theater should not be underestimated. By the end of THE INVENTION OF LOVE, we understand why Housman's choice to hide behind his art is so tragic--and, ultimately, so human. Those who loved ARCADIA should not be without Stoppard at his most personal. Don't let Stoppard fool you: as audiences are aware from the current Broadway revival of THE REAL THING, Tom Stoppard does have a heart, and it one of the most powerful in contemporary theater.
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on April 30, 2013
As a fan of A.E. Housman's poetry and criticism I really should have read this play sooner. I look forward to seeing it live, but until then it is excellent Stoppard dealing with a subject Housman fans will find both familiar and fictionalized.
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on March 9, 2013
"My life was not short enough for me to not do the things I wanted to not do, but they were few and the jackals will find it hard scavenging."
Stoppard scavenges elegantly from the life of the poet/classicist A.E. Housman and in the process offers powerful insights on how classical scholarship offered an outlet and/or expiation to intelligent men with the misfortune to be born a century too soon (or two thousand years too late) for their sexuality. Almost every line has some clever or moving literary or historical allusion, and Stoppard's historical research is wicked indeed. Intricate, multiple readings required, but made worth it (even if the underlying deep sadness of Housman's shy, prickly life leaves you unmoved) by the wonderful quotations from Housman, Oscar Wilde and others.
"Confronted with two manuscripts of equal merit, he is like a donkey between two bundles of hay, and confusedly imagines that if one bundle were removed he would cease to be a donkey."
It is pretty much indispensable to know what an "apparatus criticus" is before you start reading, though Housman/Stoppard will then reassure you on why/whether you should want one.
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on January 28, 2015
Such a good play. I didn't understand many of the references on the first readthrough, but Stoppard wrote well enough that I had to go back and try to see what everything meant. And that second readthrough yielded an even better play! Et cetera, ad infinitum.

buy this book
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on September 7, 2004
If you've already read 3 or 4 Stoppard plays (& liked them), this may be a good play to read next. When I saw the (stunning) Broadway production, I realized why I hadn't liked the play too well myself (& I really like Stoppard): it's too long. TS needed a strong-willed editor who could have read the manuscript and said, "Tom, we have to cut about 20 minutes from this work to give it greater cohesion and a bit more rhythm--it'll make it a better play." But no one said that, and sometimes you do wish the play moved along a bit more.

In favor of the play, it provides an essential continuation of the debate developed in Travesties and Arcadia: the debate about the artist's role in society, the emotive dilemma of the very good artist who's overshadowed by the great, and the deluge of history that engulfs, erases, and distorts all alike. In some ways, if you want a more refined understanding of Travesties, you need to read Invention to better understand the Wilde/Joyce(/Byron) figure whose carreer obsesses Stoppard.
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