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A play to READ before and after seeing it
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.