Stop-Rocks; in His Taut New Drama, the Prolific Playwright Returns to His Native Land of Czechoslovakia to Explore the Uneasy Relationship among Dissidence, Consciousness and Creativity

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Byline: Tara Pepper

When the long-haired, politically apathetic Czech rock group the Plastic People of the Universe were arrested in 1977 by the country's hard-line communist government, Vaclav Havel, then a dissident playwright, worried he would be unable to muster much support for the group among the underground intelligentsia. "He thought it would be easier if the band were also philosophers and intellectuals," says Tom Stoppard, whose new play "Rock'N'Roll," which opens in London's West End this week, was inspired by the incident.

Over the years, the prolific and political playwright has regularly dipped into the dissident articles penned by Havel, now a close friend. From them he discovered that Havel's fears for the band were unfounded. In fact, the arrest of these gangly youths triggered the drafting of Charter 77, the manifesto criticizing Czechoslovakia's hard-line leaders, whose signatories guided the country's first post-communist government. Discovering this link was "a watershed," says Stoppard, who was born in Czechoslovakia. "These highbrow friends with their clever books understood instantly that this time it was serious. The people on trial were not dissidents. They just wanted to play rock and roll." And this paradox--that musicians who cared nothing for politics could be perceived as the greatest threat to the establishment--forms the vibrant core of his rich new work.

Stoppard's play, only the second he has written about his native country, was also fired by a personal quest. For some time, he says, he had thought of writing a "fake autobiography," set in a parallel world he returns to after World War II instead of settling in England, where he landed as an 8-year-old in 1946. Back then, his mother was determined to forget the past, concerned that Stoppard and his older brother would be hampered by their foreignness. It was only after her death in 1996 that Stoppard, then 59, began exploring his roots. "I've always been curious about how I would have reacted had I been living [in Czechoslovakia] during those years," he says. "I have no idea whether I would have stuck my head above the parapet or not."

His fictional alter ego in "Rock'N'Roll," Jan, played by a captivating Rufus Sewell, has no such qualms. A callow Czech Ph.D. candidate at Cambridge, Jan abandons his studies and heads for Prague in 1968 to support the liberal reforms of communist leader Alexander Dubcek, even as the worried Soviets are amassing tanks on the border. Jan remains cheerfully oblivious to the increasing repression, as reformers all around him are purged and imprisoned. He refuses to sign the petitions of his dissident friend Ferdinand. "I came back to save rock'n'roll," says Jan, a diehard fan of the Plastic People of the Universe. "And my mother," he adds after a moment.

What begins as a meditation on dissidence turns into a thoughtful and witty exploration of the nature of consciousness. …