The Revolution Will Be Amplified: Tom Stoppard's 'Rock 'N' Roll'

By Wren, Celia | Commonweal, December 21, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Revolution Will Be Amplified: Tom Stoppard's 'Rock 'N' Roll'


Wren, Celia, Commonweal


It's odd to imagine Tom Stoppard as a fan of classic rock. Post-Romantic orchestral works, or maybe Baroque fugues, seem a better match for his plays, which inevitably weave ideas into dizzying symphonic and contrapuntal patterns.

Yet in the November issue of Vanity Fair, Stoppard confessed that he wrote Arcadia while listening to the Rolling Stones's "You Can't Always Get What You Want," and penned The Coast of Utopia while hitting the repeat button on--yikes!--Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb."

For further evidence of the playwright's improbable taste in tunes, there's Rock 'n' Roll, which opened on Broadway in early November after a run in England. A tale of political idealism and pragmatism in twentieth-century England and Czechoslovakia, the play samples numerous favorites from the vinyl era, drawing an implicit parallel between musical rebelliousness and democratic iconoclasm. Unfortunately, the amped-up pop-culture motif doesn't do enough for the show's accessibility: Rock 'n' Roll is a streamlined turbine of political discourse and historical allusion, lacking the delightful whimsy that characterizes much of Stoppard's work. Even the brainy epic The Coast of Utopia had a certain playfulness about it: Rock 'n' Roll just feels argumentative.

The three-hour drama focuses on two figures: Max, a Cambridge professor who's a dyed-in-the-wool Communist, and Jan, a student and rock fan who returns to his native Czechoslovakia in 1968, as the Soviets invade. Over the course of two decades, the two men weather personal and geopolitical tribulations, and Jan involuntarily becomes a dissident. Meanwhile, off-stage, rock music alters history, as the 1976 arrest of a band, the Plastic People of the Universe, catalyzes the Czech protest movement known as Charter 77.

Tracing these events, Rock 'n' Roll toggles between Prague and Cambridge settings, each suggested by a hint of city skyline suspended at the top of Robert Jones's garden-and-interiors set. No matter what the locale, the dialogue tends to smack of Political Theory 101 and there's not enough idiosyncratic personal communication to balance out the rhetoric. "The Party is losing confidence in its creed," Max complains, in one typical remark. "If capitalism can be destroyed by antiracism, feminism, gay rights, ecological good practice, and every special interest already covered by the Social Democrats, is there a lot of point in being a Communist?--to spend one's life explaining: no, Stalin wasn't it, either?"

Even the high-powered actors in the Broadway production, directed by Trevor Nunn, can't wholly humanize this kind of speech. …

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