Stoppard U.S.-premiered his play in San Francisco

SF Weekly

January 2000

The last time one of Tom Stoppard’s plays had its American premiere in San Francisco, last spring, I wrote that it “wouldn’t be above Stoppard to spin a whole script around a minor and meaningless point of grammar.” My point was that the theater world’s favorite established avant-garde playwright has a pedantic streak worthy of an Oxford professor, although he skipped college altogether in the ’60s. His new play, The Invention of Love, bears me out beautifully. It’s about Oxford classicists, for one thing; some of them even decline Latin verbs onstage. But the crucial difference between this play and last year’s Indian Ink is that pedanticism doesn’t drive the plot. And this production has enough fine acting in it to make the show a rare thing in theater — a lavish, well-controlled dream.

It starts with A.E. Housman on the river Styx. Charon floats across a stage made gloomy under turning, watery light. He thinks he’s looking for two men, “a poet and a scholar,” but Housman is both. By his death in 1936, he was considered the best classical scholar in England; during the 1890s, as a clerk in a patent office, he also published The Shropshire Lad, a landmark book of poems which betray his quiet passion for Moses Jackson, one of Housman’s Oxford chums. Since the 1890s were also the setting in England for Oscar Wilde’s rise and fall — his flamboyant Aestheticism, his open homosexuality — the play becomes not just a memory play of Housman’s closeted affections but also a drama of tweedy tradition vs. the colorful burgeoning twentieth century. “I lived at the turning point of the world where everything was waking up new,” Wilde says in a powerful speech to Housman, “— the New Drama, the New Novel, New Journalism, New Hedonism, New Paganism, even the New Woman. Where were you when all this was happening?”

“At home,” says Housman.

In real life the two of them probably never met, but they did share a year at Oxford, and Stoppard has fun making references to Wilde’s scandalous mots and pranks in the scenes from Housman’s youth. It turns out that the young and brilliant Housman was not completely un-Romantic. As a meticulous student of Latin and Greek he disparages Wilde’s reckless behavior and velvet clothes, but at the end of four years he also fails his exit exams and takes the humble patent-office job. “You were cleverer than any of us, Hous!” Moses says, incredulous that his friend could have thrown off a career as a professor. “But here we are, you and I,” answers Housman, “we eat the same meals in the same digs, catch the same train to work in the same office, I’ve got time to do classics…”

It ain’t velvet knickers, but it’s something.

The play meanders through abstruse arguments about Latin and Greek, silly professors playing croquet, back-room conversations among smoking journalists, Moses’ track meets, and rowing excursions on the Styx and Thames. It’s slow going, especially if you haven’t read the script. A woman sitting next to me fell asleep three times during the first act. But under all the surface stodginess is a quietly urgent love story, a summing-up of a life.

Jason Butler Harner does a flawless and energetic job as the young Housman, full of ambition and repressed passion that comes out as nervous acrimony toward other classical scholars. James Cromwell is the stately but sad Housman at seventy-seven, the year of his death, reserved and wistful and only slightly less acrimonious. Whenever the two of them meet, in Stoppard’s shadow-world of memory, the play catches fire. The elder Housman would like to inform his younger self that reading classical authors isn’t the pinnacle of experience it seems to the talented student; he wants to turn the narrow enthusiastic boy’s attention toward life itself.

Marco Barricelli’s Oscar Wilde wakes up the theater with his pompous phrasemaking and colorful clothes, mincing around with a lily in his hand or lazing with a book of Housman’s poems in the paper-lamp-and-streamer wreckage of a Jubilee. “Forgive me,” he says, “I’m somewhat the worse for — cake,” and we know he doesn’t mean cake. By the time Housman meets him in the play Wilde has been disgraced as a sodomite. But he’s defiant: “I made my life into my art and it was an unqualified success,” he says. “I banged Ruskin’s and Pater’s heads together, and from the moral severity of one and the aesthetic soul of the other I made art a philosophy that can look the twentieth century in the eye. I had genius, brilliancy, daring, I took charge of my own myth.” He swaggers pompously, and the speech gives Barricelli the chance to be catty, sensitive, and diabolically proud all at once.

Ruskin and Pater are two Oxford professors famous to history as critics; in the show they’re played by Ken Ruta and Michael Santo. Ruta also does a colorful, salty job as Henry Labouchère, a journalist and Member of Parliament, and Santo is funny as his Irish colleague, W.T. Stead. (“Is it true you caught a mouse in the Gazette office and ate it on toast?” “Perfectly true,” says Stead.) ACT casts tend to be solid at the core but loose around the edges; this one is strong on every level. The only disappointment is Steven Anthony Jones, who’s miscast as Charon. Jones does well in loud and hearty roles like Mr. Peachum in Threepenny Opera, but as the shrouded ferryman on the Styx he has too much enthusiasm, bellowing mordantly witty comments to the second balcony.

The Invention of Love resonates along a half-dozen layers of meaning; Stoppard nests puns in his scenes as well as in his dialogue. Wilde appears not just as Wilde but also as Bunthorne, a Gilbert and Sullivan character based on Wilde; Housman’s school friends row a boat along a river that could be the Styx or the Thames, and morph into the characters of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (to Say Nothing of the Dog). Who was Jerome? Well, he was the future: one of the London wits who owed his new, humorous style to Wilde. These bits of trivia don’t drive the story — you don’t need to know them — but Carey Perloff’s production pays attention to their nuances, and the result is a quietly powerful show.

Michael Scott Moore