It’s always more exciting to listen to The Clash than to read Greil Marcus write about them.
And so it goes that Tom Stoppard’s academic approach to revolutionary rock and resistance in Communist Czechoslovakia is not as visceral as its title would suggest: Rock’n’Roll.
Currently playing at Canadian Stage in Toronto until October 24, this play is about the idea of rock’n’roll—and how the very idea of it can be a subversive act. It’s a thesis that’s hard to swallow in an era of mall punk. It also doesn’t help that, as a Gen X-er, I’ve had self-righteous boomer nostalgia shoved down my throat my entire adult life, so I’m predisposed to spit on anyone who takes the Rolling Stones seriously, and cringe when a central character dances, alone, with abandon, to “It’s Only Rock’n’Roll” at the end of a play’s first act.
And yet that’s all easy for us to say, here in our Western comfort. It’s not a frivolous academic argument to suggest that rock’n’roll is, in all its Dionysian glory, the antithesis of totalitarianism, and the one creation of Western culture that must have been the most terrifying to Communist thought police.
This is story of Jan, a Czech student studying in Cambridge who, in 1968, returns to his native country during the Prague Spring to resist the Soviet Invasion and help promote Dubcek’s “socialism with a human face.” Once there, he—like many other idealists—quickly becomes disenchanted with the concessions to totalitarianism that creep back into society, and prefers to drop out by hiding in his living room surrounded by Western psychedelic rock, and telling his activist friends not to get so worked up.
Once his hippie freak friends—and eventually Jan himself—start getting locked up just for putting on rock shows, the naivete is over, and apolitical dropouts become unlikely allies of the activists. This struggle eventually—and slowly, over 12 years—convinces the rest of Czech society that this isn’t just a struggle between pro- and anti-Communist factions—two oppositional camps that feed on each other to survive—but that totalitarianism is, by its very nature, anti-freedom and anti-joy.
It’s rich material, and Stoppard dives in deep, spinning his tale via dialectic debates between Jan and his two greatest influences: Max, his Marxist stooge of a professor in Cambridge, and his Czech mate Ferdinand, who shares Jan’s love of rock music but considers it trivial next to concrete political aims; in turn, Jan considers Ferdinand guilty of “moral exhibitionism.” As Jan, Shaun Smyth is required to not only age physically, but manifest a philosophical evolution; the entire weight of the play falls on him, and Smyth is entirely convincing at every turn.
If the play stayed in Prague, it would be focused, fascinating and near-flawless. As it is, however, Stoppard shifts the action to Cambridge, fleshing out the family life of the Marxist Max, an aging academic who makes great hay of the fact that he was born in October 1917—the month of the Russian Revolution—and, as a Soviet apologist, he displays just as much contempt for the proletariat as the Politburo does. The great irony, of course, is that this champion of the working class is a stuffy academic who is free to hold dissenting political views in his country in ways that those behind the Iron Curtain most certainly cannot.
The character of Max—as unfortunately overacted by a blustering Kenneth Welsh—is necessary as a foil for Jan. But subplots involving his wife and daughter are more than distracting. Wife Eleanor (Fiona Reid) is a scholar of Sapphic poetry and a victim of breast cancer; her academic discussions are boring at best—especially if you don’t know anything about Sappho, as, like the rest of the play, there’s a lot of assumed knowledge imbedded in the dialogue. Sadly, her personal tragedy is also overwrought. Daughter Esme is a pot-smoking flake with too much freedom, as befitting her overly liberal upbringing, and fantasizes about Syd Barrett, who—as a citizen of Cambridge, where he retreated after leaving Pink Floyd—ends up a recurring, if physically absent, character in the remainder of the play. Other characters are even more superfluous.
The politics of the main plot are more than enough to make an already dense play. As Alex Ross might say, the rest is noise.
At one point, Jan gives a Western reporter an LP by the Plastic People of the Universe—the Czech rock band who soundtracked the Charter 77 resistance movement—and says, “Maybe you can write about the album. Foreign journalists never mention the music, only about being symbols of resistance.”
Ironically, we only hear one brief snippet of the Plastic People here; most of what Stoppard’s stage directions refer to as “smash cuts” are classic rock clichés to these ears. It’s obvious that a language barrier in Czechoslovakia granted far more importance to lyrical trivialities in Western rock’n’roll; it was the music itself that sounded revolutionary—and in the case of Pink Floyd and the Velvet Underground, it’s easy to agree. Sensitive liberal ears might wince at the inclusion of Guns ‘N Roses’ “Don’t Cry” in the play’s post-Velvet Revolution scene, though GNR were every bit the apolitical hedonists who represented rock’n’roll danger in 1989, and therefore represent the same thing that Vaclav Havel’s beloved Rolling Stones did.
The Rolling Stones may have been washed-up jokes in the West during their 1990 Urban Jungle tour, but they were greeted as liberators of Prague when they played post-revolution Czechoslovakia then, and Vaclav Havel personally showed them around Prague Castle. That concert provides the backdrop to Rock’n’Roll’s conclusion. Which is apt, as that concert may have metaphorically represented the end of rock’n’roll itself. It had already shaken up Western society, it had culturally colonized the world, and by 1990 it was the soundtrack to a revolution.
Where else could rock'n'roll (the music, not the play) go from there, but empty retro retreads being repackaged to subsequent generations? Even its revolutionary power has been neutered now that it's another luxury good, another bone that the Chinese government throws its people in lieu of free expression.
A trivial question compared to the play's other themes, perhaps, but you can't accuse Stoppard of skimping on provocative thoughts.
The Globe ran an article on the Plastic People's Canadian connection here.