Rock & Roll

My wonderful mother bought me tickets to see Tom Stoppard's 2006 play, Rock and Roll at the Goodman Theatre on Sunday. It was fantastic! Stoppard is no longer as witty, I feel, and he no longer seems to write about existential issues (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead will probably always be one of his best plays).

However, he is still hyperintellectual. I sometimes forget how much I adore that... whew, there was one scene, with three academics at a dinner table discussing Dualism vs. Materialism--it was like watching Hugh Jackman and Salma Hayek making out on stage. Er, or something. My point is, I've seen burlesque acts that were like tax law compared to that, that's how erotic it was.

Anyway, as with all of his plays this was about everything, but in general the main themes were:

1) A really fantastic portrait of a husband and wife coping with the fact that she's dying of cancer--they're both incredibly strong characters, and have been married for thirty or forty years, and love each other. I generally don't like this sort of thing, but I really thought he captured it very well. Poignant without being saccharine, clumsy without being cruel, overall loving and amazing. And very funny.

2) The historical course of communism in Czechoslovakia, from the end of the Spring in 1968 up through the end of Communism, in 1990. References were made to iconic moments, of course (like the tanks in '68, or Havel's election) but for the most part the events were presented from the perspective of normal folks in Prague. Specifically, academic / theorist / low-profile dissident Ferdinand, and slacker rock and roll aficionado / philosophy professor Jan.

3) The mind / body problem, dualism vs. materialism. This was actually only a key issue in the last third of act one, but it was my favorite scene. Eleanor is working with her grad student, Lenka, on an analysis of Sappho. Her husband (also a professor) Max joins them and the conversation turns to dualism. Max and Lenka have a terrific, passionate debate (Max is a materialist, Lenka just finished reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). It's obvious to us, and to Eleanor (but not, I think, to Max or Lenka) that the sexual tension is sky-high, and when Max steps out of the room Eleanor gives her what-for. However, on a deeper level, it turns out that Eleanor was also (perhaps mostly) upset because her body is falling apart (she's the one dying of cancer) and so if her mind is no more than a part of her body, Max's materialism is pretty upsetting.

They have a fight, and it is clear that she really, really needs to hear Max say that she is more than a collection of dying cells, that Max is more than an organic computer, more than a brain. It is also clear that, for Max, giving in on this point would be patronizing and condescending to her, and he simply respects her too much to do it. He absolutely refuses, "But my brain is the part of me that loves you!", and she seems to realize, and understand, and it's the end of act one and it brought me to tears a bit. I probably totally butchered that description of it, but it was really fantastic. Did I mention that I found it sexy? I did.

4) The question of what drives the Revolution, the Theory or the Culture? Is it better to have a bunch of respected Ph.D.'s publish dissident papers, or to have a bunch of High School students skip class and listen to Rock and Roll? Apparently there was an actual meeting between Vaclav Havel and the lead singer of the dissident band The Plastic People of the Universe--before the meeting, each one thought that the other was an ineffective tool, but afterwards they came to an understanding. Both are necessary, and both are vital.

Also about a billion other things, including three really nice depictions of people in loving relationships (which is rare enough in art that I always enjoy it when it happens) and four well drawn, sharp and powerful, witty and brilliant female characters (gone are the days when the only women in Stoppard's plays were Queen Gertrude and Ophelia!).

I saw it with Joy and Cat, and it was totally fantastic. Hurrah for Stoppard! Hurrah for my mother!