THE INVENTION OF LOVE
Tom Stoppard is famous—and notorious—for his brilliant and sometimes arcane passion for language and the magic words can do. In The Invention of Love Stoppard outdoes even himself. The ostensible subject of the play is English poet A.E. Housman (1859-1936), best known for his downbeat volume, A Shropshire Lad (1896). But Stoppard is less interested in Housman the poet than in Housman the repressed homosexual, in love for decades with his heterosexual Oxford schoolfellow, Moses Jackson. And he’s less interested in the love than he is in the classical scholarship that was the other vocation of Housman, who ended up Professor of Latin at Cambridge.
So even though he gives us characters here as witty and brilliant as any in his canon—including historical figures John Ruskin, Walter Pater, and that most brilliant 19th century wit of all, Oscar Wilde—Stoppard challenges his audience with long forays into scholastic debates among the classicists around obscure issues of Greek and Latin translation and erudition. The characters more often discuss and debate poetry than embody or perform it. That, together with some turgid scenes involving journalists (Housman works as a newspaperman for a time) and the college selection committee, makes for some heavy sledding.
But there is a great deal of wit here, along with Stoppard’s usual unusual intelligence. And Toph Marshall’s United Players production features a cast that is largely up to the challenge, with particularly fine performances from the two actors who play Housman.
Stoppard’s fey conceit is that Housman has died and is being ferried across the Styx (naturally he finds himself in the classical afterlife), during which he relives his life. So the older Stoppard—a beautifully relaxed and accomplished Graham Bullen—watches, comments on, and sometimes intervenes with his younger self (the excellent if slightly stolid Tariq Leslie). Young Housman argues classics with his friend Alfred Pollard (Ian Runacres) and quietly lusts after the athletic science student, Jackson (Andrew Halliwell). Ruskin (John Harris), Pater (Daryl Hutchings), and Greek scholar Benjamin Jowett (Paul Toolan) quibble over art and philosophy, while Wilde (James Gill) waxes Wildean—and suffers imprisonment for The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. But Housman’s own desperate desire mostly gets lost in the shuffle.
Kudos to the performers, who manage to keep Stoppard’s top-heavy ideas in the air for most of the lengthy evening. Director Marshall’s decision to stage the play corridor-style, with the audience sitting on either side, means that you’re sometimes watching an actor’s back as he works through a complex speech, and along with the English accents this makes it sometimes hard to make out the particulars of Stoppard’s rich prose. But Marshall helps us with the frequent references to Greek and Latin poetry by projecting the lines on the wall in a very creative use of powerpoint, italicizing or otherwise highlighting key words and phrases as the characters discuss them.
The very modern meets the very classical in this somewhat bewildering world of words.