The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
February 19, 2007

The dialogue is dreadful, the sex is ridiculous, the rock and roll gratuitous and the politics impossible - David Wootton explains why he hates Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll

Posted by David Wootton

Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll (2006)
directed by Trevor Nunn
Duke of York's Theatre, London
transferred from the Royal Court
22nd July 2006 - 25th February 2007

David Wootton - Anniversary Professor of History, University of York - is left unimpressed by Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll.

Goodness me, how I hated this play! It's won a major award, and the audience seem fairly keen, but I found it toe-curlingly embarrassing, and felt awkward on behalf of the poor actors. Let's start with the acting. The actors almost certainly can act, but they perform their parts in a mannered, artificial way - it's the sort of acting you would have expected in a Brian Rix farce.

Why? Well, there are stretches of dialogue that could be spoken in a fairly normal intonation, but every now and again there are long sententious speeches which couldn't possibly be delivered in a normal voice. So the director (Trevor Nunn) has obviously given up on any hope of realism, and opted for artifice. I am reminded of what Harrison Ford apparently said at one stage of filming Star Wars:

you can write these words George [Lucas], but you can't speak them.
Then there's the plot.

We follow the history of Czechoslovakia through more than twenty years as reflected in the relationship between a young man from Prague who loves rock and roll and a communist philosopher in Cambridge who believes in Soviet communism. This is difficult to stage, but not impossible.

The problem is with the various sub-plots. Our philosopher's wife (who is dying of cancer) teaches Sappho; after she has died, someone else teaches Sappho. What's the Sappho for? To remind us that Stoppard knows all about great literature? And about fragmentation?

Our young Czech (who of course is not so young by the end of the play) falls in love with the philosopher's daughter, who, at the age of sixteen, asks him to "take her virginity" (not, I think, a phrase in normal use in 1968). Thirty years later they run off together and go to Prague, where she talks in an excited fashion about sex. This was just embarrassing.

Then the philosopher's daughter and granddaughter are friends with Syd Barrett, who appears at the beginning in the form of "the great god Pan" (!), and whose music and life are referred to repeatedly through the play. I can only say that I think that Syd Barrett, who was after all a recluse, would have been outraged to see himself made cynical use of to earn money and fame for Stoppard (who, after all, needs neither).

So the dialogue is dreadful, the sex is ridiculous, the rock and roll (of which there is a good deal, most of it not the best of its period) gratuitous. What about the politics?

It's hard to remember that there were charming and amusing people (I was going to say decent and well-intentioned, but perhaps that's going too far) who gave their unconditional support to Soviet communism while enjoying the freedoms of the West. But there certainly were, and a play about their dreams and delusions might be a masterpiece. But the character here (Max, he's called) is implausible. There were no pro-Soviet Cambridge or Oxford dons under retirement age in 1969 (when Max is supposed to be 52). Christopher Hill, for example (born 1912) left the party in 1957; Eric Hobsbawm (who was never an Oxbridge academic), was born like Max in 1917, and left the party in 1956; Maurice Dobb, who I think never left the Party, was born in 1900.

So in a play which is supposed to be a slice of history the central character is an historical impossibility, a time traveller from another generation. For the serious intellectuals of Max's generation - those at least who had a place in the academic establishment - the Hungary uprising of 1956 was the turning point. There were no "tankies" holding fellowships in Oxbridge in 1968 - the younger generation were all Gramscians (such a person appears in the play, but misdated to 1987). Stoppard is playing a cheap game. Cambridge = Communism (Philby, Burgess, Maclean), so there must have been hardline communists in Cambridge in 1968. Not so.

Moreover Max is a philosopher. The British Communist Party had its historians, classicists, and economists. But did it have any philosophers? Can one imagine a dialectical materialist being appointed to a philosophy job in Cambridge shortly after the War? As far as I know the first historical materialist to get a philosophy job in Oxbridge was G. A. Cohen (b. 1941, appointed to All Souls in 1985), and he was never a dialectical materialist and never a member of the Party. Why then is Max a philosopher? Because Stoppard fancies himself as some sort of Oxbridge don and as some sort of philosopher.

This is not only a tiresome play, it is bad history - which would be fine if it wasn't pretending to be good history. It has, in short, absolutely no redeeming features.

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York. He is the author of Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates.

To read Richard D. North's take on Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll, see: Fellow-Travelling, Czechoslovakia and the soundtrack to our lives.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.

Re. Eric Hobsbawm

David Wootton states the Eric Hobsbawm left the Communist Party in 1956 - don't think this is right. Hobsbawm left the the Communist Party Historians Group, but remained in the party - as far as I am aware - until the end, ie 1991 when it dissolved itself.

In any case, Hobsbawm's criticism of Hungary was very mooted.

Posted by: Jonathan at February 19, 2007 03:11 PM

If you're going to quote Harrison Ford while putting down Tom Stoppard, you should at least make an effort to get it right:

"George, you can type this shit, but you can't say it."

Certainly pithier than your paraphrase.

Anyway, interesting take of "Rock 'n' Roll." I'll probably do a link from my blog.

Posted by: Michael Berry at February 20, 2007 01:54 AM

I'm delighted to be corrected on the two points above. But I think my main point survives the Hobsbawm correction -- by 1968 Hobsbawm was surely some sort of eurocommunist, not, like Max in the play, a "tankie". Or am I still wrong?

Posted by: David Wootton at February 21, 2007 12:54 PM

Journalists wrote about Stoppard’s play as though it were the second coming of Christ, rather than a wooden set-piece interspersed with gratuitous inclusions of Syd’s ‘Golden Hair’. In Stoppard’s play Syd-as-Pan is sat on a wall singing 'Golden Hair' and playing a pipe to a flower child below. Random appearances by the mighty Czech dissident band the Plastic People of the Universe are spinkled amid a mishmash of idealism, the Velvet Revolution, the Prague Spring. Syd as Pan skates awkwardly over the top as a unifying symbol.

Stoppard made laborious attempts in the pages of Vanity Fair to explain his motivation in using Syd: ‘secretly about time, the disinterested ongoingness (sic) of everything, the unconditional mutability that makes every life poignant.’ Stoppard opined, ‘Dissidence is saying 'no’.’

But dissidence entails more than simple negation. A dissident challenges established doctrine, orthodoxy, or institutions. In this sense, Syd Barrett was a dissident, rather than the self-congratulating, self-pitying characters that troop across the floorboards in Mr Stoppard’s play. Self-pity and self-congratulation were two things Barrett, whatever his flaws, never had time for. What Stoppard’s play did was make Barrett safe for the chattering classes.

Posted by: J Indica at April 2, 2009 08:53 AM
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement