Recently, I had the lucky chance to go see an early work of Stoppard’s, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, playing for one night in New York city in a combined effort from Boston University’s theatre and orchestra department. An unusual play, Stoppard created it in 1977 at the request of a friend and composer André Previn. Because it requires a full orchestra, it is rarely staged.
It tells the story of Alexander, put into a lunatic asylum in Soviet Russia for critiquing the Soviet Union, and Alexander, his truly insane cellmate who happens to have the same name. Alexander the lunatic “has an orchestra,” which is what he conducts throughout the political drama to mirror the rising and falling tensions. The orchestra, in this instance situated on the stage, follows his commands. He even interacts with his imaginary players, walking between them and yelling at individuals. Stoppard plays up the comedic aspect of the asylum, the hypocritical political system, and the unexpected dénouement fully. Also, a hint of the bizarre, akin to the huge cat in tails in Stoppard’s trilogy The Coast of Utopia, appears at the end, in the form of a Magistrate on stilts who towers over the two Alexanders during their questioning. This short play did not lack for clever moments, plays and counterplays of action especially, but the dialogue was sparser that Stoppard’s fully developed style, the settings, characters, action all simpler, and the political critique decidedly pronounced.
The use of music begs comparison with Stoppard’s show currently on Broadway, Rock and Roll. I failed to comment on Stoppard’s use of music in a previous post on this play. Rock and Roll’s blasting interludes and Every Good Boy’s full orchestral score are both atmospheric and also closely related to distinct actions or individuals feelings. Rock and Roll neatly divides the play when moments reach an emotional crescendo. Additionaly, the type of music very effectively grounds the audience in a specific time, place and intellectual outlook. Forget that you never heard of The Plastic People of the Universe (a Czech rock band that acquired political overtones when they were repressed) because taken together with the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd you come to understand it signifies youth and change and rebellion. This underground Czech group are held up as an ideal of resistance to Communism by one character. The PPU and all other music in Rock and Roll contrast with the music of Every Good Boy not merely because one is rock and the other classical.
In Rock and Roll, Stoppard appropriates real music from the era he portrays, and in doing so lends veracity as well as nostalgia to his take on the aftermath of the Prague Spring. On the other, a score is invented to keep up with a playwright and a madman’s imaginination, rendering a unreal atmosphere to a charged political drama. The topsy-turvy music and the politics of the insane asylum in general highlight and critique Soviet government as illogical and absurd system.
Rock and Roll’s music, with all the veracity of authenticity and its loud volume, remains comfortably distant and in the past. Not only does Every Good Boy’s music not feel dated, it feels quite immediate and relevant. An interestingly unexpected effect, as Every Good Boy is further in the past and also has the effect of unreality. In different and surprising ways, Stoppard use music to great significance in both works. To return to a theme in such a different way is striking: Rock and Roll as the more mature treatment of themes of Every Good Boy deserves favor with their similar critique of Soviet suppression and emotional depth as well as the interaction of the individual with the state and with the media.