Being a Stoppard devotee, I naturally saw Rock and Roll this winter. (And really, how often is it one lives in the same time as a favorite author?) My companion and I greatly enjoyed it, though it didn’t leave me crying for a lost era as I walked out as it did for her. A difference of 30 or so years shows sometimes. Following on the heels of the New York staging of the epic Coast of Utopia trilogy, Rock and Roll took a narrower subject and cast of characters, foregoing intellectual wordplay (a bit!.. relative term with Stoppard…) to take on a bit more emotional depth.
Although dealing with politics and media and how the individual relates to them, the attention given to character’s lives was more holistic that a mere examining of ideas through character’s words. For example, Max’s dogmatic Marxism in the wake of mounting evidence against it via the Prague Spring and his pupil Jan’s experience with it is explored through typically clever Stoppardian dialogue, but it is also shown as more feelingly as the disillusionment of the central tenant of his life at the end. By this point, Max has lost his beloved wife to cancer and has a new relationship, signaling that life goes on even as it does not replace what was. Similarly, the most moving moment of the play came through in a very simple and emotional statement that deigned to treat the division of body and soul with Descartian reasoning. When, in what one gathered was a long-standing difference, Max and his wife discussed this, his wife, dying of cancer, cries out “I am my body,” in an emotive appeal for him to understand she loves him with her body and the tragedy of her losing her very self.
The directness of such a moment stands in contrast to what one consider typical of Stoppard. Brilliant, verbose, intellectual, playful, ambiguous: none of these adjectives apply to such a moment. Rock and Roll has a few such moments that dismiss intellectual wordplay. One began to see this in the operatic trilogy preceding it with its intertwined human relations and it comes out more clearly here. These moments remind me of some of the author’s very early work, typically blunter in its commentary on politics and humanity. Here, such heavy-handedness is turned into a gentler examining of human lives in the specific contexts of politics that originally interested Stoppard, but with more allowance for ambiguity. This ambiguity is no longer chased after by polysyllabic words, but by people who offer greater heart in their confrontation of life. As if he is loosing the intellectual wrappings of the heart, Stoppard matures in greater playwright even as his audience can no longer depend on an evening at marveling at cleverness as their minds are fully engaged. More than intellect is necessary for what I predict we have to look forward to.