What is it that Tom Stoppard does that moves me so deeply? Rock ‘n’ Roll was as intoxicating an experience as Coast of Utopia had been the year before. In many ways it is a continuation of many of the same themes, just brought forward 100 years and closer to home. (The play takes place in England and what was once Czechoslovakia, the bloodlines of Stoppard’s own identity.) We are still struggling with how history unfolds, how any one person can stand up, with honor, to the inexorable thrust of politics, of grand scale human folly, of historical precedence replaying itself over and over again, of disastrous conceits and misfired intentions.
In both Rock ‘n’ Roll and Coast of Utopia, Stoppard arcs his narrative out over many years and several generations. His voice does not speak to the concerns of his particular cohort group. Rather he traces the fractal pattern of how ideas grow, from what is frequently an inauspicious and unintended germination to historic unfoldings that explode with little regard for extenuating circumstances like truthfulness, appropriateness, or the achievement of any modicum of long term human benefit. The threads and leitmotifs in these plays are complex, provocative and interconnected, yet they are not delivered with anything approaching resolution. Stoppard poses profound questions about human existence that do not have answers. Intimations and flashes of possible resolutions come and go, but those moments are fleeting, a glinting parsec vision of what might have been.
An unforgettable experience.
Here is an excerpt from a review by Neal Ascherson of the Guardian, written when the play first opened in London in 2006:
“Rock ‘n’ Roll” is a subtle, complex play about ways to resist ‘systems’ and preserve what is human. At its core is a succession of arguments between two Czech friends, Jan (who holds some of Kundera’s attitudes) and Ferda (who more clearly represents Havel, and borrows lines from some of Havel’s famous utterances). Jan, forced to work as a kitchen porter, at first despises Ferda’s petitions against arrests and censorship as the self-indulgence of an intellectual clique. A devout rock enthusiast, he sees the persecuted rock band the Plastic People of the Universe (who actually existed) as the essence of freedom because they simply don’t care about anything but the music. They baffle the thought police because ‘they’re not heretics. They’re pagans’.
Ferda at first dismisses the Plastic People as long-haired escapists who have nothing to do with the real struggle. But later, when they are arrested and imprisoned after an absurd trial, he comes to understand that the heretics and the pagans are inseparable allies.
Leaving the band’s real-life trial, Havel famously said that ‘from now on, being careful seems so petty’. Soon afterwards a few hundred brave men and women signed ‘Charter 77’, the declaration of rights and liberties which earned them prison sentences and suffocating surveillance but which was read around the world.
Stoppard is fascinated by the Plastic People, by the idea that the most devastating response to tyranny might be the simple wish to be left alone. In Prague he met and talked to Ivan Jirous, their founder, whose long hair enraged the authorities. ‘I always loved rock’n’roll,’ Stoppard says. ‘And what was so intriguing about the Plastic People was that they never set out to be symbols of resistance, although the outside world thought of them that way. They said: “People never write about our music!” In the West, rock bands liked to be thought of for their protest, rather than their music. But Jirous didn’t try to turn the Plastic People into anything; he just saw that they were saying, “We don’t care, leave us alone!” Jirous insisted that they were actually better off than musicians in the West because there was no seduction going on. There was nothing the regime wanted from them, and nothing they wanted from the regime.’
There is dissent which wants to substitute one system for another. And there is dissent which simply says: Get off our back, scrap all the guidelines and controls, and humanity will reassert itself.
Patiently, Stoppard explained to me how historic disputes between Kundera and Havel were reflected in the play. Kundera, in the first confused year after the invasion, had hoped that the experiment could still continue, working out a society in which uncensored freedom could co-exist with a socialist state, a new form of socialism which still needed to be devised. ‘Havel said that it wasn’t a question of making new systems. “Constructing” a free press was like inventing the wheel. You don’t have to invent a free society because such a society is the norm – it’s normal.’
I asked if this notion of freedom as ‘normal’ and ‘natural’, something which doesn’t need designing, wasn’t close to the anarchist vision But this was not what he meant, it seemed. Stoppard’s trust that ‘people’ will behave well when left on their own has its common-sense limits. In “Salvage”, the third play in the “Utopia” trilogy, Stoppard makes Herzen puncture the exuberant anarchist Mikhail Bakunin in a needle-sharp exchange:
Bakunin: ‘Left to themselves, people are noble, generous, uncorrupted, they’d create a completely new kind of society if only people weren’t so blind, stupid and selfish.’
Herzen: ‘Is that the same people or different people?’