Invention of Love: Housman's Hell, Stoppard's Style
by Ben Brantley
New York Times
March 30, 2001
When Tom Stoppard goes to hell, you can bet it won't be fire and brimstone waiting below. The Hades that's conjured in the shimmering Lincoln Center production of Mr. Stoppard's "Invention of Love," which opened last night at the Lyceum Theater, has the requisite Stygian gloom, all right. But what illuminates it isn't infernal flame, but bright, lambent wit.
These sources of light include shiny schoolboy puns, polished epigrams, triumphant references to Greek and Latin poetry and coruscating put-downs of scholars who teach it. Old Charon the Boatman is there, chuckling at his own gallows humor. But the fellow who gets the best lines is the guest of honor, the newly deceased A. E. Housman, the Edwardian poet of "A Shropshire Lad" and classicist extraordinaire. Hell, in other words, turns out to be an old-style academic's dream of a cocktail party.
Now wait one moment, please, before you switch channels on me or - perish the thought - call the Lyceum box office to turn in your tickets. It's true that "The Invention of Love," first seen in London in 1997, is one of those Stoppard comedies in which cleverness is next to godliness. It's also true that the play has a breadth of historical and cultural allusion to make Mr. Stoppard's "Travesties" (the one with James Joyce and Tristan Tzara) seem like "Sesame Street."
And yet it's entirely possible to enjoy, even revel in, this time-traveling fantasia about art, history, memory and homosexuality without getting every obscure reference, although you would do well to read the explanatory notes in your program before the curtain goes up. (And if you really want to get every reference, get thee to a library and stay there for a week.)
For one thing, Mr. Stoppard is, to put it bluntly, an outrageous showoff, which often makes for good theater. He wants, above all, to charm and amuse and impress.
It is also a blessing that the director is Jack O'Brien, whose credits include, of all things, the Broadway musical "The Full Monty" and the ripping Lincoln Center production of Mr. Stoppard's "Hapgood." Mr. O'Brien is ever the showman, and not above borrowing from burlesque and the music hall to liven things up.
And he has brought out the liveliness - and, whenever possible, the emotional truth - in a remarkably fine cast led by Richard Easton and Robert Sean Leonard as the older and younger Housmans.
The staging captures Mr. Stoppard's brimming self-delight and enthusiasm, and it avoids the didactic dustiness that overwhelmed the stateside premiere last year at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. And Bob Crowley's sets, which present turn-of-the-century Oxford as something like Yeats's golden vision of Byzantium, appropriately mix scholastic elegance and brazen razzmatazz.
More significant, though, and what keeps "Invention" from being only a highbrow frolic, is what lies beneath its intellectual glitter. That's the same wistful ache that throbbed through Mr. Stoppard's most emotionally accessible works to date, "The Real Thing" and "Arcadia." And Mr. Easton and Mr. Leonard, playing the different ages of one man, provide vital portraits that haunt even as they entertain.
The structure that contains and mingles such extreme cleverness and woundedness is, in technical terms, a marvel. Beginning with the 77-year-old Housman poised to enter the underworld, "Invention" then journeys back to the old man's youth at Oxford University.
Now this kind of retro movement isn't so unusual; Hollywood has always loved it. But Mr. Stoppard takes a dizzying number of side trips into the broader cultural landscape of Housman's England. So we spend time with Oxford dons (Ruskin, Pater and Jowett are the best known) who discuss both the corruptions of classical translation and the dangers of love between men (alternately called beastliness and spooniness).
Members of Parliament and the press show up to discuss the epochal trials of Oscar Wilde, who makes a spectacular appearance (in the mesmerizing form of Daniel Davis) toward the long evening's end. These vignettes have a stylized, slightly cartoonish quality that contrasts with the more earnestly presented scenes of the young Housman, who hopelessly and cautiously loved a fellow Oxonian, the athletic Moses John Jackson (David Harbour).
Wending your way through all these levels is like working an acrostic puzzle. As you start to fill in the blanks, making connections, patterns emerge. And the clearer they become, the more emotional resonance they acquire. "Invention" can seem irritatingly arcane, but when you look at it closely, there's not one word or image that doesn't help complete the puzzle.
At the core of the play is an unsettling dualism. It's evident in the opening moments when the joke- cracking Charon (an enjoyably hammy Jeff Weiss) tells the dead Housman that they're still waiting for another passenger. Charon was told, it seems, to expect "a poet and a scholar." Housman answers, "I think that must be me."
A sense of the double self, and the difficulties of reconciling opposing forces, pervades the evening. One is always aware of the roads Housman might have taken, of the lives he didn't lead. Wilde is the most extreme example, the flamboyant victim of passion to Housman's gray victim of passivity. "Better a fallen rocket than never a burst of light," Wilde proclaims.
Then there are the two Housmans played by Mr. Easton and Mr. Leonard. And I am happy and relieved to report that when the old man meets his younger self toward the end of the first act, there is definite chemistry between the two.
Mr. Stoppard avoids the sentimental spasms of regret common to such scenes, as the men realize they have quite a bit - though certainly not everything - in common. The young Housman doesn't recognize his older self, of course, and the older man takes a while to identify the lad he once was. The scene is all the more moving for the playwright's and the actors' understatement.
Mr. Leonard has the easier of the two roles, but he does it beautifully, capturing both the arrogance and the awkwardness of a personality that has yet to shut down into hermetic self-containment. The way young Housman flinches when his beloved Jackson shakes his hand or cuffs his shoulder is eloquent with confused desire. (One wishes that Mr. Harbour's loutish Jackson, the inspiration for all those Hellenic boys of Shropshire, seemed a bit more worthy of desire.)
Representing the older version of someone whose life was, as he says, "marked by long silences," Mr. Easton cannily finds the spark and color in Housman's stoicism and repression. He scales up the passion in Housman's scholarly fervor and the acid in his drollery.
Speaking to an unseen student of whom he has made fun, Housman says: "You don't mind? Oh, Miss Burton, you must try to mind a little. Life is in the minding." Mr. Easton very much embodies that animating force and makes sure that we mind, too.
The supporting cast is, by and large, wonderful, with theater pros like Peter McRobbie, Byron Jennings and Martin Rayner all having a fine old time incarnating English stuffiness. But there are also more subtly layered performances from Michael Stuhlbarg, as an Oxford chum who has the conventional academic career Housman did not. And Mark Nelson is superb in a sharply etched turn as a civil servant that speaks volumes about being gay in that time.
Unless you're a student of both classics and Edwardian England, I can't promise that you won't occasionally be lost or even numbed during parts of "The Invention of Love." But this production has a fluid, glistening quality that will carry you along if you don't resist it.
Like the Théâtre de Complicité's stunning production of "Mnemonic," now at the John Jay Theater, "Invention" deals in the uncertainties of memory and the impossibility of truly knowing anything, whether it's a Latin text obscured by years of emendations or a human soul. But it affectingly celebrates wanting and trying to know, something Housman describes as "what's left of God's purpose when you take away God." Life is indeed in the minding; so is stirring theater.
THE INVENTION OF LOVE
By Tom Stoppard; directed by Jack O'Brien; sets and costumes by Bob Crowley; lighting by Brian MacDevitt; sound by Scott Lehrer; original music by Bob James; hair and wigs by David Brian Brown; stage manager, Susie Cordon; general manager, Steven C. Callahan; production manager, Jeff Hamlin. Presented by Lincoln Center Theater, under the direction of André Bishop and Bernard Gersten. At the Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45th Street, Manhattan.
WITH: Richard Easton (A. E. Housman, age 77), Jeff Weiss (Charon), Robert Sean Leonard (A. E. Housman, age 18 to 26), Michael Stuhlbarg (Alfred William Pollard), David Harbour (Moses John Jackson), Peter McRobbie (Mark Pattison and W. T. Stead), Martin Rayner (Walter Pater and Frank Harris), Paul Hecht (John Ruskin and Jerome K. Jerome), Byron Jennings (Benjamin Jowett and Henry Labouchère), Guy Paul (Robinson Ellis and John Percival Postgate), Mireille Enos (Katharine Housman), Mark Nelson (Chamberlain), Andrew McGinn (Chairman of Selection Committee) and Daniel Davis (Oscar Wilde and Bunthorne).