Political plays have always been a mainstay of dramatic theater, dating all the way back to the Ancient Greeks. In just the last few years, "Democracy," "Copenhagen," "Frost / Nixon," and the Tom Stoppard trilogy, "The Coast of Utopia" have walked away with the coveted Tony honors.
This new season brings us the much-anticipated "Rock 'n' Roll," a new Broadway play by Stoppard that has less to do with music and more to do with 20th century Communism. The plight of political dissidents is the ostensible focus of "R 'n' R," particularly about disparate ideas of socialism that alternately collide and occasionally coincide, but we have to wonder if Stoppard meant the real focus to be the music of a lost generation, or, perhaps, a generation that has lost its music.
Apparently, we're not the only ones left wondering about this since Playbill includes an explanatory brochure complete with an arbitrary list of rock 'n' roll milestones, an historical background of the Czech human rights movement, and a short treatise on "Marxism and Consciousness" in an attempt to help us understand the philosophies of the main characters. Frankly, it's of little help.
Anchoring itself to the story of a minor Czech alternative band imprisoned for being subversive a few years after the Soviet occupation of Prague in 1968, and taking us up to the demolition of the Berlin Wall in 1989, we are bombarded at breakneck speed with wars of words spoken by various characters representing every consciousness-raising philosophy Stoppard can fit into this three-hour diatribe on the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia and the nature of consciousness, with the poetry of Sappho thrown in for good measure.
In a Vogue article entitled "My Generation," fittingly the title of that ï¿½60s rebellious song by "The Who," the celebrated playwright tells us that this is partly how drama works, through constant adjustment of our idea of who people really are when you get past their labels, in this case: the "Communist academic," the "Czech rock fanatic," and the "wife dying of cancer."
The problem with "Rock 'n' Roll," however, is that we are not given enough time or information to adjust our ideas, and as a result, the characters remain one-dimensional, each an embodiment of the one idea he or she is supposed to represent.
The "Communist academic," Professor Max Morrow, remains faithful to the cause long after the cause itself has died. His young protï¿½gï¿½e, Jan, owner of an enormous Western rock 'n' roll record collection, returns to Prague to "make a difference" but ends up a person of interest to Big Brother.
Morrow's wife, a classics professor who understands the purity of love and thought in Sappho's poetry, refuses to be relegated to the role of an abstract idea in her husband's consciousness as cancer overtakes her body. But as the only real character among a bunch of Living Ideas, she seems irrelevant to the action even though she embodies one of the more important points Stoppard makes.
Given that Stoppard is originally from Czechoslovakia, it's not surprising that, after writing about dissident life in pre-revolutionary Russia in "Coast of Utopia," he should turn to his homeland's struggle with the same ideological movement. But it's doubtful that "R 'n' R" will have long-running appeal for an American audience, even one as sophisticated as Stoppard groupies.
After the final curtain, having wrapped our brains around all the ideas we could possibly process in three hours, we ultimately don't care about the words or the characters. But, as Jan points out, if "in an alternative culture, success is failure," then Stoppard rules Broadway once again. If you wish to join the bandwagon of Stoppard fanatics, and be part of the elitism that swears they understand him, by all means go see this play. Then you can discuss whether or not this Emperor really has new clothes.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus
"Get out your handkerchiefs, if you please, for ï¿½Rock ï¿½nï¿½ Roll,ï¿½ the triumphantly sentimental new play by Tom Stoppard."
New York Times
"Tom Stoppard is a dramatic universe unto himself, a writer who fills his plays with big ideas and bold conclusions. He stays true to form in "Rock 'n' Roll,"...has a good beat, but you can't always dance to it."
New York Daily News
"Is funny, enthralling and, yes, it offers you something to take out of the theater you didn't come in with....Stoppard being Stoppard also introduces counter-themes based on the Pink Floyd's legendary Syd Barrett, Sapphic poetry, journalistic truth and perceptive objectivity. It all works quite merrily because his people are people. "
New York Post
"Feels strangely distant - as if, this time, his wit and ever-dazzling erudition actually are being used to throw us off the track more than they tempt us to follow him. We do, of course, because lesser Stoppard still is better than most plays written in the past 50 years. But the thrill is more like work this time."
"Witty, informative and long-winded new play...But about halfway into the three-hour evening, you realize, a bit restlessly, that nothing's happened, or, rather, that a lot's happened but all you're getting are reports of it. Events are being related rather than conveyed by actions....is not boring, but it is wearying."
"Last year, Tom Stoppard spent nine hours depicting the fertile minds that would plant the seeds for the Communist Revolution in "The Coast of Utopia." Now, with "Rock 'n' Roll," Mr. Stoppard has jumped forward almost exactly 100 years to taste the poisoned fruit that stemmed from this revolution. Substituting Dylan and Jagger for Bakunin and Turgenev, he completes this latest task in a third of the time and with nearly triple the impact."
New York Sun
"Tom Stoppard, as his star-studded new Broadway play, ``Rock 'n' Roll,'' confirms, is both playwright and prestidigitator....can at times be dense and even preposterous, but in the end it comes resoundingly together."
"The intoxicating spirit of freedom - political, cultural and social - flows throughout "Rock 'n' Roll," ....It's splendid, illuminating entertainment, chock full of ideas and high-flying arguments (could there be a Stoppard play without them?) yet resonating with an emotion that springs from several fully developed characters."
"Stoppard provides no impetus to care about these characters, who serve merely to articulate various points on the political, ideological and philosophical spectrum without ever coming alive as people. Despite this clearly being a personal work about the playwright's own deep interests, it's an oddly ungiving one for much of its running time."