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The Invention of
James Cromwell as A. E. Housman
continues to astound with wit, originality, creativity, and erudition in his new play, The
Invention of Love, which has been given its American premiere by American Conservatory
Theatre. He places the life and work of A.E. Housman (1859-1936), a classical scholar and
poet, at the center of his play and then, as is his way, Stoppard riffs on the themes that
reverberate from Housman's life.
Dominating the occasionally ponderous first act are discussions and ruminations on the nature of classical scholarship and the difficulties of research into ancient texts. It is a theme that Stoppard has discussed before: in Arcadia, he explored the ways that accounts of history are transmitted and reinterpreted from generation to generation and the distortions that enter the process. And, as well, Indian Ink addresses the elusiveness of history. The dialogue in the first act of The Invention of Love incorporates a great deal of Latin, allusions that, no doubt are illuminating to scholars, but will leave most contemporary audiences wondering what they have missed.
But Stoppard is equally interested in the Housman beyond the scholar and it is the exploration of the man's humanity that gives the play its heart in every sense of the word. Housman was a repressed homosexual who loved Moses Jackson, a fellow student at university and a life-long friend. Jackson was not a homosexual and, at least in Stoppard's version, was quite unaware of Housman's feelings for many years.
In the kind of complex layering that Stoppard uses to such powerful effect, the subject of classical scholarship is beautifully played against the repressed love theme. The systematic distortion of the important homosexual content of the classics by generation after generation of scholars is mentioned repeatedly, as is the classical "army of lovers." Ironically, Housman's repression was, in a sense, an expression of the tradition of scholarship which provided the expressed passion of his life.
Oscar Wilde and Housman were at university at the same time and although they never met, Stoppard introduces Wilde as a character to provide yet another set of poignant contrasts - on the one hand, Wilde, the flamboyantly gay public figure, successful, living life to the fullest, and, in the end, brought down for so publicly flaunting his contempt for the values of his time; on the other hand Housman, conventional, unfulfilled, and living out a long rather gray life. In the most dramatically effective scene of the play, Stoppard has the two meet and their differences are brought into multifaceted focus. The dichotomy between Housman the scholar and Housman the poet comes into play as well; Wilde suggests that the poems are the lasting and important product of Housman's life. When Wilde catalogues his friendships with the famous and successful, Housman can only respond, "I had colleagues."
There is no real plot or dramatic line to The Invention of Love; it is more like an unfolding series of incidents exploring its themes, its momentum carried remarkably well by the sheer verbal virtuosity and intellectual challenge of Stoppard's exposition. The Housman scenes are interspersed with a Greek chorus of Oxford dons through the first act, morphing into a chorus of journalists in the second. The device allows for expanded commentary as well as providing a give and take to the flow of the relatively eventless proceedings. Housman's revelation of his love to Jackson is beautifully written and executed, believable and moving as it plays out the bittersweet scenario.
Carey Perloff has done a superb job here, directing a large cast of talented actors through difficult material and making it float with that elusive quality of good "theater." James Cromwell, playing the elder Housman and Jason Butler Harner as Housman the youth create a joint portrait that is sympathetic without sentimentality, that captures not only the sad repression of the man, but his passions as well. Marco Barricelli delivers a fresh and engaging portrait of Oscar Wilde.
The simple settings allow for rapid changes of scene - a backdrop of clouds, a series of panels of bookshelves, an oddly shaped green platform, a boat or two, some lanterns, all beautifully lit by James Ingalls. The focus remains where it belongs - on the words and ideas of Tom Stoppard's ever-challenging text.
- Arthur Lazere