Relevance 'n' roll

by Alan M. Berks • Feb. 7

After words |

I want to write about Park Square's Rock 'n' Roll because I am deeply grateful that Park Square produced it. I'm grateful to see an important, recent Tom Stoppard play performed with high production values in a full house. I'm grateful to see a play with more than five actors on stage. I'm grateful to see a play that grapples with the big ideas I was actually raised to believe mattered.

But I feel the need to stop first to say that the way theater people sometimes watch shows is horrible. The very first questions or comments as soon as the show is over are always: "What did you think of [name of actor] here? I didn't like the direction. I'm not sure whether the script is good or not." I do it too. How can you not? When you know how the machine works, it's hard not to see the moving parts and critique them.

And, generally, when asked these questions, I can come up with perfectly acceptable bullshit myself. We can pretend that we have objective knowledge of the craft of theater, that it's as concrete as building furniture (fit tab A into slot B and—viola—Lawrence Olivier-caliber acting), but in reality our informed impressions are as subjective and "off" (or "on") as the un-informed impressions of the plumber sitting next to me at the show. Even a broken clock is correct twice a day.

And, sometimes, I am struck by how unfun I find most critical conversations about the craft of theater.

Some people told me a story about Prague and Cambridge and people who move back and forth between those worlds, and I really want to talk about that instead. Was it a great play?— Jeez, is that really the most important question we can ask ourselves after we see a show?

My most important political memory is watching the Berlin Wall fall in 1989. Just as my Dad could remember exactly where he was when Kennedy was shot, I for some reason remember exactly where I was when people started to stream through the check-point between East and West Berlin and nobody tried to shoot at them, and then when people started to chip away at the wall. (It's not important where I was, only that I remember. I wonder whether ten years later some high schooler's most important political memory will be hearing about Bill Clinton's marital affairs.)

I also remember the Czechoslovakian Velvet Revolution, when like 500,000 people just showed up in the Wenceslas Square in downtown Prague and a government toppled. I oversimplify but not by much. No violence. Just people.

In 1994, after I graduated from college, I flew into Prague and went directly to that square which had come very quickly to look a lot like old Broadway, if Broadway were only showing plays about the biggest names in American retail: big marquees and neon signs for McDonald's and Radio Shack and more. I remember one gigantic sign that just showed the currency exchange rate worldwide.

I'm not criticizing capitalism here—though I met a few former dissidents who did—nor romanticizing communist poverty—though I met people who did that too. I'm just noting what I remember and what it is still important to me to remember.

In between the fall of the Soviet Union and Eastern European communism and my post-college backpacking trip around all of Europe (including the Eastern parts), I went to a University that had been teaching the same core curriculum for at least the past 75 years and had come to teach that the major struggle of the 20th Century was between communism and capitalism.

Even though it had already happened by the time I took the required Western Civilization classes, the professors hadn't yet figured out how to change the course to reflect the times. There were some Marxist professors who wandered around campus in an angry, confused daze. (I'm only exaggerating slightly.) And some time around this time, the early 90s, some infamous intellectual wrote a famous essay about "The End of History," about how without am ideological opponent there would no longer be major political struggles—the kind that define history, and also, you know, cause war—and, truthfully, he was kind of bummed about it. So were a lot of other people. Ah, well.

So, for me, Rock 'n' Roll deals with, addresses, grapples with a major and significant moment in human history. In fact, I think Stoppard takes for granted that his audience actually knows most of this history already. (I'm not saying you should. You should know what you want to know, I suppose, I'm just saying that I think Stoppard assumes you know it. That's why he references the Velvet Revolution without explaining it and the "end of history" without explaining it. At least that's what I said to someone last night when he wondered aloud whether the play didn't completely tell it's story and had too many holes. I actually think he made a good point about playwrighting that I wasn't interested in considering because I was much more interested in the story.)

I'm not sure what Stoppard thinks about it yet. I'm still thinking about it. At one point a character seems to say that all political systems are fucked. But since he posits no viable alternative it's hard to know whether that's the playwright's political philosophy or just the product of the character's experience. One of the best most impassioned speeches in the play comes from the English Professor's wife, when she rails against his materialist view of the world, but she dies relatively early in the play and the Professor and his prodigy still have to figure out a way to live within whatever system they're in.

I remember the Professor talking about how he had to believe that the theory and reality could be synced up, however imperfectly (I'm paraphrasing badly, kind of personally, how I perhaps wanted to understand it), and while he so clearly turns out to be incorrect, it doesn't change the need inside him (or us) to make our ideals real.

Perhaps Stoppard is saying that true freedom only comes in the anarchy of rock n' roll, and the final image in this production of the Rolling Stones dancing in silhouette is pretty wonderful—yet also, I can't help but think about what a capitalist product the entire Rolling Stones brand has become, and maybe always was.

I think all of these questions are much more interesting most of the time than the question of where this play fits in the canon of theatrical literature. Or where this production fits in the hierarchy of Twin Cities theater. I fully admit that these political and theoretical questions are interesting to me for personal, circumstantial reasons and silly ones at that—I didn't live in a communist country; I can't think of a time I've really been oppressed (except by winter and, occasionally, my personal life.) It's just that on the journey of my life, there were small touchstones that seemed globally significant and this play addresses them.

I really really really appreciate that. I'm glad I went to the theater last night. In many ways, I suspect that this is what theater people wish for theater when they talk about relevance.

One final thought: Is this, in a way, the play that Tony Kushner was also trying to write with the Intelligent Homosexual's Guide. . ., something that dealt with the end of the biggest clash of ideas in the 20th century and the personal repurcussions? Is this the main focus of the "theater of ideas" now? Or is there some other relevant ideology that we should be wrestling with instead?


Comment Part One

I have about a minute and a half to comment and lots to say. I'll try to find time later.

First, I'll out myself as the "someone" in Alan's anecdote who questioned the play's dramaturgy instead of debating its themes. To me, the two are inextricable: the dramaturgy tilts the play's argument in a way that subverts real discussion, forcing us to discuss what Stoppard means instead of debating our own opinions of the two imperfect systems he presents.

Part of this is probably by design. I don't think Stoppard WANTS his audience to leave debating political systems, but to discuss, as Alan says, the carnage wrought by favoring any ideology--whether political, literary, or scientific--at the expense of individual freedom. R+R contains passionate and gorgeously written speeches about the human mind being larger and more complex than the machine that houses it and the soul expanding beyond the imperfection and illness of the body. The play champions rock music as one of the most potent expressions of mind and soul, soaring beyond simple notes on a page, the sanity, and even the competence of its practitioners to mainline straight to the heart. To Stoppard it is freedom in its purest form.

I got all of that, and for the record, I really enjoyed the play.

My dramaturgical questions about R+R revolve, in general, about whether Max's pro-communism argument is given a fair shake. Not that Stoppard believes it's an equivalent argument; he pretty clearly doesn't. Max is given several long speeches where he expresses his passion for the ideal of Communism, but the words explaining that ideal pale in comparison to Jan's. But his actual descriptions of the ideal could've come from Wikipedia. He is actually reduced, at one point, to reciting the "to each...from each" bumper sticker slogan. Capitalism is never really described either, but it is shown as basically synonymous with democracy and freedom, with Stoppard's passion for these ideals shared viscerally by the audience with every musical cue. Max's passion, by contrast,is all past tense, all bluster and no real persuasive substance. Even though he is given most of the funniest lines in the play, he comes across as a charmingly cranky but basically impotent old man. We don't ever hear WHY he fell in love with Communism, where his materialist argument about the brain comes from, or the substance of the lectures he gave Jan. These ideas are set up to be knocked down, to show him as out of step with the times. We don't even really hear about what Thatcher's policies did to England or Reagan's to America. In fact, by showing Max argue more vociferously against her than he ever does against the excesses of Communism, Stoppard makes his passion seem way out of proportion: the only way to make Margaret Thatcher's policies look good is to place them side by side with the government of Czechoslovakia.

This would be like writing, say, say, an atheism vs Christianity debate, weighing the glories of the arts, science and human invention against the Crusades and the Christmas story, neglecting to mention charitable work and the personal redemption story of the convert. Stoppard doesn't really give us what Max is for, only what he's against.

So, that's not really discussing the issues, either, but it's my first stab at an answer as to why it didn't happen after the show. (And, actually, why I think it doesn't happen after most shows.) I'm with you, Alan. Really. I want those deeper discussions, too. It's not that we don't want to discuss those big ideas, but that this desire is fighting against two really powerful enemies: 1) our American Idol/Fantasy football model of art appreciation 2) the fact that plays usually either give us too much information to prompt dialogue or not enough. Since you brought up Intelligent Homosexual, and since I'd like to end with the irony of an either/or consumerist comparison, I'll just throw in my two cents that the dialectical arguments in that play made my brain hum in a way the R+R didn't.

And now I'm late for work.