When I was young to New York theater, showfolk dismissed George Bernard Shaw (a favorite playwright of mine) as too wordy. This judgement was expressed with more bile than a pronouncement on, say, incestual cannibalism. No greater crime could a writer commit than to actually employ words. And then came deconstructionism and words lost their final vestige of dignity. Whatever they were meant to mean they didn’t mean what they meant. And they certainly had no place on the stage.
As a poet and Latin scholar, A. E. Housman’s life was constructed entirely of words. Old disputed words, Roman and Greek, new evocative words, wise and simple and ironic and lyrical that hid an aching unrequited love. A mountain of words from which Housman lit beacons still luminous today, and behind which he hid in what became a cranky privacy.
Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love finds Housman waiting on the banks of the River Styx. Life passes in front of us after, not before, death. As Charon ferrys him to Hades, Housman relives the fact, the fiction, and the fantasy of his past. Older Housman meets himself as an Oxford student, spends a youthful summer day rowing with the object of a lifelong schoolboy crush, and ends in an apocryphal discussion with Oscar Wilde.
In an era when directors and designers do their utmost to obscure a script, Jack O’Brien’s direction, and Bob Crowley’s sets and costumes pierce the Stygian gloom with the amber of memory amid a flurry of autumn leaves, Latin declensions, and the pomposities of academia. Heading a perfect cast, Robert Easton as the older Housman makes you envy classical erudition, Robert Sean Leonard plays a younger Housman only a fool would reject, Jeff Weiss is eerily too convincing as Charon, and Daniel Davis gilds a languid lily as Oscar Wilde.
Stoppard’s play brings language back to theater, wonderful joyous language, heartbreaking in its honestly, witty in its humanity, articulate in its reminder that sex is action only, that love is in the words and the word is indeed immortal. And alive. And well. And ringing forth from the stage of the Lyceum.
The Invention of Love by Tom Stoppard
Limited run previews at the
Lincoln Center at the Lyceum
149 west 45th Street, New York City