Monday, February 8, 2010

Stop It: The Play’s Not the Thing

“Rock and Roll,” by Tom Stoppard, first produced June 2006, England – Park Square Theatre, St. Paul, 2010

Tom Stoppard was born in Czechoslovakia, and his real name is Straussler. He’s written several plays about events in Eastern Europe, mostly from the position of an anarchist or perhaps petit-bourgeois intellectual. Before it opened, this play had ‘good vibrations,’ as it were. It was ostensibly about the Plastic People of the Universe, an underground rock band in Prague that just wanted to play rock and roll. The resistance of the Plastics helped mobilize youth against the Husak regime. Husak was put in power after Alexander Dubcek was deposed by the 1968 Soviet military intervention in Czechoslovakia.

I saw the Plastics at the Cedar last year, and they were great. Four of the original members played. They are gaunt, tall, serious rockers. They exude more gravitas than 99% of most American rock bands. They do not speak much English. They are self-taught musicians. They refused to cut their hair, change their lyrics or their heavy, experimental, edgy sound, no matter how much pressure was applied by the secret police. For this they were repeatedly jailed by the Husak regime in the 70s for refusing to play what they were told.

The play, however, is really two plays in one. One play is about the situation in Czechoslovakia, seen through the eyes of three people - a British Communist intellectual, a Plastics fan and an intellectual dissident close to what becomes Charter 77. The other play is about, yes, Syd Barrett, the demented genius behind the early albums of Pink Floyd, And also about several generations of English Barrett fans - presumably including Stoppard. Barrett left Floyd, recorded two great, invisible solo albums, lost his mind, then retreated to the streets of Cambridge, England for many years as the village ‘crazy.’ Neither the Plastics or Barrett really ever make an appearance. The play constantly alternates between a drawing room in Cambridge and run-down apartment in Prague, but it is the spirit of Barrett as a Greek “Pan” that entrances the play and the players, not the developments in Prague. The professor’s daughter and grand-daughter become protectors of the errant Barrett, and he is the unseen presence that animates the English.

Not one song by the Plastics is used in the whole play. Hard to believe. There is not one nightclub, but many spun records. Music by the Stones, Floyd, and the Velvet Underground (the Velvet Revolution, remember?) play instead. Instead of creating a parallel between a Plastics fan in Czechoslovakia and perhaps the insurrectionary spirit of a Stones fan in Britain listening to “Street Fighting Man,” or of British pirate radio – Stoppard for the most part clearly comes down on the side of this wonderful life in Britain. His Cambridge ‘don’ and Communist professor stays a ‘Tankie’ (supporter of the ’68 Soviet intervention) until finally deciding to back Charter 77 ten years later, after the Plastics are again jailed. Rock is not to be taken seriously by 'intellectuals,' so it is interesting that it is the subject of this play. This play is an attempt to show the liberating effects of rock and roll by a clear fan, Stoppard, but it fails because it doesn’t really link politics and rock.

The play, of course, shows how the Stalinist position of ‘socialist realism’ or ‘folk art,’ at the expense of all other styles, undermined the Czechoslovak workers state. Czech youth and intellectuals like Vaclav Havel united on the demand for ‘freedom of music.’ Havel was himself a poet and a rock fan too. Really quite a simple thing to grant, you’d think. The transformation of the 'don' from the most die-hard supporter of the bureaucracy to an anti-capitalist anti-Soviet dissident is the intellectual thread that connects the play together.

However, the play also unintentionally shows the commodification of even ‘rock and roll’ by capital. The play ends with a performance by the Stones in Prague; not a performance by the Plastics in London. That is significant. The Stones penetrate the eastern bloc. And bank capital (not 'tank' capital) penetrates the eastern bloc. But not visa versa. The Stones were at one time problem-children, even for western capital. Now, from 40 years later, they are just another product sold to entertain the aging youth. After all, our greatest opium is not religion – it is entertainment.

And I didn’t see it at Mayday Books….
Red Frog, February 8, 2010

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