Tasting Tom Stoppard
by Kathleen Bishop
Excerpts from Nosferatu: An Opera Libretto by Dana Gioia
(Graywolf Press, 2001, 85 pp. $12.95) (Score by Alva Henderson)
Notes on the Libretto as a Literary Form
~ . ~
Playwright Tom Stoppard at the 92nd St Y, March 27, 2001
Tasting Tom Stoppard
In the lofty ambiance of the 92nd Street Y's Kaufman Auditorium the prolific, award-winning author, screenwriter, journalist and playwright served up a smorgasbord of his plays, seasoned with brief autobiographical anecdotes to a rapt, packed audience.
Noted NY Times theatre critic, Mel Gussow, author of Conversations with Tom Stoppard (Limelight Editions, 1995), introduced the playwright with admiration, affection and a sense of awe for his linguistic facility. Mr. Gussow characterized the plays as explorations into the struggle man faces between mind and morality; yet reaching no conclusion – that is left for the audience to decide – thereby fulfilling Mr. Stoppard's idea of theatre as "recreational activity."
Enter the playwright, comfortably suited with tie, wearing his 63 years well, character etched in his handsome face, his hair unruly from the assault of hands as he makes a point or expresses a character's emotion. He is delightful, charming, self-effacing and a little nervous. Nine hundred fans in the packed theatre await his offering. This, he says, is the first time he has accepted a "reading of his works" engagement. He calls it "the soft option"; his experience had been with lectures or dialogues. "I don't do voices," he says.
In The Invention of Love, we meet A. E. Housman, poet, essayist and teacher as he chats with Charon by the River Styx, their banter a perfect example of droll, urbane British wit:
AEH: Are we waiting for someone?
Charon: He's late. I hope nothing's happened to him. What do they call you sir?
AEH: Alfred Housman is my name. My friends call me Housman. My enemies call me Professor Housman. Now you're going to ask me for a coin, and, regrettably, the custom of putting a coin in the mouth of the deceased is foreign to the Evelyn Nursing Home and probably against the rules. Doubly late. Are you sure?
Charon: A poet and a scholar is what I was told.
AEH: I think that must be me.
Charon: Both of them?
AEH: I'm afraid so.
Charon: It sounded like two different people.
AEH: I know . . . ah, look, I've found a sixpence. Mint. 1936 Anno Domini.
Charon: You know Latin.
AEH: I should say I do. I am – I was, for twenty-five years, Benjamin Hall Kennedy Professor of Latin at Cambridge. Is Kennedy here? I should like to meet him.
Charon: Everyone is here, and those that aren't will be.
AEH: Of course. Well, I don't suppose I'll have time to meet everybody.
Charon: Yes, you will, but Benjamin Hall Kennedy isn't usually the first choice.
And we are transported to the River Styx where Charon, the comfortable working stiff, plays straight man to the witty, non-plussed, recently dead. Delicious.
Visiting in Czechoslovakia in the early 1970's, where theatre was banned, Stoppard met the playwright and actor Pavel Kohout. Dissident Czech actors had created "The Living Room Theatre" in their homes. Cahoot's MacBeth shows us Shakespeare's play in performance when Duncan's entrance includes two policemen and the knocking at the gate turns out to be an Inspector at the door. The ensuing dialogue is funny, witty, cutting and dangerous. These actors are breaking the law. The Inspector is a fan; he applauds their performances – as newsstand proprietor, janitor and waitress. Our audience resonates with recognition: Every actor there has played a similar "role", supporting an addiction to his art and craft.
There was a problem, he tells us, in the performance of this play. The first fifteen minutes are Shakespeare's – word for word. Too much time passed without meeting the 'acting' characters. Stoppard's image: 'Like two men carrying a rolled carpet, the play sagged and the audience was bottoming out in the middle.' Mr. Stoppard found his solution in the third production by bringing on the policemen after the first 10 minutes. Silent, their presence affects the "actor's" performance and the tension built engages the audience.
Born in Czechoslovakia, brought up in India and Great Britain, at 17, Stoppard began a career in journalism. During his years at the Western Daily Press as a general reporter he wrote up everything – flower shows, court cases, interviews, sporting events and finally, theatre reviews. He loved being a reporter, he tells us, and is a "newspaper junkie," getting his London papers "fix" a day late while here in NY for the opening of The Invention of Love. There is a new journalism play brewing in the back of his mind. The "unabashed romance of newspapers" inspires him with love and awe. The changes in journalism, especially in Great Britain, offer a new challenge. Night and Day, written in 1978, is his first ode to the journalist. He reads for us Milne's impassioned defense for a free press at the end of Act One.
No matter how imperfect things are, if you've got a free press everything is correctable, and without it, everything is concealable.
The tasty sampling continues with two excerpts from Arcadia. Thomasina, thirteen years old in the early 19th Century, questions her tutor:
Thomasina: Do we believe nature is written in numbers?
Tutor: We do.
Thomasina: Then why do your equations only describe the shapes of manufacture?
Tutor: I do not know.
Thomasina: Armed thus, God could only make a cabinet.
And later in a wonderful tirade, bemoaning the "noodle" Cleopatra whose bad habit of love lost the great library of Alexandria, she asks: "How can we sleep for grief?" Her tutor answers:
By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady! . . . We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march, so nothing can be lost to it.
Stoppard may not do voices but the delineation between characters is clear, profound, delightful. The language of this play, the juxtaposition of centuries, teachers, students, seekers and poets give full reign to Mr. Stoppard's extra-ordinary gifts. He makes theatre with algorithms!
There is more. Call it dessert. He is at work on a new play for production in the near future. It is set in Russia over several decades and involves the birth of the Russian intelligentsia and the question of the artist versus social duty. The language is glorious, the characters fascinating and the glimpse into the heart and soul of Tom Stoppard dazzling.
Our hour with him is over, too soon. There is a groan of disappointment that no dialogue, no question and answer period – mentioned as a possibility -- has occurred. I am filled with the richness of what he has shared in the hour passed. How he manages to do it is his mystery and I am content, for now, to find the man in the work.
The Invention of Love opened March 29 at the Lyceum Theatre, New York's oldest (149 West 45th Street, 239-6200), in a limited run through May 27. Jack O'Brien directs Richard Easton and Robert Sean Leonard as Housman at different ages.Check the Other Arts section of this magazine soon for the review.
(Kathleen Bishop is an award-winning stage actor and director.)
~ . ~
Excerpt from Nosferatu: An Opera Libretto by Dana Gioia
based on the silent film by F.W. Murnau; Score by Alva Henderson
(With a foreword by Anne Williams)
Duet: Eric's Seduction
You ache to give
I long to know
Now you are mine--forever.
(pulling himself momentarily from his trance)
No! Ellen, Ellen, Ellen!
. . .
Duet: The Battle
(Both Ellen and Orlock address Eric.)
Day is only
But night restores
I see the future
Darkness calls me
~ . ~
Excerpt from Sotto Voce: Notes on the Libretto as a Literary Form
No major poetic genre in English currently ranks lower in general literary esteem than the opera libretto. It occupies a position of opprobrium below even obscure and discarded forms like pastoral eclogue or verse sermon. . . . Opera began, however, as a literary project. . . . The earliest operas were not based on singing so much as poetic declamation. It is significant that the test of Dafne, the first opera, survives while the music has been lost. . . .
If the poet is the subordinate partner in opera, the librettist nonetheless has often been the decisive provateur of artistic change. . . . Hugo von Hofmannsthal's innovative libretti induced Richard Strauss to explore aspects of both music and theater the composer might otherwise have ignored. . . . Since the words come first [in time], they have the potential to lead the music into new artistic territory. . . .
Each time that Violetta repeats the words, "E strano" ("It's strange") in La Traviata, Verdi's music evocatively recapitulates her emotional history. . . . Endowed by music with special meaning, the phrase becomes more important than the line or stanza. . . .
Is [a libretto] to be read as poetry or drama? . . . The true test of a libretto is ultimately how well it operates in the finished work of art. . . . W. H. Auden's Paul Bunyan (1941) probably reads better than it performs--despite Benjamin Britten's inspired score--because the text succeeds more conspicuously as poetry than drama. The brilliance of Auden's verse may even highlight the libretto's inadequacy as theater. . . . [But] if one reads all of Auden's libretti in chronological order, one sees that . . . the most distinguished English-language librettist of the twentieth century eventually considered poetry a secondary consideration in creating an opera. . . . "The first duty of the librettist," wrote Auden and Kallman, "is to . . . excite the musical imagination of the composer." . . .
I would not have agreed to write a libretto, had I not loved the music of the composer, Alva Henderson. . . . After hearing the music from his Medea (1972), which uses Robinson Jeffers's powerful version, I knew Henderson was one of America's finest vocal composers. . . . I had one unusual demand for [him]: I asked to choose the subject of the opera. . . .
I was struck by how much Murnau's Expressionist tale of horror resembled a bel canto tragic opera. Surely, the director had thought of his film in musical terms; he subtitled [it], "A Symphony in Grays," and wrote the screenplay-scenario in verse. . . . How astonishing that the Dracula legend, one of the great Romantic myths, had never served as the subject of an enduring opera. . . .
With a haunting myth, a great film, a fine composer, and the prospect of long hard work, what more could a poet want?