What would you give Tom Stoppard for Christmas? A previously undiscovered Shakespeare manuscript? Unlikely. A time machine? Obscure. Jumpers, perhaps? He’s probably got enough of these.
In fact, this year it may have been futile to search high and low for the world’s greatest present for, perhaps, the greatest contemporary British playwright. Because while you were searching for an alternative to socks and a random assortment of jellied fruits, the cast and crew of The Invention of Love trumped the most valiant of efforts.
‘It was my best Christmas present,’ says Stoppard, regarding the news that his ‘favourite play’, the play Stoppard ‘enjoyed writing more than any other’, would be coming to its place of origin, Oxford. Possibly too hard to beat, then.
Stoppard is a charming man, and incredibly modest. Our conversation begins with his mistaking me for a journalist from the Oxford Mail. He seems slightly perturbed, if not flustered. I quickly reassure him that I am not a hack fresh out of the City Journalism course, and, in fact, an amateur posing as a journalist, a writer from Cherwell. This settles him: he has, after all, interviewed for this very paper, not two years ago. That it was the only interview he granted whilst in Oxford speaks a thousand words.
Stoppard is passionate about undergraduate life; as much comes out of the play itself. Stoppard has already met the director of The Invention of Love, Roger Granville, for coffee. One might think that directing Stoppard’s favourite play, a play that is so literarily rich, so steeped in its place of origin, in the history of its characters, would be a daunting task. The Invention of Love has been described as Stoppard’s most literary play, even his most difficult play. Stoppard has only the best things to say about Granville: ‘I think what one wants most of all is that the director is somebody who just loves the play and has responded to it, and so I’m very pleased about that…. it’s not a play which is widely done, [so] I’m really thrilled that somebody’s doing it’. This is as good a write up as I’ve ever heard for a play.
The Invention of Love is a play for Oxford today. Set in 1880s Oxford, the Oxford of Wilde, an ‘Oxford in the Golden Age’, as it is referred to in the last lines of the play, The Invention of Love centres around the life and loves of A.E. Housman, a scholar and a poet, who, whilst at St. John’s, falls in love with his friend and must suffer the silence of the ‘love that has no name’ – namely, his latent homosexuality.
The play becomes part discussion of the place homosexuality had to play in the later nineteenth century, part a beautiful insight into fin-de-siècle Oxford, with characters such as Ruskin, Pater, and even Oscar Wilde forming a rich historical backdrop to what is, in Stoppard’s words, a story ‘about a man who falls in love when he’s an undergraduate, and essentially remains enthralled by an impossible unrequited love for the rest of his life’.
Why would The Invention of Love be Stoppard’s favourite play? Due to its numerous classical allusions, some reviewers have called the play ‘esoteric’; the New York Magazine rather caustically noted that ‘Stoppard has lately managed to be too clever by three quarters’. In fact, to demystify the play’s many historical and academic references, the New York production team provided the audiences with a thirty-page booklet on the political and artistic history of the late-Victorian period. In both cases, the play seems to have been misunderstood.
Stoppard picks up on this; he ‘would be sorry to think of it, or…be sorry if people thought it was a difficult play, because part of the fun is to take something which sounds difficult like Latin scholarship, and make it intelligible and interesting…I think theatre is a recreation’. The Invention of Love is first and foremost a play about the emotions, rather than the intellect: this is to suggest, as Stoppard notes, that ‘the play was widely liked not just in London, but in New York, and that wouldn’t have been so had it not been the case that the play was working as a love story, in the broadest sense’.
Oxford is the best place for a play about both Latin and love. It is also extremely pertinent that the play be put in modern Oxford; a play set over one hundred years ago still speaks great truths about the Oxford experience today. What I took from the play was an essential dichotomy between Oxford as a place of great scholarship, and a place threatened by modernization.
At the beginning of the play, one of the characters notes ‘Great reform made us into a cramming shop. The railway brings in the fools and takes them away with their tickets punched for the world outside’. Is this not precisely the experience of Oxford today? For many, it’s less about Oxford students as Classics scholars, more a question of Oxford students as potential management consultants.
If this is Tom Stoppard’s ‘most esoteric play’, this need not be taken disparagingly; on the contrary, it proposes an enjoyment of the moment we are presently occupying. It is for this reason that perhaps the best line of the play is the last one: ‘How lucky to find myself standing on this empty shore, with the indifferent waters at my feet’. Surely this is the most pertinent perspective one could possibly have about an Oxford education?
In the play, it is precisely Oxford which is the centrepiece of the action. Stoppard reflects, ‘Housman expresses sympathy for Wilde when he says you’ve lived at the wrong time, you should have lived in Megara when one could publish poetry to the boy one loved, and so on…Wilde rejects this attempt to sympathize with him; he says…on the contrary, this world, this England, at this time, where he, as it were, exhibited his values and people paid attention to him.’
The Invention of Love promises great things. That Stoppard is ‘really thrilled that somebody’s doing it’, that it made his Christmas, is but one reason. Stoppard’s favourite play, perhaps his most personal play, must be met with an embrace for the current moment – for this Oxford, at this time. From this perspective, the ‘indifferent waters’ of The Invention of Love look inviting indeed.
The Invention of Love is at the Oxford Playhouse, February 17-20.