Journal of Modern Literature 24.2 (2000/2001) 197-204
Translating The Invention of Love: The Journey From Page to Stage For Tom Stoppard's Latest Play
Literary Manager, La Jolla Playhouse
In February and March of 2000, The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia took its patrons on an intellectually and emotionally ambitious journey into a man's mind, a journey that begins on the banks of the River Styx and takes both characters and audience to the halls of Victorian Oxford, the streets of Industrial Revolution London, and the melancholy of the French seashore. The Invention of Love marks the fourth--and arguably most challenging--play by Tom Stoppard to appear on the Wilma stage. The production was ultimately as successful as it was challenging, and the road to that success began with Stoppard's script for the play.
The Invention of Love centers around A.E. Housman, the Classical scholar and poet. In 1936, Housman, or AEH as he is referred to in the play, is seventy-seven years old, infirm, and living in the Evelyn Nursing Home at Cambridge, where he is also Benjamin Hall Kennedy Professor of Latin. On the last night of his life, he dreams that he is dead. His dream takes him first to the banks of the River Styx, where the mythical boatman Charon arrives to ferry him to the underworld. On this journey, AEH sees himself as a young man newly matriculated at Oxford. Not only is young Housman struggling to navigate the various schools of thought battling at Oxford at the time--John Ruskin's esteem for the Gothic, Walter Pater's appreciation of the Renaissance, Benjamin Jowett's advancement of Classical education as training for a life in public service--but he also is struggling with his feelings for Moses Jackson, a science student and athlete whom he loved with a "love that dare not speak its name." Act One culminates in an encounter between AEH and Housman during which they discuss the purpose of a Classical education, the value of textual criticism, and the power of poetry. Through this meeting, young Housman arrives at two realizations: that there is no pursuit more noble or valuable than that of adding "to what is known"1 by restoring Classical texts and that he is undeniably, unrequitedly in love with Jackson. [End Page 197]
Act Two expands the world of the play as Housman, having failed his examinations, takes a job in London reviewing trademark applications for the Patent Office, where Moses Jackson also works as an Examiner of Electrical Specifications. In Oxford, the power brokers are the professors, legislating not just academics but morality; in London, these arbiters are journalists. Henry Labouchere, W.T. Stead, and Frank Harris banter over their involvement in the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, the law under which Oscar Wilde was found guilty of acts of gross indecency and sentenced to two years at hard labor in 1896. Housman's feelings mount, and he confronts an unreceptive and uncomfortable Jackson. After this confrontation, young Housman fades from the play, shifting focus almost exclusively to AEH, who ultimately writes A Shropshire Lad and becomes the most important Classical scholar of the period. As the play draws to a close, AEH meets Oscar Wilde, and these two figures--both gay, Classically-educated, Victorian-era poets--compare their life choices. Wilde chose to pursue his love for Lord Alfred Douglas and ended his life alone, destitute, and broken. Housman, without an outlet for his love, became a revered poet and scholar, with a chair at Cambridge and a volume of poems that was carried in almost every English soldier's breast pocket during World War I.
Since the play follows a poet more famous in Britain than here, a scholar whose field of expertise is too specialized for most laymen, The Invention of Love is not the most obvious choice to produce at a theater on this side of the Atlantic. After the play's successful run at London's...