- The Invention Of Love
Tom Stoppard’s stage biography of A. E. Houseman began with the poet, recently deceased, waiting on the banks of the river Styx for Charon, the original boatman from hell. The openings mythological setting took us from the Houseman we know—the author of A Shropshire Lad—to Houseman the Latin scholar and closet homosexual. Although Houseman’s poems are alluded to and quoted occasionally (Houseman: “Shropshire—a county where I never lived and seldom set foot” [(London: faber and faber, 1997) p. 1]), Stoppard’s more important intention is to illustrate these two other aspects of his life. The title of the play can refer both to the Latin love elegies Houseman edited and the uncovering of same-sex love in Victorian England.
Houseman’s life was told in flashbacks with the late author occasionally materializing to converse with his college-age self. The first act covered Houseman and his Oxford friends, in particular the athlete Moses Jackson to whom Houseman formed [End Page 459]a deep attachment. Act 2 began with Houseman inexplicably failing his exams at Oxford and entering civil service as a clerk in the patent office. There he continued to study classics privately until eventually hired to teach at the University of London and then Cambridge.
Stoppard movingly depicts the nature of scholarship. As a young man, Houseman questioned his professors about variant readings of Latin manuscripts and learned about the corruptibility of ancient texts. Later, the deceased Houseman visited his younger self to teach the discipline of scholarly editing. Rather than dry and pedantic, these passages are passionate with the hunger to discern truth. Especially poignant is Houseman’s evocation of the unknown beauties of irretrievably lost ancient texts. He compared those remaining texts to the few stalks forgotten by the reaper after a field is mowed and “gathered to oblivion in sheaves” (72).
Two groups of people (played by the same actors) served as chorus to contextualize Houseman’s life in Victorian England. In the first act, Oxford dons entered intermittently, pantomiming a continuous game of croquet, to discuss collegiate life, in particular the problem of teaching the accomplishments of ancient Greek civilization while concealing its homoerotic elements. In act 2, the Victorian fear of same-sex relationships was further illustrated by newspaper men who played an invisible game of billiards while discussing passage of the 1885 Criminal Law Act with the Labouchère amendment, which stipulated any public or private sexual act between two persons of the same sex could receive up to two years in prison with hard labor.
The persona of Oscar Wilde hovered throughout the play even though Wilde only appeared in person at the end. Houseman and his Oxford friends were fascinated by Wilde’s stance as a wit and aesthete, and Houseman was shaken by Wilde’s eventual fate. Given Houseman’s retiring nature and the example of Wilde’s trial before him, it is no surprise that he would want to keep his sexual preference secret. In a second act scene made more powerful by reticence and underplaying, Houseman admitted his feelings for his then flatmate Jackson and moved out of the apartment. A recitation of one of Houseman’s poems afterwards underscored his painful attempt to sublimate his desires through poetry.
The play was not totally somber however, but was laced with wit, much of which was inextricable from the characters and situations. When Houseman’s younger self asked, “There were critics [in ancient Greece]?” Houseman replied, “Naturally, it was the cradle of democracy” (47). And, when one of Houseman’s gay friends told him that they had decided on a new name to call themselves: “homosexuals,” Houseman was horrified, saying, “It’s half Greek and half Latin!” (91).
Performances were uniformly excellent, but praise must be singled out for John Wood’s Houseman. While retaining the reserve proper to a Victorian classics professor, Wood, with the lift of an eyebrow or a slight smile, could convey either brilliant wit or deep emotions held under great...