The Magazine

Forty Years On

Tom Stoppard's 'Rock 'n' Roll' and the end of the Soviet empire.

Sep 8, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 48 • By MICHAEL WEISS
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Not long ago in the London Times, Tom Stoppard published an essay that surely had most of his West End friends wincing. Titled "1968: The year of the posturing rebel," it was a look back in "embarrassment" at the spectacle of anti-establishment consensus 40 years ago, and an attempt to hoist a generation by its own soixante petard. The playwright-who even back then enjoyed a reputation as a bohemian conservative, with a heritage rooted in actual Bohemia-marveled at how little loved England was by its native sons and daughters. If Stoppard could claim a greater appreciation of the island nation with a well-functioning liberal democracy, it was because

I had not been born into it. You don't need to be a qualified psychologist to work out that in England in 1968, 22 years after I arrived, I was much more disposed to champion my adoptive country than to find fault with it. For all I knew to the contrary, if my father had survived the war (he was killed in the Far East) he would have taken his family back to my birthplace in Czechoslovakia in 1946 and I would have grown up under the communist dictatorship which followed two years later.

The ominous contingency in that passage is more or less the biography of Stoppard's protagonist in Rock 'n' Roll, his latest play, set between two seismic years, 1968 and 1991, and two diametric locations, Cambridge and Prague. Jan is a gifted Czech graduate student posing as a Marxist, and the loyal protégé of a curmudgeonly Red don called Max, who has remained in the party well after all the old comrades have quit. Max tentatively downplays the recent Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, even if he doesn't quite bring himself to condone it. But beyond being a mere ideologist, he's also a riotously funny culture critic. He, too, finds the sixties a period of pseudo-rebellious "street theatre."

"It was like opening the wrong door in a highly specialized brothel," he reflects decades on, after the Berlin Wall has come down. "To this day there are men in public life who can't look me in the eye because I knew them when they went about dressed like gigantic five-year-olds at a society wedding."

Born in that other seismic year 1917-"exactly as old as the October Revolution"-and modeled roughly on the historian Eric Hobsbawm, Max has seen and done it all: Fascism in Spain, the Arctic convoys, world war. When he sighs that his flower child daughter Esme "thinks a fascist is a mounted policeman in Grosvenor Square," he is not just channeling Orwell but his own creator. Thus does Stoppard impart his slightly fusty cultural sensibility in a graying Communist who still believes the Soviet Union was worth the trouble. And that is not the least of what makes Rock 'n' Roll so interesting.

Immediately following the occupation of his homeland, Jan, whose actual obsession is not historical materialism but Western rock music (Pink Floyd, the Beach Boys, Cream), returns home to find the reformist leader Alexander Dubcek, hero of the Prague Spring and herald of "socialism with a human face," deposed and replaced by a regime of "normalization" led by the apparatchik Gustav Husak.

At first, Jan is sanguine about what he finds. He was expecting "mass arrests, the government in gaol, everything banned .  .  . the whole Soviet thing, with accordion bands playing Beatles songs .  .  . I came back to save Rock 'n' Roll, and my mother actually." But apart from some mild chivvying from the Ministry of the Interior, life doesn't seem so bad with Russian tanks parked outside and journalists exercising "self-censorship": "My mum's okay, and there's new bands ripping off Hendrix and Jethro Tull on equipment held together with spit." Then come the mass arrests, the state censorship, and the crackdown on those imitative bands, particularly a psychedelic group known as the Plastic People of the Universe, who took their name from a Frank Zappa lyric. After further repression and self-abasement, Jan is conscripted into a dissident movement he formerly mistrusted, and his philosophic disposition slowly changes.