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.
By Stoppard's own admission, the play is a modified rendering of the extended argument that took place between Václav Havel and Milan Kundera about their country under communism. Stoppard tells us in his excellent introduction to the Rock 'n' Roll script that Jan was originally called Tomás, not just because this is the playwright's own birth name but because it is that of Kundera's lothario physician in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Jan's friend and sparring partner in Prague, the passionate intellectual Ferdinand, is named for Ferdinand Vanek, Havel's alter ego in three of his plays, Audience, Private View, and Protest. So here, roughly, are our stand-ins for a great Czech debate between two titans of 20th-century resistance.
There are four major exchanges that take place between Jan and Ferdinand over the course of several years-1968, 1972, 1974, and 1975-as each grows alternately disillusioned and encouraged with the prospects for liberal reform. The matter is largely one of how to categorize the true rebels. Are they the intellectuals and activists who draw up manifestos and sign earnest letters to the Husak government demanding amnesty for prisoners, or are they the musicians and burnouts and longhairs without political consciousness but a natural ability to provoke a police state simply by doing their own thing, like attend rock concerts?
In December 1968, shortly after the invasion, Kundera published an essay entitled "Czech Destiny," in which he sounded hopeful about the resilience of his people in the face of yet another foreign tyranny. In noticeable contrast to Kundera's pessimism of later years, and from the perch of his French exile (which began in 1975), he was at this point committed to reforming communism from within. Czech culture did not succumb to permanent amnesia; rather, it reasserted itself in extremis. And the Prague Spring was not "defeated. . . . The new politics survived this terrible conflict. . . . It retreated, yes, but it did not disintegrate, it did not collapse."
Jan, now employed as a journalist, phrases it like this: "For once this country found the best in itself. We've been done over by big powerful nations for hundreds of years but this time we refused our destiny." But Ferdinand sees this as the height of interpretive fallacy: "It's not destiny, you moron, it's the neighbors worrying about their slaves revolting if we get away with it." Echoing Havel's rebuttal to Kundera, he accuses Jan of "turning disaster into a moral victory" and of not coming to terms with a far grimmer situation to which Jan, an exile so recently lost in the dreaming spires, has only just returned.
The second exchange occurs in the summer of 1972. Jan has been tossed out of his newspaper and forced to work in a factory, though he is still an unremitting critic of the Havel-styled opposition. The Communist Party College rector, Milan Hubl, and some others, have just stood trial for disseminating "provocative printed matter"-pamphlets that informed citizens of their constitutional right to strike names from the ballot or boycott the upcoming elections. Hubl is sentenced to 61 years. Their plight draws the attention of honest Communists in Italy, France, and Britain (Angela Davis in the United States was pilloried for her refusal to censure the Czech government and demand his release).
Domestically, Havel circulates a polite letter to Husak asking for a pardon; Ferdinand presents it to Jan to sign. He refuses, once again mouthing Kundera's grievance with the ostensibly ignoble motive impelling such action: "First because it won't help Hubl and the others, but mainly because helping them is not its real purpose. Its real purpose is to let Ferdinand and his friends feel they're not absolutely pointless. It's just moral exhibitionism." This recapitulates almost perfectly the scene in The Unbearable Lightness of Being in which Tomás, reduced to the role of a window washer by his refusal to recant a trenchant editorial in which he compared Communists to King Oedipus, is confronted by his estranged son and an editor with a similar letter for him to sign. The editor knows "perfectly well that his petition would not help the prisoners. His true goal . . . was to show that people without fear still exist. That, too, was playacting."
Kundera's implicit critique here is one of moral equivalence, namely that Czech dissidents have become dangerously like their persecutors, applying the same bullying tactics to enlist in a dubious campaign apolitical men who just want to be left alone. Tomás notices a propaganda poster from the Russian Civil War hanging in the room where this set piece transpires; the poster's original slogan read, "Citizen, have you joined the Red Army?" The words have been crossed out and replaced with, "Citizen, have you signed the Two Thousand Words?"-the very document that now lies before him and to which he will in fact lend his name.
It's a well-executed satire, but at whose expense?
For Havel, there was no moral equivalence: He admitted years later in an interview that Hubl may not have been pardoned by his and his co-thinkers' grandstanding efforts, and that the sole immediate effect of their agitation was that the "beauty of our characters was illuminated." But what Kundera neglected to address was how buoyed political prisoners were by mere "playacting." It "helped renew the broken solidarity" and "marked the beginning of a process in which people's civic backbone began to straighten again." Sanctimony and amour propre are permissible vices if they inspire confidence in the luckless victims of ideology. Stoppard's great achievement with Rock 'n' Roll is to remind Western audiences that the forces that brought down communism in Czechoslovakia were by no means symphonic; they were as discordant as the ravishing popular music playing in the background.
Of course, as reality in Eastern Europe changed, so, too, did the illusions of Czech optimists. Nineteen seventy-four marks a turning point for Jan, who finds himself now peddling a petition for Ferdinand to sign-demanding the release of the newly arrested Plastic People of the Universe and their famous Warholian artistic director Ivan Jirous. Jan's preference for the anarchic underground and his scorn for what he sees as the "official opposition" has come back to haunt him. His beloved rock stars are the ones behind bars, and he needs a favor from the intellectuals.
Ferdinand asks, "And this would be different from moral exhibitionism, would it?" Jan replies that it would because these kids don't care about politics, they just want to play their music. They didn't choose the roles of dissidents; the roles chose them. Ferdinand needles Jan, demanding to know who wields greater influence, who is "going to lay bare the ideological contradictions of bureaucratic dictatorship," the intellectuals or the Plastics? Jan delivers the most forceful speech of the play, explaining that Jirous is in jail and Ferdinand is walking around free
[b]ecause the policeman insulted him. About his hair. Jirous doesn't cut his hair. It makes the policeman angry, so he starts something and it ends with Jirous in gaol. But what is the policeman angry about? What difference does long hair make? The policeman is angry about his fear. The policeman's fear is what makes him angry. He's frightened by indifference. Jirous doesn't care. He doesn't care enough even to cut his hair. The policeman isn't frightened by dissidents! Why should he be? Police love dissidents, like the Inquisition loved heretics. Heretics give meaning to the defenders of the faith. . . . But the Plastics don't care at all. They're unbribable. They're coming from somewhere else, from where the Muses come from. They're not heretics.
Here Stoppard is at his most dialectical. Where the counterculture in London may have been defined by adolescent solipsism masquerading as revolution, in Prague the selfsame characteristic birthed the genuine article. This is why the Czech revolution was named for the Velvet Underground. "The story that Rock 'n' Roll is telling," Stoppard writes, "is that, in the logic of Communism, what the band wasn't interested in and what the band wanted could not in the end be separated." Jan has begun to appreciate the earnestness of Havel, and Havel has absorbed more of Jan's anarchic worldview.
It really did all have to do with the Plastics. Havel's about-face occurred in 1976 when he was reintroduced to Jirous, whom he had first met years earlier. (Like Jan, Jirous originally thought the absurdist playwright was a square, a member of the "official" and "officially tolerated" opposition.) After listening to an old tape recording of the Plastics, Havel was hooked: "There was a strange magic in the music, and a kind of inner warning. Here was something serious and genuine . . . Suddenly I realized that, regardless of how many vulgar words these people used or how long their hair was, truth was on their side." But before he was able to attend the band's next performance, they and Jirous were arrested. (In the play, Jan is nicked, too, and his fourth major dialogue with Ferdinand credits his friend and "the other tossers" with getting him out.)
Havel wasted no time in rallying his own cerebral side to their defense by covering their absurd "trial" and fashioning Charter 77, the famous petition that accused the government of failing to live up to the Helsinki Agreement. Shortly thereafter, Havel penned his classic essay "The Power of the Powerless," affirming the more mundane aspects of what he called "living in truth," a simple but devastating challenge to the "thick crust of lies" that envelopes the "post-totalitarian" society. One can write a petition, or one can attend a rock concert-both will disrupt the hypocrisy and sham equilibrium of the Communist order.
Havel and 10 other banner Chartists were imprisoned for their troubles two years later, and although the Husak regime inaugurated another period of reaction following this cause célèbre, the warp and woof of Czech dissidence was forever changed. It became more unified. Indeed, the "pop" qualities of revolt would later be glimpsed in some of the sillier accoutrements of the post-Communist era, such as the neon heart that adorned Prague Castle under Havel's presidency, and the naming of Frank Zappa as the Czech representative of trade and culture.
Rock 'n' Roll ends perfectly with the Rolling Stones playing Strahov Stadium in 1990. Mick Jagger and the boys mincing around the Paris of the East as the entire edifice of Stalinism was collapsing around Europe is a vignette worthy of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Havel had given the band a tour of the castle, and when he went to present them to the throng of cheering fans gathered outside, he found the door to the balcony was locked and no one had the key.
A windblown hat tumbling into Husak's open grave could scarcely have punctuated the historical moment better.
Michael Weiss is a writer living in New York.