Thursday, January 17, 2008

Tom Stoppard's Rock 'N' Roll

There are things I've taken for granted which have been part of my birthright: the freedom to listen to whatever music I want. whenever I want and see it performed live. Tom Stoppard's engrossing play Rock 'N' Roll drives home the theory or reality depending on how you look at it, that culture cannot thrive in a communist/dictatorship society. The play is set in a span from 1968 (we are being clobbered over the head with references to the summer of love), when Czechoslovakia had a few months of uncensored creativity under the leadership of Alexander Dubcek to 1990 when the Rolling Stone performed in Prague.

The play revolves around a student, Jan, who leaves Cambridge, England where is he studying with a Marxist professor, to return to his hometown of Prague, even though the Czech government has asked him to stay in England. As an avid music lover, he discovers the band the Plastic People of the Universe and believes they will be the shining light to bring artistic freedom back to the people of Prague.

Milan Hlavsa, who died in 2001, formed the Plastic People of the Universe in September 1968 when he was 19. The fact that the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia had occurred in August was not immediately relevant: ‘We just loved rock’n’roll and wanted to be famous…rock’n’roll wasn’t just music to us, it was kind o ife itself.’ The band was not interested in bringing down communism, only in nding a free space for itsel nside the communist society. But of course there was no such space, and the story that Rock’n’Roll is telling 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. The Plastics were among a small number of musicians and artists who wouldn’t compromise at all, so the space for POLITICS, ROCK’N’ROLL AND LIFE ITSELF their music and for ‘life itself’ became harder and harder to nd until it was eradicated. -Tom Stoppard

The clever use of graphics and music help to bridge the segments of this 3 hour play. There is more than one reference to Syd Barrett, the troubled founder of Pink Floyd. Was Stoppard a friend of his? Syd hailed from Cambridge. Pink Floyd's first album was titled The Piper At the Gates of Dawn, which is a reference to Pan and Wind in The Willows. All of this ties into the play. By 1968, he was no longer a member of Floyd. As Jan says, can you imagine getting kicked out of Pink Floyd for taking too many drugs? A key moment for me came when Jan finds his record collection has been destroyed and the only remaining album is the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, which a friend had borrowed and returned. Pet Sounds is the greatest album ever recorded in my humble opinion. Music interwoven throughout the play includes, The Velvet Underground, Sid, Pink, The Plastic People of the Universe (read their history), The Cure, The Beach Boys and the play ends with the Rolling Stones performance in Prague. Having been to the wonderful city of Prague, this lesson in a period of it's life was fascinating.

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