Published by Faber and Faber
This is Tom Stoppard’s play about Czechoslovakia, protest, love, and the power of rock and roll. It covers the years from 1968 to 1990, and the action moves between the house of Max—a staunch communist and a member of the British Communist Party—in Cambridge and the apartment of Jan, a Czech man, in Prague. Jan is as fervent a believer in rock and roll as Max is in communism. Max lives with his wife Eleanor, an academic who has cancer, and their daughter Esme.
The play starts in 1968. Jan is living in Cambridge but has decided to return to Czechoslovakia: the Russian tanks have rolled in to crush the Prague Spring, and he feels he needs to be there to support his country. Max disagrees and thinks he should stay on in the UK. Lenka, another Czech living in Cambridge, decides to stay on.
Initially, Jan does not see himself as a dissident. As far as he is concerned, things are not too bad in Prague—the newspaper he works is shut down but is then allowed to publish as long as it wasn’t “rude about the Russians”—something he can live with as long as he has his beloved music. He refuses to sign a petition calling for the release of political prisoners, saying it was not going to help the prisoners and was just a way for the petitioners to feel good about themselves.
But things change. The Czech underground band he loves, The Plastic People of the Universe, is being harassed by the authorities for being part of the underground culture. One day, after a concert, everyone is arrested, including Jan. That turns him into a dissident—as he puts it, when basic rights are threatened, “Everything’s dissident except shutting up and eating shit”.
And it is not just in Czechoslovakia that freedoms are being eroded: it is happening in the UK too, but more insidiously. Lenka calls the UK “a democracy of obedience”, a place where people “apologise for difference”.
The play follows the characters as they age (or die, in Eleanor’s case) and try to navigate the world. It ends with a lunch in Cambridge that unites the main characters.
This is a rich play: in a few scenes Stoppard captures two nations during crucial times. The characters argue about communism, freedom, rock and roll, and Sapphic poetry (Eleanor’s subject), and fall in love. The relationship between Max and Eleanor is beautifully portrayed—clearly a strong bond that can withstand Eleanor’s rage at dying. I found their scenes together very moving.
Max might be the last man in Britain to continue to believe in communism—“I feel like the last white rhino”, he says—but Stoppard gives him the space to make his arguments. Jan’s character arc as a man who is pushed into dissent is very convincing.
But most of all, this is a play about the power of rock and roll, and how it can be used as a weapon against authoritarianism. The Plastic People of the Universe actually existed and was a thorn in the side of the Communist government. It is only when the band is threatened that Jan joins the fight.
The play is full of music, from the opening to the grand finale: the Rolling Stones performing in Prague in 1990—the year after the 1989 Velvet Revolution that brought down the single-party government. The opening scene is magical: it is dusk and a young Esme is in Max’s garden, being serenaded by a figure squatting on his heels on a wall playing a flute, like the god Pan. But the musician is probably Sid Barrett, who has moved back to Cambridge after being thrown out of Pink Floyd for excessive use of drugs.
There are parallels between Stoppard and Jan. Like Jan, Stoppard is originally from Czechoslovakia but fled the country as a child just before the Nazi occupation.
I would suggest listening to the play: Stoppard’s use of music comes through much better when you can hear it. There is a BBC audiobook with 16 of his plays, which is worth getting—you can also discover some of his other works. Of course, the best option is to catch it in the theatre!