Tom Stoppard's "Rock 'n' Roll"

A portion of the cast of Rock 'n' Roll London, 13 June 2006, photo: Patricia Grant

Tom Stoppard, one of the greatest living playwrights, has written a new play called Rock 'n' Roll and it includes some serious Czech content. Set in two locations—Prague and Cambridge—the scenes shift from those taking place in Czechoslovakia between 1968 and 1989, to those in England which revolve around the family of an academic Marxist, Max Morrow. The connecting point is a Czech student studying at Cambridge, Jan, who falls in love with Max's daughter. Described as a tragicomic family saga intertwined with a political drama set in Normalization-era Czechoslovakia, Rock 'n' Roll also features lots of rock music, including songs by the Czech band, The Plastic People of the Universe.

Paul Wilson is a former member of the band—though he's better known for his English-language translations of Vaclav Havel's texts, than for his days as a rocker. He was at the June 14th premier of Rock 'n' Roll and told me about the atmosphere at London's Royal Court Theatre on opening night:

Paul Wilson
"It was very exciting. There were people milling around outside before the performance—there was Ivan Jirous, Pavel Zajicek, and Zdena Tominova who is an old Chartist, and various friends, my wife Patricia, and Tom Stoppard. We were all kind of milling around and then a limousine pulls up and Havel steps out, and whenever Havel arrives anywhere there is always a great rush of photographers and hangers-on and so on, so it was quite an excited arrival. Then we all went downstairs to the bar, and the Czech embassy hosted a reception for Vaclav Havel at which Mick Jagger showed up. And not only Mick Jagger, but David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, and there were quite a few other luminaries around, so it was quite an exciting time."

It definitely sounds like the who's who of London society and Czech society was there. Tom Stoppard's new play is dedicated to Vaclav Havel. What do you think Havel's reactions were to Rock 'n' Roll?

"Well, I know what his reaction is because I actually translated an interview that he gave to two British newspapers, The Independent and The Telegraph. He said that he had read it twice in Czech and had then seen the performance in English, and he was quite astonished by the level of sophistication with which Stoppard treated the material. Tom Stoppard is Czech by origin, but he never lived in Czechoslovakia. They had a discussion about which of the characters is Havel, and of course there is an old Marxist who obviously isn't Havel, but there is a young man who represents the kind of Prague underground, and then there is another young man called Ferda, who is named after Ferdinand Vanek from Havel's plays. Ferda occasionally represents Havel's point of view, but Havel's point of view is also represented by other characters—as Tom Stoppard pointed out in one of his interjections during these interviews, it wasn't just Ferda who was like Havel, but many others as well. So Havel was, I think, quite impressed with the play, and certainly enjoyed it. It's very entertaining as well as very enlightening."

Czech critics have made much of the fact that there is a Havel-like character—or characters—in the play, and another character who seems to resemble Milan Kundera. Did you pick this up?

"The way Stoppard wrote the play was that he did research in the various discussions and controversies that Vaclav Havel was involved in during the late 1960s and early 1970s. So in one speech, the two characters, Ferda and Jan (the young Czech rock fan who later becomes a prisoner of conscience) have a debate about the nature of the invasion [of 1968] and the consequences of the invasion. This debate is in essence the debate that Havel had with Kundera, and Kundera is only represented in that one particular instance."

"There is another conversation on the nature of heroism, and Jan says 'I don't want to go to jail, I'm afraid of going to jail, I don't want to be a hero,' and this reflects the controversy that the Chartists had. Havel had a public debate with Ludvik Vaculik and Petr Pithart about the nature of heroism in the dissident community, and this is reflected in the play. So what Stoppard has done is that he's taken various real debates that went on at the time and he's boiled them down and put them in the mouths of his two main Czech characters."

Now there is another element to Tom Stoppard's new play, and that is the inclusion of an underground rock band called The Plastic People of the Universe. You sang with the Plastics in the 1970s—did Tom Stoppard consult with you about the content of the story while he was writing the play?

"Yes, he did. He consulted with me and he also spent a lot of time talking to Jaroslav Riedl, who is the top Czech historian of the underground. Stoppard asked a lot very specific questions about how the underground scene unfolded. What is mainly represented in the play is the coming together of these two currents—that is, the cultural opposition represented by The Plastic People of the Universe and the other bands around them, and the intellectual opposition represented by Vaclav Havel and other writers. What he's done is try to explain through the course of the play how the intellectual opposition gradually came to realize the importance of this cultural opposition in political terms. Of course they have a debate about whether or not it's politics or art, and that again represents a discussion that Havel once had with Ivan Jirous and Milan Hlavsa, who insisted that there was nothing political about the Plastic People. Havel's position was that it doesn't matter whether they think the band is political or not, that the important thing is that any authentic expression in that regime—in that system—automatically becomes political."