Tom Stoppard's Rock 'N' Roll: a translator's perspective

Rock 'N' Roll, photo: B.Holomicek, E.Hruba, National Theatre

The Czech premiere of Tom Stoppard's recent play Rock 'N' Roll was one of the big literary and social events of the year, attended not just by the playwright himself, but also by many prominent former Czech dissidents. The level of interest was not just because Tom Stoppard is of Czech origin, born in Zlin in 1937, but also because of the very Czech subject matter of the play.

In the autumn of 1976 the arrest of seven members of the underground rock band, the Plastic People of the Universe, was the catalyst for events that were eventually to change Czechoslovakia for ever. The immediate consequence was Charter 77, when 240 people signed an appeal for the regime to respect its commitments to human rights and freedoms. The clampdown on the Plastics, with their loud rock, rebelliously long hair and defiant lyrics, took on a quality little short of farce, and finally destroyed any illusion that at least some of the reforms of sixties had survived the Soviet-led invasion of August 1968.

Jitka Sloupova
Tom Stoppard's play covers the period from just before the invasion to 1990, and tells the story of a number of people's lives - in Czechoslovakia and in Britain - as they are touched in various ways by the fate of the Plastic People. When I saw the highly acclaimed London production last summer, I was very impressed by the way the playwright had managed to convey the complexities of the so-called "normalization" period to an English-speaking audience. At the same time I couldn't help wondering whether the play would survive being exported back to a Czech context. The Czech director Ivan Rajmont has tried just that, and the play was premiered in Prague last month in a translation by Jitka Sloupova. As the first reviews were appearing in the Czech papers, I spoke to her about the play and its Czech production.

"In the play The Plastic People of the Universe are, I think, the symbol - the extreme symbol - of artistic freedom, which was of course suppressed during the communist regime. All the characters are defined by their relationship to this very strong symbol."

Can you tell us something of the story of the play?

"The two main characters in the play are the professor, Max, who is a Marxist, living in Cambridge in England, and his pupil, Jan, who is not at all Marxist. After they meet in Cambridge in 1968 Jan returns to Czechoslovakia. So these two perspectives intertwine and make the play very interesting, as the approaches of these two characters contrast."

Max, the British university professor, is what you might call an 'unreconstructed' Marxist. For example, after the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, he refuses to condemn it, he refuses to leave the party and in that way becomes very isolated in Britain. It also makes Max a very difficult character for Czech audiences to engage with. In the production in London he came across as a very sympathetic figure, but I think that for a Czech audience it is much harder to accept Max with his highly controversial political views.

"Yes, I think it is harder, maybe. Luckily the actor who plays Max plays not his views but his character, which is quite charming - some of the best lines Tom Stoppard gives to this character - and he is very witty, he is very warm as a person, and so on, and of course he has some personal history himself which is very evident in the play."

And the character of Jan is interesting in that he tries to be unpolitical. He goes back to Czechoslovakia, even after the Soviet-led invasion of the country, and he tries to see the best in the future. There is a conversation between him and his far more political friend Ferdinand, where Jan, despite the invasion, is still being optimistic about the future, while Ferdinand has no illusions:

Jan: I'm trying to tell you. For once this country has found the best in itself. We've been done over by big, powerful nations for hundreds of years, but this time we refused out destiny."

Ferdinand: It's not destiny, you moron. It's the neighbours worrying about their slaves revolting if we get away with it..

Gradually Jan too loses his illusions, and this is one of the central themes in the play. In a totalitarian regime, you cannot be unpolitical.

"Yes, definitely. I was fifteen in 1968, but I still remember this enthusiasm, which didn't decline after the occupation. It went on and on. Normal people were still slightly optimistic. It's very well put in the play - how it went on until April 1969, when Dubcek was forced to resign."

And what is so fascinating in the play is that the whole thing falls apart, when The Plastic People suddenly find themselves getting into trouble with the authorities.

"Yes. Jan, who is not a musician himself, but a fan of this group, gets more and more into trouble. He loses not only his profession, but several jobs which he was able to find, and he even goes to jail. He's sentenced, and then he's working in a factory. He can't move, because he wouldn't get any other job."

And in the meantime, back in Cambridge, Max is clinging to his Marxist principles, while his wife Eleanor, who is also a very strong character in the play, is dying of cancer. There is a very powerful scene, where she confronts the fact that her body is falling apart, but her mind is still intact, with his Marxist claim that there is nothing more than the body. In the end, Eleanor loses her temper:

Eleanor: They've cut, cauterised and zapped away my breasts, my ovaries, my womb, half my bowel and a nutmeg out of my brain, and I am undiminished. I'm exactly who I've always been. I am not my body. My body is nothing without me, that's the truth of it.

It's a very dramatic moment, when Max's Marxism is confronted with the reality of his family life, just as we see Marxism in theory confronted with real-socialism in post-invasion Czechoslovakia.

"Yes, it's a very strong moment, at the end of the first half of the play - both these climaxes. I really love this scene and I think it's one of the most moving scenes Tom Stoppard has written in years."

One of the strengths of the play is that it shows to an English-speaking audience very powerfully how in a totalitarian society you can't assume that the authorities will leave you alone if you just remain quiet. Sooner or later you become compromised. That is something that Czechs are already very familiar with, so to what extent can that message be translated to a Czech audience in the Czech version of the play?

"Well, I think very well, because it reflects Czech literature, dissident literature, and I think even the official literature had such themes. So I think when seeing this one realizes that there is, of course, also a way not to get into trouble, but it's a sort of death of your social life, of your inner life even. For instance, there is a scene which takes place in Prague. It is Jan, the Czech hero, meeting a British journalist. The journalist is looking for a story, and Jan reacts:

Jan: There are no stories in Czechoslovakia. We have an arrangement with ourselves not to disturb the appearances. We aim for inertia.

"I think everybody still remembers this state of soul, so I think that's also what works in Stoppard's Rock 'N' Roll here in Prague."

But aren't there moments where the dialogue between Czech characters is slightly unconvincing or slightly stilted from a Czech's point of view?

"I think it's also the task of the translator to make it more colloquial, to make it more familiar. I have never cut anything, I have never changed anything, but simply in putting certain words in these lines you can make these moments acceptable, even funny."

The play has just been premiered here in Prague. The production has had mixed reviews, with some critics being very enthusiastic and others saying that it doesn't translate to a Czech context. How do you feel about the criticism of the Czech production?

"We are not much used to dealing with these themes on stage, so the state of Czech playwriting is quite different from what Tom Stoppard brings on stage."

Yes, it's interesting, the fact that there has been very little Czech drama written about that period, which is in itself very dramatic.

"Yes. Tom Stoppard's play is an example of someone writing something from a distance, and perhaps seeing things more in order. The people who lived here are too much involved emotionally perhaps, or they know far more facts. I think it could be that they still can't sort out what was important. On the other hand, even the style of Czech playwriting is very different from Tom Stoppard's, as Stoppard is a very original writer."

The play ends just after the fall of communism, in 1990, and one of the elements of the play that has been most heavily criticized is the way it ends. It has a romantic resolution between Esme [Max's daughter] and Jan. It also has an almost kitsch ending with the Rolling Stones playing their famous concert in 1990 in Prague. It isn't an entirely satisfactory ending, is it?

"Well... I must say I also have some objections to it, and as Tom himself says, it's theatre, not life. It has its rules. Something must have an ending in the theatre. It's not possible to finish it in the middle of a story, it must have its ending. I think it works much better on the stage than when you just read it, and I think that it really is a happy ending."