Rock'n'roll really is a driving force in Rock'n'Roll, the new Tom Stoppard play that opens next week at the Royal Court in a production directed by Trevor Nunn with a cast including Brian Cox, Sinéad Cusack and Rufus Sewell. Looking a little like a rumpled, emeritus rock legend himself (though better preserved than most, despite pushing 69), the distinguished dramatist meets me in the café next door to the theatre to talk about a work that shuttles between Prague and Cambridge during the period from the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to the Velvet Revolution.
This is only the second play Stoppard has written about his country of origin, in a glittering career in which his star has ascended from the runaway 1967 success of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, his absurdist comedy set in the wings of Hamlet, to The Coast of Utopia, his massive 2002 trilogy following the fortunes of the group of exiled mid-19th-century Russian thinkers whose ideas sowed the seeds of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The earlier piece that turned its attention to Czechoslovakia was Professional Foul, a brilliant 1977 TV drama, full of cunningly interlocking ironies about the meaning of the title, in which a football-loving professor of philosophy, visiting Prague for a conference, had his moral horizons widened by the false incrimination and arrest of a former pupil. A Cambridge philosophy don and his Czech student are also central characters in Rock'n'Roll, but the new play carries an altogether more personal charge.
Sir Tom Stoppard OM CBE began life as Tomas Straussler in 1937 in the town of Zlin. He was barely 18 months old when his family were forced to flee from the Nazis. The Strausslers took refuge in Singapore, only to be evacuated to India prior to the Japanese invasion. Tomas's father, a doctor, who had stayed behind to help, was killed when the Japanese bombed the ship on which he was fleeing. Tomas and his mother and brother were evacuated to India where she married Kenneth Stoppard, a major in the British Army, who brought them all to England in 1946. "I got here and I put on Englishness like a coat," Stoppard tells me. "It fitted me and it suited me." The playwright used to joke about being "a bounced Czech". Even after he had visited Prague and become a friend and active supporter of Vaclav Havel and the Charter 77 movement, Stoppard was still inclined to argue that far too much was made of "the Czech thing", pointing out that his education, which began India, had been entirely English. "I left before my memory kicked in," he says.
Latterly, though, there has been a lifting of the restraint on his recognising that, while English, he has never at some level stopped being Czech. "The whole process was vastly accelerated," he reveals, "when the country opened up and when my mother died in 1996. My mother was very anxious to put the past behind her and I honoured that. We never spoke Czech at home. She felt that my older brother and I would be handicapped if we were overt foreigners in this new life we were living".
Stoppard's work is fascinated by doppelgangers and double acts. One of the most moving things he's written is the scene in The Invention of Love (1997), where, in a dying dream, the older AE Housman, the great classical scholar and poet, encounters his unwitting younger self. Like two, lonely awkward people who have suddenly discovered a soulmate, the nervous, burningly intense undergraduate and the buttoned-up, passionately pedantic professor sit side-by-side on a bench enthusing one another. They are clearly one and the same person but, divided by an emotional cataclysm that is still-to-come for the younger man, they resemble jigsaw pieces that don't quite fit. Watching this superb episode, I remember thinking that the momentous upheavals of Stoppard's early life - banished from his place of birth by the Nazis and then exiled from it by the Communists - would make it possible for him to write a comparable drama in which the Stoppard who found security, tolerance and dizzying success in England came face to face with the self he might have been if had had to live under Communism in his native land.
It turns out, needless to say, that the playwright has beaten me to that idea. "I've often thought of writing an autobiography set in a parallel world in which I did go home to Czechoslovakia after the war. But I never started it. Jan [one of the main characters in Rock'n'Roll] is a vestigial gesture towards that". With dates that are almost the same as Stoppard's, and a wartime childhood in England, the anglophile Jan is like an imaginary alter ego. Dispatched back to Czechoslovakia in 1948, he returns to England in the 1960s to study philosophy at Cambridge with Max Morrow, a fiery, unrepentant Marxist who refuses to relinquish faith in the spirit of the Bolshevik revolution, despite the enormities that followed - including the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia that sends Jan, of his own accord, back to Prague.
Like Stoppard, Jan is a big rock fan. A crucial, if offstage, presence in the piece is the real-life psychedelic Czech band The Plastic People of the Universe, who were persecuted by Gustav Husak's hardening regime and forced to go underground. Their eventual arrest and trial in 1976 became, to the government's astonishment, a cause célèbre, sparking the protest that led to Charter 77. Vaclav Havel famously emerged from the tragic farce in the courtroom declaring that "from now on, being careful seems so petty". One of the things that captivates Stoppard is the fact that The Plastic People "never set out to be symbols of resistance. In the West, bands love to be perceived as engaged and politically motivated and don't mind at all if the press writes about their protest rather than their music. But The Plastic People resented this. They wanted to be appreciated for their work".
It took a while, he says, for the writers, artists and surrealist playwrights, who were working at menial jobs because of their courageous dissent, to see the point of the Plastics, and vice versa. "The intellectuals thought the Plastic People were a bunch of long-haired layabouts who weren't engaged in what mattered, and the underground thought that the intellectuals were a kind of official opposition." What rattled the authorities was the band's refusal to play the game according to the regime's rules. The Plastic People threw away the board and the rulebook and, because of their superb indifference, were incorruptible.
"Ultimately, that's what Havel found attractive about them," Stoppard says. "Thanks to the band, intellectuals came to realise that 'living in truth' [Havel's famous maxim about the need to keep making authentic personal decisions in a repressive society] could take the form of attending a rock concert."
The play, says Stoppard, dramatises the internal disputes and spread of attitudes in the opposition (Jan has a friend, Ferda, who talks like Havel). Where on the spectrum, I wondered, does Stoppard think he would have stood? The real question, he replies, is what he would he have done about it - not whether he'd have been able to see the difference between justice and injustice, but whether he'd have had the courage to sign Charter 77. And that he'll never know.
Stoppard, famously reticent on the subject of his private life in interviews, has been married twice. His first marriage, to Jose Ingle, a nurse, in 1965, lasted seven years. In 1972, he married Miriam Moore-Robinson, now better known as Dr Miriam, the racy television medic and therapist. Their partnership lasted 20 years, until the playwright left her for the actress Felicity Kendal, who had been the leading lady of several of his plays, including his study of a playwright's infidelity, The Real Thing. They separated in 1998.
Stoppard has two sons from each marriage, although only one of the four, Ed, 31, has followed his father into the theatre; he recently played Hamlet in English Touring Theatre's production. The three other sons have branched out in diverse directions. Will is a manager in the music business; Barnaby is a director of commercials; and Oliver has a PhD and works as a postman.
In his Diaries, Peter Hall complains, after seeing one of Stoppard's works, that "it's about too many things, everything that is in Tom's head at the moment... somehow he has tried to make it into one play. It's four at least." At his best, though, Stoppard is a dramatist who can make wildly disparate-seeming subjects constellate in brilliant, mutually illuminating ways. In Arcadia (1993), chaos theory, changing fashions in landscape gardening, entropy, and a disputed point in the biography of Lord Byron are brought together by an intellectually playful and emotionally piercing story. So it's no surprise to learn that, alongside the pop and the politics, Rock'n'Roll will treat the audience to (among other things) arguments over the materialist theory of consciousness and analysis of the texts of the Lesbian Greek poet Sappho.
Stoppard is engagingly open about the other ways he'd once thought of giving these interests dramatic form. For* *example, his earlier plans for Sappho "had nothing to do with Rock'n'Roll. It was a structural thing. Her poems survive as fragments. There's one complete poem, and another that may be complete but looks a bit funny at the end. I'd always imagined these fragments were quite substantial but when I went to see the papyrus bits in the Sackler Library in Oxford, they looked like a box of cornflakes. What caught my eye is that a number of people have attempted to reassemble the poems and to guess what is missing. This is how it connects with Arcadia, where there's a guy in the present who is trying to reconstruct what happened in 1812 and, because the play shifts between the two periods, we can see where he's getting it wrong. So I thought: why not extend the principle and present the audience with 50 fragments of scenes and alternative versions of events to complete them."
It's a measure of Stoppard's ingenuity and adaptability that Sappho's poetry surfaces in Rock'n'Roll in a completely different guise, as part of an impassioned argument about the Marxist take on consciousness - that it's the social order that determines consciousness not the other (revolution-in-the-head) way round.
In 1976, Stoppard said: "I tend to overreact against the large claims of committed theatre, so-called, because it is an ill-afforded luxury for an artist to convince himself that he has effectively done his bit because he grapples with important problems. The effect of art is very long-term and each artist is only a tiny part of that effect". In the following year, he unveiled two of his most politically engaged works - Professional Foul on television and, in the theatre, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, a play with a live symphony orchestra and about two inmates in a Soviet mental asylum. But Stoppard continued to give no comfort to those who wished to recruit him into the ranks of the committed. His view that a play is important only if it's also good on grounds other than content and conviction was rammed home, to the point of snobbish overkill, in The Real Thing, in which the fastidious Stoppard-like dramatist-hero reacts with scornful outrage to the idea that he might help to polish the crude agit-prop drama written by a soldier who committed arson at the Cenotaph. You're left with the unfortunate impression that fierce left-wing dissent leads almost inevitably to bad writing.
Bill Gaskill, a former artistic director of the National Theatre, once declared that, while it is hard to define what a Royal Court play is, we all know what it isn't, and that's a play by Tom Stoppard. Gaskill had been engaged to direct a show for the Court's 50th anniversary season but stalked off in a huff at the programming of Rock'n'Roll. The offence he took was exacerbated, it seems, by the fact that the production would bring Trevor Nunn into the building. This position needs to be examined. It was once the fashion to complain that Stoppard played safe politically because (as the dramatist James Saunders put it) "he's basically a displaced person. Therefore he doesn't want to stick his neck out. He feels grateful to Britain, because he sees himself as a guest here and that makes it hard for him to criticise". But Rock'n'Roll, which is as much about England as Czechoslovakia, looks set to show anglophilia under some strain. To reverse Saunders' argument: it's precisely because of his refugee's love for English traditions of tolerance and self-respect that he's an acute observer of slipping standards, loss of nerve and a growing acceptance of curbs on liberty. To be "oppositional" (always a buzzword at the Court) is a function of perceptiveness, not of one's perceived ideological persuasion, and the current team are to be congratulated for recognising this in their welcome to Stoppard.
Another routine jibe against the dramatist is that he's all head and no heart. That may be true in a piece like Travesties (1974). But plays such as Arcadia and The Invention of Love have proved that he can marry cerebral high comedy and painful emotional depth, cleverness and wisdom.
In the latter, he pits Oscar Wilde, who threw away his life on a flamboyant infatuation with Lord Alfred Douglas, against AE Housman, whose unforgotten, unconsummated, passion for a sporty Oxford contemporary fed into the poetry of A Shropshire Lad and the passionate intensity of his textual criticism. One man is a symbol of abandon, the other of repression. Both produced lasting art. Who would you rather have been? "Better a fallen rocket than never a burst of light," says Wilde, but the play, a beautiful study of the tension between different kinds of success and failure, makes it impossible to adjudicate.
I presented the author, in whom a Romantic struggles to stay, with a thought experiment. If somebody held a gun to Stoppard's head and said that the price of survival was assuming the existence of one or the other, how would he jump? "I would insist on adjusting the rules of your game. Instead of having to choose between the lives, let's say that you can choose between the circumstances and attributes of either Wilde or Housman and that you're then free to work with these as you may. In that case, I would choose Housman. I think my temperament veers more to stability than volatility, though I hope I would find a way of being happier for more of the time than Housman." But then he continues "On the other hand, I would rather have written The Importance of Being Earnest, so the question can't be resolved".
Stoppard's eyes sparkle with amusement when tells me of a string of spooky coincidences associated with his plays. "Fermat's last theorem was proved when we were in preview for Arcadia [in which the mathematically inspired 13-year-old heroine is it preoccupied by it]. In The Invention of Love, the two Housmans discuss a poem by the Roman elegist Gallus, of which only one line survives. Nine more lines turned up while we were doing it." And now, while rehearsing Rock'n'Roll, a researcher in Cologne has found a fragment that matches up with an extant piece of a Sappho poem. Who says that art can't have a short-term effect? I suggest that Stoppard, the Oscar-winning co-author of Shakespeare in Love, should next try to extend the Bard's canon by writing a show involving the lost collaborative play Cardenio. Even a scrap of that would be a momentous turn-up for the books. "No," he responds with a shaft of vintage Stoppard wit, "I think it might be more useful to devise a play about a cure for the common cold."
'Rock'n'Roll', Royal Court, London SW1 (020-7565 5000) 14 June to 15 July; transfers to the Duke of York's Theatre, London WC2 (0870 060 6623) on 22 JulyReuse content