Theatre: Wilde about the boy
Thursday 05 November 1998
HAYMARKET THEATRE ROYAL, LONDON
WHO WOULD you rather have been? Oscar Wilde, who threw his life away on a flamboyant infatuation with Lord Alfred Douglas, or AE Housman, Latin scholar and author of A Shropshire Lad, whose unrequited love for a sporty Oxford contemporary, Moses Jackson, had to be repressed and channelled into the passionate pedantries of textual criticism and the obliquities of lyric verse?
"Better a fallen rocket than never a burst of light," is Wilde's view of the matter, when the disgraced aesthete makes a late, scene-stealing arrival in The Invention of Love. Now transferred to the West End in a partially recast revival, Tom Stoppard's excellent play movingly refuses to adjudicate on this issue. Through the figure of Housman, whose dying mind provides the dream landscape for this fantasia-like memory play, Stoppard makes a powerful case that it is simply impertinent to regard the professor's lonely, exacting scholarship as a retreat from life. On the contrary, he shows it to be life lived at an extraordinary pitch of intensity.
I was seeing the play for a second time, and what struck me most was the skill and insight with which Stoppard connects Housman the homosexual and Housman the scholar. in one scene, Jowett, the Master of Balliol, mentions a typewritten copy of a letter he had written that refers to his "solemn duty to stamp out unnatural mice". The mistake the typist has introduced nicely telescopes two kinds of corruption: sexual and textual. By an irony which Stoppard's drama makes both learnedly playful and endlessly poignant, Housman spent his life trying to eradicate errors of transmission in texts that emerged from a culture where love between men was not regarded as corrupt "beastliness". As he tells his young undergraduate self in the incomparable scene where the two meet, "it's all in the timing". In the ancient world, you could die in your comrade's arms; in Victorian England, where the classics, suitably heterosexualised, are considered a major civilising force, you are left to nearly die in Reading Gaol.
Using back-projections that flash with a reverie-like fluidity on Anthony Ward's curved ash-coloured library of a set, Richard Eyre's production is a masterpiece of tonal control. In the role of the younger Housman, Ben Porter has replaced Paul Rhys. He doesn't have the burning intensity and almost translucent sensitivity of his predecessor. It also feels a bit cock-eyed that with this recasting, the young Housman is more beautiful than the object of his infatuation. But Porter is tremendously touching in the scene where he is challenged by the likeable, yet limited Jackson, over whether he is "sweet" on him.
John Wood continues to give a sublime performance as the 77-year-old professorial Housman: the prickliness and the pain of the man, the tenderness and venomous professionalism, are matchlessly conveyed. Stoppard, whom he served so well in Travesties, must give thanks daily for Wood. In him, the pyrotechnical speeches find the perfect instrument.
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