TOPICS > Politics

Stoppard Play Uses Rock Music to Stage a ‘Revolution’

November 30, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Playwright Tom Stoppard's latest work, "Rock'n'Roll," takes a new look at Czechoslovakia's 1989 Velvet Revolution, which toppled the then Soviet-backed Communist government. Jeffrey Brown looks at Stoppard's inspirations and talks to actors about portraying his characters.

JIM LEHRER: The strike is over; Broadway is back. A leading playwright is exploring a piece of recent history and its music. Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: August 1968, Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia, putting a violent and abrupt end to the “Prague Spring,” a period of reform and new openness in the tightly controlled communist regime. It would be another 21 years before Vaclav Havel, and others, brought an end to communism in their country through the so-called Velvet Revolution.

ACTOR: Look at this.

RUFUS SEWELL, Actor: Well, what is it?

ACTOR: The file on you in Cambridge.

RUFUS SEWELL: The file on me?

JEFFREY BROWN: Playwright Tom Stoppard’s latest work explores this period, and a young Czech named Jan…

RUFUS SEWELL: You’re such a defeatist!

JEFFREY BROWN: … who returns to Prague in 1968 from his studies in England and is led to the dissident movement through an unlikely source, rock ‘n’ roll.

RUFUS SEWELL: I came back to save rock ‘n’ roll — and my mother, actually.

TOM STOPPARD, Playwright: One of the things the play is saying is that simply by playing banned music, writing banned plays, writing banned essays and novels, that is dissent.

Accidental dissidents

JEFFREY BROWN: Stoppard found some of the material for his play, called "Rock 'n' Roll," in Havel's memoirs. Havel wrote of encountering a rock band called the Plastic People of the Universe, Czech hippies who had little to do with politics, but whose arrest in 1976 for being "anti-socialist" galvanized opposition to the government and eventually led to the human rights movement called Charter 77, which seized the world's attention.

I went to some of the source material you used, Vaclav Havel's memoirs, and he says that he didn't quite get it about the music at first.

TOM STOPPARD: That's right. Yes, I find that interesting, too. This band and the few people like them, who were outlaws because they wouldn't really wish to compromise on what they were doing in the way of music or sculpture or painting, they weren't thinking of themselves as political animals making a statement. They didn't think of themselves as being a symbol of resistance.

I think it's true that artists actually aren't like that. Artists, what they want to do is to be allowed to do what they do, their art. They want to play music, in this case, rock 'n' roll.

ACTOR: Who's got the best chance of getting Husak's attention, Havel or the Plastic People of the Universe?

RUFUS SEWELL: The Plastics.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the play, Jan comes to see the power the band has over the regime.

RUFUS SEWELL: But the Plastics don't care at all. They're unbribable. They're coming from somewhere else, from where the muses come from. They're not heretics. They're pagans.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rufus Sewell plays Jan.

RUFUS SEWELL: This is someone who doesn't believe in being a dissident. He just wants to "come on, let's just relax, let them do what they're going to do."

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let's listen to music, is what he wants to do.

RUFUS SEWELL: "Let's listen to music. Let's not make trouble for these people. It'll be all right." But he finds that that attitude, in the end, as the communist government clamps down and gets more and more hardcore, that even listening to music and being a follower of this band, the Plastic People of the Universe, becomes, in itself, dissent.

ACTRESS: He was the piper, a beautiful boy as old as music, half-goat and half-god.

ACTRESS: Mom, what are you smoking?

Stoppard takes on a challenge

JEFFREY BROWN: Stoppard has long been known for his wit, wordplay, and willingness to take on big ideas.

ACTRESS: Is this where it's all going? If we're lucky.

JEFFREY BROWN: His last play, "The Coast of Utopia," a three-part epic about 19th-century Russian intellectuals, was a surprise hit in New York and won a record seven Tony Awards, including one for best play. In "Rock 'n' Roll," as always Stoppard takes on a heady mix of subjects.

BRIAN COX, Actor: I'm exactly as old as the October Revolution.

JEFFREY BROWN: Brian Cox plays Max, a Cambridge professor who remains committed to communism.

BRIAN COX: There's something which keeps happening to me, more and more now that I'm getting to be half-famous for not leaving the Communist Party. I meet somebody -- it could be a visiting professor or somebody fixing my car, anyone -- and what they all want to know, but they don't know how to ask because they don't want to be rude, is how come, when it's obvious even to them, how come I don't get it?

RUFUS SEWELL: So why don't you--

BRIAN COX: Don't push it.

JEFFREY BROWN: There are also discussions in the play of Sappho, the Greek poet, as well as the science of the brain.

ACTRESS: What you like about brains, Max, is that they all work in the same way. What you don't like about minds is that they don't.

TOM STOPPARD: I think that the ideas are the end product of the play more than a play being the end product of a set of ideas.

The human side of history

JEFFREY BROWN: This notion of what drives human action, and therefore history, are you concerned with figuring that kind of thing out when you think about a play like this?

TOM STOPPARD: I must try to be accurate about myself in regard to that question. I really like theater. I think theater is a storytelling art form.

I began going to the theater when I was in my late teens, and I got to know actors in this town I was in, because I was a journalist. And I'd got backstage. And I just liked the smell of it, and I liked what it did and how it worked, and I got really interested by theater.

And I try to combine this desire to be part of it with things which interest me. As a writer, you don't, as it were, choose the subject; it chooses you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Trevor Nunn, the director of "Rock 'n' Roll," has worked often with Stoppard.

TREVOR NUNN, Director: I'm not going to deny that he sets the bar very high. And if an audience can stay with him and engage -- having set the bar high -- there is the most wonderful feeling that an audience has of, "We got over that bar with Stoppard, and therefore we've had a great deal of brain food, as well as emotional engagement."

RUFUS SEWELL: In terms of acting in his plays, it's as though he loans you his intellect for the course of...

JEFFREY BROWN: He loans you...

RUFUS SEWELL: Yes, so when I'm playing a character, in order to work my way through some of the speeches, you have to think your way through it. You have to make those connections. Those synapses have to be fused.

ACTOR: There are no stories in Czechoslovakia. We have an arrangement with ourselves not to disturb their appearances. We aim for inertia. We mass produce banality.

RUFUS SEWELL: For that moment, you feel super bright, and I become clever when I'm on stage. Unfortunately, you know, it runs out after a couple of hours after the show.

For Stoppard, a more personal work

JEFFREY BROWN: For Stoppard himself, there is a final, and very personal, twist to "Rock 'n' Roll." He is the exact age of Vaclav Havel, another playwright, of course. And Stoppard was actually born in Czechoslovakia. His family escaped during World War II.

TOM STOPPARD: I was born there. I left when I was a baby. I stopped speaking Czech when I was 4. My Czech father was killed. My Czech mother married an Englishman, Mr. Stoppard. And then, 8 years old, suddenly I'm not Tomas Straussler. I'm Tom Stoppard. And then I become this English school boy.

JEFFREY BROWN: The character Jan, Stoppard's alter ego, is also a student in England when the play begins. But unlike Stoppard, he returns to Czechoslovakia.

ACTOR: It's strange for you coming back a little English schoolboy.

RUFUS SEWELL: We always spoke Czech at home in England.

TOM STOPPARD: When I was growing up, yes, occasionally you'd think, "Well, what would have happened if, you know, if Mum actually hadn't married an Englishman, if we'd just gone back to Czechoslovakia after the war, and we'd been there when the communists came? And what would I have grown up to be?" I have no idea.

JEFFREY BROWN: "Rock 'n' Roll," then, is not only Tom Stoppard's tale of individuals wracked by recent history, but also, in part, his own alternative autobiography.

JIM LEHRER: In our Insider Forum, Rufus Sewell, the lead actor in "Rock 'n' Roll," is taking your questions on his portrayal of a Stoppard character and life on the Broadway stage. You can participate by going to