June 04, 2006

Revolution in the head

Tom Stoppard left Czechoslovakia as a baby. Now, 68 years later, he has written Rock'n'Roll - a brilliant exploration of liberty, rebellion and identity that captures the spirit of the Sixties, from the Prague underground to the fragile genius of Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett

Neal Ascherson, Sunday June 4, 2006, The Observer
There is dissent which wants to substitute one system for another. And there is dissent which simply says: Get off our back, scrap all the guidelines and controls, and humanity will reassert itself.

Patiently, Stoppard explained to me how historic disputes between Kundera and Havel were reflected in the play. Kundera, in the first confused year after the invasion, had hoped that the experiment could still continue, working out a society in which uncensored freedom could co-exist with a socialist state, a new form of socialism which still needed to be devised. 'Havel said that it wasn't a question of making new systems. "Constructing" a free press was like inventing the wheel. You don't have to invent a free society because such a society is the norm - it's normal.'

I asked if this notion of freedom as 'normal' and 'natural', something which doesn't need designing, wasn't close to the anarchist vision But this was not what he meant, it seemed. Stoppard's trust that 'people' will behave well when left on their own has its common-sense limits. In Salvage, the third play in the Utopia triliogy, Stoppard makes Herzen puncture the exuberant anarchist Mikhail Bakunin in a needle-sharp exchange:

Bakunin: 'Left to themselves, people are noble, generous, uncorrupted, they'd create a completely new kind of society if only people weren't so blind, stupid and selfish.'

Herzen: 'Is that the same people or different people?'

Rock'n'Roll is, naturally enough, full of talk about rock music, about Jan's precious albums brought from England and smashed by the secret police, about memories of mighty bands of the 1970s. But the play has one extra character who never comes on stage, yet haunts the imagination of the other characters. This is Syd Barrett, once the marvellous young leader and songwriter of Pink Floyd, who was dumped by the band for being unmanageable, went back to his mother's semi in Cambridge, and fell silent. Today an elderly balding man whom nobody recognises, he lives as a recluse. It's not clear if he knows that someone has written a play about him.

I asked Stoppard why he used Syd. 'I wanted to write about somebody who had simply "got off the train". A friend lent me some books about him. Those deceptively simple songs! Some said he was a genius, others that there was nothing in them ...'

But it's about more than the songs. It's about other things which are prowling through the play behind its philosophical sparkle: beauty, death, transience. Stoppard says: 'I found the pictures in those books very moving. There's a photograph of him like a dark archangel.'

Syd, in Rock'n'Roll, is made into the shadow of the lost god Pan. One woman, bewitched by him a quarter-century ago, remembers him as 'the guarantee of beauty'. But Tom Stoppard's play is saying that in politics, in families, in physical existence, there are no guarantees.


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