Corrections or additions?
This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the
April 11, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Broadway Review: `Invention of Love’
The rather stolid and sexually disappointing life
of the English poet and classical scholar A.E. Housman has been
to stunning dramatic life by playwright Tom Stoppard. Primarily
for a collection of poems "A Shropshire Lad," and less so
for his aggressive assaults on other scholars for their sloppy
of the poems of passion written by the ancient Greeks and Romans,
Housman was to remain throughout his life emotionally repressed and
unwilling to follow his inclinations. Now this "closeted"
life has been outed with intelligence, wit and style by Stoppard.
Stoppard, whose gift for empowering his plays with that what is
academic and dramatically romantic (as in "Rosencrantz and
are Dead," "Travesties," and "Arcadia") has once
again brought to bear his incomparable virtuosity and formidable way
The language, both Stoppard’s invention and that which he culls
from Houseman, is, in truth, daunting. Much of it cites the work and
the wrangling of critics of the Victorian age, yet it is surprisingly
gripping (as was the scientific talk in "Copenhagen"). How
amusing it is to hear Housman’s glee when he discovers that a mere
misplaced comma has unwittingly altered the intent of an ancient love
To fully enjoy this haunting play that filters Housman’s secret
and agonies through his academic pursuits, you may be well advised
to arrive at the theater early enough to read the Lincoln Center
Review that is available in the lobby. This, along with the program
notes, gives you a useful background on Housman.
"The Invention of Love" is a riveting often funny, journey
as well as a love story that takes us from the banks of the River
Styx to the halls of Oxford University. The play begins in 1936, the
year of Housman’s death. We meet the 77-year-old Housman chatting
with Charon (Jeff Weiss), the quick-witted ferryman of Hades, who
says he is waiting for one more passenger to arrive. While in this
state of purgatory, Housman’s mind wanders back to his days as an
Oxford undergraduate, rowing down the river Isis with two friends.
Housman, played as a young man by Robert Sean Leonard, is never far
removed from his older self, who moves in and out of the young
life trying to understand the anxieties of the young man who has
desperately in love with Moses Jackson (David Harbour), a virile and
handsome science student and heterosexual athlete.
That the love that dare not speak its name would only be reflected
through and materialized in Housman’s love for Latin is given
poignancy by the presence of Oscar Wilde (Daniel Davis). Davis is
grand and eloquent as the daring and scandal-beset aesthete who did
not know Housman in real life, but is conveniently around to mock
Housman’s choice of restraint and denial. As the play is, of
verbose and long (nearly three hours), Jack O’Brien’s staging is a
marvel of fluidity and invention, keeping the words and action of
the large company moving along briskly.
Bob Crowley’s dreamy impressionistic set designs find
an infinite variety of ways and means to embrace and romanticize even
such things as the fevered pontificating between such esteemed
as Pater (Martin Rayner) and Ruskin (Paul Hecht). No less exhilarating
are the discussions on life and the classical antiquities that inspire
Housman and his friend Pollard (Michael Stuhlbarg), but leaves the
amiable, unconverted Jackson in left field. Only those who have been
there can attest to how funny and full of love this play is. Under
a veneer of reverential intellectualism, "The Invention of
has an erratic heart that beats wildly and erotically.
Easton’s superb performance, constrained by an Oxford deportment,
reaches an ecstatic high (believe it or not) when lecturing on the
merits of good classical translation. Leonard, who looks more and
more like a young Laurence Olivier, acts with a fervor that reaches
an emotional peak when Housman, who has been sharing rooms with
reveals his feelings to an affably understanding Jackson, who remains
his friend for life. Mark Nelson makes a terrific impression as
outspoken, wry, gay friend, who hints at a life that was more passion
than poetry. Would that the play on occasion did too, but then it
wouldn’t be about Housman. Three stars.
— Simon Saltzman
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