Dazzling clouds of language come cascading from the stage in Tom Stoppard’s dazzling play “The Invention of Love,” sprinkling erudition on us all; but it’s a small, familiar phrase, ending in a question mark, that cuts to the quick. “What will become of you?” asks a friend of the young protagonist, the future poet and scholar A.E. Housman. The play provides a complicated, ultimately heartrending answer: Housman gained immortality, Stoppard suggests, without really having lived at all.
Less a drama than a densely layered meditation on a life and its meaning, “The Invention of Love” is honorably served in this Lincoln Center Theater production fluidly directed by Jack O’Brien, some excessive punctuation in the early going notwithstanding. Its arrival on Broadway is a bit tardy — the play debuted in London in 1997 and was seen at a couple of major regional theaters last season — but a Stoppard play is always worth waiting for, and so, too, are the infinitely moving performances of Robert Sean Leonard and Richard Easton as the younger and elder Housman, respectively.
The play is structured as a fantasia taking place in the mind of the deceased Housman, who begins it with a matter-of-fact observation of his strange new state. “I’m dead, then. Good.” Observing the murk surrounding him, he adds, “And this is the stygian gloom one has heard so much about.” This delicious opening scene, in which Housman is introduced to the famous Charon (Jeff Weiss, a bit overripe), is Stoppard at his best: as irreverent as it is erudite. It is also economical.
The first two qualities are hallmarks of the whole play, but the last one, alas, isn’t. “Invention of Love” contains scenes of great emotional power, but their effectiveness — the play’s as a whole, really — is sometimes occluded by the overwhelming intellectual and historical scaffolding surrounding them. The complexity of the play’s architecture is paralleled in Bob Crowley’s clever and attractive but somewhat fussy design scheme, which occasionally distracts the viewer from a text that needs concentrated attention.
To be sure, much of this is necessary scene-setting for audiences unfamiliar with Housman’s life and work, to say nothing of the philosophies of John Ruskin and Walter Pater, and the love poetry of Catullus and Propertius. Housman was studying classics at Oxford at a time when the cult of aestheticism surrounding Pater was approaching its height. As Stoppard illustrates, worship of all things Greek — notably male friendship — led to some rough passages for Pater, while his fellow classicists Ruskin, Benjamin Jowett and Mark Pattison, all comically depicted here, professed with varying degrees of sternness to abhor the practice of homosexuality, even if it was a hallmark of a culture they prized above all others.
Much of this intellectual window dressing is lively and entertaining, although less would probably suffice for the play’s purposes. To sweeten the pill, Stoppard leavens the scenes in which these chattering classicists expound their divergent philosophies with playful humor. O’Brien’s cast punches up the playfulness, sometimes to an unnecessary degree, as if seeking to reassure the audience that discussions of the purposes of higher education and debates about the merits of the medieval vs. Renaissance periods really can be fun.
But the heart of the play depicts the young Housman’s love for his classmate, Moses Jackson (David Harbour), and the delicate give and take between the elder and younger Housman. As the elder looks on at the beginning of his lifelong affection for Jackson (“I would have died for you, but I didn’t have the luck” is his mournful refrain), he converses with his younger self about poetry, life and scholarship.
The contrast between Easton’s dry acerbity and Leonard’s vibrant enthusiasm tells us much about the path Housman chose; in an early encounter, the elder advises the younger, “If I had my time again, I would pay more regard to those poems of Horace which tell you you will not have your time again. Life is brief, and death kicks at the door impartially.” This echoes Pater’s dictum to “gather not the fruits of experience but experience itself.” In Stoppard’s view, Housman chose not to, and Easton infuses his superior performance with a gentle air of regret for Housman’s sensual failures that is in telling contrast to the pride he takes in his intellectual successes.
Leonard’s finest moments coincide with the play’s breathtaking emotional climax. This comes early in the second act, when the young Housman must admit, to himself and to his beloved friend, that his affection is not merely platonic but closer to the “beastliness” they’d joked about earlier when discussing a slightly senior Oxonian, Oscar Wilde. With an honesty that never betrays the character’s veneer of comradeliness, Leonard communicates the depth of Housman’s affection, and the mixture of ecstasy and pain it causes him. Intelligence, craft and that something greater — a kind of crystalline emotional clarity — that the greatest actors have are to be found in this performance, perhaps the finest so far in this young actor’s already distinguished stage career.
The play posits that this unrequited love, combined with the repressive social climate in the wake of the Wilde trial, led Housman to channel into his romantic, mournful verse the feelings that could find no outlet in his life. It makes its case with unfailing eloquence and wit, even if its dramatic impact might be heightened by some judicious elisions.
Although in life they never met, Stoppard allows Housman and Wilde to come face to face on the banks of the Styx, where each asserts the value of his choices in some of the play’s most exhilaratingly beautiful writing. Daniel Davis’ refined, distinguished performance lends an air of dignified rue to Wilde, who excuses his love for the iniquitous Lord Alfred Douglas by saying, “We would never love anybody if we could see past our invention. Bosie is my creation, my poem.”
Stoppard shows us that Housman, too, suffered for the love he invented and transmuted into poetry. His emotional immolation may not have been due to a failure of courage, as Wilde accuses — “Your ‘honor’ is all shame and timidity and compliance,” he says — but something more noble, and harder to understand in our more self-indulgent age. Perhaps he simply couldn’t see beyond the vision of love that engorged his heart at a young age and fed his poetry until his death. A perfectionist in his scholarly career — laboring over the placement of a comma in a Latin text — he couldn’t accept anything less than the ideal he had dreamed of. Life didn’t put the commas in the right places, so he set it aside, and got to work.