The Invention of Love
By biconews On 1 Feb, 2000 At 05:00 AM | Categorized As Archives, Arts | With 0 Comments

By Geoffrey W. Melada

Recently, I paid an extended visit to the Wilma Theater at its new home on Philadelphia’s Avenue of Arts where Tom Stoppard is currently in residence. The playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Shakespeare in Love” is here in anticipation of the East Coast premier of his new play “The Invention of Love” at the Wilma (opening Feb. 16). In “The Invention of Love,” which the London Sunday Times called “Stoppard at his best: manipulative, inquisitive, irresistable,” [sic] Stoppard explores the life of classical scholar and poet A.E. Housman.

Old and in declining health, Housman dreams that he is dead. As Charon, the mythical boatman, ferries him to the further shore, Housman returns to the Oxford of his youth here he fell in love with classmate Moses Jackson. In this intricate tapestry woven with humor, elegance, and compassion, “The Invention of Love” reveals passion that is daunted, deferred, but never defeated.

Following a marathon rehearsal of “The Invention of Love,” I was able to discuss Stoppard’s new play with director Blanka Zizka and Wilma Dramaturg/Literary Manager Carrie Ryan.

Geoffrey Melada: I have noticed that many Wilma plays, especially those you have done by Tom Stoppard (“Travesties,” “Arcadia,” and On the Razzle”) are writerly as opposed to readerly. If these plays point outward, as most will agree they do, they first point demandingly inward, insisting on themselves as endless sources of wit and invention. Are you consciously choosing plays that revel in this Dionysiac play of language?

Blanka Zizka: We are choosing plays that experiment with ideas and emotions. In “The Invention of Love,” one could easily get lost in Stoppard’s words, but we want, above all else, to tap into the intense emotional world of the play, to unearth this passionate love story. Here is a world of ideas reflected in specificity of language, not the reverse.

GM: Tell me about your collaboration with Tom Stoppard. Has this been helpful? How has his presence at the theater complemented your work?

BZ: Jiri [Co-Artistic Director] and I read the first draft 2-3 years ago and knew it as it evolved through several stages. We met with T.S. in the Czech Republic to discuss our impressions of the play and to learn what his own intentions were. He guided us through the extensive research he performed for the play and helped us to see how all the pieces of this enormous puzzle fit together. Tom is no longer involved in the creative process. He understands that a play changes each time an artist interprets it. Our production will no doubt be very different from the West Coast premier that is occurring at roughly the same time.

GM: What does your artistic vision of this play include?

BZ: This play is somewhere between waking and dreaming and is, therefore, quite subjective. AEH, in this waking dream, is attempting to piece together many scatterings of memories from life. To suggest this, I planned a wall, with compartments that are opening and releasing. The result is a theatrical expression of memory.

GM: So this wall is like a membrane, porous, but selective, allowing only certain figures and episodes to pass through?

HZ: Yes, exactly. Also, to suggest weightlessness associated with dreaming, I plan to have the boats that glide along the river Styx actually float above the audience.

GM: In all of the plays that I’ve seen involving nautical scenes, dry ice machines were used to create fog effect while boats were rolled across the stage. Yours is an unconventional choice for a decidedly unconventional play.

Following this discussion, I spoke to the indefatigable Carrie Ryan, who doubles as Literary Manager/Dramaturg of the Wilma.

Geoffrey Melada: As the Literary arm of the Wilma, you must love this production for the role that words play in their own right/write/rite. Is “The Invention of Love” a delight to you given it is so self-conscious of the fundamental matter of its own narrative weave?

Carrie Ryan: Yes, but remember that we can’t play narrative weave on stage. The narrative structure thin Stoppard sets up, his verbal echoes and temporal loops, must remain fresh and interesting. As we go around and around again in Housman’s mind, the same stories must be retold in continually different ways.

GM: Am I correct in assuming that this play posed serious dramaturgical challenges?

CR: Yes, this play reflects years of research on Stoppard’s part (reading biographies of Housman, Wilde, Pater et. al., as well as their works, and interviewing family members) and is very layered. Whereas an ordinary play might contain Just one of Stoppard’s main elements - ancient literature, Oxford history, and pre-War London - “The Invention of Love” features all three. In addition, the Latin and Greek verse found in the play presented a rather large challenge to the literary department as well as the actors.

GM: What about Oxford vernacular? Did Stoppard help you to adapt this play for American audiences?

CR: He did, yes, and those phrases and puns that we felt obscured meaning in an already puzzling text were sometimes rearranged or removed to preserve clarity.

GM: Is there a message, or metastatement, in this play about (homosexual) desire?

BZ: The play is about three gay characters who take three different paths, two of them patently unhealthy. Wilde’s character is the most seductive because he, as this unabashedly Modern figure, dares to express himself. A.E. Housman is less glamorous to our contemporary eyes because he represses his desire. But Stoppard doesn’t make the easy statement that Wilde is the character we should admire. T.S very affectionately portrays Housman as a man who loved another man at a time when Victorian London had pronounced this a crime.

“The Invention of Love” begins previews February 9, opens February 16 and runs through March 12. Tickets range from $7 - $38 and can be purchased at the box office (Broad and Spruce Streets), by phone (215) 546-7824 or online

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