Found in Translation

Don't pay the ferryman: Charon (Bob Davis) and A.E. Housman (David William) negotiate a gondola fare

Don't pay the ferryman: Charon (Bob Davis) and A.E. Housman (David William) negotiate a gondola fare

Guthrie dramaturge Carla Steen and literary assistant Melissa J.A. Carle seemingly had their hands full with Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love. As a guide for company actors, this duo toiled through the script with the fastidiousness of a pasty-faced abbot worming through an ancient Latin text. The result of Steen and Carle's labors is a 25-page document explaining each obscure detail of Stoppard's play--an addendum of exceptional heft, when you consider that the script it deciphers is only about 100 pages long in its printed edition.

Stoppard's play is dense with obscure allusions, which is typical: The author has, in the past, written passionate seriocomic scripts about such diverse topics as chaos math (Arcadia) and the intellectual climate of Europe during World War I (Travesties). In this latest instance, Stoppard has tackled the story of Alfred Edward Housman, a Victorian-era British scholar of Greek and Latin, who is mostly known for a widely mocked collection of grim poems titled A Shropshire Lad. This little chapbook hardly seems to warrant much discussion, as it mostly details the same sort of gruesome interests that were very common in poetry of the period: dead people. Corpses litter Housman's poems like October leaves: Dead lovers fill his cemeteries and wasted youths press pistols to their heads in his pages. These ghastly little verses might make some delightful reading on a bitter autumn night, and perhaps it is unsurprising that they attracted Stoppard. The playwright has a taste for the morbid himself, although he is ordinarily quite jocular about the matter.

In this spirit, Stoppard begins the play by saying to hell with his main character. Quite literally, that is, as the play opens on the River Styx, represented in this production by a single bench, several arches, and some Greek statuary. The elderly Housman (played by David William) dourly waits on the bench to be ferried away by Charon (Bob Davis, playing the role as Cockney comic relief). "This is the Stygian gloom one has heard so much about," Housman intones with mournful humor. Crossing the Styx will involve a flood of classical allusions, and will lead directly to Housman's own past. There, we will meet a younger version of Housman (Erik Steele), who constantly spouts ancient phrases such as "Nec Lethaea valet Theseus abrumpere caro vincula Pirithoo." How true that is!

Steen and Carle's literary decoding seems to have done its job: The performers here rattle off even the most obscure phrases as though they were the lyrics to popular songs. In one oddly thrilling sequence, David William's Housman offers a long lecture on the proper translation of Horace. William is a gaunt man who speaks almost without gesture or affectation, but there is a magnificence about him--particularly in the way he rolls his eyes in exaggerated impatience at the stupidity of everyone around him. He berates his students for their sloppiness, driving one to tears, while simultaneously offering an interpretation of an ancient love poem that is genuinely moving. "But why?" he cries out, in a moment of unexpected passion. "Why this unaccustomed tear trickling down my cheek?"

This is a play of unexpected passions and unaccustomed tears. Stoppard has pointed out to virtually anyone who will listen that The Invention of Love is a love story, really, as though we couldn't have picked that up from the title. Housman was a homosexual with a great, unrequited youthful love for a fellow student, and Stoppard's script explores this sad affair in detail. Erik Steele makes quite a fetching young Housman in these scenes, trailing after the object of his affection like a loyal hound dog. Steele grins with pleasure and recites his favorite Latin poets. Even his confession of love turns into an impromptu lecture on Theseus and Pirithous, two kings whose close comradeship was the standard for virtuous affection between men in the classical world.

This is a love story, thank you Mr. Stoppard, and in the great, subdued passion William and Steele bring to telling Housman's story, it is a vast love story indeed. What is loved onstage at the Guthrie Lab? A young man, certainly, but also classical language, mythology, poetry, scholarship, aesthetics, and a myriad of other grand, often unrequited affections. It would take far more than 25 pages to even begin to discuss them.


Classical texts are also the subject of examination at the Red Eye: Their production of Gwendolyn Schwinke's new play Thrown by Angels looks to the bible for inspiration, modernizing the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Schwinke herself plays Toni Matthews, the host of a television show called Biblical Mysteries who sets out to tell the story of a small mountain town that was firebombed for its presumed sexual immorality.

The premise is inspired, but the production is strangely flat, as though the entire cast had been sprinkled with a thin layer of salt prior to performing, and, like Lot's wife, cannot move very well as a result. In fact, Lot's wife herself appears in a series of visions, and as played by Jodi Kellogg, she's suitably otherworldly to have prompted a cautionary fit from Matthews. Alas, the actual response is more subdued: Schwinke simply mopes about the subject for a while. Even a mimed explosion at one point simply prompts the actors to roll about on the stage in slow motion, which calls to mind a high school gym class and not a frightening detonation.

Nonetheless, there is something moving about playwrights rummaging through old texts and looking for new meaning in them, as Stoppard and Schwinke have done. In Schwinke's play, despite the subdued pace, the results have a punkish, unexpectedly delightful quality, something like seeing teenagers wearing seersucker suits and straw boaters they have found at a thrift store. Who would have thought these old garments would still look so dapper?