Jesse Jarnow

the beach boys on the coast of utopia

“Terrapin” – Syd Barrett (download) (buy)
recorded 24 February 1970, Top Gear, BBC Radio 1

(file expires November 7th)

About 10 years ago in Copenhagen, I saw a dude walking down the street in a leather jacket with the words “Rock & Roll” written on the back in bedazzled studs. And I think he really meant it. That’s pretty much how Tom Stoppard means it in Rock ‘n’ Roll, currently in previews in New York, a play — when it boils down to it — about Czechoslovakian politics and, ahem, Syd Barrett. But, in the context of Czechoslovakia, where rock remained a revolutionary force for several decades longer than the United States (if it ever was here to begin with), the simplicity is totally excusable.

Midway through the first act, intellectual/rock dork Jan (Rufus Sewell) stomps around his room in Prague. His hair has grown out and he wears a long coat. When he turns to face his four shelves of vinyl, for a moment, he resembles nothing less than one of the proto-Commie dreamers of Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia. Rock ‘n’ Roll is in, many ways, an epilogue to that trilogy, catching the last few decades of socialism before the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Wall, a bridge back to the modern world from the ideas Herzen, Belinsky, Turgenev and others opened up in Utopia.

As a standalone work, Rock ‘n’ Roll is a bit simplistic. Like Ethan Hawke’s clownish Michael Bakunin in the Lincoln Center Utopia, the characters do a lot of shouting about Ideas. In places, the music is predictable — cuing “Welcome to the Machine” after a typically Stoppardian debate about mind-as-spirit vs. mind-as-machine, for example. But Pink Floyd, it turns out, is still a foreign substance to legit thee-ay-terr, and the effect — mixed, Jah bless ’em, at a genuine loud volume — is at least a superficial mimicry of how Czech rockers the Plastic People of the Universe must have fit into political discourse: rudely. Indeed, the songs were always abruptly cut off before resolution, the lights thrown up and the next scene begun instantly. (And, sometimes, the music is totally unpredictable, like a totally WTF?! excerpt of the Rockin’ the Rhein rendition of the Dead’s “Chinatown Shuffle.”)

Stoppard’s got his post-existential/surrealist formula down pat: the life/emotional arcs of characters embroiled in sweeping historical/intellectual concepts, with a few plotlines about incidental contemporary happenings to keep things cosmically circumstantial. In Rock ‘n’ Roll, the latter role is filled by Syd Barrett, who haunts the play, sometimes literally. Formulaic or no, though, it always leaves me excited, the way I felt the first time I saw Arcadia as a freshman in college, like everything was somehow connected.

“Well, that’s the last Stoppard I’m ever going to,” huffed a British chap outside afterwards. Maybe Brian Cox switched accents midway through some scenes, as my friend suggested. Maybe it was just too loud. (Thx, G’ma.)

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