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The underworld of death provides no answers, only long, dark nights of heartbreaking memories. Such is Hades as Tom Stoppard sees it in his breathtaking The Invention of Love,about the life and loves of A.E. Housman. Only Stoppard's fiery wit and blazing intelligence mitigate the sadness pulsing through the heart of this gorgeous inferno.
The story of Housman, a Victorian poet and classics scholar who studied at Oxford around the turn of the 19th century in England, is a perfect vehicle for Stoppard. The prolific writer of pieces from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to Shakespeare in Love gets to strut his amazing intellect and his extraordinary breadth of knowledge with each line of this heady play that takes in everything from the vagaries of ancient Greek texts to the erudite ideas of Victorian art critic John Ruskin. And difficult as some of this might be to follow (it would definitely help to read up on the Victorians before squeezing into a seat at the Alley's Neuhaus Stage), it is also oftentimes outrageously funny.
There is a great deal of fun poked at the business of academics and scholarship. "If you cannot write Latin and Greek verse, how can you hope to be of any use in the world?" asks one of Housman's incredulous professors as he gazes down his long aquiline nose at the world of working folk. On the other hand, while acknowledging the uselessness of such things as ancient verse, Stoppard makes clear his own passion for that poetry. Useless knowledge, says Housman, is the "highest task of all," while "useful knowledge is for the faint of heart."
We first meet the stodgy Victorian poet when he enters Hades, "the Stygian gloom one has heard so much about." Designer Rui Rita stippled the stage floor with waves of gorgeous gray light that flow like what they symbolize: the river Styx. Housman stands at the edge of it and says simply, "I'm dead, then. Good." It is not until he steps into the ferryman's boat that he is permitted the luxury of looking back across the landscape of his long life (he died at 77).
We thus get to meet both the young and the old Housman, played by Philip Lehl and John Tyson, respectively. Neither recognizes the other when they first meet in a remarkable scene that is filled with an exquisite melancholy on the older man's part. He comes to discover himself in the repressed and energetic young man who stands before him, pontificating on the manner in which ancient texts have been corrupted over the centuries. When the young Housman explains what he means by the perfect male friendship, men who are "companions in adventure," the elder man grows even more plaintive.
For years, the gay Housman could not bring himself to admit his true feelings for his college chum, the very heterosexual Moses John Jackson (Ty Mayberry). Instead, the repressed intellectual tried to explain away his feelings as those of "friendship and virtue, like the Greek heroes" had for each other. Housman's anguish is made even clearer by constant references to the poet's contemporary, the flamboyant Oscar Wilde. Wilde, who goes about Oxford in his "plum- colored velvet breeches" scandalizing everyone, is scorned by the manly Jackson. Wilde was of course later imprisoned for carrying on a rather public affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. Housman secretly admires Wilde, but can't tell Jackson what he thinks.
When Housman finally meets the playwright (James Black portrays him with wonderful corpulence) in the afterlife, it is clear that he feels mostly remorse for his own inability to be more like Wilde, who acted on his sexuality with little self-reproach. "My life has been marked by long silences," says Housman sadly. Wilde -- he died shortly after his release from prison, in the shadows of unrelenting public castigation -- says simply, "The blaze of my immolation threw its light into every corner of the land where uncounted young men sat each in his own darkness."
It was at the turn of the century that those uncounted men began to call themselves homosexuals, a term the scholar Housman hilariously calls "barbarity" because the word is "half Greek and half Latin." But this newly invented term for love is only part of the title of Stoppard's play. Housman also loved words and scholarship and poetry. After he dies, he looks back and sees all of these loves of his life with a long sigh of longing and a wave of regret.
This is not the stuff of armchair entertainment. The playwright covers much information, though he himself admits that the Victorian age was but a "tiny teacup" of time. Gregory Boyd's direction keeps up with Stoppard's velocity. The burlesque of Gilbert and Sullivan, the brashness of yellow journalism, the expansive ideas of some of the first modern art critics, and the birth of gay romance as we now understand it all fit with amazing surety on the Alley stage.
Boyd's cast is wonderful at times. Lehl and Tyson capture the grace and understatement of Stoppard's Housman. At the same time they fill him with the sort of urgency of a man who desperately needs to speak but can't. When Lehl's young Housman breaks down and confesses his true feelings to Jackson some years after they meet, the moment is heart-wrenching for its quiet, deep sadness. Tyson shows us how impotent Housman feels when he finally meets the expansive Wilde, and the results are heartbreaking. And the Alley's supporting cast is powerful, especially Todd Waite's hysterically humorless Benjamin Jowett.
There is nothing easy or simple about Stoppard's Invention, but the story it tells about love, loss and the struggle to know oneself in an impossibly complex world is worth the effort.