Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Tom Stoppard's "The Invention of Love"

Singapore Jade had been insisting that I read this Stoppard play for quite some time, and finally made it impossible for me to put her off by giving me a copy the other day. Plays don't come alive to me until I see them performed, and The Invention of Love struck me, on first reading, as more brainy than acute, more showy than moving. But Stoppard's Housman and Wilde came back to me again and again in the last few days, while I was waiting for the bus, or listening to a friend's chatter, or working out in the SAFRA gym near my house.

The desire to lay down your life for your lover. A desire represented in the play by repeated references to the Theban band, an army made of same-sex lovers, slaughtered by the Macedonians. Housman wants to lay down his life for his love, Moses Jackson, but the latter is straight and does not love him back, and Housman remains closeted all his life. Wilde, on the other hand, gives his life and reputation for his love, refusing to run from standing trial.

The serious Housman. The apparently frivolous Wilde. Housman was a first-year student at Oxford when Wilde was in his final year there. Housman is going to be a scholar of Greek and Latin, Wilde an Aesthete of Life. Housman raises points of linguistic interest in Catallus. Wilde raises witty epigrams quoted around the university. Wilde receives a First in Finals. Housman is ploughed by the Finals because Propertius, his life work, is not on the examination.

You cannot be a poet and a scholar of the first rank; you must choose. The poet's supreme god is beauty but the scholar's ultimate goal is knowledge. In life, as well as career, Housman chooses to be a first-rank scholar. Wilde chooses to be a poet.

The love elegy, like the motor-car and the telephone, had to be invented. Homosexual love had to be invented. Housman decides not to invent homosexual love, but to live a life of permanent longing. Wilde is a self-invention.

Which of the two men lived a better life? What regrets and joys attend each man waiting by the river for Charon?

2 comments:

Harry said...

I saw that in the theatre, and I'd completely forgotten Wilde was even in it. Funny thing, memory.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Wilde only appears at the end of the play, though he is talked about throughout.