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The Invention of Love

Court Theatre

By Albert Williams

The laws of God, the laws of man,

He may keep that will and can;

Not I: let God and man decree

Laws for themselves and not for me;

And if my ways are not as theirs

Let them mind their own affairs....

And how am I to face the odds

Of man's bedevilment and God's?

I, a stranger and afraid

In a world I never made.

--A.E. Housman, Last Poems

Ask most people to name a homosexual British poet of the late Victorian era and they'll almost certainly say Oscar Wilde: actually an Irishman, Wilde has come to epitomize the perils and pleasures of gay English life in the late 1800s, especially to Americans. Many are familiar with the sexual subtexts of The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray as well as with De Profundis, the heart-wrenching missive Wilde wrote to his beloved Alfred Douglas in Reading Gaol, where he was imprisoned for "gross indecency" after his homosexuality was exposed.

Wilde's contemporary, Alfred Edward Housman, is less well-known, especially in this country. But in poems penned from the early 1890s to the mid-1920s Housman compellingly expressed the gay experience of his time, often in coded language. "The laws of God, the laws of man" rings with anguish and anger at being cast in the role of moral outsider, and his verse protesting Wilde's prosecution and punishment is a masterpiece of scathing sarcasm: "Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists? / And what has he been after that they groan and shake their fists? / And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air? / Oh they're taking him to prison for the colour of his hair." His reminiscence of youthful fantasies about same-sex love in the model of ancient Greece is touching and authentic: "When I would muse in boyhood / The wild green woods among, / And nurse resolves and fancies / Because the world was young, / It was not foes to conquer, / Nor sweethearts to be kind, / But it was friends to die for / That I would seek and find." And his love poems, though often focused on unrequited romance, are smart and emotionally charged. In one, he urges his beloved: "Be good to the lad that loves you true / And the soul that was born to die for you, / And whistle and I'll be there."

Wilde and Housman make a fascinating study in contrasts--two sides of the same three-dollar bill, as it were. They studied classical literature at Oxford at the same time, but where Wilde was a stellar student--and a prizewinning poet by his mid-20s--Housman failed his exams and didn't even start writing poetry until his 30s. Being a late bloomer eventually worked to his advantage, however. His books of verse, A Shropshire Lad (1896) and Last Poems (1922), affirmed him as one of England's finest poets, as did two posthumously published collections. And his humiliation at school prompted a postcollegiate course of self-education in the reading room of the British Museum; eventually he became one of the most learned and controversial literary critics of all time, defying traditional interpretations of Latin poetry by exposing errors of transcription that had crept into the texts over centuries.

The flamboyant Wilde and the reticent Housman both had a single great love in their lives. Wilde's affair with Douglas brought him pleasure followed by pain and ruin. Housman's infatuation with a heterosexual fellow student, athlete and scientist Moses Jackson, was never consummated--but the poet remained devoted to his friend from their college days until Housman's death in 1936, 13 years after Jackson died of cancer.

In his 1997 drama The Invention of Love--presented in its midwest premiere by Court Theatre (which dealt with Wilde's life in its Chicago premiere of Moises Kaufman's Gross Indecency two years ago)--Tom Stoppard shrewdly focuses on the parallels between Housman's and Wilde's lives as a way to probe Housman's dual identities as a closeted homosexual and as a "scholar-poet" (as Richard Perceval Graves calls him in his 1979 biography). Stoppard's theme is Housman's and Wilde's reinvention of love in a world where homosexuality was "the love that dare not speak its name," in Douglas's words. Stoppard's thesis is that Housman--obsessed with Jackson in his youth when the two were schoolmates, roommates, and then coworkers at the government patent office in London--ended up emotionally stunted, a dried-up academic devoted to "useless knowledge."

Despite magnificent performances by Broadway veteran Paxton Whitehead and Chicago actor Guy Adkins as the old and young Housman, Stoppard's attempts to steep his audience in the political and cultural context of Housman's time ultimately undermine the play's dramatic potential. Certainly in Charles Newell's staging The Invention of Love often comes off as a lecture despite its occasional music-hall comic tone; too much information is spoken at us, not shown to us.

Stoppard's fantasia takes place in Hades, where Housman--either dead or dreaming--has been ferried over the River Styx by Charon. The underworld of Greek mythology is populated by shades from Housman's past: friends, teachers, family members, his own youthful self. While this inventive approach is promising, it's also a little confusing. Stoppard clutters the stage with peripheral characters--among them such historical figures as critics Walter Pater and John Ruskin, classical professor Benjamin Jowett, humorist Jerome K. Jerome, and journalist Frank Harris--who embody clashing attitudes toward aesthetics and homosexuality. The terms "buggery" and "bestiality" get thrown around, and Jowett sneers at pederasty as "the canker that brought low the glory that was Greece"; Harris in turn recalls archaeologists discovering the mass grave of the Sacred Band of Thebes, an elite "army of lovers" whose 300 members--150 same-sex couples--fought to the death rather than flee in the face of overwhelming odds. This material is instructive, but it could have been imparted by characters more crucial to the story--Housman, Jackson, their schoolmates, Wilde. The academics and journalists seem merely a cheeky way for Stoppard to display his own erudition while poking fun at easy targets.

The plethora of secondary characters also mutes our sense of the growing relationship between Housman and Jackson, who comes off as almost a cartoon of the blustery macho sportsman in the few scenes that show him palling around with the secretly love-struck Housman. Meanwhile Stoppard keeps Wilde--certainly the most entertaining member of the supporting cast--offstage until nearly the end of the two-and-a-half-hour play. When he does appear, Wilde admonishes Housman that, despite his pride in his scholarship, the only thing that matters is his poetry. Yet the script contains precious few examples of that, and the ones there are get lost in a slew of literary quotations and allusions--Horace and Catullus, Propertius and Plutarch, Plato and Aeschylus, Andrew Marvell and Matthew Arnold.

Worst of all is the way Stoppard ignores key aspects of Housman's life in order to support the simplistic idea that he was sexually and emotionally paralyzed by his fixation on Jackson. Jackson was the great love of Housman's life, but not his only love. He was also attracted to Jackson's brother Adalbert, an attraction that Housman's younger brother Laurence (the openly gay author of the 1930s stage hit Victoria Regina) believed was mutual. (Stoppard doesn't depict Laurence or Housman's lesbian sister Clemence, a radical suffragist. Too bad--they're a lot more interesting than their sister Kate, who does make a brief appearance.) When Housman journeyed to Italy in middle age, he struck up a romance with a Venetian gondolier named Andrea that lasted on and off for several years. (After the affair ended, Housman used phallic imagery to convey the waning of passion: "Andrea, fare you well; / Venice, farewell to thee. / The tower that stood and fell / Is not rebuilt in me.") He also enjoyed the company of prostitutes and pickups in Paris, keeping a written record of the prices he paid and the pleasures he enjoyed. Certainly he was discreet--especially in England, where he kept his sexual orientation a secret even from his friends--but he was hardly celibate.

Equally troubling is the implication by Stoppard--and/or Newell--that once Jackson understood Housman's real feelings he cut off their friendship. The production shows Jackson assuring Housman that they'll always be friends, but his tone and body language suggest the promise is insincere. Later, when Housman is asked what happened to Jackson, he diffidently shrugs and says that his friend eventually moved to Canada and died. That's true, but it's also true that they corresponded up to the end; indeed, Jackson wrote Housman a letter on his deathbed. There was a temporary break between them, and it seems likely that Jackson was embarrassed, perhaps even repulsed by Housman's homosexuality. But the two resumed their friendship even after Jackson married and moved away, first to India and finally to Canada. Housman summed up his feelings about Jackson's illness and distance in one of his most beautiful poems--

The half-moon westers low, my love,

And the wind brings up the rain;

And wide apart lie we, my love,

And seas between the twain.

I know not if it rains, my love,

In the land where you do lie;

And oh, so sound you sleep, my love,

You know no more than I.

Whether Stoppard's distortions are intentional or merely ignorant, they seriously compromise a play about a man whose greatest passion was for accuracy and truth.

The only really moving passages in Stoppard's heartfelt but wrongheaded play are the melancholy, witty scenes between the old and young Housman. If Stoppard fails to convey the depths of Housman and Jackson's relationship, he's captured perfectly the ache we've all felt as we wished we could go back in time and reshape our lives. "Pluck the fruit," the old man tells the boy, knowing nothing he says can alter the path of his life. Whitehead, a Shavian specialist, uses his wonderfully orotund voice and brilliant technique to offer a powerful portrayal of a man at once authoritative and diffident, intellectually self-assured and emotionally at sea, wrestling with the inhibitions acquired from a lifetime in a sex-negative society and his anger at a world that persecutes people for the way God made them--truly a stranger and afraid in a world he never made. Adkins, meanwhile, projects a wide-eyed excitement at life's possibilities and an enraptured idealism that subtly sours as he comes to recognize the sexual basis for his feelings.

Unfortunately, Martin Yurek is less than convincing as the object of those feelings. He's nowhere near as handsome as Jackson was, and he's much too beefy to be credible as a star runner. Chunky and ordinary looking, he seems unlikely to be a turn-on for a youth whose sensibility was shaped not only by classical texts extolling noble male love but by the perfectly chiseled torsos of Greek and Roman statues. Indeed, there's a woeful absence of eroticism in a play very much concerned with eros. The closest the show comes is a recurrent, inadvertently amusing image of Jackson running in slow motion behind a scrim; all that's missing is the theme from Chariots of Fire.

The rest of the ensemble ranges from adequate to excellent. Newell has cast some of the rising actors of off-Loop theater--including Lance Baker, Bruch Reed, Raymond Fox, Jennifer Kern, and the always excellent Larry Neumann Jr.--in multiple supporting roles, and they do a fine job of making us think their babble about literary arcana should be of interest. Christian Kohn (who would have made a much better Jackson than Yurek) effectively plays a patent-office colleague who tries to recruit Housman into a support group for "homosexuals," then a new term. (Ever the pedagogical stickler, Housman was offended by the hybrid etymology of the word, fashioned from Greek and Latin roots. Indeed, this controversy raged among linguists for almost a century after the term was coined in 1868 by a German writer.) Maury Cooper is a wry old Charon, and Ray Frewen pops up amusingly as both Wilde and Bunthorne, the Wildean flower-wielding poet from Patience, Gilbert and Sullivan's parody of the aesthetic movement.

But besides Whitehead and Adkins, the production's strongest assets are visual. Scenic and lighting designer Rob Murphy's set consists of a beautifully illuminated bare glass stage. Underlying panels suggest the keys of a xylophone; I don't know what they mean, but I like the way Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman's sound design reinforces the image with vibraphone sounds. Mark Botelho's costumes capture the era and reflect the play's strategic oppositions--Whitehead is clothed in a drab brown suit while Adkins wears a creamy white outfit that suggests his innocence.

Loveliest of all are the projections framing the actors: pictures of gray classical columns and vibrantly colored fields of flowers perfectly convey Housman's often grim view of human life and his deep appreciation of the beauty of nature. If only a fuller sense of his poetry--and the emotions that inspired it--had come across, The Invention of Love might have done its subject justice as the intellectually towering, deeply emotional artist he was.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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