George Orwell once wrote that any man who gives an untarnished autobiographical account of himself is probably a liar, since, viewed from the inside, life is simply a series of defeats.
A pessimistic viewpoint, certainly, but one that neatly sums up the gloomy retrospective musings of Latin scholar and poet, A.E. Housman, in Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love. Housman, renowned in his lifetime as an eminent textual critic and author of A Shropshire Lad, is depicted by Stoppard as a man haunted by the failures that dogged his career and private life.
The Invention of Love begins with a classical conceit: Stygian ferryman, Charon (David Ryall), is transporting Housman (John Wood) to the Underworld. During this journey the great scholar replays his life, both witnessing and interacting with his younger self (Ben Porter). We see the young 'House' fail his classics degree at Oxford, enter a lowly job at HM Patent Office and have his homosexual love for a fellow student, Moses Jackson (Jamie Glover), rebuffed.
Although Housman eventually returned to his classical studies and rose to the lofty position of Professor of Latin at Cambridge, these triumphs are belittled in perhaps the finest scene of this play: an imagined meeting between Housman and Oscar Wilde (Paul Shelley).
'Better a fallen rocket,' says the foppish young Irishman, 'than never a burst of life', referring to the way Housman smothered his homosexuality and engaged in worthy but dull academic pursuits. Wilde may have died a broken man, but like Mozart, who cast a shadow over Salieri, his accomplishments eventually eclipsed those of Housman.
Under Sir Richard Eyre's direction, the action moves as fluidly as the Styx on its way to Hades. The scenes of life amongst the dreaming spires dissolve almost cinematically (with lashings of dry ice) against Anthony Ward's gloomy, crescent-shaped sweep of a library. John Wood reprises the demanding role of the elder A.E.H., and once again makes the most of it (although he occasionally fluffs and swallows a few of his lines), while new boy Ben Porter brings a blend of naivete and idealism to the part of the young Housman.
If there's one thing that strikes me about Stoppard's highly challenging play, though, it's that it presupposes the sort of classical education young people just don't get these days. If names like Catullus, Manilius, Aeschylus or Propertius are unfamiliar to you, or if you're a stranger to Theseus or Sisyphus, the narrative could well leave you floundering. It may be time to brush up on your classics, but thanks to Stoppard the results have rarely been this rewarding.
I've never been very good with languages. While French may leave me floundering, though, dead languages such as Greek and Latin leave me, well, dead. But then I'm not an Oxford classics scholar, unlike the majority of the characters in Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love who can break into complete verses of Catullus in the poet's native tongue.
The Invention of Love tackles a lot more than Latin in two and a half hours - homosexuality (or what the Victorians called beastliness), unrequited love, unfulfilled career ambitions, the fading dream spires of Oxford, literary rivalry and the aesthetics movement are all not-so-neatly encompassed in the life of poet and scholar A.E. Housman.
Housman is a fairly obscure literary figure who produced a slim volume of poetry and a clutch of academic articles. By Stoppard's telling, Housman never really got over his love for his straight friend Moses Jackson (Robert Portal) and, remaining firmly in the closet and celibate, devoted his life instead to the erudite examination of ancient texts.
The performances are poignant.Paul Rhys captures a young Housman full of promise mixed with academic angst, aching sexual repression and furrowed brow.John Wood's pre-death Housman is a mellowed, lonely and sad individual whose regret at a life never really lived is palpable as he cries out to his amour 'I would have died for you but I never had the luck'.
Wood and Rhys and the rest of a talented (nearly all male) cast cannot, however, save the The Invention of Love from the rather dry and cluttered tangle that it is. The play starts well with typical Stoppard humour (in the form of Michael Bryant's cheeky boatman Charon) but quickly loses its levity by the second half, weighted down by the wearing scholarly debates and frequent Latin recitations.
By the closing scenes, when Wood's Housman confronts his literary nemesis Oscar Wilde, boredom has well and truly set in. In these final exchanges, it becomes clear the reason for Housman's obscurity - he was a pale substitute to Wilde's bursting rocket. Wilde wrote and lived more and more exceptionally than Housman could ever hope to and, I imagine, a play about Wilde's life would be much more entertaining. Even in this play of Housman's life, Wilde gets all the best lines - none of them in Latin.
Terri Paddock, October 1997