Home / Dissonance and Dissidents Between Marxist Theory and Practice in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘N’ Roll

Dissonance and Dissidents Between Marxist Theory and Practice in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘N’ Roll

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Tom Stoppard has built his career on dramatically inverting or actualizing highly theoretical subject matter into a wholly entertaining dramatic work. Rock ‘N’ Roll, his most recent play, is no exception, dancing around the relationships among the personal, political, and aesthetic aspects of life.

Rock ‘N’ Roll is spliced between the worlds of Cambridge University and Soviet Prague, and the lives of protagonists Max and Jan. Max, one of the last remaining members of the Communist Party on the Cambridge faculty, desperately sticks to his ideological viewpoints despite a barrage of opposition and the realities of Soviet communism. Max's wife Eleanor is a classical philologist and romantic idealist who is Max's intellectual and social foil in just about any endeavor. Jan, however, develops a rebellious political conscience around his love of music, even preferring aesthetic rebelliousness and paradoxically subversive inactivity to more direct political action.

In one particularly striking scene, Max confronts his wife Eleanor, who is dying of cancer, over the traditional mind/body problem as a tangential point to a discussion of Sappho. Max argues from a Marxist materialist viewpoint, while Eleanor comes from a classical idealist viewpoint. The discussion turns from philology and classics to the basic tenets of materialism and its relation to culture. The scene, which contrasts sharply with Jan’s preceding defense of the transcendent power of musical rebellion, centers on Max’s key hypocrisy: his belief in the ideals but not the realities of Communism, despite the inherent materialism in Marxist philosophy. Max turns to biological determinism to deflect the larger contradictions between Marxist theory and practice after Stalin in the Soviet bloc.

Rock 'N' Roll depicts a world where the role of culture and art becomes indistinguishable from politics, and in many ways surpasses outright ideology in importance. While Max is a lackadaisical Marxist, Jan transcends politics and philosophy through his love of a rock band, the Czech dissident group The Plastic People of the Universe. Jan is a Czech native raised in England—modeled in part on Stoppard himself—who leaves his studies in Cambridge to return to his homeland after the Prague Spring. The play is heavily influenced by Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and like that book’s protagonist, Jan refuses to sign a petition against those imprisoned by Husák’s “politics of normalization.”

Yet Jan does eventually put into motion a petition to free The Plastic People of the Universe after the band is imprisoned. Jan’s acceptance of this distinction comes from what Stoppard describes in his introduction as the inability to “separate disengagement from dissidence.” When Jan begins a petition to free the Plastics, his political activist friend Ferdinand berates him for caring more about music than politics (in early drafts of the script, Ferdinand’s full name was Ferdinand Vanek, a recurring character in the plays of Václav Havel). Jan counters with a monologue explaining what separated arrests of political dissidents from the arrest of Plastics ringleader Ivan Jirous over insulting a policeman:

JAN No, because the policeman insulted him. About his hair. Jirous doesn’t cut his hair. It makes the policeman angry, so he starts something and it ends with Jirous in gaol. But what is the policeman angry about? What difference does long hair make? The policeman is angry about his fear. The policeman’s fear is what makes him angry. He’s frightened by indifference. Jirous doesn’t care. He doesn’t care enough even to cut his hair. The policeman isn’t frightened by dissidents! Why should he be? Policemen love dissidents, like the Inquisition loved heretics. Heretics give meaning to the defenders of faith. Nobody cares more than a heretic. Your friend Havel cares so much he writes a long letter to Husák. It makes no odds whether it’s a love letter or a protest letter. It means they’re playing on the same board…But the Plastics don’t care at all. They’re unbribable. They’re coming from somewhere else, from where the Muses come from. They’re not heretics, they’re pagans.

The larger significance of Jan’s defense of the rebel-without-a-cause line of reasoning is his conviction that there is a realm that no politics of normalization can touch: the distinct individuality of the human spirit as expressed through art. While the politics of normalization is a politically oppressive offshoot of the Marxist notion that intellect derives from the social and political relationships between the laborer and the ruling class, Jan’s argument goes back to Schiller’s idealism, which not coincidentally was devised by a dramatist in the face of an intellectually oppressive regime. In On The Aesthetic Education of Man, Schiller noted, “Art is the daughter of Freedom, and takes her orders from the necessity inherent in minds, not in the exigencies of matter.” To Schiller, no materialist account of freedom, be it through the emphasis on utility or on pure reason, could fully grasp the political as well as personal freedom of an aesthetic education.

Back in Cambridge, we get a discussion between Max, Eleanor, and Czech student Lenka on, fittingly enough, the role of the Muses in the consciousness of Sappho. Max, uninvited to the lesson, interjects himself into the conversation, and Lenka, a Czech graduate student who is infatuated with Max, is only happy to oblige against Eleanor’s objections. The discussion of Sappho’s “Poem of Jealousy” stalls on the question of whether the poet’s experience of “love, desire and jealousy” comes from her body or from the god’s interjection into her soul. What should be a lesson on Sappho quickly turns into a more general discussion of free will versus determinism, with Max arguing in favor of a brain “which you can make out of beer cans,” Eleanor defending the mind/body distinction on the grounds that “experiencing love is different from experiencing a bee sting.” Lenka, though the only student in the scene, becomes the Socratic moderator of the discussion.

Max’s defense of biological determinism is quickly exposed as a necessary extension of his lapsed Marxism. Lenka has read one of Max’s books (either Class and Consciousness or Masses and Materialism), and notes that Max’s only acceptable definition of the mind is the collective mind, which makes him hesitant to support the concept of an individual mind except as a uniform brain. Lenka accuses his stance in the mind/body debate as having a “materialist agenda.” After Lenka leaves, Max quickly confirms her larger points, as he defends the original idea of the Communist Party, which was “made from a single piece of timber. The struggle…for socialism through organized labor.” Max dismisses the current Western European manifestation of Marxism as scattered, namely the Social Democratic missions of “anti-racism, feminism, gay rights, ecological good practice.”

Max maintains a rather idealistic perspective on Marxism, one that flies in the face of the materialist implications of Marxist philosophy. It’s interesting that Max would use such a biological approach to defending Marxism, particularly since, in The German Ideology, Marx lumped consciousness with religion and all the other social structures that derive from the base relationship of man’s ability “to produce their means of subsistence,” where “men are indirectly producing their actual material life.” To Marx, the biological approach to the mind was secondary to the social and political relationship between man and his labor. To Marx, consciousness derives not from the beer can machinery of the mind, but from social relationships, arguing, “the phantom forces of the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material-life processes, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises.”

Max’s relationship to biological determinism, like his relationship to Marxism, is fleeting at best. Eleanor, his intellectual foil who has heard this argument many times before, breaks down Max’s determinism in an extremely moving passage where she describes Max’s determinism as being “in cahoots” with her cancer: 

Eleanor They’ve cut, cauterized, and zapped away my breasts, my ovaries, my womb, half my bowel, and a nutmeg out of my brain, and I am undiminished. I’m exactly who I’ve always been. I am not my body. My body is nothing without me, that’s the truth of it.
She tears open her dress.
Eleanor (cont.) Look at it, what’s left of it. It does classics. It does half-arsed feminism, it does love, desire, jealousy, and fear—Christ, does it do fear!—so who’s the me who’s still in one piece?

What’s particularly striking is that, faced with this plea, Max immediately sacrifices his stance on the mind/body debate, even if it is only out of respect for his wife. He tells her that “I know your mind is everything,” a notion which Eleanor quickly rejects:

Eleanor Don’t you dare, Max—don’t you dare reclaim that word now, I don’t want your mind; which you can make out of beer cans. Don’t bring it to my funeral. I want your grieving soul or nothing. I do not want your amazing biological machine—I want what you love me with.

Max’s lack of absolute conviction to biological determinism is inextricably related to his half-hearted loyalty to the Communist Party. At the beginning of the play, Max maintains that he has stayed with the Party based on his belief “that between theory and practice there is decent fit.” But in this scene with Eleanor he exposes a fundamental flaw in that line of reasoning: the practice of Communism, in Stalin, Husák, and most other actualized forms, did not match the goals of the theory. He can’t reconcile the material form of Soviet Communism with the grand ideas of Marxist Communism. Whereas Marx sought to liberate the masses from the shackles of their labor-based relationship with the ruling class, the ruling classes of the Soviets used the awareness of that relationship to exert totalitarian control over their subjects. In biological determinism, Max finds a safe, supportable materialism that can be substituted, however poorly, for the ideological materialism of Marxism that can no longer be justifiably defended. It is not all that surprising, then, that later in the play we learn that Max had actually left the Party in secret several years before the time he still claimed to be a member.

It should be also no surprise that the kind of subtle cultural resistance that Jan takes up with the Plastic People of the Universe is utterly foreign to Max. When Max learns that Jan has been arrested for petitioning for the Plastics, he can’t believe Jan would get arrested for “some pop group thing.” When Max learns that Jan had taken a record from his daughter Esme on his last day in England (instead of her virginity), he calls it “bourgeois.” Max is utterly oblivious to the more nuanced ideology behind Jan’s political vagrancy, and the disparity becomes realized in the painfully awkward reconciliation the two share when they meet in Rock ‘N’ Roll’s second act, which takes place after perestroika.

It is at least not Stoppard’s active intent to dismantle Communist ideology with Rock ‘N’ Roll. While Jan is a vaguely autobiographical character and Stoppard is a self-declared political conservative, Rock ‘N’ Roll fairly appraises the flaws of the Soviet regime while still showing the sympathetic side of Max’s reasoning behind his desperate allegiance to Marxist ideals, though it is debatable whether Max is a sympathetic character or an old, stubborn bully. Like most Stoppard plays, the larger ideological points translate into the more personal themes of hypocrisy, personality flaws, and fractured relationships. Max’s materialism is countered by Eleanor’s cancer, and Jan’s love of rock music translates to his political conscience. Such a dynamic allows Rock ‘N’ Roll to meditate equally on the dramatic and theoretical levels.

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About Ethan Stanislawski