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Rock 'n' Roll: Art or Politics?

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"I know. It's only rock 'n' roll. But I like it." The Rolling Stones

London: Like most Tom Stoppard plays, Rock 'n' Roll operates on multiple levels. The narrative tracks Czechoslovakian political history over a twenty-two year period: from the Russian occupation in 1968 to the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the election of Vaclav Havel.

The play's primary concern is the relationship between art and politics. Stoppard ponders whether it's possible to have a free society without complete freedom of expression; however bizarre or banal that expression may be. The aesthetic that Stoppard focuses on is rock 'n' roll; a musical idiom that, since its origin in the fifties, many critics have dismissed as not being an art form. That's been described as a semi-toxic byproduct of market-driven popular culture.

Stoppard believes rock 'n' roll is art. He brackets his story by referencing two rock icons: the late Sid Barrett, the disturbed genius who started Pink Floyd; and The Rolling Stones, who appeared in Prague in 1990.

Stoppard was born in Czechoslovakia; left as a baby in 1938. In Rock 'n' Roll the playwright identifies with the character, Jan, who journeys from Cambridge, England, to Czechoslovakia just after the Russian tanks roll in. Although he participates in long discussions about Czechoslovakian politics and competing theories of communism, Jan isn't political. He's a rock 'n' roll fan. Particularly enamored with an avant-garde Czechoslovakian band: the Plastic People of the Universe. Rock 'n' Roll includes compelling songs by sixties icons: The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, and The Velvet Underground. The songs provide the emotional ground for the play. Illustrate their powerful influence on the Plastic People, Jan, and the times.

The Plastic People of the Universe was an actual group that represented sixties culture in Czechoslovakia. In the words of their founder: "Rock 'n' roll wasn't just music to us, it was kind of life itself." The Plastic People took the position that art, their rock 'n' roll, could coexist with communism. All they wanted was to be left alone. Jan explains, "They're not heretics. They're pagans."

But communism couldn't distinguish between heretics and pagans; saw only supporters and dissidents. So, the authorities treated the Plastic People as dissidents. As a result, the Plastics were harassed, forbidden to give concerts, and eventually thrown in jail. But, they kept performing.

Finally, in the summer of 1976, The Plastic People arranged to play at a farm outside Prague. The police arrested the band and everyone at the concert. Their action galvanized resistance to the Communist government. Vaclav Havel wrote that the arrests were, "an attack by the totalitarian system on life itself, on the very essence of human freedom and dignity." The Czechoslovakian intelligentsia-both heretics and pagans-united in opposition. In January 1977, 240 of these dissidents signed "Charter 77" accusing the government of violating human rights. The so-called "Chartists" got international attention.

Although the communist party controlled Czechoslovakia until 1989, the signing of Charter 77 triggered its eventual downfall. All because the jailing of a rock 'n' roll band, The Plastic People of the Universe, became a cause ce'l├Ębre.

After the communist government fell, the Plastic People gave public concerts and toured Western Europe. At the time, their artistic director, Ivan Jirous, observed: "In [communist Czechoslovakia] the situation is essentially different [than it is in the West], because we live in an atmosphere of complete agreement: the first [official] culture doesn't want us, and we don't want anything to do with the first culture. This eliminates the temptation that for everyone, even the strongest artist, is the seed of destruction: the desire for recognition, success, winning prizes and titles, and last but not least, the material security which follows."

Rock 'n' Roll ends with a Cambridge dinner party, in 1990. Jan and the other characters discuss their lives and what happened in Czechoslovakia. Lenka observes there's a better sense of democracy in Czechoslovakia than there is in England, where the people have been tranquilized by capitalism, rendered incapable of speaking their minds. Jan and his aging hippy sweetheart, Esme, return to Prague. Celebrate the triumph of Czechoslovakian democracy by attending a Rolling Stones concert.

So, is rock 'n' roll art or politics? Stoppard's answer is that it is both. In its pure, primal form, rock 'n' roll is about free expression, the essence of democracy itself. The Plastic People of the Universe succeeded as artists because they championed free expression. They were democrats, not capitalists.

Bob Dylan wrote, "To live outside the law you must be honest." One reading of Dylan is that artists like The Plastic People of the Universe live outside the "law" of the market and, therefore, must keep to their own standard of truth. Rock 'n' Roll celebrates their willingness to do this. And their ultimate triumph.

Rock 'n' Roll is on an extended run at the Duke of York's Theatre in London. It will surely wend its way to Broadway. The London production was directed by Trevor Nunn and starred Brian Cox (Max) and Rufus Sewell (Jan).
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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