It is astonishing how The Invention of Love
works at all. Stoppard
loves tackling difficult
has a hefty dose of quantum physics in it -- but it's fairly elementary and one of the characters does explain all you need to know about the two-slit experiment: likewise with recursive
functions in Arcadia
. But the constant quotation
s from Latin
poets, and the references to Greek
grammar and translation
, in The Invention of Love
had even me struggling, and I like to think I can take such things in my stride. He does give English translations but they're not quite enough to anchor the context.
A.E. Housman is dead. Or dying. It is not entirely clear which. If dead, he is on the banks of the River Styx and meeting the ferryman Charon. If dying, he merely thinks he is. He is taken on a tour not of the underworld but of his own past life at Oxford: he is two characters in the play, AEH the old man observing, and Housman his youthful self being observed. He can look back on his own ambition to edit Propertius in a novel and definitive way, and hear his own enthusiasms, and remember his own failures.
The tour of old Oxford takes in the idiosyncrasies of the dons and masters, including Benjamin Hall Kennedy (author of the famous Kennedy's Latin Primer, a staple for generations), John Ruskin, and Walter Pater; and the students, including the up-and-coming Oscar Wilde, whose flashy aesthetic flaunting of homosexuality is in contrast to Housman's pained, private, unrequited love.
Another well-known person who appears is Jerome K. Jerome, author of the hilarious Three Men in a Boat, whom before then I'd thought of as an amiable, genial bumbler; now the taint of hypocrisy and homophobia colours my opinion of him forever.
The debates over the reconstruction of ancient texts are not purely academic decoration for the play: they are clearly much in Stoppard's heart as important things about what a writer meant and how we the audience are to take writers after they are gone.
The title comes from the fact that it was Catullus, who first invented the love elegy as we know it, according to Housman. There have not been such love poems from the beginning of time: it was a new idea, an invention, like the typewriter or the steam engine, for someone somewhere; and it was in his field of study that it happened. (Though personally I don't understand how he saw Sappho.)
The Invention of Love was first performed at the Cottesloe Theatre at the RNT, London, on 25 September 1997, with John Wood as AEH, the elder Housman.