September 21, 2022

On and Off Stage with Stoppard and Godard

By Stuart Mitchner

We do onstage the things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit being an entrance to somewhere else.

—from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

When the director Jean-Luc Godard died, an “assisted suicide,” five days after Queen Elizabeth’s monumental passing, I took a YouTube tour of the “most cinematic” images from his work. Accompanied by Georges Delarue’s warm, richly romantic soundtrack for Le mépris /Contempt (1963), the result was an uncharacteristically humane, borderline sentimental memorial for a director who set out to attack “all civilized values” in the 1968 Rolling Stones film One Plus One/Sympathy for the Devil. Godard’s version of doing “onstage the things that are supposed to happen off” was to punch the film’s English producer in the face onstage at the 1968 London Film Festival.

Stoppard’s Scoop

The onstage/offstage lines are spoken by the one of the players visiting Elsinore in Sir Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Grove Press 1967). The notion of the play as a “scoop” came to mind  as I read Maureen Dowd’s September 7 New York Times profile of Stoppard, which opens with the teenage journalist who “loved wearing a mackintosh and flashing his press pass, operating in the spirit of a British contemporary, Nicholas Tomalin, who wrote: ‘The only qualities essential for real success in journalism are ratlike cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability.’ “

Call it what you will, a coup or a scoop, it took a world of cunning and more than a little literary ability to become the first playwright to claim the untold story between and behind the lines of two of the most fascinating and well-spoken minor characters in Shakespeare (although Gilbert and Sullivan had a shot in 1892 with a farce that ends with Rosencrantz marrying Ophelia). Hamlet’s Wittenberg classmates are clearly on a higher theatrical level than sycophants such as Osric of Elsinore (“Dost know this water-fly?”), who are mercilessly mocked, or slain onstage, like Goneril’s servant Oswald, his last words (“oh untimely death”) recorded for all time in the closing seconds of the Beatles’ “I am the Walrus.” Besides holding their own bantering with Hamlet as “the indifferent children of the earth” who live in “the secret parts of fortune,” they put in play phrases like “the shadow of a dream” and “a shadow’s shadow” that suggest how much there is to be imagined or discovered offstage. Jump ahead four centuries and Stoppard’s Guildenstern is speaking of the “half-lit, half-alive dawn” wherein a man was “just a hat and a cloak levitating in the  grey plume of his own breath.”

Stoppard’s Music

After finishing Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, I read Stoppard’s Rock’n’Roll (2006), in which his alter ego Jan, a journalist in Prague, tells Max, the “last Communist in England,” how happy he was when he had his own column. Asked what he wrote about, he says, “Anything I liked. It was a question of which way to be useful. It’s not useful to be a critic of what’s over and done. I was a critic of the future.” Except that when he refused to sign the loyalty pledge, he was demoted to “the kitchen.”

At this point in the conversation, Jan is distracted by a gift of music from Max’s daughter Esme — Syd Barrett’s first solo album The Madcap Laughs, with a message from Esme written on the sleeve — “Now do you believe me?” As a reader, I’m immediately reminded of Pink Floyd’s first American record, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which opens with one of the most deliriously engaging songs of the period, founding member Barrett’s “See Emily Play,” where Emily (sounds like Esme) “floats on a river forever and ever.” Esme’s question refers to Rock’n’Rolls fantastical opening scene in which “The Piper is heard” playing and singing for her, a 16-year-old “flower child of the period: 1968.” Briefly unmindful of Max’s presence, Jan puts the record on the turntable and listens to “Golden Hair,” the song the Piper sang to Esme (“Lean out your window, Golden Hair / I hear you singing in the midnight air”); he’s deeply absorbed, probably remembering his last night in Cambridge three years before, when Esme gave him the gift of her virginity.

As audiences listen with Jan to the voice of the drama’s real-life hero, who died during Rock’n’Roll’s 2006 run, Marxist Max “explodes.” He hates the music (“I never heard anything so pathetic”) and tells Jan to “do everybody a favor and go live in the West” where he belongs. Jan stops the record, but not without declaring his love for England, and as soon as Max leaves, he resumes listening. So central is music to the spirit of the play, it’s really always there anyway, and if you have YouTube at your fingertips, you can listen along; there’s a song for every scene and change of scene, bringing love, joy, power, poetry, and positive energy, from the first notes of “Golden Hair,” heard in a Cambridge garden, to the Beatles singing “Rock and Roll Music,” heard off-stage in 1990 on a “tinny casette player” near the Lennon Wall in Prague. The occasion is a concert by the Rolling Stones. When the band appears, “everyone stands up” as the “first guitar chords slash through the noise.”

All For Love

Discussing Rock’n’Roll with Maureen Dowd, Stoppard refers to a reviewer “who wrote that she started crying when the love story got together at the end, just in time. I was aware that I was more pleased by that than any number of people telling me that I was too clever by half or intellectual. In fact, the reason I liked it so much was that I was two-thirds of the way through writing it before I began to understand that there was a love story in it. I’m very much in favor of love.”

Godard Rolls the Stones

There’s no love and very little rock in Godard’s One Plus One/Sympathy for the Devil. The director’s motive for slugging the producer was all about Iain Quarrier’s decision to title the film after the song and add a complete version at the end for viewers frustrated by the work-in-progress studio scenes, where a great song loses a touch of its magic every time Mick Jagger tiredly tries out the opening line, “Please allow me to introduce myself.”

Interviewed in the June 1968 Rolling Stone, Jagger said  “Godard happened to catch us on two very good nights. He might have come every night for two weeks and just seen us looking at each other with blank faces … sitting there looking bored [In fact, this is pretty much how it seems] So Godard saw the whole thing from beginning to end…It’s probably very boring to most people but when he’s finished cutting it, it will be great.”

Besides doing nothing with the studio footage, which is much of the time truly boring, Godard occasionally rudely imposes a voiceover from the same hack novel of sex and intrigue (“You’re my kind of girl, Rita. I’m crazy about you”) heard throughout the film. Meanwhile Black Panthers are reciting Black Power dogma from Eldridge Cleaver in an autosalvage junkyard of cars that look like leftovers from the carnage of Weekend, Godard’s road rage apocalypse from the previous year.

The closest thing to a lyrical moment is provided by Godard’s then-wife Anna Wiazemsky’s maidenly stroll through a woodsy park as “Eve Democracy” with a handheld camera crew at her back while a man asks contrived questions like “Do you think drugs are a spiritual form of gambling?” She’s charming to behold as she walks about, comely, lovely, girlish in a pale yellow dress, a true maiden, stepping lightly, gracefully this way and that, answering softly, gently, “yes” and “no” to dated statements about Vietnam and the death of Kennedy, and whether the devil is God in exile. You get a hint of Democracy’s fate when her interrogator says “On LSD you begin to die,” and “You take the order of your own death on such a trip,” to which she answers “yes,” both times and soon after settles down in the grass, her hands in her lap, the essence of a pastoral maiden, but she might as well be kneeling, head bowed, waiting for Godard’s executioner. In the last shot of One Plus One, she’s Eve Democracy, hers the white-sheeted bloodied body being lofted skyward by an immense crane. After the voiceover says, “This was all a waste of time,” the Stones come on the soundtrack, free at last, men “of wealth and fame” taking care of business on Sympathy for the Devil, the producer’s version. 

On and Off Stage

When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discover that execution awaits them in England, Rosencrantz says, “Who’d have thought we were so important?” and Guildenstern wonders “Who are we that so much should converge on our little deaths…To be told so little — to such an end — and still, finally, to be denied an explanation.”

For that, you look off stage — to 1968 or 2006 or September 22, 2022, when Sir Tom Stoppard will be at McCosh 50 on the Princeton campus talking with Paul Muldoon about “Art-making in a Vexed Era.” For more information, see this week’s calendar.