The Invention of Love Poetry
The Invention of Love by Tom Stoppard
It opened in 1997, and the wind it brought to Los Angeles said, “Mr. Housman was queer.” Well, no, the play says no such thing, these are not the memoirs of an old queen, although none other than Oscar Wilde is brought on toward the end as a figment of Housman’s imagination to retail such goods in a shocking representation that puts me ahead of myself in this piece.
The actual subject of the play is the invention of love poetry by Propertius (or some other Roman poet) twenty centuries ago. This proceeds as a philological examination backwards, naturally, against an imaginary representation of Housman’s life in his mind. The entire point is to create a simulacrum of emotions reflecting the condition of Propertius, by generating an elaborate masterpiece of artificial construction toying rather dangerously with the real.
It’s all a game, but it grows more and more unstoppered until you have the real sense that Stoppard has let the play loose entirely: shame and confusion reign as Wilde is mocked (this is prepared with dazzling and daring care by introducing Bunthorne from Patience with the famous satire), until, in the best piece of writing Stoppard has produced, Housman unweaves the mess in the end.
The famous opening of Jumpers, involving a lady on a swing and a waiter with a tray, either has nothing on this, or amounts to what it all adds up to.
The Grove Press edition, which features on its back cover the pointed assertion that I am wrong and the wind had it right all along, rather humorously contains small alternate insertions (in parentheses) from the Royal National Theatre production, which give the text the incidental look of a variorum.