NEW YORK — Tom Stoppard’s latest play, “Rock ’n’ Roll,” begins in 1968, when a brief flowering of political liberalization in Communist Czechoslovakia was crushed by a Soviet military invasion. The seeds of that “Prague Spring” were violently scattered, but they took root and slowly grew; and two decades later, as Communism collapsed all across Europe, Czechoslovakia finally emerged into freedom.
Many artists and intellectuals were involved in the Czechoslovakian dissident movement, of course. But as the Czech-born Stoppard recounts in his play, which opened on Broadway on Sunday night, one of the most surprising catalysts for the country’s eventual political liberation was a band — an underground psychedelic rock group called the Plastic People of the Universe. What made the Plastic People so threatening to the Communist dictatorship wasn’t their protest songs — they had none. In the opinion of their manager and “artistic director,” Ivan Jirous, any petitioning of an oppressive government for permissions or concessions — any acknowledgement of its existence — served only to legitimize it. The Plastic People sought to ignore the Czech regime altogether, and to find a way to play their music outside the Communist-controlled cultural mainstream.
The government made this difficult, and finally impossible, to do. The band was forbidden to stage concerts, and thus forced into a literal artistic underground. (One show the group did attempt, in 1974, drew thousands of fans, but was shut down by police before it could get underway.) The arrest of some of the group’s members during a cultural crackdown in 1976 launched a human-rights movement called Charter 77, which numbered among its leaders the playwright Václav Havel, who a dozen years later would become the first president of the liberated Czechoslovakia.
Like many other young musicians of the 1960s, the Plastic People were heavily influenced by such groups as the Velvet Underground, the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd, and those bands’ music crops up throughout Stoppard’s play. By 1968, Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd’s frontman and chief songwriter, was drifting out of the group and off into mental illness; and in the opening scene, we see him perching, Pan-like, on an English garden wall, playing a wordless version of his haunting “Golden Hair” on a flute while an entranced young hippie girl named Esme (Alice Eve) looks up from below. Esme is the daughter of a Cambridge University professor named Max (Brian Cox), a man politically committed to the Communist cause he’s espoused all of his adult life — even as Communist-bloc tanks roll through the streets of Prague, and the British Communist Party hemorrhages disillusioned members.
A visiting Cambridge lecturer named Jan (Rufus Sewell), a former pupil of Max’s and a Czech himself, decides to return to his native Prague, where he thinks it must still be possible to live without being drawn into the combustible political situation. This turns out to be incorrect, as government goons eventually destroy his beloved collection of English and American rock records, and the persecution of the Plastic People of the Universe grows more extreme.
Stoppard chooses the passion of art over the heartless machinations of politics, and he also suggests an unstated comparison between the Western rock groups of the 1960s and ’70s that posed as cultural revolutionaries (because of the clothes they wore or the slogans they safely chanted) and the genuinely endangered Plastic People, whose artistic intransigence helped launch a real revolution.
“Rock ’n’ Roll” features the same lead actors who starred in the show when it debuted in London last year (when Mick Jagger was rumored to have approached Stoppard about obtaining movie rights). Rufus Sewell has a sly, nimble delivery, but he also channels the gentle soul of a man trampled by history in an extraordinarily moving way. Brian Cox is often bearishly hilarious, especially when lamenting the fact that even fellow Communists have begun wondering why he clings to his sinking ideological ship. And the great Sinéad Cusack, playing Max’s cancer-wracked wife, Eleanor, has one of the play’s most dazzling rhetorical moments: Railing against her husband’s Marxist materialism, she points out that despite the fact that she’s been subjected to a mastectomy and both brain and ovarian surgery, she remains the same person she’s always been — that human beings are more than just the sum of their body parts.
The play’s recurring musical interludes — snippets of old records pumped out over the house sound system, presumably to cover set adjustments and costume changes — are jarring; and Syd Barrett’s purpose in the scheme of the play isn’t entirely clear (to me, anyway — are we supposed to see him as a man who’s forsaken the world and returned instead to wherever it is that art comes from?). But “Rock ’n’ Roll” is a rare theatrical experience. It sends you out of the theater with its provocative ideas fizzing in your brain and the Rolling Stones’ “You Got Me Rockin’ ” nipping at your heels.