Reading Between the Lines: Working as a Dramaturg for Austin Shakespeare’s The Invention of Love

Jim Hankinson, a Dramaturg for Austin Shakespeare’s The Invention of Love, blogs about his  behind the scenes, eye-opening experience with the production.

Hankinson in wreathI have known Ann Ciccolella for 25 years, and have been involved with Austin Shakespeare in one way or another for almost as long. But when Ann called me last October and asked if I would help with her production of Invention I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. As it turned out, neither had she; when I asked her what she was expecting me to do, she told me she’d like me to provide the actors with some information about what Oxford University had been like in the 1870s, about the study of classics at Oxford, and about classical scholarship in general and Latin poetry in in particular. It would probably involve going to a couple of rehearsals, talking with the actors a bit, and giving some advice on how to speak the Latin. It all sounded pretty straightforward, and since I had been a classical student at Oxford myself in the 70s (the 1970s, as it happens, not that it makes all that much difference), I readily agreed.

In the event, I’ve been working with the show pretty much continuously since rehearsals began back in mid-January. I just found myself being sucked in, in the pleasantest possible way. I already knew the play from reading it (although I’d never seen it performed), and was aware of the complexity and denseness of texture that lay underneath a characteristically dazzling Stoppardian surface. But every time I re-read a scene, or saw it rehearsed, or listened to the actors discussing how they were play it, things seemed to become more and more complicated. We explored together the layers of meaning, the multiple levels or irony that Stoppard is able to develop, partly as a result of the subtlety of his portrayals of the figures involved, partly because of the brilliance of the play’s own internal temporal dislocations. Each of the major characters exemplify their own standpoints on art, aesthetics, the nature of education, the role of research, the importance of science, the appropriate historical models for moral and ethical emulation, the conflict between duty to others and responsibility to oneself, the desirability or otherwise of social and material progress and a modern world, what modernity and progress even mean, and whether the canons of taste are timeless or culturally ephemeral.

The brilliant device of having the elderly Housman confront his past life and self 50 years on furnishes an extra dimension to the oppositions of the play – youth and old age, exuberance and resignation, emotion and intellect, hope and ambition, disappointment and regret. But most central of all is the question of the nature of love, its relation to literature, and the acceptability or otherwise of homosexuality, whether of an idealized or more earthily physical nature, as they play out in the confrontation between public persona and private life, the expression of identity and the repression of self-will.

Somehow, the actors had to find ways to convey all of this and more, within the framework of a demanding script, and a limited rehearsal schedule. I found it harder and harder to keep myself away, as long as I could persuade myself that I wasn’t simply taking up valuable space and time, and as a result I had the supremely satisfying experience of watching a big theatrical project take shape, slowly at first, and then more rapidly as things began to tighten and gel: the delivery of the lines, the interactions of the characters, the working out of the blocking, the introduction of props and scenery and costume, and finally to be able to rehearse it for a week in the theatre itself, on the magnificent set, with the final technical details added, and the last kinks worked out. I vividly remember the moment when I knew it was all going to come right: a rehearsal of the climactic scene between a physically broken but spiritually defiant Oscar Wilde and the older Housman, which moved the rest of us present to real tears. For this is not just a play of ideas, a pyrotechnic intellectual exercise, as Stoppard’s early triumphs were. It is a deeply moving exploration of the different ways in which very different people responded to a repressive and censorious society, and their own senses of failure. If the first act is for the mind, the second is for the heart, and if the play has anything as banal as a message, it is that we neglect each of them at our peril.

During this time I feel as if I have become part of a large, disparate, but ultimately unified family: a family that has its disagreements and difficulties – what family doesn’t – but one which is pre-eminently a loving and supportive one. The people I have worked with have become more than merely colleagues: they are now my friends. I have admired their commitment, their energy, their professionalism, their constant good humor. It has been, and continues to be, an honor to work with them and to enjoy with them the fruits of our collaboration. I hope you will be able to enjoy it too.

Jim Hankinson is Professor of Philosophy and Classics at the University of Texas at Austin. He was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and King’s College Cambridge. As an undergraduate, he wrote and appeared in several sketch comedy revues, which are probably better forgotten.

Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love plays 8 pm Thurs- Sat and 3 pm Sunday from Feb. 19-March 8. TKTS http://thelongcenter.org/event/invention-love/  or call (512)474-5664

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