To the Editors:
In his article on A.E. Housman and my play The Invention of Love [NYR, August 10], Daniel Mendelsohn clamps a hat of his own devising on my head and then imperiously chides me for wearing it. I believe he has an inkling of this. “Superficially, at least,” he writes, “[Stoppard] seems to honor his subject’s intellectual energy and love of learning for its own sake.” But even this surface illusion is inconvenient to Mr. Mendelsohn, and he is soon back to telling me what I’m really doing: “But then, the whole point of The Invention of Love is to make Housman into the (unattractive) representative of timid, thwarted, dry-as-dust ‘scholarship’ and ‘science,’ so that Wilde can become the heroic and tragic representative of ‘poetry’ and ’emotion’—a dithyrambic type for whom the playwright evidently has more feeling.”
Leaving aside Wilde, and that last conjecture, for the moment, I would be sorry if those who love Housman were to take Mr. Mendelsohn as a guide to my intentions or my feelings. I do not disdain Housman for his devotion to the recovery of ancient texts, I revere him for it. It is puzzling, therefore, to be told that my wish is to make Housman “an object for fun” on that account. Equally puzzling is Mr. Mendelsohn’s confident assurance that when Housman cries out to Moses Jackson, “I would have died for you but I never had the luck,” “you can tell that the playwright wished he had.” This would be offensive if it were thoughtful.
Mr. Mendelsohn makes room for some pleasant remarks about my play, for which I thank him, but gratitude wears thin. His way of proceeding is to (a) tell me, wrongly, what I think, and (b) lecture me about things I already know. The flavor is well conveyed by his gloss on the “repression of self-will” which Housman included in the qualities required of a textual critic. It never occurred to me that the audience should make a connection (“as Stoppard intends them to”) with—Lord save us—the “repression” in Housman’s emotional life. But Mr. Mendelsohn is on a roll. He explains that I don’t “provide the idea with its proper context”; after which, he quotes the proper context; after which he concedes that this same context is included in the play—however, “without, I suspect, [Stoppard] being aware of its implications.” Finally, these implications turn out to be the thumping truism that Housman’s intellectual honesty was a rebuke to most textual critics of his time.
Like Mr. Mendelsohn, I regret that the celebratory Housman is underrepresented in my play, and I miss AEH the light-versifier almost as much as AEH the pioneering airline passenger to Paris; AEH the gourmet is just about there, for introducing crème brûlée to Trinity, though not, alas, for the baked hedgehog or the “turbot Housman.” But where Mr. Mendelsohn pushes, he pushes too far, and his Happy Housman is no more persuasive than the permanently miserable misanthrope he says is mine.
He is quite right that Wilde is in the play as a foil to Housman, and elevates the “dithyrambic” artist at the expense of the scrupulous scholar. But I disagree that Wilde is “the real hero” of the play, and that “there’s no question of where your sympathies are meant to lie.” It seems to me there is every question; at least, it’s the question which accounts for the play, and—as with Arcadia, about which Mr. Mendelsohn with his either/or approach is similarly bemusing—the reason it’s a question at all is that most of us, including Housman and Wilde, are compounded of contrary psychologies injudiciously mixed.
My noble American publishers get it in the neck, too, for saying on the back cover that Housman lived almost invisibly in the shadow of the flamboyant Oscar Wilde. “This, of course, isn’t true,” asserts Mr. Mendelsohn: “Housman was hugely popular.” But, of course, it is true. Housman’s poetry was hugely popular (though not until years after Wilde was dead) but Housman was almost invisible. Mr. Mendelsohn’s obtuseness at times suggests that he is in the grip of a predisposition struggling against disabuse. This is all the more a pity because, in the most interesting section of his article, he writes perceptively about the “two Housmans,” and it is only through determined syllogism that the complementary Housman of the play is made to appear antithetical.
But, then, what a muddling experience was his visit to the Wilma Theater! He says he was amazed “to see that the audience was rapt as Housman explained, in technical language that refused to condescend to the nonclassicist, how his emendation worked.” Could this be the same “public hungry—as Stoppard’s public is—for sentimental fantasies”? Either way, he calumniates them, claiming that they obliged with a “solid giggle” here and “sniggered knowingly” there—“grateful [for] the always welcome news that scholars are dull and haven’t got satisfying emotional lives, whereas other people live life to the hilt.” I have seen the play with dozens of audiences in several theaters, including the Wilma in Philadelphia, and I have never encountered an audience which affected to recognize this fatuous thesis, let alone collude with it, let alone foist it on me. As for enlisting the resourceful Wilma production for being “more evocative of the real-life Housman’s seething emotions than the text itself,” Mr. Mendelsohn unluckily picks an evocation which is prescribed in the stage directions.
Daniel Mendelsohn replies:
The pleasure of debating the interpretation of a play with its author is, to say the least, a rare one for classicists specializing in Euripidean tragedy; for this reason I am glad that Mr. Stoppard did not consider my remarks about The Invention of Love so “obtuse,” “offensive,” and “fatuous” as not to require reply. But his defense of his play is as flawed as the play itself. I must restrict myself to substantive points:
Mr. Stoppard begins by complaining that my criticism that his play did not find a solution to the problem of the “two Housmans” makes use of straw-man (or should I say straw-hat?) argumentation. But it is Mr. Stoppard who, in the first minutes of his drama, raises the question of the “two different people” who seemingly inhabited Housman and, implicitly, of how they were connected; and indeed, in an onstage conversation at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia that took place last December 4th, to which another letter-writer recently adverted my attention, the playwright himself boasted that “the appeal was to write the play about two people who inhabited the same person.”
But, as I argued, the two people whom Mr. Stoppard’s work presents aren’t, in fact, Housman the Scholar and Housman the Poet, but Housman the Scholar and Oscar Wilde the Poet. My point was that this was an unfair substitution, one bound to work against Housman: Wilde was a very different kind of writer whose public persona had—and still has—far greater popular appeal; indeed, he is a sentimental audience-pleaser precisely because he is perceived as having “died for love” (as Housman did not). Housman was a reclusive university scholar who authored two books of poems, and actively shunned celebrity of any kind; Wilde was a showman, a “personality,” a man of the theater who lived for public adulation. This is why to claim that the former was somehow unhappily overshadowed by the latter is so hilariously off the mark, and reveals such a fundamental misapprehension of who Housman was; it’s like declaring that Marianne Moore lived wretchedly in the shadow of Ethel Merman.
Mr. Stoppard’s third paragraph suggests that he still fails to grasp Housman’s—and my—“implications.” He certainly does (to use a Housmanian verb) sunder the scholar’s superficially odd-sounding call for “self-repression” from its proper context as the logical conclusion to the “exquisite to whom?” speech, in which Housman expressed his prescient suspicion about cultural bias; and indeed, though Mr. Stoppard quotes that speech (elsewhere), he does so in a manner that, if anything, subverts Housman’s superb philological insight. For in a passionate retort to AEH’s recitation of the “exquisite to whom?” speech, the young Housman declares that the Romans’ idea of what is exquisite was, in fact, identical with ours; to which outcry AEH musingly assents: “We’re never too old to learn.” Talk about “thumping truisms”: This is the kind of sentimental thinking that Housman reviled. I can only attribute Mr. Stoppard’s failure to appreciate the significance of Housman’s intellectual and methodological insights to the relative recentness of his “discovery” (as he referred to it in Philadelphia) that Housman had been a classicist at all. He went on to say that he hadn’t realized Housman was a homosexual, which makes one wonder whether he understands Housman’s poetry any better than he does Housman’s scholarship.
Mr. Stoppard has remarked that “personally” he finds Housman heroic, but this private esteem has not percolated into his professional activities. Indeed, my larger point remains: while this playwright may “revere” intellectuals, he likes to punish them, too—a perhaps unconscious artistic choice that suggests to me that his reverence is tempered by what I have called a “romantic” elevation of the heart over the head. The playwright’s ambivalence about people who pursue knowledge for its own sake perfectly mirrors that of most people; hence his popularity. (“It puts a case for—I don’t know if I stand behind this,” Stoppard said in Philadelphia, speaking of an obsessive love of knowledge. “I mean, I do. Yes, Imean to some degree, Imust, otherwise it wouldn’t interest me. He puts a case for the acquisition of knowledge as being almost what makes us human beings, knowledge for its own sake.”) Someone who had greater conviction that intellectual passions could, in and of themselves, provide a whole and satisfactory life—as I think was the case with Housman—would not have found necessary the erotic humiliation of the brilliant writer in The Real Thing; the auto-da-fé of the math genius in Arcadia; and of course the presentation of Housman in The Invention of Love as a man who, despite stunning literary and scholarly accomplishments, continually cries out that he wishes he had died for his beloved.
As, of course, Wilde did. This brings me back to Mr. Stoppard’s main objection to my argument. “I disagree that Wilde is ‘the real hero’ of the play,” he writes, quoting my thesis, “and that ‘there is no question where your sympathies are meant to lie.”‘ This is different tune than the one Mr. Stoppard was whistling last December. When asked why he’d brought Wilde into a play about Housman, he replied that it was for contrast’s sake; note the nature of the contrast. The play, he explained, seeks to present Housman as an outwardly “successful person whose life—and this the play does try to do, does try to show—whose life is essentially a failure in many ways. He failed to live his own personality.” But the only personality that Housman “failed” to live was, of course, Wilde’s: a glittering if ill-fitting piece of millinery that—to coin a phrase—the playwright imperiously clamps on Housman’s head, only to chide him for looking lousy in it. Still, let us grant Mr. Stoppard his point: Housman’s a “failure.” So what’s Wilde doing in the play? The playwright’s own remarks leave, as I wrote, “no question in your mind”: Wilde, he went on, was “this other man who crashed in flames…[whom] we now see, for perfectly obvious reasons, as being somewhat of a heroic figure and a successful person.”
All this seemed perfectly obvious to me, too. Or am I being “obtuse” in taking these comments to mean that I can now count myself that luckiest of creatures: the critic who has the rare satisfaction of finding his interpretation supported by none other than the author himself?
September 21, 2000