The Invention of Love

ISBN: 0802135811
ISBN 13: 9780802135810
By: Tom Stoppard

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About this book

It is 1936 and A. E. Housman is being ferried across the river Styx, glad to be dead at last. The river that flows through Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love connects Hades with the Oxford of Housman’s youth: High Victorian morality is under siege from the Aesthetic movement, and an Irish student named Wilde is preparing to burst onto the London scene. On his journey the elder Housman confronts the younger version of himself and his memories of the man he loved his entire life, Moses Jackson –– the handsome athlete who could not return his feelings.

Reader's Thoughts


Confusing - it takes two or three reads to really understand all the layers to this play, and I have to confess I'm not sure how it could ever be performed on stage. But it's beautiful, complicated, and absolutely heartbreaking - and terribly witty. This is Tom Stoppard at his absolute best.

Jim Coughenour

Unexpectedly moved (it was late) by a recent poem of the week, I've been reading the new Penguin edition of A. E. Housman, and (in turn) its introduction by Nick Laird prompted me to dig out The Invention of Love. I missed Stoppard's play when it premiered at ACT in 2000 – why? I don't remember, but I'm ashamed.As usual with Stoppard, the drama is a dazzling bricolage of biography and literary quotation. If I hadn't read Laird and Richard Ellmann's matchless biography of Wilde, I would have missed much more than I did. Stoppard's a genius and he can't help showing off. AEH, the ghost of Housman standing on the bank of the Styx, is hardly a subject you'd expect to find moving – but accompanied by the banter of other ghosts boating by (Wilde, Ruskin, Pater, and various comely lads), the dead man is eloquent.He would not stay for me; and who can wonder?He would not stay for me to stand and gaze.I shook his hand and tore my heart in sunderAnd went with half my life about my ways.Yes, it's all very sad (that was Housman shaking hands with the Oxford chum he was in love with, who shrugged him off, moved to India and married), and Stoppard makes everything of the pathos and pathetic comedy of Housman. He was a queer one, both an acerbic scholar of the classics ("beyond serious dispute, among the greatest of all time"; "a scholar worshipped and hated for his meticulous standards and his appalling sarcasms on the unscholarly"*) as well as a sentimental poet of homoerotic necrophilia – elegant elegies to "all those ploughboys and village lads dropping like flies all over Shropshire," as one of Stoppard's characters remarks. The first readers of A Shropshire Lad "might well have been puzzled by its corpse-strewn landscape and wondered what massacre or epidemic had laid so many of Terence's friends low; if they're not in the pub it's because they're already in the churchyard." The book made barely an impression when it was published in 1896, but it seemed to be "in every pocket" of the doomed young men marching off to France in 1914. "As Robert Lowell observed, it was as if Housman had foreseen the Somme." (All this from Alan Hollinghurst's introduction to the very slim ff selection.)This review is already too long for saying so little about Stoppard - but one more footnote. In 1887 Édouard Dujardin published a "stream of consciousness" novel, Les Lauriers sont coupés. James Joyce credited it with inspiring the "interior monologues" of Ulysses. When it was translated into English in 1938, it was titled We'll to the Woods No More, which resonates with the fading echoes of Edwardian England and inspired all manner of melodies. One night poking around the internet, I discovered how this happened. Housman, of course, translating a French line from Théodore de Banville – and this review will fade out itself with these perfectly plaintive lines:We'll to the woods no more,The laurels are all cut,The bowers are bare of bayThat once the Muses wore;The year draws in the dayAnd soon will evening shut:The laurels all are cut,We'll to the woods no more.Oh we'll no more, no moreTo the leafy woods away,To the high wild woods of laurelAnd the bowers of bay no more.

Michael Alexander

Here is where I say that if you saw me reviewing like a maniac on my Anne Carson kick recently (If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho and Autobiography of Red), you have probably noticed by now that I have a thing for my memories of high school Latin, and for classicism in general. You will if you are some creepy expert on me (or actually know me in real life) also know that I'm a total sucker for Arcadia: A Play, which is honestly more hilarious and well-crafted and heartbreaking than any other play I can think of written in my lifetime off the top of my head.So what I'm saying is, how did I not find THIS until now? (Read someone else's review for the summary. I'm in rapture mode here.)I will note, for your information and my own amazed serendipity, that I happened to be retranslating last week precisely the Horace poem this whole play hinges on (classical scholar Housman's favorite, which is probably why my high school Latin teacher's favorite, which is probably why MY favorite), which so apropos of this exact time of year runs: Horace Ode IV.7 TRANSLATION by me.(the only word I leave untranslated is pietas and its adjective pius, which is sort of the word they would have used for if you crossed mythic cherry-tree George Washngton with Gandhi with Patrick Henry--pious, selfless, virtuous, and utterly abjectly devoted to everything a good Roman should do, even at the cost of his own life. Its usage here is rather shocking.)The snows have passed away, and now the grass returns to the fields,and the leaves upon the trees.The earth is changing faces, and the waning riversoverflow their banks.A Grace, with (all) her Nymphs and sisters twinned,Dares to lead a chorus in the nude."Do not hope for immortality," warns the year, and the hourwhich snatches away the kindly day.(This) warm breeze softens the frost, (but) summer soon will trample spring,and then itself begin to die, just as, whenfruitful autumn has poured out its bounty, without delaythe stifling winter hastens back.For speedy moons restore in time their losses in the sky:but when we sink belowto where pius Aeneas and wealthy Tullus and Ancus wait,we are but dust and shadows.Who knows if any gods above will tack tomorrowto the running total of our days?All that will outwit posterity's greedy handIs what you deed your own delightful self.And when you sink below, to where Minossits his solemn judgment,Torquatus, (friend!): not family ties nor eloquencenor even pietas will bring you back.For Diana cannot free her chaste Hippolytusfrom the shades beneath,nor Theseus ever from dear Perithousrip the chains of Lethe.-----------Ahem.It's really those last two lines, far superior in the Latin, which haunt this play. In the tattered mythology that remains to us, Theseus and Perithous were kings, dearest of friends, close in that particular ancient Greek male way that blurs the homosocial and the erotic. In a twist on the Orpheus tale, the literature holds that they BOTH go down to the underworld on a quest to drag off Persephone as Pirithous' wife (They'd already stolen an underage Helen, who creepily enough was going to be locked away till she was of age--obviously she doesn't stay kidnapped by them, because fate has made an appointment for her in Troy), and are trapped by Hades. It isn't until (in one of those comic-book-like crossovers that pop up in ancient myth) Herakles rolls through on one of his labors, sees a fellow hero in a jam, and drags Theseus out to the light. But Perithous is out of luck, because he has offended the gods by wanting a goddess as his wife--when Herakles tries to tear him from the spot he is chained, the whole Earth shakes and he is forced to give up.It's about death, hilariously so (as Housman being ferried by Charon over the river Lethe crashes into Three Men in a Boat including Jerome K. Jerome), but more than that it is of course about love (especially frustrated, hidden, unrequited, forbidden love), and what it cannot conquer (time, prejudice, the closet, and our own naivete). Amid a swirl of British Public School buggery jokes, nods to the Aesthetics, Wilde swallowing up the horizon, and endless obsessive little comic battles over the translation of the 10 or so poems I know anything about in Latin -- not to mention, as with the Carson, the terrible sense of loss of so many beautiful works -- well, this play is among other things about how no beauty you ever perceive in your entire life will evade death, no love no matter how strong will slow it down, and how all the dreams of being transmuted into heroism you ever hold will shatter against the sturdy certainties of life--including those that say "the love of your life may not love you back, or be ABLE to love you back." But it tells you so, in the soaring tradition that Arcadia seems to have started, by making one laugh to tears and then revealing profound beauty and poignancy, which is how art makes all of this bearable and even noble, even as at other times it has been complicit in fostering all the illusions life tends to shatter. And it will accomplish this by first making you laugh and then by making you wonder and then by making your heart stop cold in your throat, where only then you realize it had been beating for the past half hour. And then offering perhaps its greatest solace in the giddy Wildean perversity where it began.And I really should be asleep but I wanted to say that some things are worth going giddy over, and I will probably see this in the morning and tear it to pieces. (Yes, I edited this in the morning. Amazing how coherent I could be while literally passing out in bed on melatonin, but worth pulling out other themes than merely the mortal ones.)

Genevieve Heinrich

Exquisite.There is no other word for this play. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll speak in cliches... Honestly, I was blown away.

Mike Jensen

What the heck, didn't I just add this to goodreads a week or two ago? I did, but I found the play so uncharacteristically unsatisfying that I read it again about a week later. It was still pretty good, but less satisfying than most of Stoppard's other work.


Really beautiful, but feels at times like it's purely an academic excercise. An excuse for Stoppard to show off how much Greek he knows.


Hilarious and intelligent and yet moving dialogue, themes and subject matter that make me feel like it was written just for me (because who else would like all of that?), characters that make me feel stupid in comparison--yay, it's a play by Tom Stoppard, my very favorite playwright. No one I've ever gone to see a Stoppard play with has ever agreed with me that it was the best thing ever or that they loved it, but this one I only read, so there was no one sulking on the way home. Unfortunately, that also means there was no one for me to grin at, or to explain the highly technical jokes to and feel smarter than.


I honestly would never have imagined that Tom Stoppard could top what I have long considered to be his masterpiece, The Real Thing, but The Invention of Love quite possibly does just that. A densely allusive belly laugh of the brain from beginning to end, intensely tragic and gloriously uplifting at once, ultimately a journey (with Charon no less) to gaze into Nietzsche’s abyss with the dead AEH — and the abyss gazes back with at least a little bit of a smile. No matter how pointless life may be, it’s fun, damn it! I was laughing out loud as I read each page (just as I laughed out loud — embarrassingly, the only one in the audience at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre to do so — at the “Screw the whales, save the gerund” joke in The Real Thing all those years ago) but . . . .as Houseman says in Act II, “if you can’t read Latin go home, you’ve missed it!” . . .

Sarah Owens

This is my favorite Stoppard play (though The Real Thing and Jumpers come close), mainly because I used to be a Classics nerd and already appreciated Housman's contributions to that field and to poetry in general. This play has all the classic Stoppard ingredients: good banter, beautifully-stylized language, and emotional truth. I'm a sucker for a good, unconventional unrequited love story, and Stoppard communicates Housman's longing for his straight friend Moses beautifully.Housman himself (by whom I meant the elder Housman - labeled "Housman," if I remember correctly, to distinguish him from the younger "AEH," with whom he interacts) is so fully-formed, his characterization so subtle and interesting, that he steals every scene he's in. His personality is part self-deprecation, part wounded pride, part wry humor and part abject (but not maudlin) longing. Though this is a love story, in the end this play is patently about Housman's relationship with himself, and the various happy and tragic ends to which we refract our longing through our own conceptions of self.Oscar Wilde pops in every now and then, to sometimes-hilarious, sometimes-thoughtful effect. If you, like I do, believe that he's the only fun thing to come out of the Victorian era, and especially if you like Classics, I highly recommend this play.

Jee Koh

Poet or ScholarSingapore Jade had been insisting that I read this Stoppard play for quite some time, and finally made it impossible for me to put her off by giving me a copy the other day. Plays don't come alive to me until I see them performed, and The Invention of Love struck me, on first reading, as more brainy than acute, more showy than moving. But Stoppard's Housman and Wilde came back to me again and again in the last few days, while I was waiting for the bus, or listening to a friend's chatter, or working out in the SAFRA gym near my house.The desire to lay down your life for your lover. A desire represented in the play by repeated references to the Theban band, an army made of same-sex lovers, slaughtered by the Macedonians. Housman wants to lay down his life for his love, Moses Jackson, but the latter is straight and does not love him back, and Housman remains closeted all his life. Wilde, on the other hand, gives his life and reputation for his love, refusing to run from standing trial.The serious Housman. The apparently frivolous Wilde. Housman was a first-year student at Oxford when Wilde was in his final year there. Housman is going to be a scholar of Greek and Latin, Wilde an Aesthete of Life. Housman raises points of linguistic interest in Catallus. Wilde raises witty epigrams quoted around the university. Wilde receives a First in Finals. Housman is ploughed by the Finals because Propertius, his life work, is not on the examination.You cannot be a poet and a scholar of the first rank; you must choose. The poet's supreme god is beauty but the scholar's ultimate goal is knowledge. In life, as well as career, Housman chooses to be a first-rank scholar. Wilde chooses to be a poet.The love elegy, like the motor-car and the telephone, had to be invented. Homosexual love had to be invented. Housman decides not to invent homosexual love, but to live a life of permanent longing. Wilde is a self-invention.Which of the two men lived a better life? What regrets and joys attend each man waiting by the river for Charon?


Possibly my favorite Stoppard yet. The narrative structure, more properly termed the narrative wandering, based around a (many) river, was confusing in a way that made reading the play enjoyable.


An awesome play - a quick read, but incredibly nuanced. It may be a bit classics-heavy for some


UPDATE: In retrospect I am giving this play 4 stars- It is esoteric and a nod to the knowing- but it left me thinking quite a bit, looking a lot of things up and learning- what more can you ask for from a piece of art. I still think it's slightly pretentious, but that is transcended by it's beauty.Great, and beautiful play- esoteric and slightly indulgent, but beautiful and sad. I think a lot of it was lost on me and I would really need to see a good production of it. I did really enjoy parts of it, but a lot, to be honest, I just had to keep reading through without understanding the references. I get the gist though and I would give it four stars for story alone. The language it was pulls it down for me, at times captivating and gorgeous, it seems to revert to language that can only be understood by someone who already had a great knowledge of this era and so seemed like a nudge to the knowing rather than a celebration of the story.


In some ways, this was the Stoppard play that was made for me; before I ever saw it, I was a huge A.E. Housman fan with an interest in Greek and Roman poetry and the history of homosexuality in England. It's a long-winded play at times, and I think it's easier to get in to (as with much of Stoppard's work) if you first see it on the stage. But it's beautiful, heart-breaking, funny, and moving, and I adore it wholeheartedly.

dead letter office

Seen in SF, ACT production circa 2000. I've never seen (or read) Stoppard I didn't like, but this one was memorable: a story about Housman and an unrequited lifetime of love, and Housman's dignified, repressed homosexuality in a time when Wilde's flamboyant, showy brand was grabbing all the headlines. All this against the background of end-of-century madness onstage and end-of-millenium madness off.

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