Syd Barrett, the one-time frontman and songwriter for Pink Floyd, is an unlikely metaphor for both the stubbornness of the academic British communists and the Stalinist corruption of the Czech socialist ideal. After all, this troubled musician disappeared suddenly from both the iconic English band and public view in fall 1968, subsequently preferring to tend his garden in Cambridge, England, under his real name of Roger.
But even though Barrett (who died in 2006) never appears here on Broadway in "Rock 'N' Roll," the playwright Tom Stoppard makes you see that he is the perfect metaphor for the years between the rolling of the Soviet tanks into the Prague of 1968 and the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
"Rock 'N' Roll" ends just as the Rolling Stones play Prague in 1990, twanging their arriviste, sensualist guitars in the very stadium where the repressive Stalinist regime once staged its propaganda shows.
But in this complex, mournful and moving London import -- inarguably one of this remarkable writer's most profound and personal works -- the Stones' profitmaking performance at the very seat of the old repressive regime is no unmitigated triumph for the Czech people. Even as they watched Mick Jagger cavort, they also were watching the final, profiteering nails enter the coffin of the kinder, gentler brand of socialism postulated by the reformist Czech leader Alexander Dubcek and instantaneously attacked by the Soviets in 1968.
To a large extent, the play argues, one repressive economic system is very much like another -- the mindless pabulum dispensed by mass capitalism being not better for the human soul than the lies and harassment dispensed by communists.
Which brings us back to Barrett.
Many Floyd fans separate the band's work into the pre-Barrett years of purity and experimentation and artistic validity and the post-Barrett years of bombast and spectacle and, well, junk. In other words, Stoppard is saying, Barrett was a dividing line not unlike the corruption of the socialist ideal. We also hear many discussions of the work of the dissident Czech band The Plastic People of the Universe, who walked the walk and tried to stare down their communist repressors. The more lucrative trajectory of the Rolling Stones is left to speak more for itself.
Aside from the play's interludes of rock music, Stoppard also gets at this conundrum by offering -- very much in the style of George Bernard Shaw -- two intensely articulate opposing characters.
Max, superbly played by Brian Cox, is a Cambridge professor born just as the October Revolution changed the world. He clings to his membership in the British Communist Party even as the music-loving Jan (a melancholic Rufus Sewell), his former Czech student at Cambridge, returns to his homeland to save the revolution and finds himself imprisoned instead.
The Czech-born, British-educated Stoppard never went back himself, of course, until long after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But this play is enough to tell you that he feels some guilt about the plight of his homeland in the years when he was writing "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead."
Yet the old communist Max is treated sympathetically. In particular, you suspect Stoppard shares his decaying lefty's views on the failures of the 1960s, when an entire generation of idealistic intellectuals squandered the possibility of permanent liberation and social change on sex, drugs and sensualist experimentation.
"I was embarrassed by the '60s," Max says. "It was like opening the wrong door in a highly specialized brothel. To this day there are men in public life who can't look me in the eye because I knew them when they were dressed like gigantic 5-year-olds."
Was the drug-fueled Barrett part of that charge or above it? I'm not sure the play or its writer really knows the answer to that.
Link between pop, rock
But still, "Rock 'N' Roll" is the most brilliant kind of encapsulation of the link between real rock and pop materialism -- a distinction that forever occupies newspaper rock critics on a nightly basis -- and the similar corruptive temptations of those who find themselves in political charge. During one later scene, close to the advent of Tony Blair's New Labor Party, Max says he'd rather vote for Margaret Thatcher, lest he give credence to a soft left that will never actually change anything. Only confuse people.
As we age, of course, most of us ultimately are overtaken by more personal considerations. In this play, Max's wife, exquisitely played by Sinead Cusack, fights off cancer that leads her not to thoughts of government but of separation from a failing body.
But the soul of this three-hour drama, which is directed with verve, flash and intellect by Trevor Nunn, lies in Prague. When Jan falls afoul of the Czech secret police, they smash his beloved records. At the end of the play, he's sanguine, returning to Cambridge to visit old friends. "When we were reformers," he says, "the Soviets invaded. Now the Soviets are reformers. They've discovered a deep respect for Czechoslovakia's right to govern itself. [President Vaclev] Havel can see the joke. It's his business."
At least Jan gets to see the Stones in Prague. As the shadow of Mick Jagger appears, along with the sound, as on the Stones' live album "No Security," you know that Jan will be at once thrilled and disappointed. Where was Syd Barrett when Czechoslovakia needed him? Actually, it never needed him. It just needed -- heck, maybe we all needed -- what he could have been.
Tom Stoppard's "Rock 'N' Roll" plays on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St, New York. Call 212-339-6200 or visit RocknRollThePlay.com.