Can rock ‘n’ roll change the world — not just change what’s on the radio but who’s in charge of the government? Maybe, but as music critic Robert Palmer once noted, that’s an awful lot of weight to put on a little piece of music. Tom Stoppard’s play Rock ‘n’ Roll, now at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, shows one example of a situation where rock music was viewed as a dangerous political force: Cold War-era Czechoslovakia, where records and concerts by a group called Plastic People of the Universe were driven underground by fearful Communist officials.
This play is not exactly what you might expect from that description, however. There’s a lot of heady, intellectual dialogue, and the rock ‘n’ roll is not as dominant as you’d think, given the title. It’s well worth seeing for its lessons in recent history and an excellent performance by Mary Beth Fisher, among other things. And how cool is it to see a play featuring music by the likes of Syd Barrett — as well as a Barrett-like figure perambulating around the edges of the action, sometimes riding a bicycle.
Still, I wondered sometimes if this show was too much talk and not enough rock. I don’t want to sound anti-intellectual, but shouldn’t a play about the power of rock music to change the world actually show that happening? We hear people talking about more than we witness the actual rock being played. I wanted something more visceral — more moments like that startling shock when a Communist policeman smashes an LP into pieces.
And for a play that includes a lot of references to the Plastic People of the Universe, it’s strange that we hear only one brief passage of that band’s music. The band seems phantom-like, hovering off stage, never quite audible.
That’s the sort of presence the Plastics have had in the real world of rock music — banned in their homeland, discussed but rarely heard outside the Czech Republic. I was lucky to catch a performance by the Plastics last September at the Hideout Block Party (here are my photos from that show), and I managed to track down a digital copy of the band’s classic but hard-to-find record Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned. Good luck searching for it online or finding a place to buy it. It’s a cool combination of the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa — weird, stark and compelling.
To read more about the Plastic People of the Universe, I suggest checking out this article by Richie Unterberger
(Goodman Theatre photo at top by Michael Brosilow)