The play’s the thing

When you take away everything plays think they’re about, what’s left is what all plays—all stories—are really about, and what they’re really about is time. Events, things happening—Ophelia drowns! Camille coughs! Somebody has bought the cherry orchard!—are different manifestations of what governs the narratives we make up, just as it governs the narrative we live in: the unceasing ticktock of the universe. There is no stasis, not even in death, which turns into memory.

Barrett died, 60 years old, a month after my play opened, 5 years after that photograph of him cycling home with his shopping from the supermarket. When I first saw the photo—in Willis’s book—I found myself staring at it for minutes, at the thickset body supporting the heavy, shaven potato head, comparing it with images of Barrett in his “dark angel” days, like the shot on this story’s opening page. “He was beautiful,” Esme says. “He was like the guarantee of beauty,” and, high-flown though it might be to apply Virgil’s untranslatable chord “there are tears of things,” sunt lacrimae rerum, to a snatched photo of a burly bloke with Colgate and Super Soft toilet paper in his bicycle basket, that’s what came into my mind in the long moment when I understood that it was this play, the one about Communism, consciousness, Sappho, and, God help us, Czechoslovakia, into which Syd Barrett fitted. The tears of things are in mutability and the governance of time.

Tom Stoppard