Intelligentsia at Play

Intelligentsia at Play

Tom Stoppard’s ‘Coast of Utopia’


As a playwright who loves to travel through time, Tom Stoppard is unstoppable. There seem few boundaries to the daring theatrical voyages he takes, and little limit, either, to his imaginative configurations of historical events and characters.

Take Travesties (1974), for example, the play in which he united three thinkers who were all living in Zurich during World War I but who never actually met–James Joyce, Tristan Tzara and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Then there is Arcadia (1993), which he set simultaneously in 1809 and 1993 in the drawing room of Sidley Park, Derbyshire, while treating the topics of landscape architecture, iterative algorithms, the second law of thermodynamics, computer science, Lord Byron–oh, and don’t forget sex–all in the same play. Most recently, there is The Invention of Love (1997), where he ferried the British poet A.E. Housman back and forth in time and space between Oxford University and Hell, via Charon’s boat across the River Styx.

Now Sir Tom takes us on another time-traveling journey–perhaps his bravest and certainly his longest–covering a territoryof Russian history that many of us detoured on our way to what we thought was “the destination” (i.e., the Russian Revolution), and introducing us to an extraordinary group of people in the early nineteenth century, all of whom remind us of Sir Tom himself in their passionate and unswerving devotion to ideas.

These would be the members of the Russian intelligentsia of the early 1800s–the very writers and thinkers for whom the word was coined, and from whom came the ideas that would shape much of world history for the next two centuries. Stoppard brings them to theatrical life in a trilogy of new plays called The Coast of Utopia, which (reports are not exaggerated) clocksover nine hours and involves a company of more than thirty actors, playing dozens of roles and charting their lives over four decades and almost as many continents. You can see the trilogy this fall at the Royal National Theatre in London on consecutive days, or all on a Saturday starting at 11 am, if you’re so inclined. Either way, it’s both a mesmerizing history lesson and a theatergoing discovery, leaving you dazzled, dazed and off to the theater bookstore to delve into this period of history that Stoppard has rendered so moving as well as enlightening.

The voyage begins with Voyage–the first play, which spans the period 1834-44–as an evolving group of privileged young “twentysomethings” gather on the Bakunin estate and elsewhere in and around Moscow. There is the anarchist Michael Bakunin (“The passion to destroy is also a creative passion”), the philosopher Nicholas Stankevich (“Love is a religious experience”), the critic Vissarion Belinsky (“We have no national literature…. Literature can actually replace, can actually become Russia!”) and the writer Ivan Turgenev (“We’re all examples of the same disease…a society based on serfdom”). Fueled by a youthful fanaticism to avenge the failed Decembrist revolution of 1825, to defy the repressive Czar Nicholas I and to solve the overwhelming problems of Russia (“We’re stuck between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries”), they engage in a passionate debate about society, revolution, literature and art, while falling in and out of love with the four Bakunin daughters. The men talk heatedly of Schelling and Kant; the women talk rapturously of Pushkin and George Sand. Some are Germanophiles; others, Francophiles. All are members of the Philosophical Circle, and, intoxicated by a heady mix of ideas, they are euphoric with anticipation of a voyage “to a land of limitless possibilities, known intimately from our dreams.” “Everything now depends on artists and philosophers,” the young idealist Stankevich exclaims to his compatriots as they argue over a Russia whose destiny they are determined to define.

With the arrival of Alexander Herzen, proponent of Populism, the group has found its focus (and Stoppard has found his voyage’s captain). The trilogy then segues into its second play, Shipwreck, set in the period 1846-52. Now the intelligentsia is in exile throughout Europe, and Herzen and his family take up residence in Paris, where the debate continues between Slavophiles and Westernizers about gradualism, utopianism, socialism, communism and on and on. But the ideals of the intelligentsia are dashed by the failure of the 1848 revolution (“It’s over with us Russians and the Western model. Civilization passed us by…. The West has nothing to teach us,” admits Herzen). The human story is dashed, too, as the deep love between Herzen and his beautiful wife, Natalie, is marred by a ménage à quatre with the German poet Georg Herwegh and his bride. And so the second play ends with another shipwreck–the death of the Herzens’ beloved young son, Kolya, at sea, followed by the death of Natalie Herzen, pregnant with Herwegh’s child. Herzen’s heart is broken and his vision is apocalyptic: “Once more Europe will burst at the seam. Borders will change, nationalities break up, cities burn…the collapse of law, education, manufacture, fields left to rot…. And then a new war will begin between the barefoot and the shod. It will be bloody, swift and unjust, and leave Europe like Bohemia after the Hussites. Are you sorry for civilization? I am sorry for it, too.”

Salvage, the third play in the trilogy (centered on the period 1853-68), finds Herzen in London, the center of a sad émigré community, where he, Turgenev, Bakunin (now released from a Siberian prison) and Ogarev (another Decembrist avenger) share a moment of hope provided by the news of the emancipation of the Russian serfs (1861). But as the play draws to its close, Herzen dreams of Karl Marx, who offers a dark vision for Russia’s future: “I see the Neva lit by flames and running red, the coconut palms hung with corpses all along the shining strand from Kronstadt to the Nevsky Prospekt.”

As in the final moments of Arcadia, Stoppard sums up this huge and sweeping historic journey in one harmonic neoclassical idea–about time. “But history has no culmination!” Herzen responds defiantly to the specter of Marx. “There is always as much in front as behind. There is no libretto. History knocks at a thousand gates at every moment, and the gatekeeper is chance. We shout into the mist for this one or that one to be opened for us, but through every gate there are a thousand more. We need wit and courage to make our way while our way is making us. But that is our dignity as human beings.” It’s a masterful moment of clarity at the end of a nine-hour voyage that, according to Stoppard’s vision, has no ending.

In a work of this magnitude, where decades, characters and historical events spin by at a dizzying speed, director Trevor Nunn’s swift, graceful staging on a revolving turntable in the National’s Olivier Theatre (against a panoramic, multiscenic backdrop of projections) serves well. He directs an agile and versatile company led by Stephen Dillane, whose elegant, restrained portrayal of Herzen gives a human face to the grand sweep of history. As the ensemble swirls by in scene after scene, it’s a motion that complements the swirl of Stoppard’s favorite themes–love and art and time. A writer of brilliance and imagination who dares to navigate the deep waters of history, philosophy and ideas, Stoppard is distinguished now more than ever as he travels along the Coasts of Utopia with such a beautiful retinue.

In Chekhov’s Three Sisters, another visionary play about prerevolutionary Russia and the future (and love and ideas and time, too), there is an eerie moment at the end of Act II when the shadowy forms of faceless mummers peer through the frosty windows of a warm, cozy home very much like the Bakunins’. Time is suspended in that strange, haunting moment, as if warning us to beware while we peer out into the darkness. Stoppard’s trilogy, too, is punctuated by such a mystical apparition. There is a fancy dress ball at the end of the first play, at which a huge ginger cat appears. He’s referred to by the other characters as the “Moloch that eats his children.” (A “Moloch” is a mythic god to whom children are sacrificed–here, a reference to the notion of a revolution that devours its young.) He wanders among the dancing couples, cigar in hand. It’s a jarring, surreal note, and is reprised again at the trilogy’s end. “What kind of beast is it, this ginger cat with its insatiable appetite for human sacrifice?” asks Herzen at the trilogy’s close. “This Moloch who promises that everything will be beautiful after we’re dead…. The idea will not perish. The young people will come of age.” For writers like Chekhov and Stoppard, whose characters dream of a better world, hope can be salvaged, even in the fearful face of the unknown.

At the end of the second play, there is another arresting moment when time hangs in the balance. Little Kolya, the Herzens’ child, has come into the garden filled with his parents’ philosophizing friends. He is in search of his toy top (echoes of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, again). Sitting cross-legged on the lawn, Kolya plays as the din of the lively debate recedes and crossfades into the sound of thunder, which is about to disrupt the lovely afternoon scene. Kolya is deaf, and Stoppard, in that surreal moment, wants us to hear what Kolya hears–which is nothing at first, except a muted blur of white noise. Then, as the thunder crescendos, Kolya suddenly looks up from his spinning top. He has heard something. The rumble of the encroaching storm.

What sounds of the future are we not hearing? Stoppard, like Chekhov, makes us wonder.

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