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.