The significance of the Lincoln Center Theater’s production of Tom Stoppard’s three-part, nearly eight-hour The Coast of Utopia lies in its status as a cultural rather than a literary event. As a dramatic work the play, which follows the lives of a series of Russian intellectuals and would-be revolutionaries across Europe between 1833 and 1866, suffers from all kinds of insoluble problems. For starters, even if you’ve done all your homework–including the extra credit–it’s damn near impossible to remember who everybody is, what they thought and with whom they slept, and why it might matter seven hours (and possibly months) later. But as an occasion for serious political and philosophical argument in a culture bereft of both, Stoppard’s magnum opus is cause for celebration.
Utopia resists simple summary. It begins in the years following the crushing of the Decembrist revolt of 1825, as Stoppard’s young idealists muse about the backward nature of their nation and the beautiful future they would create if only they weren’t saddled with institutions like the czar, serfdom, censorship and the Third Section, the KGB’s pre-Revolution precursor. In doing so, they use and abuse the arguments of various German Romanticists, French proto-socialists and even the odd novelist. An enormous Ginger Cat, representing the dialectic of history passing from Hegel to Marx to Engels, has a walk-on, too.
Eventually, as the action moves from the splendor of the Bakunin family estate in Premukhino with its “500 souls” to Moscow to Paris to Rome to Nice to London and, finally, to Geneva, the arguments focus on the various disagreements between Michael Bakunin–known to most of us as one of the philosophical fathers of anarchism but who here spouts an extremely confused and romantic Hegelianism–and Alexander Herzen, who remains today the hero of Russian constitutional liberals and who ought to be a hero to liberals everywhere.
Stoppard naturally spends a lot of time on Herzen’s many personal tribulations–the illegitimate son of a Russian aristocrat, he spent most of his life in extremely comfortable exile, writing and publishing up a storm while being visited by countless personal tragedies and romantic complications.
In a recent public conversation I attended, Stoppard allowed that Ethan Hawke, who plays Bakunin, complained to the playwright that it would be pleasant if, just once, his character could win an argument with Herzen. Stoppard gave in, but not, I think, for sound political or philosophical reasons. As he noted in the discussion, “There is no cohesion, no structure to Bakunin’s various positions.” Bakunin himself wrote in his 1851 Confession, a “radical defect in my nature” has always been “a love for the fantastic, for unusual, unheard-of adventures which open up vast horizons and the end of which cannot be foreseen.” This makes for an exciting character–with which Hawke does wonders–but it is rather an unfortunate quality in a revolutionary leader predisposed to violent changes of mind.
Bakunin was certainly an entertaining fellow, and his writings derive great power from their deceptive clarity. But as the great Isaiah Berlin observed, Bakunin’s “path was strewn with victims, casualties, and faithful, idealistic converts. He himself remained a gay, easygoing, mendacious, irresistibly agreeable, calmly and coldly destructive, fascinating, generous, undisciplined, eccentric Russian landowner to the end.”