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Lost in Thought

The Coast of Utopia

Lincoln Center

As a captive member of Tom Stoppard's audience over the years, Ihave often felt less like a spectator sitting at a play than like aretired learner taking courses at an adult extension school. In thelast three decades, this playwright has lectured us on A.J. Ayerand logical positivism (Jumpers); on Tristan Tzara, Vladimir Lenin,James Joyce, and literary-political exile (Travesties); on

Byron, Hobbes, Newton, Fermat, and hydroponic gardening (Arcadia);on A.E. Houseman, Walter Pater, Benjamin Jowett, Oscar Wilde, andmale love (The Invention of Love); even on the minor characters ofShakespeare (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead). In his latestcourse offering, an epic trilogy called The Coast of Utopia,Stoppard is giving instruction in the entire history of RussianIdealism, as represented by six major figures of the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia.

Eric Bentley once rattled the theater world by conceiving of theplaywright as thinker. I wonder what he would call TomStoppard--the playwright as teaching assistant? Shaw added prefacesto his published plays, Pirandello included "premises," Strindberggave us forewords, and Brecht a "Little Organon. " Stoppardprovides reading lists. But while the great modern dramatistsgenerally channeled their dramatic ideas into strong characters andengrossing stories or (in the case of Beckett) powerful metaphors,Stoppard's theatrical process seems more like a Wikipedia searchthan an act of imagination.

There are a number of excellent scholarly studies on the Russianidealists. Stoppard generously credits his secondary sources, E.H.Carr and Isaiah Berlin, as "two authors without whom I could nothave written these plays." I'll say. This acknowledgement hasresulted in a run on the bookstores for dog-eared volumes of Carr'sThe Romantic Exiles and Berlin's Russian Thinkers. Reading thesebooks leaves no doubt that the world of Michael Bakunin, NicholasStankevich, Ivan Turgenev, Nicholas Ogarev, Vissarion Belinsky, andespecially Stoppard's central character, Alexander Herzen, is apotential goldmine of theatrical material. The question is, howsuccessfully has the playwright converted his research into viabledramatic action? Having now completed the entireeight-and-a-half-hour course and bibliography, I suggest that youstudy the syllabus, do the assigned reading, and bag the lectures.

What accounts for this curious scholastic development in recentBritish drama, a body of literature that, whatever its achievementsin wit and style, has never before been particularly noted for itspedagogy? Compare the first generation of contemporary Englishplaywrights--Noel Coward, Ben Travers, Frederick Lonsdale, BennLevy, and Terence Rattigan. Far from highbrow mind games, theirgenteel plays were more like tempests in a teacup about underheatedmarriages and overcooked venison, in which the kitchen, chamber,and garden help appeared on stage mainly to tip their caps orflutter their aprons. (This brand of theater is still beingremaindered by Alan Ayckbourn.)

And compare the second wave of modern English drama, General JohnOsborne and his army of Angry Young Men and Women--Arnold Wesker,John Arden, Shelagh Delaney, Joan Littlewood, Howard Brenton,Edward Bond, and, some would say, Harold Pinter. Most of thesemilitants were Marxists, some of them closet conservatives. Butalthough many were concerned with recording changes in the Englishclass system, none was particularly interested in dramatizing ideasor declaiming ideological positions. By replacing the Loamshirearistocracy with characters from the Midlands and the London EastEnd, the Angries celebrated the energy, the shrewdness, and theregional accents of the working classes, meanwhile waving anostalgic goodbye to the fading British Empire.

The present generation of British dramatists--led by the Czech-bornTom Stoppard, and including Michael Frayn and David Hare--is thefirst (apart from Shaw, who was Irish) to explore the world of thepostgraduate classes. All three have been primarily engaged withprofiling philosophical, scientific, or political luminaries--thephysicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg (Frayn's Copenhagen);the West German Chancellor Willy Brandt and his East German spynemesis Gunter Guillaume (Frayn's Democracy); George W. Bush, DonaldRumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and Tony Blair (DavidHare's Stuff Happens); the leaders, settlers, artists, andinsurrectionists of Israel and Palestine (Hare's Via Dolorosa); andso on.

As a result, British playwrights, once hailed for their style,technique, or edginess, are today being praised for their facilitywith ideas. Frayn, a journalist and novelist who evolved into adramatist, has evolved further into a historian of physicalscience, having just published a quite impenetrable work (at leastto my physics-resistant brain) called The Human Touch. In thisfive-hundred-page tome, subtitled "Our Part in the Creation of aUniverse," Frayn examines the most complex scientific mysteries ofthe day, including quarks, quasars, quantum theory, and otherquondam quiddities.

Considerably more literary in his interests, Stoppard, in The Coastof Utopia, continues to pursue his infatuation withnineteenth-century ideas, this time electing a major in Russianintellectual history (with a minor in dramatic structure). Eachplay begins with Alexander Herzen, lost in thought, sittingsuspended in a chair aloft, as the names of the central charactersare dropped upon a scrim. This is entirely appropriate to a playthat never stops name- dropping or, more accurately, idea-dropping.Admittedly, Stoppard has one sustaining idea of his own: thatUtopia (meaning the political idealism that leads to a socialistrevolution) is a country toward which many different boats haveheaded without being able to land on solid ground. It is anunimpeachable, if overworn, idea; liberals have been rightlyinsisting upon it for half a century. Stoppard's big Eureka issuggested in his title, which treats the concept of utopianism as asea-going metaphor, and also in names of the three plays in thetrilogy--Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage--which are all nauticalwarnings about the perils of political travel.

Shipwreck climaxes with an actual disaster at sea: the sinking of apassenger vessel sailing from Marseilles to Nice. Included among itspassengers are Herzen's mother and his young deaf-mute child,Kolya. The tragedy eventually results in the death of Herzen'swife, Natalie, in childbirth, and leads Herzen, after questioningthe whole concept of revolutionary utopias, to conclude that no oneis in a position to control the happiness of others if he cannotcontrol his own. This shipwreck is one of the few physical events inthe play that actually dovetails with an idea. Indeed, it may be astructural fault of the entire trilogy that it treats internationalpolitics and domestic life as two parallel tracks (or sea lanes)that rarely intersect.

But Stoppard has always had difficulty with the emotional lives ofhis characters, and The Coast of Utopia is no exception. There issomething anemic and undernourished in the constitutions of thesepeople, particularly those who are always espousing highphilosophical concepts. Stoppard is perfectly capable of recyclingBerlin's insights into the link between German Idealist philosophyand Russian revolutionary theory, but he is less successful inchanneling the contribution of Carr, who managed to relate thesetheories to the inner lives of the characters. For Carr, thepersonal and the philosophical do not exist in separatecompartments. His "exiles" draw their personal experience fromtheir philosophy, turning formulas into feelings and systems intoan individual metaphysics. As Herzen once wrote in a letter, "Ieven think that a man who has not lived through Hegel'sPhenomenology and Proudhon's Contradictions of Political Economy,who has not passed through that furnace and been tempered by it, isnot complete, not modern." This sounds impossibly abstruse on thesurface, but looked at carefully it represents a living relationshipwith ideas on the part of a thinker who can forge the mostgeneralized theory into something clear, concrete, and immediate.By contrast, Stoppard's Herzen rarely shows signs of life below histalking head.

Herzen also wrote that Romantic idealism was "Romanticism for theheart and Idealism for the head"--that is, political liberation forthe men, sexual liberation for the women. Although Stoppard toucheson her affairs, Carr is much better at dramatizing how the beliefof Herzen's wife Natalie in "universal love" became an invitationto open marriage, stimulated by her reading in Rousseau and GeorgeSand: "I only live," she wrote, "in order to love, to love, tolove." And this lively woman certainly did love, love, love-- firstHerzen, then Natasha Tuchkov, who was to become the wife ofHerzen's friend Ogarev, and then the German poet Georg Herwegh, bywhom she was impregnated, all the while declaring her undyingloyalty to her husband. Natalie Herzen seems to have been an earlydraft for Emma Bovary in her inability to separate hernovel-reading from her sexual fantasies.

Herzen, not entirely faithful himself, remained relatively patientduring his wife's affair with Herwegh, who was using his own wifeas a go-between. Stoppard gives some stage time to this fascinatingdomestic quadrangle, but nowhere nearly enough to cover theintricacies of the relationships. (He omits Herwegh's increasinghysteria when Natalie decided to return to her husband's arms; thepoet even challenged Herzen to a duel for having the presumption toregain his own wife's affections.) And his method is too abrupt tocapture the way the widowed Herzen later unconsciously compensatedfor his own marital betrayal by falling in love with NatashaTuchkov--his dead wife's former lover, now the wife of his dearestfriend, Ogarev--and having children with her under Ogarev's name.(Ogarev consoled himself through an entirely fulfilled relationshipwith an English prostitute.)

To do justice to this erotic smorgasbord, we would need a playfulgourmet like Auden, who wrote (in "The Love Feast"): "Jack likesJill who worships George/Who has the hots for Jack." It is not thatStoppard neglects this overheated period in Herzen's life. It issimply that he rushes over it without examining all theimplications. Maybe this is because there are no footnotes andbibliographies that can help here. Instead of concentrating thestory of Herzen's career into one strong nuclear action, thiswearyingly encyclopedic cycle tries to include everyone andeverything in a sprawling piece of history, with the result thatwhat should be centripetal and explosive becomes linear, thin, anddissipated--tiresomely inclusive and bloodless.

Stoppard is more successful with his other major character, Bakunin,probably because Bakunin had no strong relationships except withbooks. It is Bakunin's reading in Kant, Fichte, Schelling, andHegel that eventually transforms him into the inflammatoryanarchist whose most famous slogan--"the passion for destruction isa creative passion"--played a role in the birth of modernterrorism. Stoppard further shows that whereas Herzen and Bakuninwere both dedicated above all to liberty, Herzen's position wasbased on individual fulfillment and personal freedom, whileBakunin's was driven by a hatred of authority and an ambivalentrelationship to the masses. "Our first task is to destroyauthority," he quotes Bakunin as saying, "there is no secondtask"--but then he adds, "under my absolute authority." (Here hesounds a lot like Hugo in The Iceman Cometh, another anarchist whosecretly considers the proletariat to be his slaves.) Herzen'scapacity to respect individual freedom makes him, according toBerlin, "the most arresting Russian political writer in thenineteenth century." Bakunin's inability to do the same turns himinto a failed political actor, a would-be Robespierre who "in hislove of humanity in the abstract, was prepared ... to wade throughseas of blood." He waded through it with a book under each arm.

The second play in the trilogy, Shipwreck, focuses further on thisideological contrast between Herzen and Bakunin. The most mature,most rational, and most sophisticated of the Russian idealists,Herzen was the only one to recognize that maybe Rousseau had itwrong--that perhaps social structures not only inhibited humannature but protected it as well, that the human heart was not asintrinsically virtuous as assumed. Bakunin was more typical of histime in believing that once all restraints on human beings werelifted, happiness and freedom would reign. Herzen was moreskeptical, and, as a result, the unstable pillars on which he basedhis hopes for overthrowing the bourgeoisie were beginning tocrumble, weakened further by the failed revolutions of 1848. "Whowill finish us off?" he asked. "The senile barbarism of the scepteror the wild barbarism of communism? The blood-stained saber or thered flag?" This, from a man the Soviets canonized.

Perhaps the most premonitory--as well as the most integrated--scenein Stoppard's trilogy occurs in the first play, Voyage, when theBakunin circle, rather like the Rostovs in War and Peace, gathertogether at Premukhino, the family estate, to discuss love andpolitics against a background of social unrest. All the whileBakunin is excitedly exalting the emancipated ideas of the GermanIdealists, he is being dressed and served by serfs. All the whilehe is extolling freedom and action, he is dominating the love livesof his sisters. In this thin atmosphere, where characters lollabout on carpeted floors arguing that "marital sex is just thephenomenal manifestation of the ego," nobody can butter bread orbreak wind without referencing some fashionable philosopher of thetime.

In The House in the Garden: The Bakunin Family and the Romance ofRussian Idealism, a study of Premukhino partly inspired by thesuccess of The Coast of Utopia that will be published by CornellUniversity Press this spring, John Randolph highlights thisdisjunction between the philosophical ideals of the liberal gentryand its social behavior at the Bakunin estate, particularly itsreliance on slave labor. According to Randolph, Bakunin's fatherowned 837 "souls" (Stoppard mentions five hundred) and defended thepractice of slavery after the failed Decembrist Revolution of 1825had undermined his belief in liberalism. Still, in this world,romantic and philosophical ideals were inextricably wedded to eachother.

And philosophy invariably meant revolution from without on behalf ofthe oppressed (though a few Russian thinkers, notably NicholasStankevich, believed in reform from within). The abolition ofRussian serfdom remains a subtextual theme of the trilogy, whichclimaxes in 1861, after Czar Alexander II, two years in advance ofLincoln, issues his own proclamation of emancipation. (He undergoesan assassination attempt for his pains, bringing his reforms to anabrupt end.) Until that moment, the serfs are puppets withoutvoices, silent witnesses of their own suffering; and on stage thosemute "souls"--an army of gaunt spectral mannequins staring dumblyfrom behind a scrim--are often the most eloquent characters in theplay.

This faulty connection at Premukhino between thought and actionshould have been a marvelous opportunity for ironic comedy, but itis an opportunity that Stoppard fumbles. An ironic point of viewwould require a more confident perspective. As a writer, Stoppardobviously identifies with the "sportsman" Turgenev, who is able todissociate himself from the prevailing generalizations. Takingevery side and no side, largely collecting anecdotes (when he isnot shooting woodcock) in preparation for writing his impersonalplays and novels, Turgenev is the most detached, nail-paringcharacter in the play. And Stoppard has an obvious soft spot foranother dissenter from the general philosophizing, thesocial-literary critic Vissarion Belinsky. Berlin calls Belinsky"the moral and literary dictator of his generation" and "the'conscience' of the Russian intelligentsia." An early champion of aRussian culture that would be independent of European influences,Belinsky rejected Premukhino as the locus of delusional hopes,where the gentry ignored its real feelings, "the kopecks ofeveryday existence," in the name of abstract ideals.

In exploring the ironies implicit in this discontinuity betweenideals and behavior, Stoppard could have learned a lot from anotherRussian literary model. I am referring to Chekhov. Caught in suchcontradictions, Trofimov in The Cherry Orchard emerges both as acommitted revolutionary and an object of ridicule. A "perpetualstudent" like Belinsky, who was also expelled from university onlyto become a passionate spokesman for emancipation and revolution,Trofimov glorifies the ideal of work, but he is the most indolentcharacter Chekhov ever created. Belinsky, writing innumerablearticles and manifestoes as well as a play opposing serfdom, couldhardly be called lazy, but the similarities are unmistakable. Thereare echoes of Chekhov in Herzen, too, whose dedicatory letter inViews From the Other Shore describes the coming revolution: "Youperhaps will see it. Do not remain on the shore. Better to perishwith the revolution than to be saved in holy reaction." CompareTrofimov in the second act of The Cherry Orchard: "Forward! We aremoving irresistibly toward that bright star that burns in thedistance! Forward! Don't hang back, my friends!" Trofimov, thoughhe is addressing his beloved Anya, delivers a political oration toinvisible masses. Herzen's remarks are warmhearted advice to hisson.

Voyage takes place in Premukhino and Moscow between 1834 and 1843,while Shipwreck covers the period from 1846 to 1852, moving betweenBerlin, Rome, Paris, and London. The itinerant Herzen family issearching for a safe place to settle and an ideology that is bothplausible and progressive. These are the years of the greatEuropean revolutions, with Bakunin rushing from one capital city toanother trying to foment unrest, borrowing money, and preaching, inHerzen's words, "universal brotherhood by bloody insurrection."Bakunin even manages to irritate Marx with his extremist views,though he delights Wagner through his part in helping to blow upthe Dresden opera. And in this unstable and increasingly inflamedworld, Herzen tries, particularly through his London- basedmagazine The Bell, to maintain his ethical balance while supportingsocial change, walking the shaky tightrope of modern liberalism. Hewill eventually find the answer in a form of gradualism, likeShaw's Fabianism, that avoids violence and seeks to change theworld without destroying it.

In the concluding play, Salvage, the action moves between 1853 and1868, with Herzen and his family mostly located in London andGeneva, their home a gathering place for Slavic idealists, notunlike Premukhino. Herzen has a dream that brings together all themajor European emigres--Marx, Mazzini, Kossuth, LouisBlanc--announcing their revolutionary positions while droppingtheir names. Natalie Herzen is dead; Bakunin is in prison. And witheach scene unfolding in a different year, the play increasinglyseems both emaciated and bloated, its lack of formal definitionbecoming ever more wearing.

What holds the action together is Herzen's growing disillusionmentwith revolutionary ferment, with the murderous spirit that hasbegun to inform the "communist socialism" of what will later becalled Bolshevism (Herzen calls it "the utopia of the ant heap").The debate between the Communist Nicholas Chernyshevsky and theSocial Democrat Alexander Herzen begins to sound very much like theargument between the New Men and the old revolutionary Rubashov inDarkness at Noon. And so does a discussion on the Isle of Wightbetween Turgenev and a utilitarian doctor who tells him that "agood plumber is worth twenty poets," just as a later Russianthinker will say that all of Shakespeare is not worth a good pairof boots.

Obviously, these are the men of the future who will soon consign allmen of good will to the scrap heap. At one point in the trilogy,Herzen mentions a ginger cat who "kills without purpose and spareswithout purpose." At a fancy dress ball, Berlinsky gets to meetthis cat, who is holding a champagne glass and smoking a cigar. Thecat, "with its insatiable appetite for sacrifice," is mentionedonce again toward the end of the trilogy as "this Moloch whopromises that everything will be beautiful after we are dead."Perhaps that cat is Destiny, the bane of all individual strivingand revolutionary hopes. Or perhaps it is History, which Herzendefined as "the autobiography of a madman." Or perhaps it is therevolution itself, which like Saturn eats its own children. Thepower of Stoppard's feline image is that it cannot be easily summedup. Would that the playwright's imagination had been nourished bymore such suggestive images and fewer rhetorical flourishes.

The Lincoln Center production is spectacular in every sense of theword. When most resident theaters are struggling to put ontwo-character plays, The Coast of Utopia features a cast offorty-four men, women, and children--almost all first-rate--and ahost of superb designers. But the production and the written text,like Stoppard's political and domestic themes, seem to be followingparallel, non-converging paths. One wonders whether such arelentlessly verbose work requires such an elaborate theatricalapparatus, until one realizes that of course it does. Jack O'Brienonce again displays a splendid gift for epic stagecraft. He has thecapacity to keep his actors in perpetual motion, surrounded byacres of smoke, tons of billowing waves, lots of red flags, and anoccasional glimpse of Marianne on the barricades. O'Brien'sfondness for stage pictures reminded me of Trevor Nunn's LesMiserables; but some dazzling images of nature in turmoil projectedon an enormous Cinemascope scrim manage to rescue the show from itsobligatory cravat- and-waistcoat cliches. (Mark Bennett's music,though a lot more incidental than Claude-Michel Schonberg'sstirring anthems, also helps to stir the pot.)

Much of the acting is vital and volatile, particularly Ethan Hawke'sperformance as an explosive Bakunin, who remains a source ofvolcanic energy even when he has turned into a rasping Ulysses S.Grant lookalike. This performance establishes Hawke as a majoractor for the stage. So does Josh Hamilton's torturedinterpretation of the epileptic, alcoholic Nicholas Ogarev, whoseems to be deteriorating before our very eyes. Billy Crudupbeautifully plays a scruffy Belinsky, Richard Easton shines in anumber of authoritative character parts, Martha Plimptoncontributes a headstrong and willful Natalie Ogarev, and JenniferEhle is compelling in three contrasting female roles, among themAlexander Bakunin's daughter Liubov (which reminded me of Olivia deHaviland's retiring Melanie Wilkes), Alexander Herzen's liberatedwife Natalie (which reminded me of Vivien Leigh's spunky ScarlettO'Hara), and Herzen's precise German governess Malwida (whichreminded me of Carlotta in The Cherry Orchard). Only the giftedBrian F. O'Byrne as Herzen seems occasionally at a loss in thisproduction, largely because his role is primarily composed of stumpspeeches, each of which O'Byrne delivers with the same earnestemphasis as he did Father Flynn's opening sermon in Doubt.

But the stars of the evening must include Catherine Zuber'sauthentic costumes, Natasha Katz's concussive lighting, and a setby Bob Crowley (and Scott Pask) that confirms Crowley's standing atthe forefront of theatrical designers. Those glowering mannequinserfs, the shiny black marble circular floor, the frozen chandelierthat drips ice, the rotting piano, and that monumental scrim withits sensational final tableau of a storm at sea all help to make itevident during these three long evenings that some gorgeousmaterials have been wrapped around a lot of stiff statuary.

The stagecraft helps to make this trilogy theatrical, but nothingquite makes it dramatic. For great drama is not about human beingsin motion; it is about human beings in action. Lacking thatcompressed action, The Coast of Utopia remains a series ofportentous book reports that skim over the surface of its subjectswithout ever penetrating the core of their being. Stoppard hasreplaced passion with peroration, poetic inspiration with the laborsof the lamp. How this brilliant autodidact has been catapulted intothe pantheon of visionary modern playwrights on the basis of histireless capacity for pedantry is the most important unaskedquestion of the play.