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Americans are not comfortable with abstract ideas. Neither, for that matter, are the English, and a theater of ideas has never prospered in London or New York, despite the anomalous success of George Bernard Shaw. Continental Europe's passion for political and aesthetic philosophizing, which flourished from the days of the French Revolution on through the excesses of revolutionary Romanticism, Marxism, structuralism, and beyond, has never found a real echo in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Tom Stoppard's plays are the exception to this general rule, and while his work has remained a more specialized and arcane taste than the wildly popular plays of Shaw, he has succeeded in injecting philosophy into the popular theater as few other Anglo-American playwrights of our era have done. The Coast of Utopia is a particularly audacious, not to say hubristic attempt: a trilogy of plays (Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage), each almost three hours long, requiring a cast of over thirty actors and lavish production values. To conceive a project like this is to expect a great deal not only of Lincoln Center's generous producers and donors, but also of New York's famously middle-brow and impatient audiences as well, for the subject matter is something of which very few casual theatergoers have any knowledge: the first generation of the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia, men who came of age in the 1830s and flourished into the 1860s.

Alexander Herzen, Mikhail Bakunin, Vissarion Belinsky, Ivan Turgenev, Nicholas Ogarev: of these, only Turgenev's name is still widely known to the average educated American, and this is because he, alone among the group, was a great artist; his books, particularly A Sportsman's Sketches (1852) and Fathers and Sons (1862), have done more to keep his world and the concerns of his generation alive in the collective memory than the literary criticism of Belinsky and the theoretical work of Herzen have done, great as these men's influence was among their contemporaries.

Born in the Napoleonic era and growing up in the wake of the failed Decembrist uprising of 1825, these young men were formed by the hideously repressive police state of Tsar Nicholas I. Grimly aware that they lived in a medieval, feudal country (the serfs were not emancipated until 1861) which had contributed nothing, according to their view, to science or culture, they sought to bring Russia into the rest of Europe. In the words of Belinsky's open letter to Gogol (written in 1847 and secretly circulated in manuscript--it was unpublishable in Tsarist Russia), Russia's only chance for salvation lay
 not in mysticism or asceticism or pietism, but
 in the successes of civilization, enlightenment,
 and humanity. What she needs is not sermons
 (she has heard enough of them!) or prayers
 (she has repeated them too often!), but the
 awakening in the people of a sense of their
 human dignity lost for so many centuries
 amid dirt and refuse; she needs rights and
 laws conforming not to the preaching of the
 church but to common sense and justice, and
 their strictest possible observance. Instead of
 which she presents the dire spectacle of a
 country where men traffic in men, without
 even having the excuse so insidiously exploited
 by the American plantation owners
 who claim that the Negro is not a man...;
 a country where there are not only
 no guarantees for individuality, honor and
 property, but even no police order, and where
 there is nothing but vast corporations of official
 thieves and robbers of various descriptions.
 The most vital national problems in
 Russia today are the abolition of serfdom and
 corporal punishment and the strictest possible
 observance of at least those laws that already
 exist.


Liberals like Belinsky and Herzen looked westward, above all toward Paris, for social enlightenment, and in fact Herzen and his family left Russia in 1847 for Western Europe, never to return. The group's disillusionment at the failure of the 1848 revolutions was very great. Especially devastating to them was the miserable example of France, which Herzen had once idealized as Athens and Jerusalem rolled into one: when the nine million newly enfranchised French voters went to the polls they returned a government made up not of socialists and workers, as was expected, but of royalists and rentiers.

The failure of European liberals and socialists to seize the revolutionary moment was an embarrassment for the Russian intelligentsia of the 1840s, who soon began to be derided as "superfluous men." Young radicals of the next generation (the prototypes of Fathers and Sons's fearsome Bazarov) saw Herzen-style liberalism as impotent and bankrupt, and embraced nihilism, anarchism (inspired by the indefatigable Bakunin), and the uncompromising materialism of Marx. The accession of the reformist Tsar Alexander II in 1855 and the long-overdue emancipation of the serfs six years later raised hopes which were almost immediately dashed by the ill-conceived manner in which millions of serfs, free now but penniless, were loosed upon an economically unprepared nation. More drastic action than Herzen and his ilk had ever dreamed of was deemed necessary by the ruthless "new men" of the 1860s, a group Herzen called "the syphilis of our revolutionary lust." Their theories would come to violent fruition in 1917.

"Imagine, then," wrote the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, whom Stoppard has described as the presiding genius of The Coast of Utopia,
 a group of young men, living under the
 petrified regime of Nicholas I--men with a degree
 of passion for ideas perhaps never equaled
 in a European society, seizing upon ideas as
 they come from the west with unconscionable
 enthusiasm, and making plans to translate
 them swiftly into practice.... They were a
 small group of litterateurs, both professional
 and amateur, conscious of being alone in a
 bleak world, with a hostile and arbitrary
 government on the one hand, and a completely
 uncomprehending mass of oppressed and inarticulate
 peasants on the other, conceiving of
 themselves as a kind of self-conscious army,
 carrying a banner for all to see--of reason and
 science, of liberty, of a better life.


Stoppard has taken up Berlin's challenge and attempted to imagine this group and to communicate something of its excitement and its hermetic passion. His plays had to be plays of ideas, since ideas, as Berlin pointed out, were what these men were all about. Their story, which Stoppard carries from the 1830s to the 1860s, is not only the story of a group of men, how they interacted, and how they aged, but also the story of a group of ideas, how they interacted, and how they aged.

Has Stoppard succeeded dramatically? Only up to a point. The major problem with a theater, or a literature, of ideas, is that the individual character too often takes a back seat to the idea for which he or she is a spokesman, and Stoppard has not managed to avoid this trap. Not all of the ideas with which the men of the 1840s were obsessed have stood the test of time--the universal mystical fantasies of Schelling and Fichte, for example, preached by Bakunin's mentor Stankevich, now sound just plain crazy--but the men who held them were by all accounts brilliant conversationalists. Here is Belinsky in impassioned argument, as described by Herzen: "He would fling himself at his victim like a leopard, he would tear him to pieces, make him ridiculous, make him pitiful, and in the course of it would develop his own thought with astonishing power and poetry." Herzen himself, according to his friend Pavel Annenkov, also had an unforgettable conversational style: his "extraordinary mind" would dart "from one topic to another with unbelievable swiftness, with inexhaustible wit and brilliance.... He had a most astonishing capacity for instantaneous, unexpected juxtaposition of quite dissimilar things. [I]n the end, his listeners were sometimes exhausted by the inextinguishable fireworks of his speech, the inexhaustible fantasy and invention, a kind of prodigal opulence of intellect which astonished his audience." As for Bakunin, Richard Wagner wrote, "Everything about Bakunin was colossal, and he was full of primitive exuberance and strength."

Quite the dramatic challenge, in other words. Getting these people onto the stage would have stretched the talents even of a Shaw, and Stoppard, though his characters are full of interest, has not really come close. In any case he has always had a tendency to fill his plays with cartoon figures rather than deeply felt characters. His treatment of Bakunin here is an obvious case. Following Isaiah Berlin, Stoppard sees the anarchist theorist as the man who pioneered concepts that would eventually lead to the tyrannies of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. Stoppard has presented Bakunin as an endearing but clownish character with obviously ridiculous ideas. The fact that the role is played with irresistible charm and energy by Ethan Hawke makes him a delightful piece of comic relief throughout the trilogy, but the group's philosophical give-and-take is fatally flattened by the author's easy dismissal of Bakunin's rhetoric. It might be out of favor in our own cultural milieu--hindsight is 20/20 after all--but it inspired millions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and continues to do so in many parts of the world today; as Bakunin says smugly (but correctly) in Voyage, "I'm one of those who are born for their time." In denying Bakunin's contentions any dignity, Stoppard has deprived Herzen's passionate humanism of an adequate dramatic foil.

At the beginning of Voyage the young Bakunin praises Fichte and echoes Schelling: "The life of the Spirit is the only real life: our everyday existence stands between us and our transcendence to the Universal Idea where we become one with the Absolute!" Later in the play he has transferred his allegiance to Hegel. "Hegel shows that reality can't be ignored, on the contrary, reality is the interaction of the inner and outer worlds ... and harmony is achieved by suffering through the storms of contradiction between the two." It is left to his long-suffering father to deliver the good theatrical one-liner: "You've changed windbags, that's all." True enough, of course, except that this example typifies Stoppard's dismissiveness of much of the Romantic movement. It is easy to make fun of Romanticism--too easy; the real challenge is to make us understand why it seduced an entire continent for a century and more.

Stoppard's critique of Romanticism is more effective when he demonstrates the havoc its idealistic tenets wreak on the lives of his characters. If the political aspirations raised by the Romantic movement were impossible to fulfill--hence the widespread shock at the 1848 debacle--personal expectations were even harder to live up to, especially for women. The lives of The Coast of Utopia's women are blighted by the fantasies they have soaked up from their intemperate reading of Pushkin, George Sand, Schelling, and Byron. Bakunin's father (Richard Easton), like his own father before him, arranges marriages for his daughters with well-to-do army officers twenty years their seniors; the girls, under the influence of their radical brother, break off the engagements because they are not romantically in love, thus unmooring themselves from the traditions of their caste without having been given the slightest preparation for independent lives and free love. Herzen's wife, Natalie (Jennifer Ehle, memorable for her wonderful Elizabeth in the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice), labors under an idealized image of love as a purely spiritual force; when she conceives a physical passion for a handsome, worthless German revolutionary, she feels compelled to place her feelings within a unsatisfying, not to mention illogical, philosophical framework. "You haven't understood anything," she says to her lover's wife. "Al my actions spring from the divine spirit of love, which I feel for all creation. Your logical way of looking at things just shows that you have grown apart from Nature. George is not the way you talk about him. He understands. He loves you. He loves Alexander. He loves your children and mine. Together, our love will be strong enough for all of us."

The heroes of the piece clearly are the humanistic Herzen and Belinsky--Herzen most of all, since Belinsky, the twitching, coughing, overenthusiastic intellectual, is too eccentric to make a real hero; besides, he dies in 1848, only halfway through the trilogy. It is always a pleasure and a privilege to see an understudy acquit himself well, and on the night I saw Voyage, Billy Crudup was out sick and the role of Belinsky was played by the very young Scott Parkinson. Partly because of his youth and frail appearance, but mostly because of his febrile intensity and great heart, Parkinson's performance was a triumph; his interpretation, while being different from Crudup's equally fine Belinsky (I know this because Crudup was back in the saddle the next day, in Shipwreck), fit seamlessly into the production. Jason Butler Harrier is also very good as Turgenev; like Ethan Hawke, he does a particularly convincing transition from youth to late middle age--no easy task.

The void at the center of The Coast of Utopia is the role of Herzen, both as imagined by Stoppard and as interpreted by Brian F. O'Byrne. Herzen's liberal humanism is not in itself remarkable (as with the dancing dog, it is not his philosophy that was so unusual but the fact that it was espoused by a privileged mid-nineteenth-century Russian); it was the man's style, remarked upon and marveled over by everyone who knew him, that made him stand out. He was famous for his wit, his lightness of touch, his quicksilver intelligence, but none of these qualities comes across at Lincoln Center. On the contrary, O'Byrne is a slow-moving, ponderous performer who declaims and pontificates rather than converses--the opposite, one feels, of the real Herzen--and Stoppard has provided him with too much pompous speechifying. By Salvage's end, he has come perilously close to being an old windbag--not what Stoppard had in mind, I am sure--and his dominant mood is Chekhovian melancholy rather than the gaity so many of his friends recalled. O'Byrne also has a deep, lugubrious voice which soon becomes extremely irritating.

By and large, the director Jack O'Brien has done an admirable job with this very demanding project. It is real epic theater: actors double up, playing different roles not only within each play but from play to play, with Ehle, for instance, playing Bakunin's sister in Voyage, Natalie Herzen in Shipwreck, and the Herzen family's German governess in Salvage--three major, and difficult, parts. O'Brien has wisely let the actors stick to their own purely American diction (though sometimes they get a little too American, as when they pronounce the first "e" in "Herzen" as a schwa, making the name sound like Hertz Rent-a-Car); there are no phony English accents here, and the characters only assume Russian accents when they are supposed to be speaking English.

Charles Isherwood of The New York Times was attacked as a philistine when he admitted to finding The Coast of Utopia boring. He does have a point, though: while I wouldn't call the trilogy boring, exactly, it is overwritten and overextended, and definitely has its moments of audience exhaustion, especially toward the end. Stoppard seems to have become carried away by the grandiosity of his vision; he would have done better to rein himself in, cut the repetition, and write the play in two parts rather than three. Six hours would have been fine; nine is excessive. Another thing: unless one is an expert on the Russian intelligentsia, there is little point in going to The Coast of Utopia without doing quite a lot of homework beforehand. I prepared myself not only by reading some background material but even by reading the plays themselves, and I was glad that I had done so; quite a few of my fellow audience members came out disgruntled, having had a hard time following the action and the characters. While some might find this work perfectly acceptable--there is no reason, after all, that a play should not require some extra effort on the part of the viewer--many theatergoers will feel that a play should be able to stand on its own.

My principal feeling on coming out of Salvage, after having seen all three plays in two days, was one of having eaten too large a meal with too many courses. It was not the theatrical experience itself that was excessive--on the contrary, that was elegantly executed--but the collection of not-quite-digested ideas that had been presented. What conclusions does Stoppard mean us to draw from them? On a very basic level, I think, he wishes us to comprehend Berlin's dichotomy between the revolutionary (of the Bakunin or Marx variety) who is willing to sacrifice the current generation for the sake of a future utopia, and the humanist (read Herzen) for whom each life is sacred in its own right.

But even the most fervent of Stoppard's utopians, thank goodness, are intelligent enough to allow anti-utopian moments of realism. "Left to themselves," Bakunin jokes to Herzen in Salvage, "people are noble, generous, uncorrupted, they'd create a completely new kind of society if only people weren't so blind, stupid, and selfish." "Is that the same people or different people?" Herzen asks--to which Bakunin replies "The same people."

Herzen, despite his belief in the justice of socialism and his faith (for which Turgenev mocked him) in the sterling qualities of the Russian peasant, was aware--unlike Marx--that socialism is not "history's destination." "Socialism, too," he says, "will reach its own extremes and absurdities, and once more Europe will burst at the seams.... And then a new war will begin between the barefoot and the shod."

But perhaps Turgenev, the apolitical artist, deserves to have the last word. Here, he discusses with a friend his latest novel, Fathers and Sons, and its controversial nihilist protagonist:

TURGENEV: [I]n general I'm being called a traitor by both the left and the right, on the one hand for my malicious travesty of radical youth, and on the other hand for sucking up to it.

PEROTKIN: And what was your attitude really?

TURGENEV: My attitude?

PEROTKIN: Yes, your purpose?

TURGENEV: My purpose? My purpose was to write a novel.

PEROTKIN: So you don't take sides between the fathers and the children?

TURGENEV: On the contrary, I take every possible side.

This is what Stoppard, too, has tried to do. Not being quite the artist Turgenev was, he hasn't succeeded, but he has come close enough, at least, to make his trilogy consistently absorbing.
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Title Annotation:Theater
Author:Allen, Brooke
Publication:New Criterion
Date:Apr 1, 2007
Words:3057
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