Struggles are always dramatic. While the characters of Tom Stoppard’s trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, struggle to evolve their ideas for society’s future, Stoppard struggles to evolve a shape for his giant work out of the staggering mass of material it covers: nothing less than the entire political and cultural ferment of 19th-century Russia. And not only Russia, for the intellectual tendrils of the revolutionary thinkers who are Stoppard’s focal figures extend in all directions: You don’t have to come in knowing about Pauline Viardot’s importance to operatic history, or the strange twists of Gogol’s literary career, or Richard Wagner’s ties to German political movements, but you may well find yourself, afterwards, wanting to read up on these subjects because one or another of the play’s innumerable threads has tickled your brain.
The Coast of Utopia contains an Augean stable’s worth of material, and Stoppard has set himself the Herculean task of tidying it. No wonder that in
Shipwreck, the trilogy’s centerpiece, it’s his struggle to make sense of this chaos, not his characters’ efforts to clarify their ideas, that often seems the event’s most dramatic aspect. The effort is doomed from the start—who could possibly convey in three evenings the forces that shaped all of modern history?—but that doesn’t make it either less admirable or less exciting. Stoppard, in effect, is his own play’s tragic hero, the man compelled to tell the tale that can never be fully understood; history is the nightmare from which he is vainly trying to help himself, and the rest of us, escape.
The key figure of Voyage, the trilogy’s first part, was Mikhail Bakunin (Ethan Hawke), the spoiled, rebellious aristocratic scion whose unquenchable thirst for revolution will ultimately lead him to become anarchism’s principal exponent. Part 2, covering the 1840s, traces the cross-fertilization of Russians in exile with Western Europe’s homegrown radicals. Bakunin, who in Part 1 seemed a sort of hero-villain alternately admired and loathed by the author, has become something more like the epic’s resident clown, an appalling but lovable rogue willing to cadge money from every man, wheedle favors from any woman of influence, and help destabilize any sitting government. With the police of four nations after him, Bakunin spends most of Shipwreck either on the lam or in prison; its comic high point shows him in post-1848 Dresden, obdurately stonewalling the court-appointed German lawyer (Robert Stanton) frantically trying to save him from a Saxon firing squad.
With Bakunin largely sidelined, Shipwreck shifts the focus to Alexander Herzen (Brían F. O’Byrne), another aristocratic scion, this one illegitimate but the heir to an immense fortune. A deeper thinker than Bakunin, Stoppard’s Herzen is less a hero than history’s whipping boy of choice, battered politically by radicalism’s inexorable slide towards violence (and the repression that follows) and whacked personally by its simultaneous subversion of bourgeois society’s basic building block, the nuclear family. Observing in dismay while Europe’s spotty and ill-conceived revolts of 1848 are snuffed out one by one, Herzen retreats to Italy with his wife, Natalie (Jennifer Ehle), the German radical poet Georg Herwegh (David Harbour), whom he only dimly perceives is Natalie’s lover, and Herwegh’s wife (Bianca Amato), who’s only too well aware of the situation. All the revolutionary open-mindedness in the world can’t make that situation work out happily, and its collapse is rendered horrific by the tragic accident that makes Shipwreck‘s title apply literally as well as metaphorically.
Shipwreck‘s materials are naturally more engrossing than those in Voyage: Violent attempts at revolution are more rousing than theoretical debates about it; violent spasms of jealousy, guilt, and grief are more moving than unconsummated or unreturned loves. Still, the breadth of Stoppard’s canvas combines with his ever-shifting focus to produce a maddeningly scattershot effect. The script is full of captivating scenes, and Jack O’Brien’s staging has a smooth assurance that makes epic seem the theater’s natural habitat: Street mobs inspired by Gericault turn into serene drawing rooms in an instant, and people stroll serenely over spots where somebody else’s scene has just sunk through the floor. Catherine Zuber’s costumes and Mark Bennett’s music field with agility the expanded range of chances the segment’s geographical roaming offers—there’s some particularly attractive singing by Felicity LaFortune and David Pittu as Herzen’s Italian servants—while the wild contrasts of event, coupled with O’Brien’s visual puns on famous European paintings, make Kenneth Posner the luckiest of the epic’s three lighting designers, an opportunity he greets with colorful zest.
But after all this, two-thirds of the way through, it’s still hard to see what Stoppard is driving at, other than to say that 19th-century Russia was full of active minds and tormented souls, something that will surely be no news to the literate, and of scant interest to anyone else. Many of the characters are fascinating, much of the repartee is clever, and the big emotional confrontations produce suitably big effects. Yet the large number of major characters keeps any of them from holding our interest fully, and the width of the canvas keeps us from following any single sequence of events in depth. It’s typical of the hectic, scurrying treatment that the offstage character of Gogol, barely mentioned in Voyage, has by Shipwreck‘s time already taken the half-demented reactionary turn that alienates Belinsky (Billy Crudup) from him; of Gogol’s great achievements and their effect on Russian thought we hear almost nothing. (All of Russian literature, Dostoyevsky is supposed to have said, “emerged from Gogol’s ‘Overcoat.’ “) The political and personal issues, like the cultural matters, are thrown at us in such rapid succession that none seems to provide a dramatic spine. Rather than demanding advance preparation, Stoppard’s work often seems to be a set of commentaries on whatever you happen to come in knowing about the 19th century. Marx, Wagner, George Sand, Fenimore Cooper—the work’s inclusiveness has heft, but it’s the heft of a catalog for an unusually jumbled museum exhibit, not the cumulative power that gives a great drama its stature.
But it’s still early. These lives still have to face their culmination in Part 3, and a new revolutionary generation has to arise in reaction to them. The fuzzy pattern Stoppard is weaving may yet turn out to display a brilliant clarity. Meantime, there’s the lavish production to feast on, and a lavish amount of good acting to relish. Harbour and Ehle make a gloriously mismatched pair of clandestine lovers; Hawke’s Bakunin has lost none of his coarse, cocky freshness. And O’Byrne, sublimely imperturbable, somehow manages to convey, without any external signaling, that every line he speaks is curling back on him in a painful whiplash of irony. When, late in Shipwreck, he stands alone on the Beaumont’s enormous stage, facing history in all its terrifying randomness, something big seems to be happening that the rest of Stoppard’s inventive, elaborate play, for all its excitement, does not quite support. “One must always immerse,” as Turgenev’s friend Henry James wrote, “in what is most tragic.” In Part 3, next month, we’ll find out how deep Tom Stoppard’s immersion goes.