Coasting to the Finish


If my colleague Charles Isherwood is so bored at The Coast of Utopia, he’s entitled to say so. But probably, before saying so, he should have waited until all three sections of Tom Stoppard’s giant stage treatise on the 19th-century Russian intelligentsia had opened for the press, instead of spoiling everyone else’s chance to sum up the work. On the other hand, the boredom of an intelligent, reasonably cultivated theater journalist at an artistic event of epic ambitions is not to be casually dismissed. The real question for a critic to confront might be: What causes Charles’s boredom? Having now seen Salvage, The Coast of Utopia‘s closing chapter, and having been less actively bored than Charles, but less enthralled than many others, I think I can offer some tentative explanations.

First, The Coast of Utopia isn’t really a drama. Stoppard is fascinated by the ideas his characters espouse, but not by how their ideas drive their actions or lead them into conflict with one another. The ideas tend to be batted back and forth, as if they were being debated in an undergraduate dorm room, with everything ultimately forgiven for the sake of camaraderie. Such dramatic conflicts as the play contains mainly come from infidelity, in marriages or love affairs, or from parent-child conflicts.

But these intimate emotional matters serve more as a running ironic commentary on the ideological debate than as a dramatic core for the play. As Salvage makes clear, Stoppard’s ideological hero is Alexander Herzen, the disillusioned revolutionary theorist who watches one hope after another get shot down—literally in 1848; figuratively as the radical generation for which he has been a lodestar unravels into anarchic disarray; and emotionally as his burgeoning domestic life turns into what seems an endless chronicle of loss and strife. For a finale, he watches, in horror, the rise of the new generation from which the revolution will actually come, a generation fixated on power and the dogma of historical inevitability, devoid of all feeling for the human values that alone make a revolution worth having.

Herzen’s spiritual dilemma is tragic, and conveyed with a high moral gravity that is one of the trilogy’s strongest virtues, but this doesn’t make him much of a hero for a work of epic scope. Of aristocratic parentage, and far wealthier than most of his comrades, Herzen is a man of reflection rather than action, an appropriate non-hero for this non-drama. His role in the revolutionary drama is to write encouraging articles, to offer monetary support, and to watch while his money is squandered and his ideas scoffed at. It seems an uncomfortably bourgeois position for a radical—Stoppard, even-handedly, allows Herzen’s colleagues to point this out from time to time—and, far worse, it seems a hopelessly passive posture for a heroic central figure. An 80- or 90-minute play mapping the turmoil in Herzen’s brain might be a viable proposition, but to marshal dozens of artists and spend tens of thousands of dollars tracking ideas and events this way and that, inviting audiences to sit and pay close attention for three full evenings, merely to announce at the end that history is in constant flux and that we are helpless to stop chance from playing a key role in it—this, to be blunt, smacks of the arrogance that breeds revolutions.

Of course, The Coast of Utopia is not reducible to this single notion; only the absence of a strong dramatic premise tempts one to be mean-spirited about its substance. Its secondary problem is that the digressions Stoppard so clearly adores all tend, like his main focus, to be informational rather than dramatic. Or perhaps one should say, “allusional,” since very little actual information is supplied. As I pointed out in reviewing Part 2 (Voice, December 26, 2006), Stoppard doesn’t create his subsidiary characters so much as tease us with fleeting references to their identity. No doubt professors of European history find the bedlamite opening of Part 3, in which exiles from all over Europe rub shoulders in London, highly diverting. The rest of us, who know at best only a few scraps of fact about figures like Mazzini and Kossuth, would prefer to learn something of who they were, or at least why Stoppard thought it important to dump them all into his play. At such moments he comes perilously close to resembling “Savonarola” Brown, the hapless would-be playwright in Max Beerbohm’s Seven Men, who thought he had captured the essence of the Italian Renaissance by dropping into his stage directions the names of all of the period’s important historical figures. Stoppard reaches his nadir in this vein with an encounter between Turgenev and a young Russian doctor whose resolute belief in nothing chills the novelist’s blood. Asked his name as he exits the scene, the young man replies ringingly, “Bazarov.” Blackout. Since most of the audience hasn’t read Fathers and Sons, the moment falls flat; since it adds nothing but another literary footnote to the event onstage, it deserves to do so.

The big, bitter irony hanging over Stoppard’s triple-decker script is that these figures, Herzen included, did live incredibly dramatic lives. Scenes of passion—ideological, sexual, cultural, you name it—constantly bubble up between them, any of which, more imaginatively realized, could make a drama. But Stoppard no sooner touches one of these events than he changes either his tone or his topic, veering away from the center of conflict. His passion for ideas itself starts to seem an evasion—disturbing, given that the ideas he’s dealing in are those for which, over the past century, millions of human beings have died, some willingly in battle and many more as miserable victims.

The sense of human struggle and suffering seems almost wholly absent. When Michael Bakunin reappears late in Part 3, he has been imprisoned for years in the Peter and Paul Fortress, been exiled to Siberia, and has struggled his way as a fugitive to Japan, across America, and finally to England. He has suffered, a program insert tells us, “unimaginable hardship.” But the Bakunin who arrives at Herzen’s London home in Stoppard’s script, conveyed accurately in Ethan Hawke’s chipper performance, is the same raspy, cheerfully pugnacious, money-cadging smart aleck we last saw in Part 2, in chains, joshing his way into a Czarist dungeon. That Bakunin’s hardships have told on him physically, or even hardened his line politically, doesn’t seem to be the point. Ultimately, Stoppard seems to regard human beings as a species of Teflon in which ideas are cooked, and the passion that Jack O’Brien’s actors pour so fervently into his text starts to look like a rebuke to his reliance on this unmarrable substance. The final oddity of Utopia is that, despite its dramatic form, it has the overall feeling of a highly articulate analytic essay—the final irony being that actual essays on the subject tend to offer more dramatic excitement than Stoppard’s play. To those which the quest for background reading has already made bestsellers, I would add Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station and A Window on Russia. Wilson’s own plays aren’t very good, but his essays reverberate with a deeper drama than any Utopia supplies.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 20, 2007

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