Tom Stoppard has bitten off a huge mouthful of Russian history with his trilogy at Lincoln Center, The Coast of Utopia. Itâ€™s a brilliant production so far, with the first two plays, Voyage and Shipwreck, having opened. The narrative concerns a group of political revolutionariesâ€”Bakunin, Herzen, Belinsky, and othersâ€”from the 1830s and 1840s, precursors of the Russian Revolution of 1917, but so far in advance of their times as to be more dreamers and talkers than actual soldiers of the revolution. Revolutions of a sort were occurring in Western Europe (like the brief one of 1848). But most of Russia was still asleep, under the repressive Tsar Nicholas I, and that situation drives these passionate men first to heated political discourse, and later to travel abroad to Paris and other European hotbeds of exile activity.
What makes the plays so theatrically stunning are the big casts and lush sets, the sense of larger-than-life history being played out before our eyes in a multitude of scenes across a number of countries. And played out passionately, because these ideologues donâ€™t just talk revolution, they also take lovers, dance, drink, dine, write, and generally live extravagant, emotionally intense lives of a very Russian sort. Think Tolstoy, think Dostoyevsky. And also think George Sand novels.
Director Jack Oâ€™Brien has gone all out in this Lincoln Center production, capturing a sense of the vast space of Russia in the 19th century, as well as colorful 1848 Paris, and the sunny Mediterranean seaside. The lighting by Brian MacDevitt (Voyage) and Kenneth Posner (Shipwreck) makes it all stunningly beautiful, as if bathed in a golden light of nostalgia. But that beauty is surrounded by lurking shadows. Since most of these early Revolutionaries were rich, their families owned hundreds of serfs, who linger on the edges of scenes or behind scrimsâ€”dark, mute reminders of all the exploitative backwardness the plotting reformers are seeking to change.
Voyage begins on the large, comfortable estate of the young Michael Bakunin, who has been away studying in Moscow while his sisters and parents impatiently await his arrival home. Family life is lively; the young women are intelligent and sprightly, and Bukunin himself, played with great spirit by Ethan Hawke (pictured), is a veritable firecracker of energy and anarchist theory. He is like the crazy brother we would all like to have, partly because he would drive our parents mad. This family life that buzzes around them humanizes Bukunin and his mates, who regularly travel out from Moscow for visits. The Bakunin estate provides a glowing vision of aristocracy and entitlement before â€œthe fall,â€ whatever the fall might prove to be.
In Shipwreck, with somewhat less emphasis on family life and more on the politics of exile, the characters engage in more purely ideological dialogue, making the second play less rich yet more cerebral. Both works benefit from the amazing visual use of the stage. Shipwreck opens with the highly philosophical Alexander Herzen (well acted by Brian F. Oâ€™Byrne) hanging mid-air in a chair, as if caught between heaven and earth, while below him roil massive sea waves. The image of Herzen dangling there captures his situation in life in the late 1840s: a Russian living in exile in Europe, unable to return to Russia because he would be arrested for his subversive writing, and yet not actively engaged in the political turmoil in Europe, symbolized by the raging sea.
The various major characters have also aged in the second play, by a decade, and they now have wives and in some cases small children. Thus the demands of domesticity enter the picture. Natalie Herzen says of the husband she loves, â€œWeâ€™re not the intoxicated children we were.â€ When the play opens, the Herzen family is awaiting permission to go to France for medical care for their deaf son. Discussion centers on the backwardness of Russia, although there are two sides to the argument: the western admirers seek to bring modern institutions and ideas to Russian, while the Slavophiles resist what they see as western decadence. One man, who claims, â€œIâ€™m proud to be Russianâ€¦. France is a moral cess-pit,â€ chastises Herzen, â€œyouâ€™ve turned your back on your own people.â€
Standing at the center of Shipwreck, Herzen is an ironist who grows more disillusioned as the years pass. When he departs Russia after the summer of 1846, he still believes in the great possibility of revolution to change peopleâ€™s lives. But after living in Paris, and then experiencing the after-effects of the revolution of 1848 (in which the monarchy falls only to have the Second Republic quickly replaced by Napoleon IIIâ€™s Empire), he starts to wonder just how any meaningful change can be achieved. He remarks, â€œNobodyâ€™s got the map. There is no map.â€
Meanwhile Herzenâ€™s own personal life is in tatters. His lovely wife Natalie has an affair with his friend, the poet Ogarev (he labels this her â€œcommon little fall from graceâ€); there is family bickering and jealous rage; and, most traumatically, a shipwreck kills his beloved child. By the end of this play, Herzen is like a man lashed to the mast of a sailing ship, buffeted by storms both inner and outer, yet compelled by history and his own driving vision to â€œperformâ€ his role in one more play, Salvage.
This trilogy is a major work of art, both as written and as performed. Stoppard provides that all too rare theatrical experience these days: a mental, emotional, and visual stretch. A whole, complex world is laid out before our eyes. And by making us think about the meaning of historical events, Stoppard reminds us that we Americans are also acting out our tragic and farcical destinies at this very time, and we too may one day say, â€œHow naÃ¯ve we were,â€ just as Herzen comments, looking back nostalgically at his last summer in Russia. - Victoria Sullivan
Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center
150 West 65th Street
New York, NY
All three parts of The Coast of Utopia are currently scheduled to run through May 13. The third part, Salvage, opens on January 30.
Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding or laughing, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees.