Aging Exiles Lose Their Significance: Tom Stoppard's Salvage

salvage.jpgIt must be true that most revolutionaries, if they live past the age of forty, lose their influence. The ironic hero of Tom Stoppard's trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, Alexander Herzen is described by a spokesman for the younger generation in the final play, Salvage, as "sentimental." Worse still, "his ideas are extinct." This is said of a man who has dedicated himself for the past thirty years to the cause of freedom and political reform in Russia. But "reform" is too tame a concept for the new young men, who are both more pragmatic and more violent in their ideology. Whereas Herzen -- compellingly embodied by Brian F. O'Byrne (pictured, with Martha Plimpton) -- says of the on-going situation, "we have to be patient," the younger men reject "progress, morality, and art," Now they are nihilists who will smilingly destroy all.

A truly ambitious work of theatre, Stoppard's trilogy recalls in its scope Shakespeare's plays about Henrys IV and V and the War of the Roses. Stoppard is painting on a huge canvas the period from 1833 to 1868, spanning all of Europe, from Moscow in the east to London in the west, with stops at Paris, Geneva, Nice, the isle of Wight, and -- in certain fantasy and dream scenes -- the landscape of the mind. What these plays lack in depth (and there are certainly too few emotionally riveting scenes), they make up for in breadth. He does most theatrically convey us inside the world of the 19th century Russian revolutionary community, awash in words and passions. In Salvage, we watch Herzen and his circle live through more victories and defeats during the years 1853 to 1868.

The Coast of Utopia has proven a controversial work in this Lincoln Center production, with critics arguing over its worth, and one renegade even claiming it "is a bore." I find myself somewhat divided: I love the ambition, the bravado, the physical beauty of the production. But I also recognize that many scenes devolve into repetitive philosophical patter, rather like Herzen's nightmare early in Salvage. He dreams of the émigré community fighting and arguing among themselves, a sort of mad, comic committee meeting run amok. Awake, he mutters, "what a snake pit." Over the passing years, Herzen keeps finding himself the odd man out, even as he publishes a significant journal of dissent, The Bell. His situation living abroad weighs heavily on his consciousness: "The clock has stopped in this theatre of political exile." (One starts to think about such living political exiles as Ahmad Chalabi who led us so disastrously astray on the situation in Iraq. Yes, yes, he claimed, they would love us to come in and free them from Saddam Hussein. Yes, they would welcome us with open arms and in a few short weeks or months, Iraq would be our pacified ally and oil producing pal. This was his pre-invasion message to Bush and his gung-ho hawkish gang, who ate it up. Wrong.)

As the years pass, Herzen fears, "The people love authority," a perception about Russia that later Soviet rule would seem to support. Of course, Herzen is not the only thinker who plays a bold role in this historical drama; there is also his old buddy Michael Bakunin (so alive in a bravura performance by Ethan Hawk). He appears both in fantasy scenes, while in prison, and in the flesh years later in Switzerland. Bakunin is an anarchist, and although he and Herzen are portrayed as great friends, they often disagree. His view is, "Our first task is to destroy authority. There is no second task." Nonetheless, the intimacy of their scenes together provide the moments of deepest emotional connection on stage. Together these two men are witty, affectionate, acerbic. They prod each other into expressing their core beliefs. At a dark moment in Salvage, Bukunin advises, "Herzen, don't lose heart."

The big questions are: Where do these three plays take us? What is their cumulative effect? And how do they speak to the present moment? 

First, they are a reminder of the long gestation of the Russian Revolution. And second, that revolutions are made by men. That might seem obvious, but right now the United States is putatively involved in a "War on Terror," which suggests that an abstraction like terror lends itself to armed attack. It ignores the human dimension as well as demonizing those involved, men who might be just as passionately and idealistically engaged in a movement to realize their vision as Herzen and his fellows more than a hundred years ago. A "War on Terror" embodies the kind of political naïveté and over-simplification that Bush is so fond of, and that one suspects Herzen would see through.

Also, by calling his play The Coast of Utopia, Stoppard reminds us of the meaning of "utopia," not simply an idealized place or society, but a word actually derived from the Greek "œou" (not) and "œtopos" (place). So a utopia is a non-existent place, and to be on its coast is always to suffer a kind of alienation. Herzen's suffering comes from being an exile, and he finally recognizes his exile as "the worst mistake of my life." But it also comes simply from yearning for the kind of political happiness and justice that rarely appear for more than a moment -- what he calls "the summer lightning of personal happiness." To be human is to suffer, according to Buddha. And to be too attached to outcomes is the surest route to unhappiness.

So the effect of watching this generation of men move through several decades of heated rhetoric and activity over close to nine hours of stage time is to be reminded of the sheer patience required of the political activist. Yes, a tyrannical tsar may die, and yes, the serfs may finally be free, but the joy of celebrating emancipation may quickly be followed by the recognition that the serfs got nothing to begin their new lives with. Soon there are riots on over a thousand estates. History is always more complicated than the revolutionary models predict. And men grow old. Bakunin's teeth get bad and he gains weight, looking in the 1860s more like the aged, scruffy lion in the zoo than the dashing young aristocrat of Voyage.

When Karl Marx does a brief cameo late in Salvage, he maintains that "History's purpose will be clear," but Herzen, perhaps speaking for Stoppard, replies, "History has no purpose . . . it takes wit and courage to make our way." Herzen is against killing and has come to realize that we live in an imperfect world. So the play ends, not with his death (which will occur in a couple of years, old at the age of 58), but with three old friends -- Herzen, Bakunin, and Nicholas Ogarev -- happy together at a family event in the mountains, looking bravely out towards the audience, while the difficult, moody Natasha remarks, "There's going to be a storm." Those of us aware of what happened in 1917 in Russia might call that an understatement. - Victoria Sullivanvictoria.jpgMs. 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.