The first stage picture of "Voyage," the initial play in Tom Stoppard’s thrilling trilogy The Coast of Utopia, must rank among the most memorable ever seen on a stage. Out of the darkness, in midair, a man appears sitting in a slowly revolving chair, absorbed in thought as the chair slowly descends, then disappears into a churning sea below. The man is Alexander Herzen, one of six friends around whom the playwright has built his epic work. Herzen becomes increasingly central to the second and third plays, "Shipwreck" and "Salvage," each of which begins with this same image. (The plays, at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre, are being performed separately, but also in sequence on "marathon Saturdays," until May 13.)
"Utopia," which opened at the National Theatre in London in 2002 under Trevor Nunn’s direction, is the largest canvas Stoppard has yet attempted, with a cast of 44 performing 70 different roles in the New York production. Spanning three decades, the trilogy tells a story of six friends who grow up together hoping for a new Russia--at whatever cost. Stoppard draws on Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers and on two books by the English historian E. H. Carr, one a biography of Michael Bakunin and the other The Romantic Exiles, which tells Herzen’s story after he left Russia.
When the lights go up on "Voyage," a huge crowd of figures stands at the back of the Beaumont’s deep stage. From it emerge Alexander Bakunin (Richard Easton) and his wife Varvara (Amy Irving) who, with their four daughters, are awaiting the return for the summer of their son, Michael, from artillery school. We are at Premukhino, the Bakunin estate northwest of Moscow, to which Michael (played in all three plays by Ethan Hawke) later invites several of his young friends from Moscow University. They include the gentle, wealthy philosopher Nicholas Stankevich (David Harbour) and the awkward but gifted literary critic Vissarion Belinsky (Billy Crudup). Most of the original crowd, statues in fact, stand upstage, representing the more than 50 million Russian serfs whose emancipation is the great social issue of the drama. (Of the 60 million people in Russia in 1833, the time the play opens, 1 percent is gentry, 1 percent is clergy; apart from a small number of merchants and professionals, all the rest are serfs.)
Michael and his friends shock and fascinate his parents and adoring sisters with their talk of Russia’s predicament, its backward culture, its lack of free speech, the impoverishment even of its language. ("We have no literature!" wails Belinsky repeatedly.) Tutored by Stankevich, the son and heir becomes first a rabid enthusiast of the philosopher Schelling and is later equally convinced by Fichte and then Hegel. Under Jack O’Brien’s direction, the philosophical discussions, trimmed from the London production, are dazzling and humorous. Michael’s charm is immense, but his dogmatic convictions suggest the roots of the manic anarchism for which he will later become known throughout Europe.
Ivan Turgenev (Jason Butler Harner), as yet an insouciant sportsman, pays a call to Premukhino, and when in Act Two the friends’ intertwined lives are shown again as they developed in Moscow, we meet the last two of them, Alexander Herzen (Brian O’Byrne) and his lifelong friend, the poet Nicholas Ogarev (Josh Hamilton). Of the "Generation of the 1840’s" to which they belonged, Herzen later wrote:
We sat side by side on a bench in the amphitheatre, looked at each other with the consciousness of our dedication, our league, our secret, our readiness to perish, our faith in the sacredness of our cause....We gave each other our hands and a la lettre went out to preach freedom and struggle in all the four quarters of our youthful universe.
When the second play, "Shipwreck," begins, we meet the friends summering outside Moscow at the Herzen estate. Unable to travel abroad, "they argue about coffee." But when Herzen and his beautiful wife, Natalie, depart to obtain medical care for their deaf son, they move to Paris (the transfer of Herzen’s immense fortune expedited by the Rothschilds). The overthrow of Louis Philippe in February 1848 had raised the hopes of every revolutionary in Europe. Before a stunning scenic recreation of the Place de la Concorde, we learn that Bakunin has also fled to the West. His friend Stankevich dies of tuberculosis in Italy, cared for by Bakunin’s sister Varenka. Belinksy has persuaded Turgenev to write. But the radicals’ hopes are dashed when the French public elects a monarchist assembly in June 1848 and the new Prince Louis Napoleon proclaims himself emperor three years later. As the socialist dream of Herzen’s circle shipwrecks, his private life is stricken by a literal shipwreck that takes the lives of both his son and Herzen’s mother.
The effort to be Chekhovian in tone and Tolstoyan in scale strains even Stoppard’s gift of language when the scene shifts to London in "Salvage," the final play of the trilogy. A seemingly endless array of emigres from Poland, Italy and Germany (including Karl Marx) meets in Herzen’s grand home. His friend Ogarev’s second wife has become his mistress and borne him three children. After founding the Free Russian Press, Herzen has become famous for The Bell, a muckraking paper that advocates free speech, Polish independence and the emancipation of the serfs and that was regularly smuggled into Russia. Bakunin has escaped a harrowing imprisonment in Russia and makes his way to London. Turgenev, now a famous writer, appears, following the Parisian opera singer and love of his life.
When Tsar Nicholas I dies and the new Tsar, Alexander II, in 1861 emancipates the serfs, the Herzen circle seems vindicated--only to discover in the next several years that their "Generation of the 40’s" would be superseded by a "New Generation" of even more uncompromising and often nihilistic purpose. (Turgenev portrays them scathingly in "Fathers and Sons.") "In Paris I saw enough blood running in the gutters to last me," wrote Herzen. "Progress by peaceful steps. I’ll babble it as long as I’ve got breath." His is the voice of a tempered and humane realism, inclined to pessimism. "History has no purpose!" he argues against the grand theories and merciless resolve of his new critics. "It takes wit and courage to make our way while our way is making us, with no consolation to count on but art and the summer lightning of personal happiness."
Critics are divided on the ultimate achievement of "Utopia." Some find it too didactic, others call it "a sublime work of theatrical art." I incline toward the latter view, knowing how difficult it is to appreciate a true masterpiece on first viewing but also convinced that this production is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, melding the highest performance standards with a text of great contemporary significance.
Few critics have noted the implied religious issue, with its dream of utopia devoid of any eschatology. Herzen stands for reason and individual conscience before the tides of reformist tyranny. But he has no acquaintance with a persuasive religious horizon of hope coming from a current experience of redemption and risen life. He sees the Orthodox Church as part of the problem, in collusion with authority that represses rather than redeems. when he later gives his book From the Other Shore to his son, Sasha, he comments: "The coming revolution is the only religion I pass on to you, and it’s a religion without a paradise on the other shore. But do not remain on this shore." However critically, he remained committed to his fellow human beings.
It is hard to resist the eloquence Stoppard gives Herzen before the final curtain:
The people won’t forgive when the future custodian of a broken statue, a stripped wall, a desecrated grave, tells everyone who passes by, "Yes--yes, all this was destroyed by the revolution." The destroyers wear nihilism like a cockade--they think they destroy because they’re radicals. But they destroy because they’re disappointed conservatives--let down by the ancient dream of a perfect society where circles are squared and conflict is canceled out. But there is no such place and Utopia is its name. So until we stop killing our way towards it, we won’t be grown up as human beings.
At the marathon a friend and I attended one Saturday, weary but exhilarated and finally thrilled by the great closing image of the cast standing before a rising, sublime sea, we watched dazzled as that cast rushed laughing toward us for their curtain call, fresh and quick as though the play had not yet begun. One wanted to say to them, and to the estimable Mr. Stoppard: Let us tell you about a hope for fulfillment that does not cancel conflict and does not pretend to perfection--but has glimpsed it once and glimpses it still. Let us listen again to your educated story of how a revolution was prepared that destroyed so much more than it saved. But let us tell you a story also, the story of a reconciliation between wayward human beings and the final truth of their lives. Might our stories not interweave?
Once you have dreamed of Utopia and taken its real measure, the hope of heaven should become something likewise far more real.
Other Plays by Tom Stoppard
"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" (1967)
"The Real Thing" (1982)
"The Invention of Love" (1997)
"Rock n Roll" (2007)