"Art?" ask the doomsayers. "Dead. Killed by Hollywood and the 60-hour workweek. Squashed by Big Brother and the bottom line." Tell the skeptics to go to London's National Theatre where crowds are queuing for a nine-hour trilogy on the 19th-century Russian intelligentsia. For the excitement that's been generated by Tom Stoppard's latest work, "The Coast of Utopia," is eloquent proof that there are still Britney Spears-free zones in the cultural landscape.
The three plays, "Voyage," "Shipwreck" and "Salvage," follow the circle of thinkers around Aleksandr Herzen, founder of Russian socialism. Where other London hits this season rely on the pyrotechnics of flying cars ("Chitty Chitty Bang Bang") or appearances by Hollywood movie stars (Woody Harrelson in "On an Average Day"), "The Coast of Utopia" dazzles with words and ideas. Stuffed with research and spanning two continents and 30-odd years, the play shows Herzen and his friends talking. Lots. They debate the possibility of a peasant revolution, the importance of literature, Russia's unfortunate fate to be marooned between East and West and Tsar Nicholas I's hobnailed repression.
But this being Stoppard--a humanistic playwright as well as a cerebral one--they also bicker about silk dressing gowns and how to make a decent cup of coffee. Over the years, critics have accused Stoppard of divorcing feelings from intellect. Not here. "Voyage," though partly a study of these thinkers' interest in German Romanticism during the 1830s and 1840s, is also high family drama, complete with overbearing mammas, incestuous undertones, dashed romantic hopes and tragic early deaths.
Nobody breathes life into ideas--or the people who make them--like Stoppard. As coauthor of the script for "Shakespeare in Love," he extrapolated from the few facts known about the bard to make the great man into a lovesick puppy with writer's block. In "Arcadia" and "The Invention of Love," he explored the debate between classical and romantic esthetics through the prism of his characters' love pangs. Among the premises that underlie the new trilogy is the unfashionable idea that an intelligentsia actually matters. Its heroes include writers and critics who, quaintly, think that art not only reflects society, but can shape it. And it's not just the Russians raging around the stage who believe this, but Stoppard himself. "When you go abroad, you feel that culture is integral, not a little treat for a day off," Stoppard said recently. "Here [in Britain], we are always talking about art and society. Art is bloody society."
Strong words for the P. Diddy era. But more than any other modern dramatist, Stoppard has narrowed the gap between the intellectual and the popular artist. His zigzags between haute and mass culture can be dizzying. Just after a revival of "Jumpers," a play about God and morality, he was approached by Mick Jagger and David Bowie, who asked him to write a movie for them. At another point the man who effortlessly blends the complexities of chaos theory, physics and German Romanticism into his plays was a script doctor on "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." During interviews about "Shakespeare in Love," a British journalist asked whether Shakespeare would be writing movies were he alive today. …