Continental Drift: Katherine Duncan-Jones on How Tom Stoppard's Study of Philosophy and Revolution Slips Its Moorings. (Theatre)

By Duncan-Jones, Katherine | New Statesman (1996), August 26, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Continental Drift: Katherine Duncan-Jones on How Tom Stoppard's Study of Philosophy and Revolution Slips Its Moorings. (Theatre)


Duncan-Jones, Katherine, New Statesman (1996)


The Coast of Utopia is our young century's most ambitious theatrical work to date. Its three plays require more than 40 adult actors and half a dozen children, trawling locations in Russia, France, England and Switzerland, and cover a time-span of 33 years, from 1833-65. In addition to the 80 or so characters whom we see and hear, others, unseen, haunt the sequence: the poet Pushkin; the philosopher Hegel; the feminist novelist George Sand; the opera singer Pauline Viardot.

Why does the message of this sprawling work--or even its painful, if predictable, discovery that there is no message--require so much detail? After all, in the early 16th century, Thomas More already conceived of Utopia as a place that neither can nor should exist; and as Dr Johnson said, a couple of centuries later, "most schemes of political improvement are very laughable things". (It is surprising, perhaps, that Stoppard did not weave this remark somewhere into his vast cat's cradle of literary quotations and allusions.)

The obsessions that drive these plays maybe less political than they seem. At 65, Stoppard has become like the drowning man whose previous life passes before his eyes (see interview with Mary Riddell, NS, 8 July). His vision is both personal: complex historical movements lie behind his own family's journey to the west--and artistic: stocktaking his own writings and those of his theatrical masters, Shakespeare and Chekhov. Personal obsession may account for a design fault. Alexander Herzen (whose name happens to mean "heart") is made the central figure and defining consciousness, and one can see why. His gradualist and non-violent ideals were not put to the test, and therefore never shown to fail. They are manifestly attractive today. Also, his wonderful memoirs of the struggles of the young revolutionaries and of his own turbulent marriage and family life have given Stoppard rich source material. Yet, even played with masterly poise by Stephen Dillane, Herzen does not have sufficient theatrical presence to su pport Utopia's weight--he is too gentle, too tolerant, too cerebral. A character who should have been Chorus is forced to be Protagonist.

His later years in London offer plenty of scope for social comedy--messy adultery, constant house moves, drunken parties for assembled Russian exiles--but there is no longer much scope for heroism or tragedy. The trilogy ends, in Salvage, not with a bang but with a series of whimpers and titters. Those revolutionaries who have survived Shipwreck are reduced to caricatures both of their former selves and of Russian-ness, tedious spongers and fantasists who drown their disappointments in oceans of alcohol.

The opening play, Voyage, offers only a glimpse of Herzen in a windy St Petersburg. It begins and ends like quintessential Chekhov. In its long opening scene, a middle-aged aristocrat, Alexander Bakunin (John Carlisle), presides with unchallenged smugness over his bored daughters and exhausted serfs, his snobbish wife and huge estate. At the close, ten years later, all is in ruins. One daughter is dead of consumption, another wretchedly mismarried. Bakunin's intellectual son is in flight from tsarist oppression and his forests are sold off. Lear-like, the old man is virtually blind and now touchingly dependent on a single daughter.

The central scenes move beyond Chekhovian pastoral, and are haunted by Hamlet rather than Lear.

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