Literature & Revolution: Tom Stoppard's 'The Coast of Utopia'

By Wren, Celia | Commonweal, March 9, 2007 | Go to article overview

Literature & Revolution: Tom Stoppard's 'The Coast of Utopia'


Wren, Celia, Commonweal


An ice-colored likeness of St. Basil's, the famed Russian church, seems to float in the air during part of Voyage, the first installment of Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia at Lincoln Center Theater. The onion domes glitter, apparently molded of frost, as if the Snow Queen had invaded Moscow.

It's a restrained but beautiful image, evidence of the craftsmanship underlying this superbly controlled production. And yet, it's the ideas, not the scenic elements, that really lend luster to The Coast of Utopia. Stoppard's sprawling epic, consisting of three plays, Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage (running in repertory through mid-May) conjures up the turbulent world of nineteenth-century Russian thinkers. Over the course of the trilogy, the seventy-plus characters--including anarchist Michael Bakunin, socialist Alexander Herzen, literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, and novelist Ivan Turgenev--commune, bicker, gossip, romance, and strategize. Ideological discussions take flight during family reunions, social get-togethers, awkward flirtations, literary-journal editing sessions, a costume ball--even a sojourn at a spa. Allusions to Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Proudhon, and George Sand whiz back and forth. Meanwhile, in the background, the French revolution of 1848, the machinations of Tsarist Russia, and other political and cultural developments provide a constant reminder that ideas have grave consequences.

Esoteric and sprawling though it is, The Coast of Utopia has become the theater event of the year, attracting sell-out crowds and prompting outpourings of media coverage. A January New York Times article even reported that bookstores across New York were sold out of Isaiah Berlin's Russian Thinkers, a 1978 book that Stoppard has credited as a source for the trilogy.

Admittedly, the production's high-wattage cast is partly responsible for the enthusiasm: the roster of actors includes Billy Crudup as Belinsky, Amy Irving as Bakunin's mother, and Richard Easton (who won a Tony for his turn in Stoppard's The Invention of Love) as Bakunin's cantankerous father. For that matter, director Jack O'Brien, who nabbed Tonys for Henry IV and Hairspray, is no small fish either. And in the highest blast of star power, Ethan Hawke plays Bakunin, a figure he successfully depicts as an effete, egoistic, philosophy-crazed popinjay who swans around the stage in gleaming boots, carrying his hands with fingers delicately extended, as though he were waiting for nail polish to dry.

In contrast to some Stoppard plays, where intellectual conceits ricochet by with frequent dizzying payoffs, Utopia has a more leisurely, expansive momentum, in keeping with the project's mammoth scope. And yet, you still get a sense of ideas in motion. …

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