Unstoppable Stoppard: Utopia Unattainable Is the Topic of His Grand-Scale New trilogy.(Tom Stoppard's the Coast of Utopia, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour)(Theater Review)

By Wolf, Matt; Wren, Celia et al. | American Theatre, November 2002 | Go to article overview

Unstoppable Stoppard: Utopia Unattainable Is the Topic of His Grand-Scale New trilogy.(Tom Stoppard's the Coast of Utopia, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour)(Theater Review)


Wolf, Matt, Wren, Celia, Klein, Julia M., American Theatre


0N JULY 3, SIR TOM STOPPARD TURNED 65. Month late; he opened the most ambitious theatrical undertaking of his career-a nine-hour trilogy of plays under the collective title The Coast of Utopia. That pretty much tells you all you need to know about this dramatist's refusal in any way to wind down as he continues on with as singular a career as the British theatre has known.

When another well-established authorial Sir--Alan Ayckbourn, two years Stoppard's junior--opened his own trilogy, Damsels in Distress, at the Duchess Theatre on the West End at the beginning of September, it felt almost like business as usual, coming from a British theatre mainstay who has now written as many plays (63) as he is years old. But Stoppard plays are a rarer commodity. His last, The Invention of Love in 1997, marked director Richard Eyre's final venture in a nine-year National Theatre regime--so the arrival, near the end of Trevor Nunn's five-and-a-half-year National tenure, of not one but three Stoppard works represented very big news, indeed. As a headline in the Times of London put it, the playwright is "shy but not retiring."

And a good thing, too. Is The Coast of Utopia perfect? Hardly. Nor were the reviews, following its day-long premiere on Aug. 3, the across-the-board raves one might have anticipated. (Oddly, Damsels in Distress got collectively better notices from the British press.) But for at least its first full third, and then in sizable chunks thereafter, Stoppard's Utopia--in a fluid, emotionally sympathetic staging by Nunn, the first director of Arcadia-did exactly what the subsidized theatre in any country exists to do: take a large-scale gamble on big themes, while utilizing the full resources of a uniquely resourceful building.

In temporal terms, Nunn's production does, of course, have several antecedents at this address: The National twice in the last 12 years has produced The Mysteries, director Bill Bryden's three-evening staging of Tony Harrison's version of the medieval mystery plays. More directly comparable are David Hare's three plays about the professions in Britain, which culminated in October 1993 with the daylong return of Racing Demon (about the clergy) and Murmuring Judges (about the law), alongside the premiere of Hare's dramatization of the inner workings of the Labour Party, The Absence of War. The difference is that those plays actually first were seen across three-and-a-half years, whereas Stoppard's trio all had their debut on the same marathon day.

But Stoppard's topic, like Hare's, is nothing less than the way we live now, even if Stoppard has chosen to filter his analysis through a look at the way a generation-plus of Russian intelligentsia were deciding how to live then. I doubt every theatregoer knew such names as Alexander Herzen or Vissarion Belinsky before they took their seats at 11 o'clock that sunny August morning, only to emerge from the entire event 12 hours later. (Of the thinkers' gallery assembled by Stoppard, Ivan Turgenev remains the best known to the general public.) But one of the achievements of the plays--Voyage, Shipwreck and Salvage--is their capacity to draw a spectator into 32 turbulent years of conflict and debate that resonate no less richly today.

To be sure, the specifics of the Socialism argued over in the play may not matter as much in a new century beset by worries about entirely separate "isms" that are beyond the ideological and geographical scope of Stoppard's chosen terrain. And yet, it was indelibly affecting when the eloquent Herzen of Stephen Dilane--the 2000 Tony-winner for the Broadway revival of Stoppard's The Real Thing--gave full vent in the closing moments of the final of the three plays to a modus vivendi worth remembering right now: "We need wit and courage to make our way while our way is making us," argues Herzen, before coming down on the side of "the summer lightning of personal happiness" that, he feels, represents humankind's best way forward. …

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