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The Coast of Utopia (Box Set) Hardcover – July, 2003
"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover," illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Learn more
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For his story, Stoppard traces the lives of various of the young Russian intellectuals (for whom the term intelligentsia was coined) who saw their country's backwardness, oppression and poverty and dreamed and dared that it could be different. The central characters in The Coast of Utopia are Alexander Herzen, Michael Bakunin, Nicholas Ogarev, Ivan Turgenev and Vissarion Belinsky, but other historical figures also play roles.
The Russian intellectuals who sought change in Russia were hampered by many obstacles; harsh censorship, which made open political dialogue a crime punishable by exile or worse, an utter absence of democratic institutions, a huge peasant class that was largely ignorant of and oblivious to their efforts, and the Tsar and a coterie of landowners, bureaucrats and priests who were largely satisfied with the status quo.
In The Coast of Utopia, Stoppard adroitly mixes social themes with political theory and history. As one might imagine, as these Russians groped for ideas about how their country should be reformed, there were differences of opinion. Initially, the reformers, such as Herzen, favored gradual reform, led by the Tsar; as the 19th century progressed, more radical thought, influenced by Marx, came to predominate, and more moderate voices, such as Herzen's, were drowned out by the increasing call for violent revolution. Stoppard does a fabulous job in showing the various intellectual currents that ran among the exiles by having them argue out their theories on stage in the course of the play.
All this might sound talky and dull, but it's not, for two reasons. One is Stoppard's genius at showing how real people discuss these ideas. One minute we have two characters debating Hegel; the next minute they're attending their children, just the way real life interrupts all sorts of activities. And the lives of the main characters were sometimes untidy, and for that reason interesting; we see their joys, their sorrows, their love affairs and their occasional melancholy on being separated from Russia for so long.
The second is the staging of the plays; I could go on and on, but I was utterly wowed by the Lincoln Center production, it is magnificent and at times transcendent.
But ultimately what makes Coast of Utopia so interesting is that it's a series of plays about ideas, what is the best way to modernize and democratize a backward society. Of course, we see this play through the lens of history, after the revolution in Russia and after communism has been justifiably relegated to the dustbin of history. So we know how disastrous the actual revolution proved to be. But one of the strengths of Stoppard's work is that he doesn't fall prey to easy triumphalism about the later result. Instead he shows these men, mostly in a sympathetic light, trying to imagine a better society for Russia, and then taking the first steps toward making that better Russia come to pass. Without a doubt, Stoppard sees Herzen as his hero, and Herzen, with remarkable prescience, clearly saw the risks of the absolutism to come. But despite his sympathy for Herzen's humanistic views, Stoppard also gives fair voice to the radicals, so that a balanced picture of the political thought of the era emerges.
Stoppard has acknowledged his debt to Isaiah Berlin's Russian Thinkers in writing The Coast of Utopia. If you are interested in the ideas in The Coast of Utopia or the history of 19th century Russia, Russian Thinkers is well worth reading.
I admire Ben Brantley for his skill of writing a seemingly positive review of Tom Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia" (Febr. 19) filled with such phrases, unfortunately fully justified, as: "I wouldn't call it a major work of art" or "But as for major insights of philosophical or historical weight, that's not what "Utopia" is about."
First, my background: since seeing Mr. Stoppard's "Arcadia" in London about 10 years ago my wife and I have become great admirers of its author, we have never missed any of his plays until now when, after attending the first two parts of "Utopia", we decided to skip the last part (though we've read it). Also, with our school education in Russia, we understand a thing or two about the history of the Russian political thought.
With this background, it is painful for me to use the word "failure" to describe the last Mr. Stoppard's venture but regretfully I cannot find another word. A noisy long production - everything could be said in just three hours - with more than 60 characters, it exhibits no unity, no central idea and eventually no purpose. There are three major books on the topic written at that time: "The Fathers and the Sons" by a liberal Turgenev, "The Possessed" by a conservative Dostoevsky and "My Past and Thoughts" by a centrist Herzen ("Utopia" is in significant degree is simply a stage version of Herzen's book), and they give a much better idea of what really happened in Russia at that time. Orwell's "1984" may be considered as an important 20th century commentary to the first three books.
Of course, the fall of communism does call for some reconsideration and the new insight. As a man who combines both Eastern European and the Western cultural traditions, Mr. Stoppard was uniquely placed to give us such insight, and we eagerly waited for this his work. What we got instead may be best described by Mr. Brantley's words: "...you could find a snapper, shorter version of the same idea in a fortune cookie."
Drawing on his considerable stagecraft and ability to write clever and compelling dialogue, all the plays in this trilogy are entertaining, sometimes powerful, and psychologically insightful. This is not, however, Stoppard's best work. None of the plays in The Coast of Utopia are as powerful as Arcadia or The Invention of Love, or as inventive as some of his earlier plays like Jumpers. While Stoppard does develop his characters well over the course of the trilogy I found that the individual plays were somewhat thematically repetitive and that there was little cumulative impact.