15 December, 2002Issue 2.1EuropeLiteraturePhilosophyThe ArtsTheatre

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Radical Comedy

Brian Mullin

Tom Stoppard
The Coast of Utopia: Voyage, Shipwreck, Salvage
London: Faber and Faber, 2002
119 pages

The Coast of Utopia is playing at the National’s Olivier Theatre on the South Bank until 23 November.

Tom Stoppard writes in the least populous of dramatic genres, the comedy of ideas. In fact, his only rival for the title of master of the genre is the man who invented it, George Bernard Shaw. And though the ideas advanced in Shaw’s plays were more revolutionary than those of his successor, Stoppard’s are definitely funnier. The heart of Shaw’s writing is in the introductions or epilogues that are inevitably appended to his scripts; one sometimes wonders why he bothered to write a play at all. Stoppard’s plays, however, are brilliantly theatrical. They’re full of vaudeville-style exchanges like the following from one of his most recent plays, Voyage. Nicholas Stankevich, an ardent student of German Romantic philosophy, is attempting to confess to his fiancée that when it comes to love he has not always succeeded in achieving the transcendence of spirit over matter:

Stankevich Liubov! I must speak! While you were away… I have been in…

Liubov (helping) The Caucasus.

Stankevich …torment! You are not the first. I come to you… soiled.

Liubov You mustn’t speak of it.

Stankevich Yes, I must, I must—it lies so heavy on my breast that my lips have touched another’s!

Liubov (confused) Breast?

Stankevich (startled) Lips, another’s lips.

Stoppard gets laughs while also demonstrating his intellectual point—that a vision of the world predicated solely on abstract ideas is bound to be undermined by lived experience. Say that in an essay and it sounds dry, but structure it as a comic scene and it becomes entertainment. The structure of a joke—the setup followed by a reversal that overturns expectations—is at the heart of Stoppard’s drama. Here’s another example from Voyage. Michael Bakunin, also a recent convert to German Romanticism, is opposed to the marriage that has been arranged for his sister:

Michael To give oneself without love is a sin against the inner life. The outer world of material existence is mere illusion. I’ll explain it all to Father…God I’m starving! (Michael pauses to stuff his mouth with food from the table…)

In Stoppard’s drama, every intellectual position is both a serious contention and a potential butt for humor. His characters talk at length about very serious things—the ideal structure of society, the proper function of art, and so on—but their pretension is more often than not immediately deflated. The structure of comic dialogue allows the author to stand playfully aloof, and he relishes that position of ideological objectivity. In Salvage, he gives the following words to the novelist Ivan Turgenev but might just as easily have spoken them himself:

Perotkin And what was your attitude really?

Turgenev My attitude?

Perotkin Yes, your purpose?

Turgenev My purpose? My purpose was to write a novel.

Perotkin So you don’t take sides between the fathers and the children?

Turgenev On the contrary, I take every possible side.

If you were to define ‘Stoppardism’ it would not be an ideology but a structure of thinking. His best plays tend not to advance his own ideas so much as to serve as vehicles for the discussion of other people’s. If that makes his work sound like a university seminar, the comparison is entirely appropriate. Audiences tend to approach his work as if it came complete with a required reading list; we remember the plays by subject headings. There’s one about Classical poetry (The Invention of Love); quantum mechanics (Hapgood); Dadaism (Travesties); even one about thermodynamics, Byron, and landscape gardening (Arcadia).

In fact, however, Stoppard is less like the learned professor than he is like the clever student who’s read ahead. He openly admits that he’s no expert in the subjects he writes about and freely acknowledges the sources from which he’s cribbed his information. These are generally the very books from which theater dramaturgs cull their explanatory program notes, thus creating a vast reading circle, a more erudite version of Oprah’s Book Club. Most of Stoppard’s plays, then, are actually elaborate book reports. ‘Here’s what I’ve been reading,’ he tells us, ‘and look what I came up with!’

Stoppard’s latest work, which premiered this August at the Royal National Theatre in London and from which I’ve been quoting, is a trilogy called The Coast of Utopia. It consists of three plays—Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage—and its subject, broadly speaking, is a particular circle of nineteenth century Russian revolutionaries in exile. The National’s dramaturgs (or perhaps their merchandising directors?) have helpfully compiled a standard syllabus. They’ve stocked the shelves of the NT bookshop with books about Alexander Herzen (the Russian socialist and central figure of the trilogy), Isaiah Berlin’s essays on Russian Thinkers (which Stoppard has cited as a major influence), and a few copies of Pushkin thrown in for good measure. Having seen the plays, I must warn you that you’ll probably want to brush up on your Hegel, as well.

Hegel’s theory of the dialectical movement of history (so influential to Marxist thought) is one of the dominant ideas of the trilogy, providing Stoppard with both an intellectual thesis to refute and a structural principle to guide the drama. The Hegelian opposition of thesis and antithesis is such a close cousin to the principles behind Stoppard’s dialectic comedy that one can see why he was drawn to it. The overriding issue in this trilogy full of issues is whether we ought to focus on history’s ultimate destination, the utopian ideal toward which ‘the zig and the zag’ is taking us, or whether present happiness ought to be our primary concern.

Voyage, the most self-contained of the three plays, serves as a kind of prelude. The only play of the trilogy set entirely in Russia, it introduces us to many of the main characters, but especially to Michael Bakunin, who when we first meet him espouses a credo of abstracted, idealized intellectualism. By the end of the play, though, having been turned on to Hegel and having provoked a lot of family discord, Michael sets sail (hence the title) for the West and a life of more concrete, worldly goals as a political revolutionary.

The action of the other two plays, Shipwreck and Salvage, is basically continuous; although Bakunin reappears in them, his story becomes increasingly subordinate to Alexander Herzen’s. In Shipwreck, we see how the dreams of all the revolutionaries are shattered by the failure of the 1848 Revolution, but Stoppard yokes this to an extended depiction of marital strife and, ultimately, tragedy in Herzen’s family. In Salvage, Stoppard picks up the story of the broken, disillusioned Herzen, exiled in London, and shows how he started publishing a radical newspaper from abroad that eventually spurred the Tsar’s emancipation of the serfs. Stoppard leaves us with the image of the elderly Herzen and the rest of his ‘generation of repentant gentry’ rejected by the younger, more militant Marxists who seized control of the Russian revolutionary movement. In its broad outline, the trilogy takes us through the archetypal stages in the development of the intellectual life: from youthful enthusiasm, through discouraging setbacks, to the eventual yielding and compromise that come with old age.

Among the issues considered in The Coast of Utopia are such perennial Stoppardian concerns as the political utility of art, the opposition between rationality and desire, and the predicament of exile. What distinguishes these plays is their form, and not just their sheer length (each runs about three hours, with an interval). The structure of The Coast of Utopia feels less like a play than a sprawling nineteenth century Russian novel. Stoppard, famous for constructing intricate theatrical games, here uses a looser and more episodic method, letting the sweep of history wash across the stage.

Perhaps because it is being performed in the National’s Olivier Theatre, the vastness of which tends to dwarf any playwright’s work, director Trevor Nunn has chosen to emphasize the trilogy’s epic scope in a somewhat rudimentary way, using a rotating stage and parades of supernumeraries. He wants to give the play a ‘cinematic’ feel, despite the fact that most of the action consists of little more than lengthy, dense debate. The 1848 Paris revolution, which is in theatrical terms the nadir of Nunn’s uneven staging, should be the pivot point of the action, the decisive setback that causes the characters to rethink their dream of creating a new society.

But Stoppard hasn’t chosen to show us much of what Herzen and the others actually did in 1848, so all they can do is stand around and react to what’s going on around them. The problem with the section is emblematic of the bind Stoppard has gotten himself into more generally. He’s chosen as his central figure Herzen, an admirable and reasonable man whose most effective revolutionary activity seems to have consisted of writing dissident essays while in exile and sending them back home. Licking envelopes is about as far as the revolutionary agitation gets.

Should this massive project, then, be considered a monumental summation of Stoppard’s career or an overlong rehashing of themes he’s dealt with before? Even the tightest play of the three, Voyage, with its double time scheme, often feels like a mechanical reworking of Stoppard’s masterpiece, Arcadia. By contrast, Shipwreck is far more daring but also more diffuse. The disparate political and personal threads concerning Herzen’s marriage and his revolutionary career never quite hold together, though at times Stoppard’s writing gestures toward an unrealized unity:

I’m beginning to understand the trick of freedom. Freedom can’t be the residue of what’s unfreely given up, divided up like a fought-over loaf. Every giving-up has to be self-willed, freely chosen, unenforceable. Each of us must forgo only what we choose to forgo, balancing our personal freedom of action against our need for the cooperation of other people–who are each making the same balance for themselves. What is the largest number of individuals who can pull this trick off? I would say it’s smaller than a nation, smaller than the ideal communities of Cabet and Fourier. I would say the largest number is smaller than three. Two is possible, if there is love, but two is not a guarantee.

Such sparks of beautifully articulated elegy compensate for the dearth of Stoppard’s trademark comedy in a play whose movement—towards disillusionment—is hardly comical. The unevenness of Shipwreck is problematic, but it also demonstrates an instinct toward risk-taking rare in an eminent writer well into his sixties.

Salvage, sadly, brings the trilogy to a rather conventional conclusion. Lacking the structure and wit of Voyage and the raw emotion of Shipwreck, it feels as if it could have been written by anyone. It has a generic ‘historical drama’ structure: Herzen gets the idea to write a newspaper. He prints up some copies. He sends them out. The Tsar emancipates the serfs. And so on.

The first and most crucial task of the historical dramatist is choosing which events to depict and which to leave out. Stoppard seems too often to be merely reporting the events of Herzen’s biography rather than artistically crafting them. At its worst, Salvage feels like an exercise in undisciplined hagiography, a PR campaign for Herzen’s advocacy of non-violent reform from above as opposed to the Marxist-Leninist preference for violent overthrow from below.

The trilogy ends with the heavy-handed juxtaposition of Marx, ranting about historical determinism and his violent vision of ‘the Neva lit by flames and running red,’ and Herzen asserting that ‘We have to open men’s eyes and not tear them out.’ ‘A distant end is not an end but a trap,’ Stoppard has Herzen say. ‘The end we work for must be closer, the labourer’s wage, the pleasure in the work done, the summer lightning of personal happiness…’

It’s no wonder that Stoppard wants to call attention to this forgotten figure in Russian history. Herzen’s is the moderate voice that, had it prevailed, might have prevented a century of bloodshed across Europe and around the world. Perhaps after the almost bloodless overthrow of Communism, the European world order at the end of the twentieth century has finally come around to ‘Herzenism.’

Precisely for that reason, Stoppard’s glorification of Herzen often seems too comfortable. There’s such a glow around him that the audience longs for a Stoppardian deflation, a punch line that never comes. The Coast of Utopia is a particularly rich mess of writin—Stoppard’s most impressive book report yet—but, despite all the revolutionary notions it entertains, it ends on an essentially conservative note. Most of us don’t need to spend nine hours in a theatre to be convinced of the value of liberal humanism. In the twilight of his career, it seems that Stoppard has compromised a bit on his objective stance, that he could not stop himself from positing an answer to the question, ‘How, then, should we live?’ And, even if his answer may be the right one for society, great drama thrives on the tension of the unresolved.

Brian Mullin is reading for the MPhil in English at Wadham College, Oxford. His area of special interest is Elizabethan theatre history and stagecraft.