Stoppard's History Lesson: Russian Revolutionaries 101

As you enter the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center for the opening installment of The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard’s trilogy about the fate of the revolutionary intellectuals of mid-19th-century Russia, it would be understandable if you were overcome by the fear that you were to be seated at desks.

We’ve been inundated with so many headache-making features and reading lists—Isaiah Berlin, E.H. Carr, Herzen, Pushkin, Hegel, Gogol, Fichte, and on and on— explaining the epic production in advance, you would be forgiven, going in, if you felt that you’d already seen it or that you weren’t attending a play at all, but rather an exhausting seminar.

Here’s John Rockwell explaining the significance of a six-foot-tall, fanciful Ginger Cat that appears during part one, Voyage. “He represents the diabolical fantasy of the dialectic, as promulgated by Hegel via Marx and Engels.”

Or, as Czar Nicholas I once said, “Who knew?”

For myself, the Ginger Cat smoking a cigar at the costume ball is Mr. Stoppard’s uncharacteristically blatant symbol of ironic “foreboding.” The guilt-induced feeling of having to do homework in order to understand a play isn’t a healthy one. Let the play speak for itself! Unless, that is, the play is a book in disguise.

It’s a surprise to find that, at two and a half hours in length, part one of The Coast of Utopia is shorter than Mary Poppins. I expected it to be longer and weightier. My reluctant disappointment in the opening Voyage, however, has as much to do with my own excited expectations as with Mr. Stoppard’s strangely un-Stoppardian play.

The distinguished playwright has handled vast, complicated themes with more easeful range and wit than this—in particular, chaos theory and strange goings-on in gazebos in his wonderful Arcadia (1993), and the eccentric brilliance of A.E. Housman and his Oxford generation in The Invention of Love (1997). But the potential heft and vivacity of his Russian idealists at the dawn of a longed-for political and social utopia becomes a form of intellectual shorthand and name-dropping vignette in the rush and historic sweep of Voyage’s momentous (and trivial) events.

The introductory part one principally tells us the story of the “Chekhovian” country estate of the exasperated patriarch Alexander Bakunin, the comings and goings of the hotheaded son, the future anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, and the fate of his four sisters (three is customary) along with their sagas. And then there’s Mr. Stoppard’s account of the Muscovite salons of the revolutionary intelligentsia: the impassioned literary critic Vissarion Belinsky; the young philosopher and German romanticist Nicholas Stankevich; Isaiah Berlin’s “Russian Voltaire,” Alexander Herzen (who will play a leading role later); and many more, including the Guest Appearance of the unknown Ivan Turgenev, who’s thinking of writing a poem.

The convulsive context is czarist censorship and persecution, corruption and political exile, the hovering death-sentence of consumption, the brutal treatment of millions of serfs. But Mr. Stoppard’s crowded canvas of provincial family life and clashing ideas turns into a blurry summary. He merely alludes to Russian serfdom. Where is its reality? It is nowhere. Yet the freeing of the serfs in Herzen’s brave new utopia is the raison d’être of the period and the play.

Mr. Stoppard’s serfs are merely a decorative abstraction in the over-extended Jack O’Brien’s production. They’re literally used as part of the set. (A lifeless line of dummy serfs frames the action, as if appearing in a panoramic window display). People dressed as real, cringing serfs (in nice, clean clothes) are also used, clangingly, by Mr. O’Brien as scene-shifters. There’s one fleeting incident in which a grandee slaps a serf, but only for appearance’s sake. It’s nothing compared to Naomi Campbell’s treatment of her maids.

For once, the sets of the great designer Bob Crowley—working with Scott Pask—are a serious lapse. They fail crucially in Act I to convey the pastoral, let alone an earthy atmosphere of Russian-ness. Messrs. Crowley and Pask have created an artful, impressionistic backdrop and a playing area that’s shimmering like a chic, reflective ballroom or skating rink. We could be anywhere.

Sure enough, Act II opens with a postcard-perfect skating scene as an extraordinary ice sculpture of Moscow hovers magically over it. The set receives a round of applause, as impressive special effects do. “What is wrong with this picture?” Herzen inquires in the first words of the scene. He’s referring to something else, of course. But the pretty stage picture briefly turns Mr. Stoppard’s Russia—the “Caliban of Europe”—into an Ice Capades.

Unfortunately, in Act II, Mr. Stoppard begins the action all over again with the back-story to events we’ve already seen. Too much explanation and talk make us uncomfortably aware that within his epic drama, there’s too little drama. There’s the heated outer appearance of it, but truly dramatic events happen offstage. The deaths of key characters are reported, not experienced. Much is made of a miniaturist romance, a blossoming crush built around some misunderstandings involving a dropped penknife. Whatever next—a play about a dropped handkerchief?

To be sure, Voyage has its more typical Stoppardian moments. But I’m uncertain whether Mr. Stoppard’s gentle English ironies and flippancy are ideally suited to the emotional turbulence of the Russian soul. The singular exception so far is the fury and passion of his frustrated, censored critic Belinsky, described marvelously by the playwright as “chaos, excess and no mercy.”

Though performed by Billy Crudup as if he’s on the verge of hysteria, the riveting Belinsky represents Mr. Stoppard at his very best:

“Russia!” Belinsky announces, taking us to the revolutionary heart of the matter. “Yes, I’m afraid so—you’ve got it—the backwoods—no history but barbarism, no law but autocracy, no glory but brute force, and all those contented serfs!—we’re nothing to the world except an object lesson in what to avoid …. When the word Russia makes you think of great writers and almost nothing else, the job will be done—you’ll be able to walk down the street in London or Paris and when someone asks you where you’re from, you can say, Russia! I’m from Russia, you poor bastard, so what do you think of that?!”

The Coast of Utopia trilogy is a gigantic commitment for the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center—the most ambitious it has undertaken, with an ensemble of 44, including a number of star actors (Mr. Crudup, Ethan Hawke, Jennifer Ehle, Richard Easton, Martha Plimpton, Amy Irving and Brian F. O’Byrne among them). I’m afraid that Voyage proves a rocky opening for Tom Stoppard. But with Belinsky’s words still ringing in my ears, and much more to come from the brilliant Mr. O’Byrne as the exiled father of the Russian Revolution, Alexander Herzen, I look forward to the next installments. As Mr. Stoppard has the wise essayist Peter Chaadaev say: “There’s no shame in changing your opinion.”

Heartbreak Hotel

This is a last call to urge you to see Daniel Kramer’s stagger­ingly innovative production of Woyzeck, which ends its run at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn on Dec. 3. Mr. Kramer has turned Georg Büchner’s unfinished masterpiece into a nightmare dreamscape—complete with Elvis songs, no less.

The high culture of Alban Berg’s three-hour opera version, Wozzeck (1925), is more culturally acceptable to Büchner purists, apparently, than the popular culture of Elvis. To hell with purists! Mr. Kramer’s bold use of Elvis’ songs infuses the fetid air with Büchner’s brand of cheap, sweet romance and the decadence of the fallen.

The members of the first-rate British troupe are so real they look as if they’ve stepped out of an August Sander photograph. They include such terrific actors as David Harewood (I last saw him as a magnetic Antony to Vanessa Redgrave’s Cleopatra) and the veteran dancer-choreographer Diana Payne-Myers (a remarkable force in the history of modern British dance). At the troupe’s center is an actor of uncanny, mesmerizing innocence who touches greatness. Edward Hogg is just about the most gifted young actor I’ve seen in years and his pitiful, lost Woyzeck will break your heart.