This weekend I watched a performance of Voyage, the first part of Tom Stoppard’s new trilogy, The Coast of Utopia. It’s pure Stoppard: erudition delivered in a crossfire of dialogue and movement, skipping through time like a smartly thrown stone.
It is the story of young Russian intellectuals—Michael Bakunin, Nickolai Stankevich, Vissarion Belinsky, Alexander Herzen, Ivan Turgenev, Nicholas Ogarev—discovering foreign philosophy during the time of Tsar Nicholas I (a particularly conservative government). The young men, driven by Bakunin (played by Ethan Hawke), investigate the philosophies of Kant, Schelling, Goethe, Fichte, and Hegel. Bakunin ferociously pursues each philosopher and sprays his new knowledge at everyone he knows—most significantly his four sisters. By sharing books, writing letters, and expounding during summer visits to the family home he becomes the main vector of change in their lives. This first play is as much about the sisters’ struggle to withstand the shifting currents of MIchael’s idealism as it is about the early days of Russian intellectualism, or the last days of slavery in Russia, or the collision between ideas and reality.
Stoppard weaves these different themes together so deftly you can hardly tell where one ends and another begins. More importantly, it’s difficult to see how you could have one absent the others. The first act of the play is set at Premukhino, the Bakunin family estate, over the course of seven years. A phalanx of ragged bodies is set in the background, behind a sheer scrim representing the serfs. Their presence is constant, menacing, but generally unobtrusive to the Bakunin family, as they go about their own tumults brought on by one thing or another that Michael has done. At times you forget the serfs are there, and then, suddenly, you’ll look up and see the staggered rows of ragged bodies and a sense of foreboding descends.
The second act is set in Moscow, during the same seven years. Stoppard rewinds time to show us how events in the city led to the disruptions at Premukhino. The action in the city is invested with a sense of urgency, where the young men verbally joust as they try to define their latest position with regard to the newest book they’ve read. Moscow is a hotbed of anti-tsarist sentiment and foreign idealism. The political tension is high, the sensation of fear and revolt bubbles just below the surface. But Moscow is also an incubator for love, and it is there we witness the first real contact between humans, not just the meeting of like minds.
The play is a tour of European philosophy in the 1800’s, and it is highly ambitious (something you could say about any 9-hour trilogy, I suppose). But it is, nevertheless, gripping stuff. Billy Crudup does an amazing turn as Belinsky, completely inhabiting the character and committing to the moment. Ethan Hawke was fine as Bakunin, though his insouciance had a Reality Bites mopiness that seemed out of place in a young man who was struggling to bring Mother Russia into the modern era. The performance in the second act was more balanced and more powerful.
Prior to seeing the play I was concerned that the first act of a trilogy would have a sense of being open in the way a cliffhanger is open. I was watching it with two visitors from out of town, and it is unlikely they’ll be able to return to see Shipwrecked or Salvage. I didn’t want them to leave with a sense of the work being unfinished. While the action is indeed open-ended, there is a very strong sense of closure at the end of the second act. It is more portentous than unfinished: there is war and exile and a nobleman at the end of his life, contemplating the loss of his son and the dissolution of his estate. It is a nod to the great Russian novels, but with the unfussy delivery that I recognize from other Stoppard plays.
One of the things I kept noticing during the performance was the presence of books. When Stankevich passed a book to Bakunin, I felt the transfer of knowledge. The play expresses ideal of what we think about at the Institute: books as vehicles for big ideas. There is a treatise waiting to be written about the view of literature defining a nation (explosively presented in a monologue from Belinsky). And there is, throughout, a very powerful sense that the printed word is vastly important. But there is also that sense of impending loss, which makes us question where we are today. Do we live in a world where idealism is lost, and where the gilt-edged books filled with new philosophies are no longer valued? Or is it the opposite? Do we live in a world where the book is doing better than ever, and idealism takes so many forms that it is unrecognizable?