Tom Stoppard on Russia’s renegade thinkers.
by HILTON ALS
The New Yorker
Issue of 2007-01-08
History as distinct from destiny: that is what the Czech-born playwright Tom Stoppard shows us near the start of “Voyage,” the first play of “The Coast of Utopia,” his alternately reckless, romantic, boring, and exhilarating trilogy on the Russian thinkers of the mid-nineteenth century (at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont). Here, at Premukhino, an estate some hundred and fifty miles northwest of Moscow, in the years from 1833 to 1844, the Russian nobleman Alexander Bakunin (Richard Easton) lives with his wife, Varvara (Amy Irving), and their four daughters and one son, Michael (Ethan Hawke), in a kind of unrivalled splendor: with miles and miles of grounds and hours and hours in which to discuss any number of topics that concern the family, or his idea of it. Educated abroad and never obliged to work for a living, Alexander is a true aristocrat, with all that that life entails: a love of beauty, and little firsthand knowledge of the cruelty that can thwart it. As his son wrote to him some years later, “You were our teacher. You awakened in us a feeling for the good and the beautiful; a love of nature and that love which still closely and indissolubly unites all of us brothers and sisters.”
Notice that Michael doesn’t include his mother in his declaration of love. As E. H. Carr points out, in his valuable 1937 biography of Bakunin, whom many consider the father of modern anarchism, Michael’s political awareness seems to have been forged, in part, in opposition to Varvara’s domestic despotism, to her propensity for putting her husband before her children’s needs and for terrorizing the many serfs who served her. (We are meant to understand that people like Varvara, with their wanton sense of entitlement, were one of the reasons for the Russian Revolution.) Played frighteningly and well by Irving, Varvara emerges as a kind of gargoyle in a beribboned bonnet, as hard as the shine on her carefully polished samovar.
Of course, Varvara’s vindictiveness is not reserved exclusively for the underclass: in her nasty game of shooting fish in a barrel, women come right behind serfs. After all, why would Varvara want to align herself with those weak creatures who threaten the most important thing she has: male approval—the only form of power accorded to women in this world whose end is just beginning. Alexander and Varvara’s eldest daughter, Liubov (Jennifer Ehle, who is stupendous in the role), on the other hand, is intelligent, a reader and a writer, the soft counterpart to her brother’s brashness and blind pronouncements. (“My God, I’m surrounded by egotists!” the egotistical Michael shouts near the close of “Voyage.”) Liubov may be one of the reasons that Michael is a feminist—or as much of one as he can be, given the era and his sex.
At the same time, he is swept up by the latest rumors from Paris about something called the Romantic Revolution, which is emerging from the ashes of the French Revolution. What is this Romantic Revolution? Its message is that we must, by looking inward, question our relationship to society. We must poke and prod at our notion of authority and the ways in which it shapes our consciousness. For Michael Bakunin and his various friends, editors, students, and hangers-on, the Romantic Revolution becomes a kind of galvanizing force, energizing these rich kids to act. Not that Bakunin needed much of an excuse to be excited. As he wrote in his 1851 “Confession,” a “radical defect in my nature” has always been “a love for the fantastic, for unusual, unheard-of adventures which open up vast horizons and the end of which cannot be foreseen.” (The philosopher Isaiah Berlin criticized Bakunin’s writings for this very lack of emotional discipline.)
Bakunin could just as easily be describing Stoppard’s adventures in playwriting. From his breakthrough hit, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” (1967), to his most recent, last year’s “Rock ’n’ Roll,” Stoppard has applied unusual language to fantastical situations. Joyce shares a stage with Tristan Tzara. Two bit players in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” argue about duality, in dialogues composed of short lines that turn in on themselves, sinking into solipsism. Stoppard’s characters do not live so much as imagine what life could be, if it adhered to their visions. His dramatizations take us on a guided tour of the life of the mind, with all its blind spots, loves, and delusions, as it is shaped by the uncontrollable forces of history.
Nevertheless, despite Stoppard’s obvious brilliance “Voyage” begins to feel too much like a lesson in Act II, when the action moves to Moscow. (Stoppard has cited as influences in the creation of “The Coast of Utopia” Carr’s 1931 “The Romantic Exiles,” Edmund Wilson’s 1940 “To the Finland Station,” and Berlin’s 1978 essay collection, “Russian Thinkers,” among other works.) The characters are forced to present too many ideas that simply can’t be performed, and the flurry of activity stalls. Jack O’Brien’s powerful, sometimes breathtaking direction tries to counteract this tendency. He relies heavily on Hawke’s performance to keep things moving and to synthesize Stoppard’s thoughts, and, most of the time, Hawke more than meets the challenge. His Bakunin is all wide-eyed stares and impatience—he is dialectical materialism in action, puffing on cheroots and drinking wine as he complains about luxury as just another form of corruption. One can foresee, in his inability to listen or to finish a thought, his eventual bond and subsequent break with Marx. With his ruined dancer’s physique—he’s too fired up to be graceful—Hawke tells us that Stoppard’s Bakunin, beneath his silk cravat, is one of the world’s first hippies, a romantic child of privilege, dying to strike out into the glittering world of difference.
Like his educated compatriots, Bakunin finds Russia relatively unimportant in the scheme of things, a land of servants and idleness that is, as one of Stoppard’s characters puts it, “neither East nor West.” In a way, the political theorist Alexander Herzen (Brían F. O’Byrne), who stands at the center of “Shipwreck,” the second part of the trilogy (the third, “Salvage,” will open in February), personifies all that Bakunin is desperate to escape. The illegitimate son of a Russian nobleman with close ties to the Tsar, Herzen has more than enough money to pass his days, like Bakunin senior, in blissful denial. Unlike Michael’s father, however, Herzen has lived a life marked by difficulty: his son was born deaf. Herzen and his wife, his first cousin Natalie (Jennifer Ehle, appropriately luscious and self-regarding here), hope for better medical attention for their child abroad, but they cannot move to Europe without government approval. While awaiting word, before their flight to Paris, in 1847, the Herzens spend the summer with the novelist Ivan Turgenev (Jason Butler Harner) and the poet Nicholas Ogarev (the funny Josh Hamilton), who argue about coffee, literature, and their relative insularity as guests of the rich. (Turgenev clearly doesn’t mind the comfort as much as he claims to, since he soon joins the Herzens abroad.)
But, as it happens, Herzen suffers from a kind of discontent, too: as foreigners, he and his wife are considered outsiders among the Parisian rich and titled. Does that qualify them as artists or intellectuals? Natalie certainly thinks so. But, instead of writing or painting, she embarks on an affair that is meant to signal her French-style emancipation as a woman; the affair is, in fact, more historically significant to her than the overthrow of King Louis Philippe. Like Bakunin before them, the Herzens are dangerous romantics, meaning that the various causes they adopt, or drop, or eventually forget about—both personal and political—are dictated entirely by their reflexive emotional responses. They are socialists of a kind, but only because they can afford to be. They prefer an ideology that does not inconvenience them, and they understand the underclass about as much as their parents did, which is to say, not at all. Herzen wants to belong to the artistic and political ferment that is mid-nineteenth-century Paris, but he’s too absorbed by the ridiculousness of life—the affairs, the subplots, the creature comforts. He is not blind to his destiny, but he is ignorant of history, and of his class’s effect on it. The world of ideas is a parlor game for him, even as he orbits around “real” intellectuals such as the literary critic Vissarion Belinsky (the fine Billy Crudup), who was a part of Bakunin’s life at Premukhino and now finds himself in Paris promoting the voice of Russia as it emerges from Turgenev and others. Unlike the Herzens, Belinsky has a true passion for the word. Can Turgenev rise to his challenge and provide the rest of the world with an accurate picture of their ever-changing homeland?
In “Shipwreck,” Stoppard dissects the absurdism inherent in belief, and he does so in a voice that is significantly less preachy than the one he uses in “Voyage.” His ambition here is as epic as Bakunin’s, and suffused with a pathos that equals Herzen’s. (To create such living, flawed men, Stoppard must have identi-fied with them to some degree.) But, unlike his often foolish and always sincere characters, he possesses the discipline of a great artist, who knows that in dreams lie responsibilities: to build a world, one must first fashion the bricks. In addition to writing a work that reverberates in the imagination long after the curtain has come down—his connections are too quick to be entirely absorbed in a single viewing of either play—Stoppard has also fulfilled a dream that was born at Lincoln Center in 1963, when the director Elia Kazan and the producer Robert Whitehead united to form a repertory company there that they hoped would attain its “own voice and vocabulary.” Kazan and Whitehead lasted less than two years; the company disbanded after ten. But Stoppard and O’Brien’s remarkable ensemble brings that sense of dramatic purpose back to life. Without this kind of shared theatrical history, we would all be as lost as Stoppard’s exiles, wondering what to say and how to say it.