The Coast of Utopia: Salvage Essay - Critical Essays

Tom Stoppard

Critical Overview

In both the London and New York productions, the general critical consensus was that Salvage as the weakest of the three Coast of Utopia plays in terms of Stoppard’s writing. Many critics cited the first act as being particularly problematic, noting that Stoppard’s blending of theory and rhetoric with human drama was least successful in Salvage. Critics inclined to use words like “dry” and “stuffy” in their analyses of Voyage and Shipwreck employed similar terminology in their appraisal of Salvage.

Those who responded more favorably to the previous plays tended to be more generous in their assessment of Salvage, even if they too felt it was the least engaging of the three. In their reviews, Salvage despite its flaws was a necessary and fitting conclusion to the trilogy. In addition, these critics tended to lavish praise on the actors in compensation for their less favorable response to the writing.

In the New York production, Ethan Hawke’s performance as Bakunin was polarizing. Some critics who found his characterization in Voyage thoroughly annoying found him more restrained and effective as Michael in Salvage. Despite some supporters, a considerable number of critics found Hawke and his costars (such as Josh Hamilton as Ogarev) unconvincing as old men. In contrast, Brian F. O’Byrne’s performance as Herzen was well received overall. Interestingly, it was the women in the New York production who drew most of the raves. Martha Plimpton had a supporting role as Varenka in Voyage and was glimpsed fleetingly as Natasha in Shipwreck. The latter role occupies a much more focal position in Salvage, and the actress was lauded for her strong work with O’Byrne and Hamilton. Even more challenging was Jennifer Ehle’s performance. In both Shipwreck and Salvage, Ehle played opposite O’Byrne, but as wildly different characters. In Shipwreck, she was Herzen’s tragically fragile wife, while in Salvage, she portrayed Herzen’s stern German governess. Ehle’s transformation received the strongest responses in a large ensemble cast.

Since Salvage is the finale of The Coast of Utopia, many devoted a considerable portion of their reviews to assessing the trilogy as a whole. Few could fault Stoppard for his ambition and scope. In addition, he was complimented for his intellectual and witty dialogue (as usual). If some plays are assessed as having individual components that are more notable than the work as a whole, Stoppard upended this line of response in The Coast of Utopia. For many critics, individual scenes, performances, design choices or directorial touches were indistinguishable from the theatrical whole. Those that forgave The Coast of Utopia for its imperfections did so because they looked at it not as three plays, but as one.