The Coast of Utopia: Shipwreck Analysis

Tom Stoppard


Shipwreck marks a departure from Voyage in many ways, particularly in the use of setting. While the action in Voyage is centered in Russia, only the opening and closing scenes of Shipwreck take place in the characters' native country. For the majority of the play, the characters reside in Europe, and that displacement is central to the action of the play. If Voyage is so named for the characters' embarking on a pursuit of their ideals, then Shipwreck earns its moniker from the initial failure of those pursuits. The location (and, some might argue, the cause) of their "shipwreck" is Europe, specifically Paris.

On a political level, Paris represents a false hope and poor investment for the characters. Early in Act I, they all brim with hope about the impending Revolution in 1848. Their hope is that this revolution will spread through Germany and Poland, finally making its way to Russia. When the Second Republic (as it is called following the revolution) turns out to be more of a name change than a governmental one, the Herzens and their friends are left adrift in the violent and deadly aftermath. While Bakunin heads east in search of further revolution, the Herzens remain in France.

At this point, France also becomes the undoing of the characters' personal lives as well. In the country retreat, Natalie begins an affair with George Herwegh that ruins both of their marriages. While the poet and writer Turgenev uses the coupling as fodder for comic writing, the adultery causes all four real pain. Ogarev's wife leaves him for a painter and refuses to divorce him in another example of marital discord. Most tragically, the European retreat brings about loss of life. Belinsky dies leaving behind his wife and daughter (his son has already died). The play ends with an actual shipwreck, in which the Herzens' deaf son Kolya, his tutor, and Herzen's mother all perish. When Stoppard flashes back to the first scene, when all the characters depart for Europe, it is suffused with a dark sense of destiny and impending doom: Europe will be the place of their undoing.

The Coast of Utopia: Shipwreck Performance Suggestions

While the design needs for Shipwreck are not wildly different from Voyage, the look of both plays must be similar enough to make it clear that the plays are connected, but distinct enough to give each its own identity. One difference that Stoppard writes into the text is a staging wherein characters in the play are positioned to mirror a famous work of art. This moment increases the theatricality exponentially. Indeed, this play is dreamier and more whimsical than Voyage, which could be accentuated in the design. For the art tableau, should the real painting be projected on a cyclorama to clarify the comparison?  More importantly, could other tableaux be used (whether mirroring paintings or not) to create a kind of visual through line?  The director and design team must use visuals, no matter how brief the scene might be, to enhance the audience's understanding and experience of the play.

It seems that abstract or stylized set pieces might serve the play. Shipwreck is full of artifice employed by characters to hide their feelings or augment their sense of self-importance. In this light, a more outré theatricalization would dovetail with the characters' affectations and pretensions.

The actors in Shipwreck have different challenges than they did in Voyage. In the first play, characters had to be sketched quickly and clearly since many had very little stage time. The audience spends far more time with Herzen, Natalie and George than with the characters in Voyage. While this gives these actors more time to develop their characters, it also calls upon them to make the characters deep and show their changes over the course of the play.

Without question, the most demanding part in the play is Natalie, who must remain endearing and human despite her foibles. The actress playing this role must balance the character's strength and fragility, sometimes within the same scene. If the actress is not truly sympathetic, Herzen will appear wimpy for tolerating her behavior. Most importantly, she must have genuine chemistry with both Herzen and George in order for the performance to truly work.

Sound and lighting will serve to bolster some of Stoppard's unique structural elements; specifically, the playwright calls for scenes to be reprised (often in a longer format). Thematic lighting and music can make these transitions ring true. Finally, the storm sounds must be appropriately foreboding to prevent these scenes from taking on an unintentionally comic tone.

The Coast of Utopia: Shipwreck Bibliography

Brustein, Robert. 2007. "Lost in Thought." The New Republic, April 2: 40(5). Legendary theatrical figure Brustein reflects on The Coast of Utopia trilogy.

Harner, Jason Butler. 2007. "An Actor's Utopia: Behind the Glittering Surfaces of Tom Stoppard's Epic Trilogy, a Cadre of Actors Is Having the Experience of a Lifetime." American Theatre, May/June, 26(5). Actor Jason Butler Harner, who played Turgenev in the New York productions of The Coast of Utopia, reflects on the unique challenges and rewards of his experience with the plays.

McCarter, Jeremy. 2007. "Faberge Acting: Part Two of The Coast of Utopia Is a Chance to See
Stage Work—From Stars and Journeymen Alike—at Its Zenith." New York, January 8: 72(1). McCarter reviews the second play of The Coast of Utopia and praises it for its superb performances.

O'Donovan, Leo J. 2007. "The Shore We Seek: Tom Stoppard's Trilogy on 19th-Century
Russia." America, May 7: 26(3). O'Donovan reviews the criticism of The Coast of Utopia trilogy, both positive and negative.

Schulman, Michael. 2007. "Extreme Theater." The New Yorker, March 12: 26. Schulman reflects on the unique experience of watching all three plays of The Coast of Utopia in a daylong marathon.