Tom Stoppard’s trilogy The Coast of Utopia begins with the play Voyage. Stoppard is known for crafting unique work with political and moral overtones, and Voyage is no exception. The play takes place in the Soviet Union during the years 1833 to 1838, and it centers on the Russian revolutionary Michael Bakunin and his aristocratic beginnings. The Bakunin family is embroiled in various love triangles and intrigues, and Michael is quickly becoming the black sheep of the family. He deserts the military and rebels against his wealthy roots, instead preferring to become a philosopher. He spends his time with other like-minded individuals as he flits from one school of thought to another in his quest to find enlightenment. Although Voyage could stand alone, it is clearly meant to set up the characters and ideas that will later be presented in Stoppard’s other two plays in the trilogy. Although there is not a great amount of traditional dramatic action in Voyage, a lot happens over the span of the five years the audience is presented with, and there is certainly a balance between what occurs onstage and the lengthy dialogue in between.
Most interesting about Voyage is its slightly nonlinear approach. The first act is set at Premukhino, the estate of the Bakunin family. The audience is introduced to the eccentric Bakunins and a host of their friends and colleagues. Time passes between each scene, and the family discusses what events have occurred in their world during the lapse in time. The second act essentially fills in the blanks for the audience. We hear about certain events in Act I from a particular character’s perspective and then get to see those events unfold in Act II with no bias.
Act I Voyage opens in the summer of 1833 at Premukhino, the Bakunin family estate, seven miles northwest of Moscow. Michael Bakunin’s family members—his father, Alexander; his mother, Varvara; and his sisters, Liubov, Varenka, Tatiana, and Alexandra—are finishing supper. They are joined by an English governess and Baron Renne, Liubov’s fiancé. The education of the Bakunin children is discussed, as is the great Russian writer Alexander Pushkin. Miss Chamberlain, the governess, can only speak English, so she and Varvara do not understand each other and thus have to rely on the girls to translate, which they do to comic effect. Near the end of the scene, Michael Bakunin arrives home from artillery school, a typical form of education for a nobleman of the time. The family is excited to see him and introduce him to the Baron. The Baron leaves, and Michael expresses his disapproval. Michael spouts off his new German theories about life and love to his sister Tatiana as the scene ends.
The second scene takes place in the family’s garden and veranda in the spring of 1835. Varenka and her husband, Dyakov, have just arrived, and it is revealed that she is pregnant. The sisters have received a letter from Michael’s supposed girlfriend, Natalie Beyer, whom they dislike. They gossip about how she was previously interested in Nicholas Stankevich, but he dismissed her because of his feelings for Liubov. Michael arrives and the sisters confront him over Natalie. He tells them he has resigned his position in the army, and his father is furious.
Scene 3 takes place in autumn of the same year. Varenka is eight months pregnant. She and Liubov discuss her somewhat rocky marriage, and Liubov asks her what sex is like. Stankevich and Michael are inside discussing women and philosophy. Their discussion is intercut with the sisters’ talk of Liubov and her feelings for Stankevich. Michael reveals that he and Stankevich are moving to Berlin to study philosophy. Stankevich and Liubov have an awkward moment together at the end of the scene where they each try to reveal their feelings but are unable. Liubov tries to give him back what she believes to be his penknife and has been keeping, but he insists it is not his. Michael and Stankevich leave, and Alexander speaks with Varenka, revealing that she has broken off her engagement with the Baron.
Scene 4 is set in the spring of 1836. The sisters are in the garden with Varenka’s baby, and Michael is in the hammock translating an article for the magazine The Telescope. Tatiana and Michael discuss the fact that he has made her break off her engagement with Count Sollogub because of his jealousy.
Scene 5 occurs in August of 1836 inside the manor house. The family is there with several servants, and Vissarion Belinsky is lurking in the shadows outside. Belinsky enters while the family begins eating. He is awkward and socially inept, which the daughters find amusing. Tatiana asks if Liubov noticed Belinsky’s greatness.
The next scene takes place during the same time frame, in August of 1836, but on another day in the garden. Alexandra and Belinsky have been fishing, and they are discussing the ownership of servants as Varvara runs across the lawn chasing a house servant with a cane. Slightly later, Varenka is trying to figure out how to write to her husband of her unhappiness with their marriage. Michael is still working on his translation. He tells Liubov that Stankevich likes her. Alexander questions whether Belinsky can live as the literary critic for The Telescope. Michael is jealous of Belinsky because of his intelligence and Tatiana’s interest in him. Belinsky talks about Pushkin and his own views on serfdom. This causes discomfort for Alexander and Varvara who have many servants. The scene ends with Belinsky telling everyone that The Telescope has been closed down and his room is being searched. A gunshot is heard after they leave the stage.
Scene 7 is set in January of 1837. The family is distraught because their beloved author, Pushkin, is dead. Varenka is angry with Michael for urging her to leave her husband. She has decided to reconcile with Dyakov instead. Liubov has been to Moscow to visit Stankevich, and they have come closer to a romantic entanglement, but he is ill and is headed to the spas. Liubov herself is also sick.
In the next scene, it is spring of 1838 and the family is having a bonfire. They are all dressed up and preparing for Liubov to be brought out. Alexander and Michael enter, arguing because Alexander expects Michael to study agriculture. He talks about studying in Berlin and changing his alliances from the teachings of Fichte to Hegel. Michael asks his father for money and is denied. He accuses Michael of manipulating his sisters and their romances. He refuses to continue supporting Michael.
The final scene in Act I takes place in the autumn of 1841. Turgenev arrives with Tatiana. He tells her about meeting Pushkin shortly before...