The Coast of Utopia by Tom Stoppard

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Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The title The Coast of Utopia derives from the key motivation of almost all of the characters in this dramatic trilogy—the search for a perfect society. Ironically, utopias, as nonexistent (the word literally means “no place”), can have no coast. Yet this truth is repeatedly denied as Stoppard’s huge cast of revolutionaries and fellow travelers (forty-four actors in seventy roles in the New York production) insist that a new secular Eden lies just beyond the horizon, virtually within sight. The main candidates for that paradise are Russia and, briefly, France. The characters’ travels, from Russia to France, Germany, Switzerland, England, and Italy, meld their personal voyages, their political quests, and the coastal metaphor contained in the title of each part of the trilogy: Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage. The political activists expect a triumphant return home after places of temporary exile, mere jumping off points.

Stoppard’s courage in taking on this massive project is noteworthy. Beyond simple cast size, there is no explicit contemporary relevance to the discussion, and much is firmly anchored in nineteenth century political history, primarily the painful attempts to drag Russia into the modern world. The central characters may be unrecognizable by the nonspecialist, and the issues—the relative merits of Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling’s theories of reality—can be impenetrable even to the well-read. The Coast of Utopia is not art for art’s sake but is rather political theory for political theory’s sake, an uncompromising eight-hour-plus trek through the intellectual debates and issues of a long-past period. The politics, however, are always conjoined with the domestic lives of the radicals, who have difficult family politics, practicing a clumsy, awkward free love, complicated by a raft of small children running about the stage. Stoppard grounds his political debates in family life and personal relationships, showing how individual personalities shape the debate. The drama lies in the people professing the ideas, not just in the ideas themselves.

Voyage begins in 1833 on the estate of Alexander Bakunin, dramatizing the life of this wealthy landowner, his wife, and four daughters. It features his son, Michael, a willful, restless future radical prominent in the later plays; Alexander Herzen, a more restrained revolutionary and intellectual; Herzen’s childhood friend, Nicholas Ogarev; and their political circle, including the wonderfully drawn Vissarion Belinsky, an impoverished literary critic who insists, almost plausibly, that Russia has no literature. Author Ivan Turgenev appears in all three plays as a foil for the committed revolutionaries, creating art rather than trouble.

Shipwreck moves to Paris, Dresden, and Nice, following Herzen in particular as the other self-exiled Russians swirl around the Herzen family. The failure or “shipwreck” of the French Republic in 1848 is particularly shattering to the radicals, who nevertheless adopt new theories and models for the reform of Russia.

Salvage again features the Herzen household from 1853 to 1865, now in London and Geneva, with Herzen and Ogarev publishing The Bell in Russian and sending this muckraking newspaper to émigré groups and into Russia, even as they are superceded by harder-edged, uncompromising successors.

The American premiere of this trilogy, significantly revised by Stoppard, opened...

(The entire section is 766 words.)