The Coast of Utopia: Shipwreck

by Tom Stoppard

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Death, which figured prominently in Voyage, recurs in Shipwreck, albeit in a different tone. In Voyage, death is romantic or elegiac. It may be tragic, but its tragedy is poetic rather than visceral. In Shipwreck, death comes not quietly, but as an assault. Characters are taken rather than slipping away. The main characters, so desperate for a revolution, are unprepared to face the idea that a revolution is also a war. In the wake of the revolution leading to the Second Republic, the high death toll rears its ugly, grisly head, forcing characters like Natalie and Herzen to confront their own prettified ideas of what revolution looks like. The theme of death is most clearly foreshadowed in Kolya, the Herzen's deaf son. Stoppard repeatedly isolates Kolya in the midst of approaching thunder and storms, a metaphor for his parents and their colleagues' blissful ignorance of the dark turns of fate awaiting them. Kolya's own untimely demise is also foretold in these moments. Kolya is the ultimate sacrifice; a complete innocent claimed by a force he did not know was coming.

The conflict between idealized love and the messy reality of it also figures prominently in Shipwreck. Natalie extols the purity of idealized love, while slipping into her seemingly inevitable affair with George Herwegh. When Herzen finally confronts her, she hides behind that ideal in an attempt to avoid owning up to the more sordid specifics of her adultery. This illusion is confronted more directly when Natalie visits Maria, Ogarev's estranged wife. Natalie assumes Ogarev's romantic attraction to Natasha should be reason enough for Maria to agree to divorce him. When Maria rebuts her with certain financial realities, the two argue about what love really is and what it means.

Fractiousness permeates the revolutionary plans of Shipwreck and helps explain why the hoped-for revolution never materializes. Stoppard establishes this conflict in the opening scene when the characters argue the merits and drawbacks of their various philosophies. As with all ideas in Shipwreck, the attacks quickly become personal, underscoring the idea that the divisiveness is both personal and political.

Children and childhood also resonate throughout Shipwreck. The focus given Kolya allows him to be a metaphor for Russia, Europe, or even the adults around him. In a way, the last example is especially true. Herzen, in his dream encounter with Bakunin, tells him that he acts like a child. When Natalie defends her affair with George to Herzen, she likens it to a maternal relationship with George as the overgrown child in the scenario. In turn, Natalie holds a childlike view of the world and is petulant in her confrontation with Herzen. Ogarev, in the extended version of the opening scene, which is reprised at the end of Shipwreck, pointedly recalls when he and Herzen first decided to become revolutionaries -- at the age of thirteen. In a sense, many of these characters play at rebellion and revolution without actually achieving it. Their dream of a Russian revolution is their "baby," and it is lost like many of the children in the play (Kolya, Belinsky's son, etc.).

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