The Coast of Utopia: Voyage by Tom Stoppard

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Introduction

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.

Extended Summary

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...

(The entire section is 2,331 words.)