Critical Overview

Because it comes late in Tom Stoppard’s career, The Coast of Utopia: Voyage unfortunately must live in the shadow of his previous work. Because Stoppard is a playwright renowned for his interrogations of history, literature, and philosophy, many critics doubtlessly viewed Voyage with preconceived notions about what Stoppardian theater is. Like earlier works such as The Invention of Love, Stoppard’s Voyage dramatizes real-life people in the heat of personal and intellectual struggles. How Stoppard manifests those struggles theatrically is the key factor in much of the criticism of Voyage.

As usual, the praise surrounding the play is centered on Stoppard’s dense and challenging approach. Many critics hailed his ability to include so many people into one play (let alone the two that followed). In addition, the subject matter itself is historically important, so some of the plaudits centered on Stoppard’s interest in history. Those critics who saw both the 2002 London production as well as the 2007 Broadway version noted that Stoppard had tightened his script for the American transfer (it is this version that constitutes the most recent publication of Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage).

Negative criticism rebuked Stoppard on typical grounds. First, many found the play to be overly ambitious, taking on too many people and events without giving proper attention to any of them. Second, some reviewers took issue with Stoppard’s approach to integrating the philosophy into the script. For them, the play too often leaned on speechifying rather than dramatic conflict to communicate its ideas. Most important, Voyage fell prey to criticism that befalls many first installments of trilogies: incompleteness. Even those critics who enjoyed the play found it lacked dramatic autonomy, functioning better at setting up conflicts in Shipwreck and Salvage than creating its own.

The direction and performances in both productions received largely positive responses, with many praising the deft staging of such a long, complicated piece. In the American production, Billy Crudup’s Belinsky was highly favored and noted for the comic relief his character’s awkwardness brought to the proceedings. Jennifer Ehle’s and Martha Plimpton’s portrayals as Liubov and Varenka, respectively, were also generally well-received. The wild card in the Broadway version was Ethan Hawke’s interpretation of Michael Bakunin. Many found fault with Hawke’s interpretation of the character, though Stoppard notes in his forward to the plays that his is the most challenging character to play and to make likeable to the audience.