On Broadway, the biggest success of the current season—as well as the biggest surprise—has been the American premiere of The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard’s trilogy of plays about the 19th-century writers who laid the groundwork for the Russian Revolution.1 Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage are lengthy, talky, and, for viewers unfamiliar with 19th-century radical politics, occasionally hard to follow. Yet nearly every performance of The Coast of Utopia sells out—the run has been extended for nine weeks—while Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers (1978), the intellectual study on which the trilogy is based, is now a scarce item in New York bookstores. As I wrote in my Wall Street Journal review of Shipwreck:
These plays are the inverse of light entertainment: they’re long, structurally complex, and bristling with ideas. Yet the combined weekly box-office gross for The Coast of Utopia is right up there alongside Jersey Boys and The Lion King.
The popularity of The Coast of Utopia is still more remarkable in view of the current state of Broadway. Middle-class New Yorkers once made a special point of seeing such undeniably serious works as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), all of which opened on Broadway in highly successful commercial productions. But it is now rare for new plays of like seriousness to reach Broadway, which in recent years has become a kind of theatrical theme park specializing in undemanding big-budget musicals and celebrity-driven revivals of straight plays whose well-heeled audiences are willing to pay $100 or more a ticket in order to see Hollywood stars like Julia Roberts and Kevin Spacey on stage. Not since Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1993) has any Broadway play succeeded in imposing itself on the consciousness of the educated public at large—yet that same public is by all accounts flocking to see The Coast of Utopia.
To some extent, the New York Times is responsible for the success of The Coast of Utopia. It has run numerous articles about it, just as it made a similar effort a decade and a half ago to publicize Angels in America. Yet the Times was not alone in its embrace of Stoppard’s trilogy. Most of New York’s drama critics, myself included, wrote favorably about The Coast of Utopia, so much so that one critic, the Times’s Charles Isherwood, felt obliged to publish a contrarian attack called “Utopia Is a Bore. There, I’ve Said It.” But Isherwood’s self-aggrandizing essay cut sharply against the grain of the majority of the reviews, whose enthusiastic tenor was well caught by Clive Barnes in the New York Post when he called Salvage “a production to be savored, like some heady brandy—rolled over in the palate of the mind, and treasured in the heart.”
Some of this enthusiasm can no doubt be explained by the Anglophilia of New York critics and playgoers, who can almost always be counted on to approve of highbrow English and Irish imports like Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman (2005) and Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (2006). But even those critics who had their doubts about The Coast of Utopia were unstinting in their praise of Jack O’Brien’s production and its cast, which includes such fine actors as Billy Crudup, Jennifer Ehle, Ethan Hawke, Amy Irving, Brían F. O’Byrne, and Martha Plimpton.
Still, the popular success of The Coast of Utopia cannot be attributed solely to its snob appeal, or to the quality of Lincoln Center’s production. In the end it must be considered an essentially inexplicable phenomenon—all the more puzzling in light of the fact that Tom Stoppard has gone out of his way to portray the revolutionary movement in czarist Russia in a way that could fairly be described as conservative.
In England it is no secret that Stoppard, if not a conservative in the American sense, is nonetheless well to the right of most of his theatrical colleagues. He voted for Margaret Thatcher, praising her in 1993 for having
restored a kind of credibility to politics. . . . I was absolutely tremendously pleased by Mrs. Thatcher not because of what she espoused but because she seemed to have either a strange innocence about what was sayable or a strange courage about what ought to be said.
For the most part, though, Stoppard’s “conservatism” has less to do with his specific convictions about public policy (which he usually keeps to himself) than with his lifelong opposition to totalitarianism, which is rooted in the experiences of his family. His parents were assimilated Czech Jews who escaped the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia by fleeing to Malaya. All four of his grandparents died in the Holocaust, while his father was killed by the Japanese during the 1942 evacuation of Singapore.
In due course Stoppard’s mother (who did not tell him he was Jewish until he was an adult) made her way to England via India, where she married a British major determined to turn her children into upstanding members of the British middle class. But Stoppard, who as a boy spoke English with a Czech accent, would never lose sight of his dual origins, and when he started writing plays they would be about characters no less conscious than their creator of the impenetrable uncertainty that lies at the heart of human existence.
Unlike so many British artists, Stoppard never made the mistake of romanticizing Soviet Communism: one of his plays, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor (1977), is a harrowing portrayal of how the Soviets used their mental hospitals to torture political prisoners. But such explicitly political subject matter is rarely to be found in his work. “I burn with no causes,” he declared early in his career. “I cannot say that I write with any social objective.” Far more often he has preferred to write in a more general way about the crisis of the coming of modernity, and it is for this reason that his right-of-center perspective on Europe in the 20th century has (mostly) passed muster with his colleagues.2
In addition, he has always been careful to wrap his dark meditations on modernity in the cloak of comedy. “Theater is a recreation,” he says. “It can be much more, but unless it’s recreation, I don’t see the point of it. . . . I don’t think of theater as night school.”
Yet beneath their glittering, farce-like surfaces, such Stoppard comedies as Jumpers (1972) and Travesties (1974) prove to be profoundly serious inquiries into the corrosive effects of relativism on the human soul. In Jumpers, for instance, England has been taken over by the Radical-Liberal party, a group of smooth-talking intellectual thugs dedicated to the proposition that there is no truth, only power. What makes these plays all the more poignant is that Stoppard himself is an agnostic who nonetheless fears the moral consequences of radical relativism. “I don’t claim to know that God exists,” says the anguished protagonist of Jumpers. “I only claim that He does without my knowing it.”
It stands to reason that a playwright so powerfully engaged by the problem of modernity should have taken an interest in the origins of 20th-century totalitarian politics. Stripped of its witty wordplay and elaborate narrative techniques, The Coast of Utopia is a straightforward exploration of how Russia fell victim to the fatal virus of utopian absolutism.
Taken together, Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage may be read as a grandiose meditation on the law of unintended consequences. The principal historical characters that they portray—Michael Bakunin, Vissarion Belinsky, and Alexander Herzen—were a group of passionately idealistic 19th-century Russian intellectuals who, in a supremely tragic act of historical irony, helped catapult their country out of one tyranny and into a worse one. In Voyage we see them as angry young men, at once besotted with art and philosophy and enraged by the rigid authoritarianism of life in imperial Russia, while in Shipwreck they are placed against the backdrop of the ill-fated European revolutions of 1848, attempting to move from reflection to action.
Herzen, the central character of the trilogy, is known in America mostly to students of Russian history, though My Past and Thoughts, the wonderfully vivid multivolume memoir on which he worked between 1852 and 1867, continues to be read by uneasy leftists looking for a more palatable alternative to full-blown Marxism. What typically draws such people to Herzen is that he was the most paradoxical of figures: a skeptical revolutionary. A wealthy, well-bred intellectual who fled to Western Europe to escape the czar’s censors, he arrived there just in time to witness the 1848 revolutions, on whose outcome he pinned all his romantic hopes.
Not only did the resulting debacle cure Herzen (temporarily) of his utopian delusions, but so did his marriage to his first cousin Natalie. Drunk on the same witches’ brew of idealism, Natalie threw herself into an affair with Herzen’s best friend, justifying it with high-minded rationalizations of a similarly romantic stripe: “All my actions spring from the divine spirit of love, which I feel for all creation.”
Out of Herzen’s resulting disillusion comes the climactic scene of Shipwreck, in which he meditates on the terrible ironies of history:
In the West, socialism may win next time, but it’s not history’s destination. Socialism, too, will reach its own extremes and absurdities, and once more Europe will burst at the seams. Borders will change, nationalities break up, cities burn. . . . Are you sorry for civilization? I am sorry for it, too.
In Salvage, Stoppard’s Herzen takes a further step toward accepting the world as it is. Observing with horror that his Russian friends have yet to relinquish their belief in the saving power of utopianism, he pronounces this impassioned epitaph on their dreams:
The people won’t forgive when the future custodian of a broken statue, a stripped wall, a desecrated grave, tells everyone who passes by, “Yes—yes, all this was destroyed by the revolution.” The destroyers wear nihilism like a cockade—they think they destroy because they’re radicals. But they destroy because they’re disappointed conservatives—let down by the ancient dream of a perfect society where circles are squared and conflict is canceled out. But there is no such place, and Utopia is its name. So until we stop killing our way toward it, we won’t be grown up as human beings.
While it is not quite right to call this passage conservative, the fact remains that it is far removed from the left-wing ideology of most political-minded British and American playwrights, who continue to cling against all evidence to their circle-squaring belief in the promise of utopian politics.
We can be in no doubt that the character of Herzen speaks for the author himself. In a 2002 article published prior to the opening of the original London production of The Coast of Utopia, Stoppard admiringly described Herzen as a philosophical empiricist who had “no time for the kind of mono-theory that bound history, progress, and individual autonomy to some overarching abstraction like Marx’s material dialecticism. What he did have time for . . . was the individual over the collective, the actual over the theoretical.”
But as Keith Gessen recently pointed out in the New Yorker (“The Revolutionary,” November 30, 2006), the real Herzen was rather more complicated than Stoppard’s deliberately simplified character. For all his hard-earned skepticism, he never quite managed to free himself from the belief in a “messianic socialism” that would transform Russia and, through it, the West. Stoppard’s Herzen, Gessen says, is “a Herzen of perpetual negation and disillusionment, a cold-war Herzen, a British Herzen,” a man who at the end of his life has come to believe not in the engine of history but in a life whose meaning arises from another source entirely:
History has no purpose! History knocks at a thousand gates at every moment, and the gatekeeper is chance. It takes wit and courage to make our way while our way is making us, with no consolation to count on but art and the summer lightning of personal happiness.
The last part of this speech is adapted from the most frequently quoted line in Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts, which in turn is best known in the free rendering of the Oxford don Isaiah Berlin: “Art, and the summer lightning of individual happiness: these are the only real goods we have.” That Stoppard should have made the whole of his trilogy hinge on this beautiful sentence is significant, for it reveals to us that the “British Herzen” of his play is in fact the Herzen that Berlin evoked in Russian Thinkers, a Herzen from whom some of the rough edges of idealism have been carefully sanded away.
The Herzen of Russian Thinkers is, I suspect, a disguised self-portrait of Isaiah Berlin, and the difference between him and the intellectually untidy Herzen of real life says much about the limitations of his creator. As a political philosopher, Berlin is now mainly remembered as an advocate of democratic pluralism, which he saw as the only possible alternative to the dangers of the political and religious absolutism he perceived all around him. “If intolerable alternatives are to be avoided,” Berlin once remarked, “life must achieve various types of often uneasy equilibrium. I believe this deeply: but it is not a doctrine which inspires the young. They seek absolutes; and that usually, sooner or later, ends in blood.”
Wise words, indeed—but Berlin, as Norman Podhoretz has pointed out, “never really found a way of immunizing [pluralism] against the ravages of relativism.”3
Hence he was unable to formulate a practical alternative to the absolutism he feared, and in the end turned into something not unlike a caricature of liberal indecision. To the extent that Stoppard’s Herzen resembles Berlin’s Herzen, he is, like Berlin himself, a man incapable of functioning in the real world of politics, forever doomed to well-meaning impotence.
But we expect different things of a playwright from what we expect of a political philosopher, much less a politician. Stoppard’s purpose in writing The Coast of Utopia was not so much to formulate a viable alternative to liberalism as to dramatize a crucial episode in the coming of modernity. At this, I think, he has succeeded completely.
To be sure, his penchant for building on the lives and ideas of other men has on occasion led some critics, including me, to wonder whether works like Jumpers, Travesties, and The Invention of Love, his 1997 play about A.E. Housman, are the products of someone less a playwright than a kind of journalist—albeit one of genius. It is, I feel sure, no coincidence that Stoppard started out as a newspaperman, and that in the years since he started writing plays he has contrived to make brilliant and resourceful use of the assimilative skills he acquired in his first career.
Nevertheless, it is impossible to watch The Coast of Utopia without recognizing that it is far more than a piece of theatrical journalism, just as the fact that Stoppard’s plays so often deal with intellectual subjects does not make him an intellectual. For him, ideas are not ends in themselves but theatrical building blocks, and the ultimate purpose of the plays he builds out of them is not enlightenment but dramatic beauty. In the words of the exquisite exchange that ends Arcadia (1993), his greatest play:
Septimus: When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore.
Thomasina: Then we will dance. Is this a waltz?
It is this unswerving commitment to beauty and theatricality that makes of The Coast of Utopia something greater than a pointed primer on the historical significance of Herzen and his contemporaries. Having seen each of the three installments only once, I am not yet prepared to render anything like a final judgment on the work’s overall quality, but I cannot recall the last time a new play overwhelmed me so completely.
I readily admit to wondering whether I would have been quite so impressed with The Coast of Utopia had I first seen it in a less memorable production, and also whether my response to it arises in part from the fact that I share its author’s anti-utopian vision of the tragedy of modernity. But countless other viewers who do not share Tom Stoppard’s stance appear to have been as deeply moved as I, suggesting that he has indeed succeeded in transfiguring the unpromising raw material of politics into something like high art.
1 Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage opened at month-long intervals starting last November and are now alternating in repertory at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater through May 13.
2 In an example of political inconsistency, Stoppard today belongs to Jews for Justice for Palestinians, whose other members include Anthony Caro, Eric Hobsbawm, Jonathan Miller, and Harold Pinter. According to the manifesto of this decidedly left-wing and arguably anti-democratic group, it believes that “the values of Israeli society have been corrupted by the Israeli state’s human-rights abuses” and encourages “world-wide Jewish opposition to the Israeli Occupation” [sic], while graciously “support[ing] the right of Israelis to live in freedom and security within Israel’s 1967 borders.”
3 “A Dissent on Isaiah Berlin,”COMMENTARY, February 1999.