Stoppard’s Trilogy
Back to Table of Contents >

What’s the Big Idea? – Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia

Tom Stoppard’s trilogy, The Coast of Utopia is absorbing and addictive. A sad, rueful, ironic comedy, it distinguishes perfectly between sentiment and sentimentality and shows how imperceptibly, how inevitably, the first coarsens into the latter, in both the public and the private sphere. For Stoppard, human experience is essentially impure and his trilogy courageously follows the arc of actual experience so there is no synthetic climax, plenty of shapeliness, but no obviously dramatic shape. After nine hours, it concludes in anti-climax the disappointed, marginalised Herzen, two years away from his death in Switzerland.

Salvage (Part III) begins and ends with Herzen asleep and dreaming. Why? Because the Utopian idea is a dream, but an unrealisable dream. Natalie Ogarev voices its optimism when she first re-encounters Herzen: ‘(gazing raptly at Herzen) To dream men’s dreams’ In Salvage, both Herzen’s dreams are bad dreams of bickering exiles at the beginning of Part III and, at the end, the dream of a dogmatic Marx issuing his ‘incontrovertible’ obiter dicta. Whereas ‘the best lack all conviction’ humanist Herzen and the tentative Turgenev.

Predictably, some critics have reported a drama in which ideas dominate the human histories. Peter Kemp in the TLS found the trilogy structureless, rambling, repetitive, digressive and buried under its author’s research: ‘Having spent years immersing himself in research for this epic project, Stoppard seems unwilling to leave anything he garnered behind in his notebooks. A plethora of political and intellectual history is unloaded into a trilogy which zigzags around to accommodate his findings.’ What is wrong with this picture?

Everything.

The private is squeezed, in this account, until the characters are Giacometti figures, withered like spent matchsticks under the weight of their thought balloons. Except for the programme, which is replete with po-faced, thumbnail exegesis, this is completely untrue. The prevailing tone is wryly comic. The private dominates throughout. The National stage isn’t a foot deep in leaflets summarising Schelling, Fichte, Kant, Hegel, Proudhon, Saint-Simon, Rousseau, Fourier and Marx. That list of names is taken from Salvage where Alexander Herzen is summarising his ideological development a decidedly sentimental education in this version for the benefit of his son Sasha. His friend Ogarev interrupts impatiently: ‘Stop boring the poor boy, he’s going to be a doctor.’ But in fact Herzen’s exposition has been ironically punctuated throughout by the undercutting banalities of ordinary existence. Herzen mentions Proudhon’s ‘abolition of authority’ and this is ironically paralleled in the private domestic sphere by its opposite, the assertion of authority: ‘Stop crying or I’ll give you an enema.’ The inversion is as blunt as Flaubert’s ironic counterpoint in Madame Bovary of Rodolphe’s seduction and the auction of farm animals.

In Shipwreck (Part II) there is an exquisitely crafted scene (‘November 1851′) which will serve to show how the private and the public constantly echo each other. In Nice, Herzen is visited by the Russian Consul, who bears a message from Count Orlov, the servant of His Imperial Majesty, ordering Herzen to return to Russia. Herzen refuses incomprehensibly to the Consul, since the message carries the authority of the Tsar. Incomprehensibly, and also dangerously for the Consul, who will be the bearer of bad news. ‘It would call attention to my name in a most unfavourable context.’ Herzen points out that, in fact, Count Orlov would be the recipient of the Consul’s news not the Tsar.

CONSUL: It’s the same thing. Count Orlov would never forget my name.
HERZEN: But you’re only the messenger.
CONSUL: There’s a streak of Cleopatra in him.

The scene is at once farcical the Consul rises and inclines his head obsequiously at every mention of the Tsar and indicative of the ethos of despotism. The solution is for Herzen to write a sealed reply to Count Orlov. The endangered messenger motif is continued later, after a transition in the scene, when Herzen returns to tell his wife that their beloved deaf son, Kolya, has been drowned at sea, with his grandmother, tutor and maid. The disclosure, like Nabokov’s story ‘Breaking the News’, is in stages:

HERZEN: They’re not coming. The boat from Marseilles isn’t coming.
Herzen embraces her, weeping.
NATALIE: (bewildered) They’re not coming at all?
HERZEN: No. There was an accident at sea Oh, Natalie!
NATALIE: When is Kolya coming?
HERZEN: He’s never coming. I’m sorry.
Natalie fights out of his embrace and pummels him.
NATALIE: Don’t you dare tell me that! (She runs inside.)

The medium is the message – Cleopatra’s confusion of the bearer with the bad news. Here, the parallel between public and private is clear, but subtle enough not to impair the immediate shock of the tragedy. The literary precedent, the citation of Cleopatra, is far enough away to be usefully pre-emptive without being obtrusive. The symmetry between the Consul and Herzen is understated and tactful. Rather than crying ‘snap’, Stoppard breaks your heart instead. The swiftly permeable, shared border between comedy to tragedy is Chekhovian.

More often, it works the other way, ironically undercutting: ‘You have broken your father’s heart! When you get to Moscow go to Pliva’s and tell them to send another metre of the grey silk will you remember? the grey silk!’ More often because bathos is easier. Modulating from comedy to pathos is tougher to bring off.

And here it almost doesn’t work because there is another unintended precedent unhelpfully present in the staging of this tragic exchange between Herzen and his wife. Trevor Nunn’s direction of this key moment inadvertently summons up a stock Hollywood topos of a woman fighting into the embrace of a strong man, anger overtaken by love and submission. Stoppard’s text where Herzen’s wife isn’t simply attacking the messenger, but fighting ‘out of his embrace‘ is not responsible. Perhaps the cliché is in the pummelling of Herzen’s chest the favoured token site. Had Eve Best, who played Natalie, hit him in the face, the scene would have shed all trace of inferior models.

The echoic structure of public and private is clear but understated throughout: in Salvage, the quarrelsome political exiles are mirrored in the struggle between the strict pedagogic methods of the German governess and the English maid’s combination of laxity and corporal punishment. Both are subsequently displaced by the erratic Natalie Ogarev, who brings warmth, irritability and inconsistency to child-rearing. (The trouble here is that the primary domestic conflict can be boring: ‘MARIA: Coffee in the morning keeps a body regular. MALWIDA: And excitable.’) In Shipwreck, the failure of the French Republic has a private parallel the failure of the friendship between the Herzens and the Herweghs. ‘We, too, will look to our faults our passions and vices – and prepare ourselves by living by our ideals in a republic of our own’, says the deluded Herzen.

His conviction – that in private life ‘fidelity is admirable, but proprietorship disgusting’ is tempered by his sense of the limits of tolerance: ‘What is the largest number of individuals who can pull this trick off? I would say it’s smaller than a nation, smaller than the ideal communities of Cabet or Fourier. I would say the larger number is smaller than three. Two is possible, if there is love, but two is not a guarantee.’ Herzen is about to discover exactly how difficult the balance between self-interest and self-abnegation is – when his wife embarks on an affair with the German revolutionary poet, George Herwegh. All this parallels the public debate about freedom. Limitations on individual freedom are necessary but should be imposed by the individual himself, acting freely: ‘What freedom means is being allowed to sing in my bath as loudly as will not interfere with my neighbour’s freedom to sing a different tune in his.’

We have already encountered these commonsensical libertarian sentiments in Voyage (Part I) where they are voiced, somewhat surprisingly, by Alexander Bakunin – the owner of several thousand serfs. ‘Philosophy consists in moderating each life so that many lives will fit together with as much liberty and justice as will keep them together – and not as much as will make them fly apart, when the harm will be greater.’ These unimpeachable sentiments issue from a man accused by his son Michael of being a domestic despot. It is an accusation impossible to sustain in the face of his benign, pragmatic, imperfect paternalism, and an accusation which returns on that same ‘enlightened’ son, who jealously tyrannises over his sisters’ private lives, issuing fiats and destructive directives. Paradoxically, Michael, not his father, is the despot giving us a preview of revolutionary authoritarianism based on complacent self-certainty. Bakunin fils is a stranger to self-doubt and self-irony. In Stoppard’s account, he is a richly comic figure, like the majority of the revolutionaries Herzen excepted. In reality, Bakunin left the army as a protest against the Tsar. Here, he leaves on a whim ‘on the grounds of ill health, Papa. I’m sick of the army.’ His ideas are a joke and a convenience, the ideological armature of his egotism: ‘Whatever I want, that’s what God wants.’ He has no sooner proclaimed that ‘the outer world of material existence is mere illusion’ than he is exclaiming ‘God, I’m starving!’ – and stuffing his face.

The exposition of ideas, then, presents no difficulty for Stoppard because he ignores their purported ‘difficulty’ and instead shows their fatuity. Stankevich may say that ‘the laughter of women is like the spiritual communion of angels. Women are holy beings. For me, love is a religious experience.’ We know the laughter that provoked these reflections is caused by a comparison of human copulation to ‘the tinker’s jackass’ when it ‘got into Betsy’s paddock’. Stankevich’s ideas are absurd and connive with his sickly libido. On Hamlet: ‘She was the wrong woman for him. The duel was between knowledge and denial, the dialectic dramatised, it’s all there in Hegel.’ These days, he could get a job in most university English departments.

Stankevich’s death from TB – off-stage, in Italy, in the arms of Varenka, the married sister of Liubov Bakunin, the woman he shyly, ineffectually loves for most of Voyage (Part I) is tantalisingly reported, without elaboration. A great (parenthetical) surprise which, on reflection, isn’t a surprise. Nor is it a loose end, I think, but a laconically poignant indication that approaching death concentrates the highest mind – philosophy succumbs to more earthly imperatives.

John Peter (The Sunday Times) and John Gross (the Sunday Telegraph) are impatient with Stoppard’s impatience with ideas. Stoppard is, they argue, our great playwright of ideas. He isn’t. He is nimble, commonsensical, really intelligent – and, therefore, swift to let the hot air out of many a time-honoured profundity. He has said as much in interview: ‘something which has preoccupied me for a long time is the desire to simplify questions and take the sophistication out.’ For John Peter, Stankevich is low entertainment, a soft target, a distraction from the prescribed task to expound the history of ideas. But, I think, for Stoppard, these great seminal ideas are like photographs without people in them.

In Squaring the Circle, his 1984 TV film about Solidarity and Walesa, ideas are put in their place by the truth-telling Witness: ‘Theories don’t guarantee social justice, social justice tells you if a theory is any good. Right and wrong are not complicated – when a child cries, ÒThat’s not fair!ó the child can be believed.’ [my italics] We can deduce Stoppard believes this himself, because it is repeated from Professional Foul (1977): ‘A small child who cries Òthat’s not fairó when punished for something done by his brother or sister is apparently appealing to an idea of justice which is, for want of a better word, natural.’ The crucial point for my argument here – in addition to his point about justice – is that Stoppard doesn’t give a damn about theories. He cares about people. Or rather he does give a damn about theories – because he knows how dangerous and stupid ideas can be when they are put into practice by infatuated ideologues. Hence his attraction to the sceptical figure of Herzen, who subscribes to the Joycean mistrust of ‘those big words that make us so unhappy': ‘we’re asking people to spill their blood – at least spare them your conceit that they’re acting out the biography of an abstract noun.’ So it is perverse to require of Stoppard a reverential treatment of Nikolai Chernychevsky, or of Marx – here a social climber and a theorist utterly ignorant of the working class. As is Bakunin: (Shipwreck, March 1848):

BAKUNIN: I’ve been living in barracks with the Republican Guard. You won’t believe this but it’s the first time I’ve actually met anyone from the working class.
MARX: Really? What are they like?

Bakunin’s answer is a lovely slow burn: ‘I’ve never come across such nobility.’ This chimes with another excellent running joke the imperious servants in the Herzen household, who patronise their patrons. When the French Republic is declared, Herzen proposes the toast ‘Vive le prolétariat!’ – and immediately adds for the pained servant’s benefit, ‘Mille pardons, Benoit’.

How plausible this is. How shrewd of Stoppard to pick at the reputation and discover the flawed human being beneath. John Gross and John Peter flinch from the human figure, genital warts and all. They would prefer a full-length portrait of the big idea – an abstraction in a toga. Accordingly, they mistake satire for caricature. In one instance, John Gross is half right. Aksakov, the Slavist all belted rubashka and baggy trousers tucked in his boots – is played as a buffoon by Sam Troughton. But this is the fault of Trevor Nunn’s bustling, over-stated, ‘orange-sellers-aplenty’ Peter Hall production style. Stoppard’s text gives Aksakov credit where it is due. Even Herzen concedes: ‘Aksakov is right – I don’t know the next step.’ Granovsky: ‘He’s right about us having no ideas of our own, that’s all.’ Granovsky again: ‘The Slavophiles are not entirely wrong about the West, you know.’ To which Herzen concedes: ‘I’m sure they’re entirely right.’

But Vissarion Belinsky, the literary critic, is Stoppard’s great creation – the perfect mix of satire and sympathy. Belinsky is brilliantly played by Will Keen. His cough – an impossibly extended aria of barks and wheezing – is in a way the key to his character. Belinsky’s galloping consumption is itself consumed by comedy and the man is both ridiculous and touching. In Voyage (Part I), Tatiana Bakunin, who hero-worships Belinsky, summarises his current position: ‘Russia is stuck between dried-up old French reasoning and the new German thought which explains everything.’ An accurate epitome. The trouble is Belinsky reads neither French nor German. As for Russian literature: ‘We have no Russian literature.’ It is derivative: ‘it’s like a fancy dress party where everyone has to come dressed up as somebody else Byron, Voltaire, Goethe, Schiller, Shakespeare and the rest’ A fierce critic of Russian literature, then, he is also sentimental about its potential. In Voyage, art is an engine of social change only in a mystical way: ‘Let social purpose hang itself’ Belinsky’s ‘idea’ is that art will ‘replace’ reality.

Stoppard has said that his dialogue is literary rather than realistic – that ‘all my people speak the same way, with the same cadences and sentence structures. They speak as I do’. Some of Stoppard’s expository dialogue for Herzen is clunky: ‘It was as if I’d come to the end of a long journey that started when I left Moscow more than six years ago with Natalie and the children and my mother, packed into a carriage hung with furs against the January cold.’ You wouldn’t want to be an actor with that in your mouth. Some of Herzen’s literary dialogue is over-literary: ‘Cynicism fills the air like ash and blights the leaves on the freedom trees.’ It might be Yeats chilling a drawing room with this famous conversational opener: ‘There is a clashing of swords on the floor of heaven.’ However, the incoherence of Belinsky’s ideas produces some of Stoppard’s best dialogue, dialogue to rival Mamet: ‘But a great artist can change all that, make it irrelevant, well, not one, but even one, even Pushkin for a start, I mean Pushkin up to, say, Boris Gudonov, he’s finished now, he hasn’t written a great poem for years, but even Pushkin, or Gogol’s new stories, definitely Gogol, and there’s more to come, I know they’re coming and soon, here things are growing not by the year but by the hour… You see what I’m saying?’ Not quite. But that is Stoppard’s point – Belinsky’s passion for literature is striking, moving even, but it isn’t orderly, it isn’t even articulate. Nor does it make sense.

By Part II, Shipwreck, Belinsky has rejected the idea of art for art’s sake. Literature is now a tool for social change: ‘In Russia, there’s no division of labour, literature has to do it all. That was a hard lesson for me, boy. When I started off, I thought art was aimless, pure spirit…’ Belinsky’s character is a paradox – social shyness, downright dogmatism and intellectual promiscuity: ‘How is it that everybody knows what he thinks and sticks to it!’ Belinsky is the inconsistent dogmatist:

BELINSKY: You’re going to be one of our great writers, one of the few
I’m never wrong.
TURGENEV: (moved) Oh (lightly) You said Fenimore Cooper was as great as Shakespeare.
BELINSKY: That wasn’t wrong, it was only ridiculous.

The relatively peripheral Turgenev – humane, clear-sighted, private, undogmatic – is the figure nearest to Stoppard in The Coast of Utopia. Herzen is central to the piece, superior in intelligence and in humanity to the other revolutionaries, but Stoppard observes him shrewdly and critically. When Belinsky takes his (final) leave of the Russian community in Paris, he makes a last speech about Russian literature, a phenomenon he has spent his life denying the existence of. The received scholarly view of Belinsky is a cross between a midwife and Ezra Pound – trouncing the derivative and the dated, but assisting the birth of the original, the innovative, the Russian. This outline is discernible in Stoppard’s portrait, but we are given a more magnificently confused, inconsistent, comic and, it has to be said, plausible figure. Bakunin asks him to stay where he can be published uncensored. He prefers to return to Russia: ‘At home the public look to writers as their real leaders. The title of poet or novelist really counts with us. Writers here, they think they’re enjoying success. They don’t know what success is. You have to be a writer in Russia, even one without much talent, even a critic…‘ [my italics] The sentimental chauvinism and egotism of a critic who still doesn’t read French. However, the interesting thing to note is Stoppard’s crucial stage direction – ‘Herzen, mopping his eyes.’ An SD never staged in Trevor Nunn’s production, where Stephen Dillane was dry, contained, slightly self-regarding, the very opposite of lachrymose delivering his lines, barring the odd fluff, evenly, audibly, monotonously within a limited vocal dynamic. And fatally for a play which turns out to be about sentimentality. No one saw it – well, I didn’t see it – because it wasn’t staged. It wasn’t performed by Dillane because the director didn’t understand it.

Stoppard, of course, attended rehearsals. He understands perfectly why this is necessary: ‘with the most intelligent and sympathetic director possible and the most accomplished and intelligent actors available you will only get about 70% of what you meant, because a script turns out to be a great deal more obscure in its intentions than one could possibly imagine oneself.’ But there is still a snag. It is a strange thing to watch your own work in rehearsal. You know what it is supposed to mean. So that is what it means. The words are there. The actors speak them. You think the audience will get your meaning, therefore. You are unworried as long as the transmitters are transmitting.

The director is there, among other things, to tell the playwright what seems pointless – so it can be cut, or so the point can be brought out. Stoppard acknowledges a debt to Trevor Nunn in a prefatory note – ‘for encouraging me towards some additions and subtractions.’ And I am sure there are many other debts. However, I doubt if Nunn had the courage to tell Stoppard that Salvage (Part III) in this production, seems a long niente ending. There is any amount of local tweaking and burnishing, but Part III needs a vision of Salvage as tinged with an almost imperceptible failure of spirit. Herzen is not defeated by circumstances. Stoppard shows us in Salvage a man who is broken by the deaths of his wife and child, but continues as if he were whole. Almost out of habit. So it is not tragedy’s pity and terror – it is too gradual for that – but self-pity, sentimentality, resignation and a terrible sadness. Events fail Herzen. Of course they do. But, partly because events fail him, Herzen, more importantly, learns to inhabit the failure of himself.

When Talk magazine appeared in August 1999, Stoppard contributed a wonderful piece, ‘On Turning Out to be Jewish’. Obliquely, implicitly, it was also a piece about sentimentality – an object lesson in its refusal to entertain the usual limited menu of emotions suggested by interviewers asking about his past. It is moving – because it is calmly accurate at every turn. ‘In my mind I always knew what my father looked like, and my memory of him is supported by (or perhaps consists in) a few tiny snapshots.’ The quasi-corrective parenthesis is why Stoppard is a great writer. When the young Tom is told of his father’s death, he sets down his reaction: ‘For my part, I took it well, or not well, depending on how you look at it. I felt almost nothing. I felt the significance of the occasion but not the loss.’ At one point in the memoir, Stoppard records touching a small scar on a woman’s wrist – a wound which had been stitched by his father. ‘In that moment I am surprised by grief.’ The wordplay places it as an imaginative impulse. He touches the scar, and he is touched – so it’s a verbal and physical reaction to his father’s death. Somewhere else, not in the Talk piece, Stoppard has scrupulously recorded the diminishing power of this moment every time he tells it. Here he simply says it has ‘the power to move, but not to reclaim’.

Why am I telling you this? Because there is a recurrent motif in Stoppard’s trilogy, a motif usually attached in the plays to George Sand, ‘the philosopher of love’, the nineteenth-century touchstone for powerful feeling. In her novels, love is indivisible, an irresistible force. In Stoppard’s trilogy, it isn’t. It changes. Passion is touched with comedy, with self-deception as well as subterfuge. Part II, Shipwreck, begins with Herzen’s wife expressing her nostalgia for their grand passion, for their elopement
before Herzen had a brief bonk with a servant. This nostalgia finds an outlet first with another woman, a pash – harmless enough. Harmless enough for it to be confessed to another more worldly woman, who asks ‘You were lovers?’ And is answered directly, ‘No. What do you mean?’

Stoppard revisits this territory when Natalie Herzen embarks on an affair with George Herwegh. A whole scene, brilliantly written, genuinely painful, verging on the ludicrous, is devoted to the confession Herzen has to wring out of her. ‘Plain speech for God’s sake! Has Herwegh
known you?’ The very question she was previously able to answer swiftly in the negative. ‘Is Herwegh your lover?’ Her answers are a kind of moral chess, a great defensive campaign – devious and delivered in tones of affront and wronged reproach:

HERZEN: Christ! Just tell me without the doubletalk! – Is Herwegh your lover?!
NATALIE: He loves me, yes – he loves me –
HERZEN: Is he your lover? Have you been to his bed?
NATALIE: Oh
I see. You have no objection if I take him to my heart, only to my bed –
HERZEN: Precisely. Or his bed, or a flowerbed, or up against the back of the town hall –
NATALIE: Alexander, Alexander, this is not you, this is not the great-hearted soul I gave my tender innocent heart to when I –

Her justification, as she sees it, is the George Sand ideal: ‘the ideal of a love which is greater the more it includes.’ With Natalie, all that phoney ‘love’ stuff is for real. And it becomes real for Herzen in Part III, Salvage, after her death and the death of his deaf son Kolya. Shipwreck ends with Herzen on board ship with Bakunin by chance. Herzen brings him up to date. He imagines, accurately, almost unbearably, the drowning of his son: ‘I just wish it hadn’t happened at night. He couldn’t hear in the dark. He couldn’t see your lips.’ And he stems Bakunin’s sentimentality: ‘No, no, not at all! His life was what it was. Because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up. But a child’s purpose is to be a child… The death of a child has no more meaning than the death of armies, of nations. Was the child happy while he lived? That is a proper question, the only question.’ This is noble and fearlessly clear-sighted.

Salvage (Part III) shows us the corrosion of sentimentality. Herzen’s own version of Kolya’s end is replaced by his dead wife’s whimsical, melodramatic account: ‘Natalie said over and over, ÒHe must have been so cold, so frightened, seeing the fishes and the lobsters!ó’ Herzen’s children are commendably matter of fact, bluntly refusing the sentimental recourse to the past:

HERZEN: It’s good to be talking Russian together. We must always… Mummy was teaching Kolya Russian words, do you -?
TATA: They’re both dead, and that’s all. Well, they are. We can’t help it.

Tata’s brisk intervention adumbrates many previous episodes of parental morbidity – though they coexist with real sentiment, best seen in Herzen carrying a child’s glove, Kolya’s recovered from the wreck. At this point, early in Salvage, Herzen’s intelligence hasn’t entirely succumbed. He knows what the reality of his marriage was: ‘I want her back so that I can take her for granted again…’

Later in the play, he accepts Natalie Ogarev’s hagiographic version of his dead wife – a version in which the very greatness of her soul caused the affair with the unprincipled Herwegh: ‘Your wife was a saint, Alexander. It was because she was a saint that she was defenceless against evil.’ Thus primed, Herzen embraces this bogus portrait: ‘Her devotion to me, her remorse, her courage when she faced the madness that man infected her mind with…’ [my italics]

No wonder he is nonplussed later when Natalie Ogarev, with whom he has begun an affair, suddenly rescinds this hagiographic description, provoked by jealousy of Natalie 1, the dead wife: ‘Oh, Natalie was all right, she was just silly for a poke, and Herwegh was kingdom come.’ So much for the authorised version.

The affair with Natalie 2, the wife of his best friend, Nick Ogarev, puts Herzen in exactly the same position as ‘that man’, the treacherous Herwegh. Herzen has cuckolded Ogarev, just as Herwegh cuckolded him. Sentimentally enough, neither Herzen or Natalie 2 makes the obvious comparison. And there is a difference
Herzen minded; Nick Ogarev appears not to mind, despite his wife’s best efforts to ratchet up the emotions of everyone concerned: ‘He’s in pain. We’ve broken his heart.’ Manifestly, though, they haven’t. What was painful for Herzen is possibly a relief for Ogarev. Natalie 2 has gypsy temperament and is the wearisome, changeable type a husband might easily want to shed. Minutes after her assertion that their adultery has broken his heart, she says: ‘Nick, who’s truly in the right, is the only one of us who makes no fuss about this
‘ Her egotism makes even the death of her and Herzen’s twins an occasion not for grief so much as self-dramatisation: ‘I murdered my two little ones, you know.’ They died of diphtheria in Paris. Against this, one sets Nick’s earlier, but still resonant gibe against sentimentality: he tells a story about his sled being pursued by wolves. One by one he has to throw his children to the wolves to buy a respite…

In politics, there is the same admixture of sentimentality. One revolutionary sneers at another’s ill-attended lecture – and Herzen is suddenly ‘near tears’ (though not at the National Theatre). The tears are for all the failed revolutionaries: ‘men who walk across London to give a piano lesson redrawing the frontiers of Europe on the oilskin table-tops of back-street restaurants, toppling emperors like so many sauce bottles.’ It is affecting and it is tainted by self-pity. Likewise the initially inspiring account of Herzen and Ogarev vowing as schoolboys to revenge the Decembrists
an evocation that becomes thinner every time it is invoked. Turgenev is crucial here. Herzen’s magazine, The Bell, is mainly critical of others, but it, too, has a programme: ‘it’s the Russian peasant!… Personally, I only denounce you as sentimental fantasists. [my italics] You’re talking to a man who’s made a literary reputation out of the Russian peasantry, and they’re no different from Italian, French or German peasants. Conservatives par excellence.’ And yet, when the nihilists and brutalists take over the political scene and denounce Herzen’s sentimentality (‘your tedious, hackneyed, sentimental addiction to reminiscence’) we prefer Herzen to these self-styled realists and the cruelty they are about to visit on the Russian people. And we remember the warning of Polevoy in Part I: ‘Well, it will happen to you one day
some young man with a smile on his face, telling you, ÒBe off with you, you’re behind the times!ó’

The Coast of Utopia is, I think, a great play – though I’m not sure I’ve seen it staged yet. That may be because I am misreading Stoppard’s text. The memorably painful spectacle of Daniel Mendelson – in the New York Review of Books, loftily explaining to Stoppard what the playwright meant by The Invention of Love – is a caution to critics. Nevertheless, the play has faults. The main one is that Stoppard, whose great strength is that he unsummarises history, has a corresponding weakness. He cannot handle milieu, the minor characters, of which there are a great many in this trilogy. Sazonov is there to illustrate the prevalent danger of sentimentality, but the Polish plot he is engineering is barely intelligible on the page. Staged it is completely opaque. The Invention of Love faced the same problem and Squaring the Circle was a dramatist’s nightmare of complicated documentary detail – which Stoppard ‘solved’ by having a narrator and a text that was a lecture with slides. A tricksy lecture, with good slides and great jokes – but a lecture with slides.

But who can stage milieu? Chekhov’s minor characters are given a line apiece which they repeat like a radio call-sign. Manifestly, they don’t matter. They are interchangeable, expendable – like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The irony is that the perfect example is so near to hand. If minor characters matter, the solution is to make them central. Here, the dream sequence that begins Part III is a mistake. The audience has no idea it is a dream until it is over – and so we begin with incomprehensible chaos and the simultaneous introoduction of twelve characters. The final dream of Part III wasn’t obviously a dream either – but this was the fault of Trevor Nunn.

Nunn also muffed the overlap of two simultaneous scenes in Shipwreck – simultaneous but in different locations. Together, they make a tableau of Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe. It was impossible not to read them as a single scene happening in the same place – because they were both in the same, undifferentiated stage space. But this would have tested any director.

A few other minor cavils. Kolya and his deafness – suddenly, brilliantly staged for us, as the action continues in silence – is so affecting it seems a pity to make him a symbol of Russia failing to hear the noises of civilization. SOme of short scenes are set up only to convey a morsel of information – for example, that Natalie has given birth in Shipwreck, though I suppose there may be an irony that Herwegh, offering his congratulations to Herzen, is actually the father. The whipping of the serfs in Part I was a nudge too far – but again the director’s fault. Turgenev quoting from his memoir sounded, well, like a man reciting a piece of prose. And it is impossible to believe that Herwech would sit at Herzen’s wife’s feet, in Herzen’s persence, with his arm across her lap. Earlier in Shipwreck, the stage directions say ‘she embraces Herzen as warmly as decorum allows her’ – and that is husband and wife, Coarse direction again, lest we miss the point.

In spite of all these criticisims, this is theatre for adults – nine hours and it could have been longer.

The Coast of Utopia ran at the National Theatre, and closed on the 23rd November 2002.


'Arete is a journal as exquisite in its execution as in its intentions.'
John Updike

'Vous m’avez donné un grand plaisir … votre revue m’est très sympathique et proche.'
Milan Kundera