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Friday, November 01, 2002

Arts & Letters

Sailing to Utopia

The Coast of Utopia (Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage) by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Trevor Nunn, Olivier Theatre at the Royal National Theatre, London.




I remember an excited undergraduate inviting me to Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead on Broadway 40 years ago. I thought as I watched the play that when, finally, a student could apply his specific knowledge of Hamlet to something, it must seem a real justification for all those humanities courses. The audience around me was smiling knowingly at the stage; they seemed seized by the same sense of fulfillment. Stoppard has created a dramatic mode all his own. Neither theater of ideas nor theater of the absurd, but the theater of facts, as befits a former reporter and self-conscious autodidact. Learning and fact inform all his plays, which demand active audience response and an engagement with fact that requires learning.

That became clear to me with The Invention of Love, a play that teems with ideas but has a surface plot: A. E. Housman’s repression of his homosexual desire for Moses Jackson, his college chum, and his subsequent turn to passionate, sentimental poetry and abrasive, emotion-free classical scholarship. I saw the play in San Francisco, one of the great gay cities of the United States, where the audience was polite but did not really respond because they had no idea what the constant allusions to the world of Oxbridge’s classical scholarship were all about. They were there because they had heard somewhere that A. E. Housman was a closet queen; they knew Oscar Wilde, of course, as the gay icon. Indeed, only when the character of Wilde appears in the play to excoriate Housman for his life in the closet did the audience seem the least bit animated.

A year later, I took the role of Oscar Wilde in a staged reading of excerpts from the play for an audience of three or four hundred people in Philadelphia at the annual meeting of the American Philological Association, the professional society of classicists. The audience went wild, alive to every joke, every aside, every allusion, every reference, laughing, nodding in acknowledgment, looking solemn, following the Greek and Latin, absorbed in everything. I had never known Stoppard could be so entertaining, so important, so right about the importance of fact in creating drama. Yet, it was only because the audience was knowledgeable. Perhaps its reaction was not at all what Stoppard was looking for. Why make plays that require such learning otherwise?

When I had the chance to see Utopia in London, I did something that is ordinarily anathema to me: I prepared. I read each play three times, underlining points of interest as I went along; I studied the program notes that I had bought days before, and I spent a little while jogging my brain on the subjects of German Romanticism, Paris in 1848, Russian exiles in London, nineteenth-century ideas of communism of one sort or another. I have no way of knowing if this was a wise maneuver or not; what I mean to say is that I was not a virgin that night when I took my seat for Voyage, the first of the three plays. My companion, an educated, cultured woman of experience and achievement, had not prepared as I had, and found herself ignorant of the background of much that was said. I tried to hear the play on the first night through her innocence of context. A good friend of mine – an enthusiastic supporter of the National Theatre and of the arts in general, who is always abreast of any new development – so disliked the first play that he handed in his tickets to the other two. He, too, had not studied them. One wonders how much of the audience leaves at intermission. I myself was fascinated, if hardly enthralled, by the entire trilogy. Still, it was curious to discover that on the last evening, as the three-hour performance was obviously drawing to a close and Alexander Herzen began to declaim what I recognized as another longish speech, I at last grew impatient and wanted to stand and shout, “Shut up!” The audience did not seem to me so strongly engaged, however. In a way, Utopia is treated, I imagine, like a very grand coffeetable book.

We came away knowing that we had experienced something extraordinary, even if my companion could not stop muttering that Stoppard was so “self-indulgent.” She, too, had been a reporter, accustomed to reading background material, selecting the pertinent stuff, editing it down to make a text. Stoppard’s verbosity offended; she cannot stomach the articles in The New York Review of Books (“all those words, to say what?”). I have spent my life among college professors; wordiness is not a crime, but a badge of honor. Still, I cannot believe that the entire trilogy could not have been edited to three two-hour plays to achieve much the same effect. Sitting through a theatrical enterprise of this ambition and scope made one feel like a survivor, but that’s not bad at all.

More than a theatrical event, this was an “experience.” The megalomania and hugeness left one with a sense of having lived through another age and time. Only grandly subsidized theater can mount such a production. Thank the director of the National, Trevor Nunn, and its board for setting aside sums to cast 30 actors, make over hundreds of costumes, and create an innovative and fascinating technical environment that stood in for the scenery and sets of traditional theater. That the director of Utopia happens also to be Trevor Nunn and that Sir Tom Stoppard is listed as a member of the board is just one of those delightful examples of synergy that makes England, that tight little island, so alive creatively and intellectually, and, I suppose cynics would say, self-indulgent.

From the moment the lights go up on Voyage, the audience confronts Utopia’s overpowering visuals; it is one reason for the sense of great size. A backdrop rings halfway around the circular revolving stage; onto this are projected filmed landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes, as well as more specific views that constitute the major feature of each scene’s set. The first act takes place at Premukhino, the country estate of the Bakunin family, whose son, Michael, is a principal figure throughout the trilogy. Birch trees, a river, a grand country house, are some of the features behind the actors, who are arranged in various settings, at a large dining table, a picnic, or with wicker lawn chairs. The backdrop is billboard-size, the scenes depicted larger than human scale so that the background looms in a way difficult to define. One wonders how the actors, no doubt sensitive as all actors are to being upstaged, deal with this phenomenon, although they are very effectively foregrounded by the spotlighting.

Some of the visuals are ravishing. Toward the close of Shipwreck, as Alexander Herzen stands at the guard-rail of a steamer bound for England, the smokestack atop the captain’s cabin, painted black and mustard with red trim, emits smoke rings in steady progression that cross a beautiful, painted moon. At Stanislaw Worcell’s funeral in Salvage, the third play, mourners enter and circle along the revolving stage’s curve, all dressed in black, while the backdrop becomes gray-stone architecture on a gray day eventually struck by falling raindrops, at which the mourning figures move centerstage, silhouetted against the back. In another scene, as the street-level view of the Place de la Concorde indicates that the action has now shifted to Paris, a filmed image of a large billowing curtain sweeps over this cityscape, suddenly righting itself and becoming a wall of an eighteenth-century palatial interior, details of the decor all in place. I cannot remember theater where the visuals are so powerfully cinematic as these. In its way, however, the technology is problematic, since the emphasis moves away from the sheer corporeality of human figures speaking and moving that, to my mind, has always distinguished film from theater; the visceral connection between live actor and live audience is severely diluted – indeed, overpowered – by the visuals.

If the visuals distract from the human interaction, so does another cinematic feature, the flashback, with which the trilogy is filled. These brief vignettes are only frames of reference, but – for an audience already having trouble with the names, places, and times of any given scene – these fleeting moments are simply too much of a challenge. The occasional sounds of gunshot are even more baffling; they are heard once when Pushkin is killed in a duel, which is obliquely explained in subsequent scenes, and another time when Czar Alexander is assassinated, laying the stage for severe repression in Russia, but more indicated in the author’s directions in the script than realized dramatically. Another decidedly cinematic effect is the use of music. Steven Edis’s compositions are so beautiful that one wants to buy the “soundtrack” – another sign of how far this production has moved away from traditional theater practice.

What these gigantic backdrops achieve however is a liaison with the speeches so that there is a transcendence in every encounter. The plays’ long speeches, filled with ideas, intellectual thrusts, complicated notions, which are difficult to follow most of the time, can escape the listener and blend in a certain way with the backdrop to become just words, another accompaniment to the action, which, since it’s about the Russian aristocracy, is not much. In that sense, you could imagine the action as that of a silent film set to music, which is the stream of speech. They are language and speech patterns fit to our contemporary lives, in which it is entirely possible to hear televised voices, recorded music, one end of a cell-phone conversation, actual verbal exchanges, and public-address systems at the same time. One talks but does not expect to be heard necessarily, and therefore does not listen closely.

Everyone is as bored at Premukhino as in any of Chekhov’s plays, but Stoppard’s folks don’t talk about it; in fact, they defend against it with mouthfuls of words on Truth, Beauty, Soul, History, Love, Kant, Hegel, Fichte. One might say that they natter on and not be altogether wrong. If the trilogy is about anything apart from the bits and pieces of history that are flung at the audience, maybe it is a grand portrait of the chattering classes, people blessed with acute intellects whose financial security allow or require them to live apart from the humankind that must earn its bread, and think of that first. All the natterers have is exactly that: words. All their obvious, immediate, and real goals are automatically satisfied. Language thus becomes an end in itself. Chekhov considered all this talking to be a curse for Russia; remember Trofimov in the Cherry Orchard always saying, “we must work,” but never doing anything.

The subject is actually more complicated than Stoppard can indicate in a drama. Orlando Figes, in his new cultural history of Russia, Natasha’s Dance, describes the linguistic impoverishment of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Russian, which never had the infusion of vocabulary that the cultural richness of the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment brought to Europe’s other major languages. The Russian aristocracy that followed Peter the Great’s exhortation to make themselves European had perforce to speak French or German. French was the common language of aristocratic households, cultured people knew German as well. It was not uncommon for aristocrats to speak Russian poorly or not at all. Stoppard has his aristocrats speaking Russian, albeit in English; anything else would have been too complicated, but he hints at the layers and confusions frequently enough to suggest the absurdity of it all.

What is the point of language in these plays? First, it is not to further communication between the various characters in their daily lives. Salvage begins with a scene in which a variety of foreign exiles meet in London, in voiceovers worthy of Robert Altman, none of which is the least bit intelligible. Stoppard begins Voyage with a demonstration of linguistic confusion that establishes the dubious effectiveness of words for the entire trilogy (one might say that the Salvage scene is a kind of reprise of this idea). Alexander Bakunin, Michael’s father, develops one conversational theme and his wife, Varvara, another. Heard in sequence, they seem to answer each other. He (to another character): “you have chosen the cleverest….” She: “I prefer Kozlov”(actually, in answer to a previous remark of the daughters). Shortly thereafter, Alexander says: “My dissertation was on worms.” The other character responds: “Worms, the philosopher?” Alexander: “No, just worms.” These remarks are interspersed with other conversations going on between the daughters, their governess, and Varvara. The governess knows no Russian or French, the girls and mother speak both. Accented English is used to indicate the characters speaking English. Normal speech patterns indicate that the actors are speaking Russian, so that one gets the equivalent of gender ambiguity in Shakespearean theater. This scene is far richer in its confusion and ambiguity than the examples indicate, and goes far to destabilize, as one says nowadays, the longish speeches of the characters.

In the first play, serfs standing in a mute band close to a picnic table, whether real or as apparitions, reinforce the separation between speech and intent as the guests talk on endlessly about freedom. There is never a real rapprochement, however. In the last play, Alexander Herzen, one of the most thoughtful and in his way liberated men of the era, will not receive the former prostitute who is the mistress of his dearest friend, the poet Nicholas Ogarev, although he has not hesitated to impregnate the latter’s wife, Natalie, three times over.

Michael Bakunin appears like a leitmotif throughout the trilogy. The future anarchist begins as a young man besotted with the ideas of German Romanticism, freedom, the failure of the Enlightenment, Kant, Hegel, Fichte, fragments of all of which he offers in paraphrase to anyone within hearing. He incites his sisters to marry for love, teaches them to yearn for Berlin even as he does (one thinks of Moscow in Three Sisters), forever quoting Goethe’s lines about Sicily, “dahin, dahin…laszt uns ziehn,” (“there, there…let us make our way there”), a poem full of the yearning for the sunny south, here ironically applied to the German sunshine of intellectual and personal freedom. Douglas Henshall plays Bakunin as a bully, with a mean, angry face, wary eyes, the kind of upper-class kid you wanted to avoid at prep school, forever buttonholing his friends for loans, behavior throughout the entire trilogy that is devoid of the slightest self-awareness, manipulative in the extreme, and only sometimes resisted by his comrades. Why they tolerate him is not clear; he invariably speaks in a shouting voice. In the end, he comes to resemble the bum he always was spiritually.

One of the trilogy’s more ironic, and sometimes quite funny, aspects is the way in which life is lived even as its participants never cease to talk of Life. This is usually expressed through sexuality, although there is a marvelous scene at the beginning of the second act in Salvage in which children continually interrupt the adults as they practice their fine phrasemaking, a reminder that life lived exists apart from life as an intellectual proposition. At the very end of Salvage, Herzen delivers himself of another of his gloomy prognostications sitting alone on a bench with a beautiful Swiss lake behind him, as his various progeny and their connections eat to the side. People are born, people die, people live their lives; three plays ago we started with a picnic on the grass and now there’s a picnic at the table, and still the talk goes on. Sometimes one imagines that these long speeches must be as much a trial for the actors as they are for the audience trying to follow them. There are so many of them in these plays that could never have been spoken in “real life.” Thus, they come across as impossibly pompous, but maybe that is part of the scheme.

The audience is keen to appreciate when they do, in fact, work. In Voyage, Bakunin invites Vissarion Belinsky to Premukhino, where Belinsky is completely out of his depth socially, and is sensitive to the hostility he arouses in Bakunin’s parents. He becomes agitated and delivers a long speech on the function of literature in a repressed country such as Russia, sputtering, stammering, angry. Will Keen’s performance is a tour de force, brilliantly delivered, one of the great moments of the three evenings, when the power of language is hammered white hot in the forge of anger and passion. The audience responded with a burst of applause as he stammered to his conclusion and fled the stage.

The burden of the trilogy is borne by Stephen Dillane (as Alexander Herzen), whom New Yorkers will remember from The Real Thing on Broadway. He does not make his appearance until the second act of Voyage, but thereafter he is the trilogy’s main voice, for which Turgenev’s speeches offer a counterpoint, being a constant ironic riff on Herzen’s more serious if disengaged intellectuality, against whom so many emotionally fired persons appear in opposition, including Bakunin, Belinksy, and Nikolai Chernyshevsky. His many long speeches more or less explain the history that lies behind the scenes, and, while his delivery is superb, one wearies of that grand dignity. Stoppard needs him desperately, just as he does the figures that reprise events or attitudes, such as Alexander Bakunin’s denunciation of his son in Voyage, which rather accurately sums up Michael’s character.

Any action in the trilogy is found in subtle things, such as narrative movement from the Bakunin estate in the Russian countryside to Berlin, to Sokolovo, another estate in the Russian countryside, to the Paris of the 1848 revolution, then to London, where Herzen talks long about the English concept of personal liberty, something unknown elsewhere, before he removes his family, all passion spent, to a villa on a lake near Geneva. The scene at Sokolovo contains an important, defining moment, upon which the later action rides, even if the audience has probably soon forgotten it. Konstantin Aksakov enters, dressed in traditional Russian garb, declaring that he intends to break off all communication with the others because of their willful adoption of European manners and attitudes. In his day, Aksakov was the most celebrated slavophile in Russia, representing an important movement away from the Westernizing tradition begun by Peter the Great toward the spiritual and social values associated with the old Muscovy, an attitude still popular in contemporary Russia (Solzhenitsyn). To go Western was to sell your soul in a way. Aksakov’s arrival and dismissal by the others is therefore a moment of renunciation for the drama, and indeed the rest of the play’s action takes place in Europe, strictly speaking, because Herzen finally receives permission to leave Russia and later on disobeys an imperial command to return.

There is a rhythm of loss within the plays. Young Michael Bakunin’s love affair with German Romanticism and the liberation of the individual in Voyage causes one sister to reject a suitor and the other a husband, although they both die of tuberculosis. In Shipwreck, Russian exiles feed on the romantic hope of the liberation of the French when laborers march on the National Assembly; after they are fired upon by the army of their duly elected leaders, however, Turgenev is eloquent on the folly of that dream. Their attentions then turn to the liberation of the serfs, which, when it comes, proves illusory because no land accompanies it. In Salvage, Herzen begins a journal of radical ideas with which to change the ideological landscape of Russia, only to be rebuked as outdated by Chernyshevsky, who declares that only men like him, who come from the class that has suffered, can make change. Chernyshevsky’s book, What Is To Be Done? (1862), was in fact enormously influential in Russia in advancing the movement known as populism, which argued for the equitable sharing of the country’s resources.

  Herzen is an interesting figure for the very reason that his immense wealth allows him to live a life forever free of context. He does not apologize for it, either. In a great speech in Shipwreck, he argues for the exploitation of the majority of humanity as a necessity for the well-being and spiritual development of the few (“The uninvited are necessary to the feast.”) At a slightly later time in Russia itself, men such as Nikolai Mikhailovski were to claim that the aristocracy and landed gentry were completely indebted to the people, a debt that was a heavy weight upon their conscience. This was a generational change in attitude, dramatized in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862).

Bakunin’s quotation from Goethe, with which the Russian means to exhort his hearers to proceed to Berlin for the ideas prevalent there, is ironically realized by the close of the trilogy when Herzen’s daughters visit him in Switzerland from Italy, where they have been living. When he attempts to speak to them in Russian, they reply that they are Italians now. What is more, his son, in a constellation of ironies, has married the daughter of an Italian peasant. This is the group that sits at the table lunching while off to the side Herzen muses alone in monologue on a bench by the beautiful lake.

  Essentially, the trilogy documents men’s experience. Women are not developed as consequential figures. This cannot be chalked up to the mores of the time; otherwise Chekhov would have not presented his women so powerfully. Varvara Bakunin cannot forbear from asking Michael to order a bolt of gray silk from her favorite fabric store in Moscow as he prepares to storm out of the family home. Natalie Ogarev talks of the ideals of love, but ends up bearing her husband’s best friend’s three children, not seeming to be aware of the sexual dynamics of the situation. The scene in Shipwreck in which Natalie Herzen tries to explain to Alexander why she has slept with George Herwegh is marvelously comical. She is lost in a vapor of words about self-realization and love of all mankind, and he has the hardest time pinning her down to acknowledge the physical fact of intercourse. These women are all so silly.

Curiously enough, it is Malwida von Meysenbug, the governess in Alexander Herzen’s house, who is the trilogy’s triumphant female. She arrives at the Herzen home as a German revolutionary. At first, as she imposes her ideas of pedagogy, she seems an ironic version of the male idealists with their schemes of reforming Russia; nevertheless, although she must fight against the children, who are constantly excited by their very Russian exuberance and the continual adult partying, it is to her that the girls ultimately decamp as young adults.

Stoppard leaves her character enigmatic, however. Generally, one accepts the prohibition on women’s larger public or political lives, but that need not have prevented Stoppard from foregrounding their experience and feeling, again as Chekhov would have done, or Turgenev, for that matter, in A Month in the Country. It is also interesting to note that the women who attempt freedom are punished. Varenka Bakunin, one of Michael’s sisters leaves her husband and dies of tuberculosis; Natalie Herzen, who sleeps with George Herwegh, loses her son by drowning and she herself dies in childbirth; Natalie Ogarev sleeps with Alexander Herzen and bears him children, but two of them die from cholera.

It will be interesting to see whether this giant trilogy is ever produced again as it now appears. Who else could afford it? Will it perhaps be reduced in size, with some of those gargantuan speeches cut in half? If nothing else, Stoppard has made a people come alive that we have known from Dostoevski and Tolstoi, not to mention Chekhov, from a culture not at all the same as that of the West. Their rational talk is familiar, their emotions not, and it fascinates. That, I suppose, is Stoppard’s great achievement in this trilogy: in the end, after the boredom, or the anger at the pretentiousness, there is the fascination. It is what makes a great dramatist.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to greekworks.com, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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