by Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
The Coast of Utopia Part Two--Shipwreck
by Tom Stoppard
The Vivian Beaumont Theater Lincoln Center, NY.
Reviewed February 10, 2007 by Margaret Croyden
"The Coast of Utopia, Part Two-The Shipwreck" is appropriately named. Not only is it a metaphor for the ruined lives of the Russian thinkers of Part one, but it illustrates that Stoppard's adventure into history has hit the rocks. (thank you Bernard Shaw). True, the subject of the play remains intriguing, but Stoppard is unable to mold these 19th century Russian historical events, and the life of the revolutionaries who were part of it, into a cohesive dramatic work. Dealing with the complicated political and philosophical ideas of the time, and the idiosyncratic behavior of the characters is a Herculean job, and perhaps too big a subject for the confines of the stage. Certainly it proved too big for Stoppard. He is not good at dramatic action, the essence of theater; his use of exposition is excessive; he tells rather than shows. Nor is he good at creating real flesh and blood characters. His main weapon is talk--not interesting prose, not poetical language, not scintillating dialogue, just boring chatter of half-baked ideas, and pompous posturing about history and philosophy, so that the play sounded like an university seminar.
"Shipwreck" begins in 1846 two years after Part One. Alexander Herzen (Brian F. O'Byrne) is now the central character. He has married, has had two sons, is still meeting his colleagues at ice skating rinks and cafes, or at fancy parties and is still talking the same talk: the dangerous situation in Russia, the work of the spying police, the tyranny of the Czar, and how to escape imprisonment.
The political situation has become worse. Bakunin, the Anarchist bad boy of the first play is trying to escape arrest, having been sent to Siberia at one point and later will be arrested again. Belinsky, the critic is married but suffers from tuberculosis and will die young, Turgenev has finally published and is on the way to writing his most important book but he is obsessed with chasing a famous opera star, an activity repeated many times. As conditions in Russia become intolerable, Herzen manages to leave the country; he goes into exile to France. Having inherited a fortune from his father he can live conformably in Paris and Cannes.
The scene changes to 1848 a crucial time in Europe; the French working class has made a revolution but the uprising is quickly defeated. Karl Marx has written the Communist Manifesto and is ridiculed (ironically) by Herzen's group). Little did they realize that Marxism would triumph in Russia, spread to Europe, Asia, and America, and captivate millions all over the world. For Herzen, the defeat of the Paris revolt results in despair and despondency. He realizes that revolution with violence is doomed. Stoppard tried, somewhat awkwardly, to humanize the characters by introducing Herzen's family difficulties. The Herzens' have a deaf child who will come to a tragic end. Their marriage is a failure; Mrs. Herzen has an affair with her husband's best friend and justifies it by mouthing some rubbish about free love. To illustrate her infidelity, a tableau is staged mimicking the famous Manet painting "Dejuner sur l'Herbe. Mrs. Herzen (Jennifer Ehle) is completely naked sitting under a tree with the two men watching her. This ridiculous scene --a symbol of her love affair--is out of place in a completely realistic work--another example of the author or the director trying to be smart, or different, or what?
The Herzen's deaf child and his bitter demise is faithful to the actual facts, but the tragedy comes near the end of the three hour play, and by that time we are exhausted by Stoppard's rhetoric, so the episode loses its intended effect.
Embittered by the shipwreck of the revolution and his personal life, and knowing he will never see Russia again, he decides to leave France. This time he goes to England--the subject of Part Three.
Stoppard has chosen a complicated historical period to write about, though history is always complex. It is easy to understand why he researched Isaiah Berlin's "Russian Thinkers" and Herzen's own autobiography, as well as other works. To undertake this huge task, to sort it all out, and to mold this immense canvas of world events into a compelling theatrical work is indeed a huge endeavor. Unfortunately Stoppard's reach though noble, exceeds his talent.
Brian O'Byrne playing Herzen is not a good enough actor for this enormous role with its lengthy political and philosophical speeches. He lacks the presence, the voice, the stature to project the life of this important, deep thinking revolutionary. From the start, he is somewhat flat. One needed an Oliver or a Burton, or a young Anthony Hopkins. Jennifer Ehle (Herzen's wife) in a red fright wing, is unconvincing as an aristocratic woman who takes advice from a rebellious female painter in a scene we could have done without. Certainly Ehle's nakedness in the tableaux did nothing to add to her performance.
I like Billy Crudup as Belinsky who brings to the stage an energy and vitality that almost livens things up. But even this genuine talented actor found it difficult to liven up a play when the dramatic action is secondary, or hardly exists and where the main activity is talk, most of which is either too confusing, too scholarly, or deliberately ambiguous. In fact, the talk obscures the play's meaning or Stoppard's actual point of view. Stoppard characteristically has delighted in taking all sides in an argument but hesitates giving straight answers. In one interview he said that he likes debates in his plays. But debates without action belong to what Peter Brook once called "the deadly theater."
Enough already with "Utopia". Ye gods, there is a Third Part. Pity the critics. But some did balk. See Charles Isherwood's nervy review in "The New York Times" (February 4, 2007) with the headline: "The Coast of Utopia Is a Bore. There. I said it." Some critics have guts.
Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
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