Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Coast of Utopia

Tom Stoppard: The Coast of Utopia.
I: Voyage: through May 1.
II: Shipwreck: through April 19.
III: Salvage: through May 4.
Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley, California; 510.841.6500
Marathon production of all three plays: April 26, May 4, 12 noon, 4pm, 8pm. 
WE CAN ALL be clockmakers, or astronomers. But if we all wanted to be Pushkin .. if the question is, how do you make a роem Ьу Pushkin?— or, What eхаctly makes one poem or painting or piece of mцsic greater than another?—or, what is beauty? or liberty? or virtue? — if the question is, how should we live? .. . then reason gives no answer or different answers. So something is wrong. The divine spark in man is not reason after all, but something else, some kind of intuition or vision, perhaps like the moment of inspiration experienced by the artist ... "

That's Vissarion Belinsky talking, in a characteristically impassioned outburst in the first act of Voyage. He's a literary critic living in poverty in Moscow, way out of his depth, visiting the wealthy, complacent, cultured country estate of the Bakunin family. I have to confess to a great deal of sympathy for poor Bakunin Vissarion; I think I was similarly unsure in my youth. He doesn't know German or even French; he hasn't studied Hegel; he doesn't know how to approach the four beautiful Bakunin girls.

He could be a comic figure in a Chekhov play, but he isn't: this is the first of the three plays making up Tom Stoppard's trilogy The Coast of Utopia, which follows Mikhail Bakunin, then Alexander Herzen, from the dacha to Moscow to Paris and London and finally Geneva, over a span of 35 years from 1833 to 1868, interleaving romance, marital drama, and political philosophy in an engrossing eoght hours of theater.

Among the characters in this fascinating cast: the revolutionaries Bakunin and Herzen; the poet Nicholas Ogarev, the political philosophers Karl Marx and Ernest Jones; the exiled nationalists Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, Stanislaw Worcell, Giuseppe Mazzini, and Lajos Kossuth; Turgenev: wives, sisters, and mistresses; serfs and servants. Somehow Stoppard manages to juggle this huge cast, long history, and intricate conflicting and competing world views without bogging down or losing focus.

The plays are published in a handsome slipcased and hardbound edition by Grove Press, and I heartily recommend them as reading material — and especially before seeing the productions currently running in Berkeley. Some have complained, online, about losing interest during the reading; I found the texts gripping. In the theater, the plays, directed by founding Shotgun artistic director Patrick Dooley, seem perfectly faithful to the letter; and of course fleshed out on stage, spoken through actors in fine costume and rising generally quite to the dramatic pitch Stoppard offers, the plays are more present, more vigorous: but a prior reading helps the viewer negotiate this intricate voyage.

Stoppard's trilogy has two interwoven lines: the domestic and the political lives of his characters, and particularly of Bakunin and Herzen. Bakunin of course was the model of the impetuous 19th-century anarchist; but Herzen — the illegitimate son of a Russian mother and a German father — was the more reasoned, ultimately by far the more pragmatic. The play proceeds through conversation laced with outbursts, like Belinsky's quoted above; and, throughout, through pointed parries between the men and the women, condemned by the assumptions of their time to be as observant, intelligent, and deserving as the men, but less informed and less influential in public life.

The position of the men, endlessly comparing their readings of the great 19th-century German philosophers, is summed up in a wonderful speech given to the radical poet George Herwegh:

…being a stoic  didn't mean a sort of uncomplaining putting uр with misfortune, that's only how it looks оп the outside—inside, it's alI about achieving apathy… which means: a calming of the spirit. Apathy isn't passive, it's the freedom that comes from recoginisirg new borders, a new country called Necessity… it comes from accepting that things are what they are, and not some other thing, and can't for the moment bе altered ... which реорlе find quite difficult. We've had a terrible shock. We discovered that history has no respect for intellectuals. History is more like the weather. You never know what it's going to do. … Political freedom is a rather banal ambition, after all … all that сan't-sit-still about voting and assembling and controlling the means of production. Stoical freedom is nothing but not wasting your time berating the weather when it's bucketing down on your picnic.
It isn't easy for an early 21st-century American to imagine the position of these leisured intellectual Russians in the 1840s, after the failure of the Decembrist demonstrations, all too aware of the backward, marginal position of their country in the European context. The Age of Reason had led to the French Revolution, the Divine Right of Monarchy had been questioned, republicanism had taken hold successfully in America but had failed in France; slavery had been abolished in most of Europe but not (yet) in America or Russia. The press was rigidly controlled in Russia; to have any idea of current thought in political or social philosophy one must be able to read English, French, or German and have access to banned publications in those languages. 

On top of all that, there was no literature in Russian — only Pushkin. Women o the upper classes were lucky if they'd managed to learn enough French to read George Sand, who famously taught the dangerous injunction to Follow Your Heart. But if you think all this describes a situation with no relevance to our own time, consider this speech, the Slavophile Akssakov's outburst from Shipwreck:

We have to reunite ourselves with the masses from whom we became separated when we put on silk breeches and powdered wigs. It's not too late. From our village communes we can still develop in a Russian way, without socialism or capitalism, without a bourgeoisie, yes, and with our own culture unpolluted by the Renaissance, and our own Church unpolluted by the Popes or by the Reformation. It can even be our destiny to unite the Slav nations and lead Europe back to the true path. It will be the age of Russia.
Think about those lines the next time you look at Vladimir Putin's unsmiling face on the television news.

Stoppard's trilogy reminds us of the unending confusion of the 19th century, with its successions of revolutions and restorations, its civil wars, the hope of equality foundering between the intellectual shackles of Marxism and the cynical exploitation of the robber barons and railroad magnates, and the eventual plague of anarchism finally reaching its gruesome climax at Sarajevo, which precipitated a war that made the Reign of Terror look like a rehearsal. You come away from these plays reflecting that the excesses of that war, and the second world war, and all the proxy wars that followed, have been diversions, perhaps even diversionary tactics, to distract us from returning to the main problem: achieving a just society based on equality of access and sustainability of economy.

Fortunately, you also come away from these plays refreshed and entertained. They are, among other things, often very funny. The Shotgun production is well cast, on superb actors in the many lead characters; the costuming is splendid; the set modest but ingenious, the lighting and sound cues resourceful and suitable. You can't expect an opportunity to see this trilogy in one day, on an integrated cast, in a comfortable theater, at affordable prices, to return in any near future: it would be a shame to miss it now.

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