Seize the Day

Darryl Cater

Tom Stoppard is not exactly the first playwright one would expect to write a 12-hour, three-play historical seminar on the origins of Russian socialism.

Known best for Wildean wit-fests on philosophical, scientific and artistic questions, Stoppard spent much of his career dodging questions about being apolitical and eventually came out as a “small c” conservative (at least by the standards of late-’70s England, where the spectrum swung a bit further to the left). He even, temporarily, endorsed Margaret Thatcher.

But in The Coast of Utopia, a new trilogy of Stoppard plays that recently finished a four-month run at the Royal National Theatre, the heroes are all socialists and the chief question is one dear to the sort of leftists Sir Tom once alienated: Why is it we never made it to the utopia envisioned by the socialists of yesteryear?

In this massively ambitious trilogy, with more than 70 characters, 30 actors and 300 costumes, Stoppard traces the 19th-century philosophies and personalities that simultaneously laid the groundwork for the world-changing Russian revolutions of 1917 and transformed Russia from a quasi-European backwater with little literature of its own into one of the world’s most famously rich literary scenes.

The hero of the trilogy, Alexander Herzen, thought to be Russia’s first self-declared socialist, is little known even to those who consider themselves conversant in the history of Russia or socialism. While the trilogy places many such quietly influential historical Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns alongside comparative celebs like Marx and Turgenev and Pushkin, it is in Herzen that Stoppard finds a mirror for his own views.

I was one of the audience members who elected to see the whole cycle in one day, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (such day-trippers get £5 off the cost, which still ranged up to £40 for each of the three plays). Like many critics, I found it hard to keep track of the many double-cast actors playing all these Natalies (there are three) and Nicholases (there are six), but as the thousands who buy Stoppard’s scripts on show nights know, the properly equipped observer should find the shows as enlightening and entertaining as exhausting and exhaustive. The trilogy will almost certainly be heading to America next, though it may not come in the costly, challenging “trilogy day” format offered by the government-subsidized Royal National Theatre.

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Stoppard gears up like he’s preparing to teach a survey course on Russian history: In the beginning (1833), Russian literature was little more than a costume ball of fakers “where everybody has to come dressed up as somebody else—Byron, Shakespeare, Schiller, Goethe and the rest” (so says Stoppard’s colorful version of the influential Russian literary critic Vissarion Belinsky). Then God said, let there be Pushkin. And Gogol. And by the end of the trilogy (1868), everyone has a much better idea of why Chekhov and Gorky are to come next.

The first play, Voyage, plays Stoppardian games with its chronology, but the themes are pure Chekhov: Here are restless rural Russians, luxuriating in an estate manned by the serving classes, feeling the first blushes of social change from Moscow. But this is 60 years before Chekhov began writing, and the restless Russians here will actually make Chekhov’s serfless Russia happen.

The estate Stoppard shows us is owned by the family of Michael Bakunin, a student who will become an anarchist revolutionary and who, for us, is a one-man dramatization of Russia’s philosophical progression toward Marxism. Bakunin is obsessed with Schelling’s notion that the inner life is real, and all external life is illusion: a great excuse for a life of poetry while the czar crushes all challenges to the status quo of Slavic slavery. But Bakunin can’t avoid the impact of this exterior reality, so it’s forget Schelling, “Fichte is the man!” And then, just as all of Michael’s friends have started reading Fichte, “Hegel is the man!”

Hegel, of course, will become “the man” not only to Bakunin but also to Marx. The German’s view of history as a deterministic march of progress will become the foundation of Marx’s world-changing prediction of capitalism’s doom, and Bakunin will be one of thousands of European leftists to find faith in a future proletariat revolution.

By the second play, Shipwreck, Bakunin is off to Paris to egg on the uprising of les miserables in 1848, but Europe’s voyage of radical agitation hits the rocks when France’s second republic elects another Napoleon. Meanwhile, the drama begins to morph into a more linear biography of Herzen, a school friend of Bakunin’s who preceded the anarchist into the dissident breach.

In the third play, Salvage, Herzen joins a ridiculously large crowd of exiled liberals in London picking up the pieces of the ’48 disaster. There, he establishes an agitprop journal that will garner, for a time, fans among the various revolutionary troupes and even (it was rumored) in the palace of the reformist Czar Alexander II.

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This may seem a surprising set of heroes coming from Stoppard, who described himself 24 years ago as a “conservative in politics, literature, education and theater.” The playwright repeatedly fended off questions about his avoidance of political themes throughout the first decade of his career, when leftist protest theater was all the rage. At first he answered the complaints with dismissive flippancy (“I have the courage of my lack of convictions”), but in the late ’70s, he issued a number of political works in short succession: Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, Cahoot’s MacBeth and Professional Foul all took thematic aim at Soviet repression.

Perhaps the closest Stoppard has come to the political history of The Coast of Utopia is a TV movie about the Polish Solidarity movement called Squaring the Circle. Stoppard’s central question was whether the version of freedom espoused by the free trade union Solidarity was, in the playwright’s words, “reconcilable with socialism as defined by the Eastern European Communist bloc.” His answer was “no.”

He voiced support for Thatcher in her early years as prime minister, although he largely limited his praise to comments about her candor and her efforts to bust the British newspaper unions. The latter issue was a personal matter for Stoppard: As a young journalist, he was suspended for refusing to participate in a strike, and he blamed the unions for what he felt amounted to blackmail and censorship. (He later took heat from leftist corners for having written about this in his 1978 play Night and Day.)

Eventually he backed off his support of Thatcher, acknowledging the social costs of some of her policies. Still, he has consistently voiced a strong belief that absolute moral values must guide public decisions, and he has lobbied actively for human rights. In a 1974 interview that echoed speeches in his play Travesties, Stoppard batted back questions about the lack of political content in his plays with a lengthy description of why “Marx got it wrong.”

“It was only a matter of time,” Stoppard said, “before somebody—it turned out to be [moderate German socialist Eduard] Bernstein in 1900—somebody with the benefit of an extra 50 years’ hindsight, would actually point out that Marx had got it wrong, but that it didn’t matter because social justice was going to come through other means. Bernstein reckoned that the class war wasn’t the way, that human solidarity was a better bet than class solidarity.”

Only about five years ago, Stoppard came across for the first time another socialist who voiced similar concerns in Marx’s own time: Herzen. A rival of Marx’s, the Russian socialist hoped like Bernstein that voters of all classes would freely choose to equal out the world’s ugliest disparities. He derided Hegel’s deterministic worldview. “People don’t storm the Bastille because history proceeds by zigzags,” Stoppard’s Herzen declares. “History zigzags because when people have had enough, they storm the Bastille.” History has no plan, he says, so what happens next is up to you.

Meanwhile, Stoppard shows the difficulty of arranging utopian happiness in the realm of sexual politics. Herzen and his lifetime friend Nicholas Ogarev were influenced by the French socialist Saint Simeon, who favored (as Ogarev quips) “the organization of society by experts, and as much you-know-what as you want.” But Herzen is devastated by his wife’s affair with another man, and later complicates his friendship with the Ogarevs by engaging in an openly sexual relationship with his best friend’s wife. “What is the largest number of individuals who can pull this trick off?” Herzen asks. “I would say it’s smaller than a nation, smaller than the ideal communities of Cabet or Fourier. I would say the largest number is smaller than three. Two is possible, if there is love, but two is not a guarantee.”

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In fact, at the end of the day, both Herzen and Stoppard have given up any hope that we will ever reach the coast of Utopia.

“What I believe in is that Utopia is an incoherent concept,” Stoppard told the BBC last year, “that there is no overall right answer to all these questions which have puzzled people for several thousand years.”

What next, if not utopia? Audiences, heads aswim with new names and dates, might note with surprise how little light the 12-hour day has shed on Stoppard’s political views. It’s unlike Stoppard, who has always aimed to write for the ages and not for the dailies, to offer much in the way of policy specifics. Topicality is yesterday’s news, particularly when so many of one’s favorite writers are dead.

He’s also a cautious sort. “I think I have as much right—and no more than anyone else—to have an opinion,” said the characteristically humble Stoppard in 1999. “Something in me resists the idea that I should be taking an interest. I simply don’t. When a local issue happens, I’m always surprised that everyone around me immediately knows what they think. I don’t know what to think.”

One suspects Stoppard has a particularly high threshold for what it takes to “know” something. He spent years working to make this play painstakingly accurate, and he has confessed to being almost obsessional about it. Stoppard’s previous biographical plays have almost all cast skepticism on the accuracy of biography (Arcadia, The Invention of Love, Indian Ink), and many of his plays question the knowability of anything at all.

Perhaps for this reason, Stoppard’s intellectual searches on public issues (if not artistic, scientific or private issues) almost always end with the moral basics. He has suggested that children are often better at moral decisions than intellectuals, since adults can be so good at arguing their way into or out of anything. In Professional Foul, an ethics professor refuses to smuggle the contraband writings of a Czech dissident (modeled in part on Vaclav Havel, of whom Stoppard is both a friend and a fan) on the grounds that smuggling is unethical. Ultimately, he decides the reverse is true. Like Bakunin, he stops treating philosophical ideas as pliable fictions and takes political action based on what Stoppard believes to be patently obvious moral absolutes.

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By the end of The Coast of Utopia, Herzen predicts he will be a custodian of the revolution, overseeing the damage of the violent era. It’s a poignant line, seemingly voicing the playwright’s regret that his hero’s visions of social change were co-opted and trampled upon in favor of a century of repressive faux Marxism. One wonders whether, alongside the grief, Stoppard may also be offering hope that Herzen’s aims for yesterday are today imminently achievable. “A distant end is not an end but a trap,” Herzen tells Marx in a dream sequence near the end of the trilogy. “The end we work for must be closer, the laborer’s wage, the pleasure in the work done, the summer lightning of personal happiness.”

Ideas have legs, Stoppard suggests. They may not take us where we expect to go, especially if that place is “no place” (the literal meaning of “utopia”). But when guided principally by the most obvious of moral values, they can change the world for the better.

Dar­ryl Cater is a writer based in Chicago.
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