Coast of Utopia: Background Information

Coastofutopia_1 This afternoon, we will see Voyage, the first part of British playwright Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia trilogy.  Stoppard’s play follows the lives and ideas of a group of mid-nineteenth century revolutionary Russian thinkers. The work is fictional but deeply rooted in fact. The play centers around political thinker and publisher Alexander Herzin, played at the Lincoln Center by Tony award winner Brian F. O’Byrne. Reviewer and critic Vissarion Belinsky, author Ivan Turgenev, and eventual anarchist Michael Bakunin, played by Ethan Hawke, also figure prominently in the show.

Voyage takes place in 1830s Tsarist Russia, where the small wealthy, landed elite and powerful clergy dominated a small merchant class and millions upon millions of serfs living in conditions of slavery (for some perspective, serfdom was not abolished until 1861). Though revolutionary thought was flowing throughout Europe, particularly in France and Germany, in Russia censorship made teaching philosophy and writing about politics illegal.

The first act of Voyage begins in 1833 Tsarist Russia on the family estate of Michael Bukunin (Ethan Hawke) in the Russian countryside, with a bit of a Chekhov flavor. Bukunin is a Moscow University student with four sisters of marriageable age.  During summers between University sessions, Bukunin’s friends from University, including Belinsky and Turgenev, drop by and introduce their backgrounds and ideas.

The transition between the first and second act of Voyage is not chronological. The second act takes place in Moscow during the same years covered in Act One. Herzen (O’Byrne), the trilogy’s central character, is introduced and identified as a leader in University political circles. Bukunin, Herzen, and their friends preach freedom and struggle in the face of absolute censorship. At the end of Voyage, Herzen (O’Byrne), accused of harboring subversive ideas, is banished to Perm, 1000 km east of Moscow near the Asian border, and Bukunin (Hawke) is stripped of his noble rank and escapes into exile.

The remaining two segments of the Coast of Utopia trilogy, Shipwreck and Salvage follow Herzen through the 1848 revolution in Paris, political disillusionment, a scandalous affair between his wife and a German poet, the drowning of his mother and son, and finally into exile in London. Bukunin becomes an anarchist, in and out of prison. All together, the trilogy lasts for eight and a half hours and includes over forty actors.

In stark contrast to the later thought of Lenin and other Bolsheviks, the thinkers in Stoppard’s trilogy value and honor the individual.  With The Coast of Utopia, Stoppard celebrates the rich historical period that brought forth authors like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

Stoppard’s dialogue is witty but very intellectual, in the manner of Shaw. Tom Stoppard  is a renowned British playwright who has won three Tony Awards for Best Play: “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” (1968), “Travesties” (1976), and “The Real Thing” (1984).

A single blog post cannot possibly do justice to the background of this piece. For more information, please check out The Lincoln Center Coast of Utopia website (an interview with Director Jack O’Brian, Notes on the play by LCT Dramaturge Anne Cattaneo, and a Lincoln Center Theater Review article by Tom Stoppard are particularly interesting). You may also want to read a New Yorker magazine article “The Revolutionist: The worldly idealist at the heart of Stoppard’s “Coast of Utopia”, October 30, 2006 by Keith Gesse.      

Michael_bakunin Hawke

1 Comment

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One response to “Coast of Utopia: Background Information

  1. This production also stars Jennifer Ehle, whom some of you may recognize as Elizabeth Bennett from the brilliant BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice! Exciting!

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