An ice-colored likeness of St. Basil’s, the famed Russian church, seems to float in the air during part of Voyage, the first installment of Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia at Lincoln Center Theater. The onion domes glitter, apparently molded of frost, as if the Snow Queen had invaded Moscow.
It’s a restrained but beautiful image, evidence of the craftsmanship underlying this superbly controlled production. And yet, it’s the ideas, not the scenic elements, that really lend luster to The Coast of Utopia. Stoppard’s sprawling epic, consisting of three plays, Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage (running in repertory through mid-May) conjures up the turbulent world of nineteenth-century Russian thinkers. Over the course of the trilogy, the seventy-plus characters-including anarchist Michael Bakunin, socialist Alexander Herzen, literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, and novelist Ivan Turgenev-commune, bicker, gossip, romance, and strategize. Ideological discussions take flight during family reunions, social get-togethers, awkward flirtations, literary-journal editing sessions, a costume ball-even a sojourn at a spa. Allusions to Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Proudhon, and George Sand whiz back and forth. Meanwhile, in the background, the French revolution of 1848, the machinations of Tsarist Russia, and other political and cultural developments provide a constant reminder that ideas have grave consequences.
Esoteric and sprawling though it is, The Coast of Utopia has become the theater event of the year, attracting sell-out crowds and prompting outpourings of media coverage. A January New York Times article even reported that bookstores across New York were sold out of Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers, a 1978 book that Stoppard has credited as a source for the trilogy.
Admittedly, the production’s high-wattage cast is partly responsible for the enthusiasm: the roster of actors includes Billy Crudup as Belinsky, Amy Irving as Bakunin’s mother, and Richard Easton (who won a Tony for his turn in Stoppard’s The Invention of Love) as Bakunin’s cantankerous father. For that matter, director Jack O’Brien, who nabbed Tonys for Henry IV and Hairspray, is no small fish either. And in the highest blast of star power, Ethan Hawke plays Bakunin, a figure he successfully depicts as an effete, egoistic, philosophy-crazed popinjay who swans around the stage in gleaming boots, carrying his hands with fingers delicately extended, as though he were waiting for nail polish to dry.
In contrast to some Stoppard plays, where intellectual conceits ricochet by with frequent dizzying payoffs, Utopia has a more leisurely, expansive momentum, in keeping with the project’s mammoth scope. And yet, you still get a sense of ideas in motion. For instance, act 1 of Voyage takes place at the Bakunin estate in the 1830s and ’40s. There’s not too much scenery-a dinner table, a hammock-so the eerie spectacle at the back of the stage remains constantly in view: a vast crowd of motionless human shapes clad in drab rags. These specters represent the serfs: not only the five hundred “souls” the Bakunins are supposed to own, but also, by implication, all the other serfs in Russia, which is moving irrevocably toward change. You don’t see the Russian Revolution in progress, but you can feel it gathering momentum, fueled by the liberal concepts that young Bakunin and his excitable buddies espouse.
The characters in Utopia know that their ideas are sociologically momentous-and literary ideas are no exception. That point is driven home in several scenes featuring Belinsky, whom Crudup portrays as an endearingly shy and skittish figure with the air of a bedraggled rat. As socially awkward as Belinsky is, he can wax eloquent on the subject of literature and literary criticism, which he sees as carrying great moral and civic weight in the politically repressive environment of Tsarist Russia.
Literary criticism, Belinsky proclaims, “is not a contemptible calling in our country where our liberties cannot be discussed because we have none, and science or politics can’t be discussed for the same reason. A critic does double duty here. If something true can be understood about art, something will be understood about liberty, too, and science and politics, and history-because everything in the universe is unfolding together.”
As Stoppard observes in an essay in the Lincoln Center Theater Review (a nicely packaged booklet of program notes), the historical Belinsky really did believe that despotism whets the edge of art-indeed, he refused to emigrate to Paris because, in his view, writing was less valued there than in Russia. Stoppard identifies this anecdote as the seed of The Coast of Utopia; the episode reminded the playwright that in Communist Czechoslovakia, where Stoppard was born, censorship ensured that “words...were valued, read, and listened to with an attention rarely accorded to anything published in the West.”
The Coast of Utopia has captivated theatergoers and cultural journalists-and, no doubt, Ethan Hawke-precisely because it evokes a milieu in which art had a live-wire importance. Watching Bakunin’s circle brood and squabble about philosophical texts and the works of Gogol, you can imagine that the staging of a play, or the purchase of a theater ticket, might also matter intensely. Given how marginalized theater frequently seems in American culture, it’s a tantalizing, utopian vision.