The Coast of Utopia
The marathon version of Tom Stoppard’s Russian trilogy is charged with excitement. When I saw the three plays in one day at the end of March, virtually the entire audience stayed until the end. Some of those present—who ranged from eager students to slippered pantaloons—clutched battered blue copies of Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers. Others congratulated one another enthusiastically on seeing plays “that are so much more demanding than the usual.” One young man who passed me during an interval on the plaza outside the Vivian Beaumont, talking and gesturing as wildly as the young Russian intellectuals in the first of Stoppard’s plays, cried “Knowledge! I want more knowledge” as he went by, smiling seraphically.
When the audience gave the actors a standing ovation—something that happens more often than it should these days—the actors applauded the audience in their turn. Some of them even appeared in costume after the show and joined the ushers in handing out buttons that read “I ran the marathon.” The ties of feeling that bound cast and audience were almost visible and broke slowly. An older man, behind whom I walked to the subway after the third play came to an end, used his cell phone to give a friend or loved one an urgent, detailed, scene-by-scene account of what we had just watched.
One thing seemed clear: no one who was at the Vivian Beaumont on that long, chilly day agreed with those who have denounced Stoppard’s work as boring and pedantic. More than one distinguished critic has chided Stoppard for having the audacity to read so much and then to write erudite plays (that silly William Shakespeare: why did he try to make plays out of all that boring Plutarch and Holinshed?). By contrast, the audience showed deep curiosity about the ideas Stoppard’s characters discussed, a feeling that seemed to became warmer as day passed into night. Instead of whining about Stoppard’s refusal to make them chuckle, the critics who found the plays impenetrable might profitably take a lesson from ordinary theatergoers—as well as from colleagues like Ben Brantley, who found much to admire and savor in Stoppard’s work.
Still, the fact that this trilogy works in the theater—that it grabs and moves a large, mixed audience—is more than a little mysterious. The Coast of Utopia is a long, elaborate pageant, populated by rank after rank of Russian intellectuals. In the late 1830s and 1840s, the members of this intelligentsia created a new kind of critical literature and a new way of being in the world. These men and women believed, strenuously and deeply, in the creative and cleansing power of ideas. They saw it as the sacred duty of intellectuals to find and master the greatest thinkers and then to apply their theories to changing the world. One of their number, the anarchist Bakunin, says, in Stoppard’s play, that the whole future of philosophy in Russia is at …