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 stake in his plea for money with which to study in Berlin. Any member of the group would have understood what he meant.
All of Stoppard’s main characters—Bakunin; the critic Vissarion Belinsky; the novelist Ivan Turgenev; and the great journalist, polemicist, and impresario of radical criticism Alexander Herzen—felt at home with the most abstract and demanding forms of German philosophy. Most of them were polyglots and polymaths. (Belinsky was not—and his self-lacerating, horrified sense of his own ignorance and lack of culture, superbly conveyed by Billy Crudup, turns more than one scene into a masterpiece, at once comic and moving.) Opposition became their natural attitude early on—in Herzen’s case, in his teens, as he came to understand the ways in which the Russian system twisted the minds and characters of even the best-treated serfs. As university students they formed loosely knit groups, and murmured dangerously about new ideas from the West. Suddenly prominent, articulate students who had met to discuss Western novels or philosophy were disappearing to the provinces or to Siberia in the middle of the night.
The intellectuals did not find it easy to move from dissent to effective opposition. Herzen, who serves as Stoppard’s equivocal, tormented hero, endured years of exile in Russia, the failure of the revolutions of 1848, and crushing personal calamities before he realized at last that the city of London was the place from which he could move the world, and that radical journalism in Russian was the lever with which he could move it. Even then, Herzen enjoyed only a few years of acknowledged success and leadership in the revolutionary movement before new men came along—men such as the fictional nihilist Bazarov in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and the historical radical Chernyshevsky. They denounced Herzen, Turgenev, and other liberals for the weaknesses and inconsistencies of their politics.
The political lives of these men make a long and complicated story—one hard to stage, and even to follow, as the projected supertitles that set each scene in its place suggest. But there’s a second and even more complex strand to Stoppard’s plays as well. Herzen and the members of his extended family, as E.H. Carr showed long ago, lived the battle of ideas in their personal as well as their public lives. When Herzen’s wife Natalie fell in love with Georg Herwegh, Romantic poet, family friend, and comically failed revolutionary, Herzen found himself unable to follow their shared Romantic creed, which demanded that all profound beings must have the freedom to follow their hearts. Natalie insisted that her love for Herwegh did not compromise her love for her husband, but he responded with scorn and emotional violence. Herzen demanded that his wife confess her adultery and drove Herwegh from Nice, where they had all been living together. Yet his emotional triumph brought him no satisfaction. Soon after, Herzen’s mother and his beloved deaf son Kolya died in a shipwreck. Natalie, worn out by pregnancy and despairing, died soon after. Herzen wound up a single father in London, dependent on a stiff, austere German governess to raise his children.
Personal misfortune taught Herzen little. Within a few years he began to sleep with Natasha, the wife of his boyhood friend Nick Ogarev, with whom he had sworn an oath to pursue revolution in the Sparrow Hills outside Moscow. He let her drive his own daughter Olga away. Ogarev, for his part, took a poor Englishwoman as his mistress, had a child by her, and brought them, eventually, to live in the same ménage with Herzen and his wife. It’s tempting to call this a Romantic soap opera—except that no soap opera, even one that carried on for years, could match Herzen’s story for wild complexity of plot or implausibly stunning reversals of the expected story line. Think of it as a George Sand novel bizarrely come to life, with occasional overtones of the reality TV show Big Brother.
Stoppard has mined the components for this double drama, as he always does when addressing historical themes, from the sources—or at least a selection of them. As in The Invention of Love, his brilliant, erudite play about A.E. Housman, he deftly finds in his characters’ texts the phrases that will excite and amuse. When Ogarev’s wife takes over Herzen’s household, she shuts up her lover’s daughter with a densely Victorian threat: “Stop crying or I’ll give you an enema.” This crack, which brought down the house, came not from Stoppard’s wit but from Ogarev himself. He laid bare the madness of the Herzen household in a bitter, deftly written series of satirical dialogues, which Carr published in his Romantic Exiles—a wry, precisely documented chronicle of Herzen’s private life and those of his friends and lovers.1 The same text provides Stoppard with the richly ironic exchange in which Ogarev advises Herzen on how to manage his own wife’s moods.
But Stoppard’s richest source—and the one that sets the mood for the play as a whole—is the corpus of Herzen’s own writing. In the 1850s Herzen recorded his version of his political and romantic experiences in My Life and Thoughts, a fantastically rich and vivid 1,900-page autobiography and meditation—a work reminiscent not so much of any particular Victorian novel as of Balzac’s entire Human Comedy. The gruesome gallery of German exiles that Stoppard brings on stage—including Marx, whom he portrays as a demented, comic blowhard—comes straight from Herzen. So does the dialogue, as sharp and painful as an exchange of blows, in the course of which Herzen realizes that his wife has had her portrait painted not for him but for her lover.
Stoppard’s decision to write, in large part, from Herzen’s point of view explains much about the larger framing and articulation, as well as the plot and language, of these plays. For My Life and Thoughts, as Isaiah Berlin wrote in a wonderful introduction to the work, became Herzen’s Noah’s ark—the great vessel which he filled with everything that memory and style could save from the wreck of his family and the destruction of his hopes for change in Russia.2 The book is a long symphonic exercise in recollection and repression, a huge effort to make the dead live again. In Stoppard’s trilogy, Herzen the memoirist not only plays the central part, but also broods, like the Creator, over the scene. Just before the start of each play, as Mark Bennett’s urgent music sounds, Herzen appears, meditating, in a chair raised high above rushing waters. He plays, gently, with what we learn to recognize as the glove of the lost, beloved Kolya, and then disappears below the stage.
Though the first play, Voyage, begins on the Bakunin family’s country estate and other figures—especially Belinsky—play major parts along the way, the work as a whole uses Herzen’s consciousness and Herzen’s words to knit the multiple threads of plot and history into a single pattern. The oddly declamatory way in which the accomplished actor Brian O’Byrne plays Herzen—always beautifully clear and expressive, he often sounds less like an actor interacting with others than like a narrator, speaking from deep sorrow and experience, meditating on the struggle rather than joining it—reflects Stoppard’s decision to see, as much as possible, through Herzen’s eyes.
The plays’ central images of departure, voyage, and shipwreck also come from Herzen—not the late Herzen of My Life and Thoughts so much as the infuriated younger man who wrote From the Other Shore at white heat, in the time of the Springtime of Peoples in 1848 and the long winter of repression that followed. Before the revolutions of 1848 broke out, Herzen wrote a long “dialogue on deck” in which two men canvass the seemingly distant chances for change in Europe. Like a ship in a story by Conrad, their steamer moves across a dull, calm sea, the cloud layer so low that “the smoke of the ship, settling in the air, mingled with it; the sea was black, there was no freshness in the air.” The young man denounces the age he must live in, caught in the past and unable to move forward: “I know of no such suffocating period in history.” He pins his hopes on the “red thread” of progress, which he describes as inevitable. But the character who represents Herzen explains that history has no libretto to follow, but comes into being as individual decisions and multiple contingencies dictate.
Herzen denounces the notion that the coming of an inevitable, just future somehow justifies condemning the men of his own time to fight and suffer and die in the present:
Who is this Moloch who, as the toilers approach him, instead of rewarding them, only recedes…? Do you truly wish to condemn all human beings alive today to the sad role of caryatids supporting a floor for others some day to dance on…?
Just as Herzen asks the young man why he believes “that our world is so solid and long-lived,” a thunderstorm erupts: “Everyone rushed back to his cabin; the ship creaked and the tossing became unbearable—the conversation did not go on.”3 Dated December 31, 1847, before the year of revolution, the dialogue reads like a stunning prophecy of the horrors to come, both in the outer world of politics and in the inner one of Herzen’s family.
This Herzen supplies the plays’ moral. At a time when most radicals rested all their hopes on a transformation, peaceful or violent, of the unjust world around them, Herzen saw that revolution could devour its own children. The first French Republic had killed off many of its own heroes. The Second Republic of 1848 confirmed Herzen’s forebodings as it carried out acts of terrible violence against the very Parisian poor who had brought it into being, only to make way for a new empire. Evidently it did not take an aristocrat like Windischgrätz or Radetsky to crush the energies of the people: the bourgeois who wanted a republic could do a perfectly good job of massacring the workers on their own.
Horrified and enraged, Herzen denounced all philosophies of history that claimed to provide absolute truths and the political programs that admitted no dissent. Individuals, he argued, made history, to the modest extent that anyone could. But they did so not by embodying the spirit of their age but by doing their best as individual moral actors in the world, and they struggled like all of their human brothers in the stream of history that shaped and limited their chances of realizing their aspirations. This Herzen—humane, reflective, deeply conscious that a new democratic age must destroy the old European civilization to which he himself belonged—the Herzen who read John Stuart Mill’s book On Liberty with a shock of recognition—speaks at the end of the second and again at the end of the third play. His speeches shade their panoramas of revolutionary action against one of history’s great tyrannies into an argument that history sets limits to all aspirations and a plea for moderation in all efforts for change.
As Stoppard himself has made clear, he drew this interpretation of Herzen—like much of the material with which he supports it—from the writings of Isaiah Berlin. In a series of articles, four of which appeared in the journal Encounter—a magazine created in 1953, as is well known, in part for political ends, to give Western intellectuals a stage on which to dramatize the powers of the free mind—Berlin portrayed the origins of the Russian intelligentsia.4 His brilliant, colorful essays combined analysis of texts with dazzling sketches of characters and situations. They provide the model for Stoppard’s effort to combine the portrayal of these men and women’s world with an analysis of their thought.
Berlin insisted on the vitality and originality of these Russian thinkers, who, he argued, had invented a new kind of social criticism. He laid special weight on what Herzen and Turgenev had accomplished. These two, Berlin argued, had seen through what Orwell once called “the smelly little orthodoxies”; they had rejected the idea that any thinker had access to absolute truths. Herzen with his portraits of radicalism and its discontents, Turgenev with his all-seeing fictions that laid open the hearts of conservatives as ably as those of liberals, offered a powerful model of tolerant liberalism—one highly appropriate for exposition in a journal that existed to showcase the vitality of the free world.
The history that Stoppard offers here is somewhat one-sided—rather more so, I think, than Berlin’s history, as it developed over time. In the mid-1950s, Berlin emphasized Herzen’s moderation, his discovery that absolutes could do absolute damage. In 1968, however, when he published his introduction to the vast and protean text that is My Life and Thoughts, he acknowledged that no single formula could accurately describe the multiple changes and colors of Herzen’s thought. He also made clearer than he had before that Herzen’s radicalism was a deep part of his thought and being—not just a political program that he swore to as a boy and an early, deceptive passion, but a thread that appeared again and again, at the center of the fabric of his mind:
However sceptical Herzen may have been of specific revolutionary doctrines or plans in Russia—and no-one was more so—he believed to the end of his life in the moral and social need and the inevitability, sooner or later, of a revolution in Russia—a violent transformation followed by a just, that is a socialist, order. He did not, it is true, close his eyes to the possibility, even the probability, that the great rebellion would extinguish values to which he was himself dedicated—in particular, the freedoms without which he and others like him could not breathe. Nevertheless, he recognised not only the inevitability but the historic justice of the coming cataclysm. His moral tastes, his respect for human values, divided him from the tough-minded younger radicals of the sixties, but he did not, despite all his distrust of political fanaticism, whether on the right or on the left, turn into a cautious, reformist liberal constitutionalist. Even in his gradualist phase, he remained an agitator, an egalitarian and a socialist to the end. It is this in him that both the Russian populists and the Russian Marxists—Mikhaylovsky and Lenin—recognised and saluted.5
Late in My Life and Thoughts, Herzen made fun of Bakunin for his endless and pointless conspiracies, as Stoppard’s Herzen does on stage (he was in fact infuriated, at the end of his life, with Bakunin). But he also wrote with warmth and admiration of the way that his old friend had never given up his struggle, never ceased to make revolution his vocation and his goal:
Bakunin had many defects. But his defects were slight, and his strong qualities were great…Is it not in itself a sign of greatness that, wherever he was cast up by fate, as soon as he had grasped two or three features of his surroundings, he singled out the revolutionary current and at once set to work to carry it farther, to expand it, making of it the burning question of life?6
To that extent, as Carr suggested long ago, Herzen’s wild and passionate personal life may give more insight into his politics than Stoppard ever quite acknowledges. Certainly Herzen and Belinsky felt a hatred for serfdom, as well as for censorship, that Stoppard’s plays don’t quite convey.
One final weakness—perhaps intrinsic to the theatrical setting, but perhaps not—needs mention. Stoppard treats the German philosophies with which Bakunin, Nicholas Stankevich, and others of his protagonists, idealist and radical alike, fall in love as basically laughable—abstract delusions that only silly people could have taken seriously. Here he follows Herzen, who—as Berlin noted in Russian Thinkers—made acid fun of the vogue for German philosophy in Russia. This involved endless manipulation of abstract terms in German and Latin, not explained or even translated, but simply transferred into the new language:
No one in those days would have hesitated to write a phrase like this: “The concretion of abstract ideas in the sphere of plastics presents that phase of the self-seeking spirit in which, defining itself for itself, it passes from the potentiality of natural immanence into the harmonious sphere of pictorial consciousness in beauty.” It is remarkable that here Russian words…sound even more foreign than Latin ones.
Yet Herzen also noted that “I have the right to say this because, carried away by the current of the time, I wrote myself in exactly the same way, and was actually surprised when Perevoshchikov, the well-known astronomer, described this language as ‘the twittering of birds.'” More important, he insisted that the real problem lay not in the Russians’ enthusiasm for German thought but in their inability to understand it:
It is the language of the priests of learning, a language for the faithful, and none of the catechumens understood it. A key was needed for it, as for a letter in cypher. The key is now no mystery; when they understood it, people were surprised that very sensible and very simple things were said in this strange jargon.7
For Herzen—always a man of complex and subtle responses—German thinkers might be comic, but they were far more than figures of fun. It seems a shame that Stoppard, who so brilliantly channeled A.E. Housman’s view of philology, of all things, in The Invention of Love, can’t find a way to do the same for the German systems of thought so beloved of his beloved Russians.8
Yet Stoppard, the director Jack O’Brien, and the extraordinary cast assembled at the Beaumont achieve some effects that—from the historian’s necessarily parochial point of view—are stunningly precise. None of the characters who make My Life and Thoughts so memorable is more distinctive than Peter Chaadaev—the author of a series of Philosophical Letters, the first of which appeared in Belinsky’s journal, the Telescope. This “merciless cry of pain and reproach against Petrine Russia,” as Herzen described it, won warm applause from a few—and prohibition for the journal, dismissal for the censor who had let it through, and a declaration of insanity for Chaadaev himself. Herzen describes him unforgettably:
Chaadayev’s melancholy and peculiar figure stood out sharply like a mournful reproach against the faded and dreary background of Moscow “high life.” I liked looking at him among the tawdry aristocracy, feather-brained Senators, grey-headed scape-graces, and venerable nonentities. However dense the crowd, the eye found him at once. The years did not mar his graceful figure; he was very scrupulous in his dress, his pale, delicate face was completely motionless when he was silent, as though made of wax or marble—“a forehead like a bare skull,”—his grey-blue eyes were melancholy and at the same time there was something kindly in them, though his thin lips smiled ironically. For ten years he stood with folded arms, by a column, by a tree on the boulevard, in drawing-rooms and theatres, at the club and, an embodied veto, a living protest, gazed at the vortex of faces senselessly whirling round him.9
David Cromwell brings this minor but vital figure to life, in a performance of astonishing grace and understatement. Richard Easton does the same in his moving portrayal of the dedicated Polish revolutionary Count Worcell, whose passion and ready self-sacrifice Herzen deeply admired.
Ethan Hawke powerfully portrays the unquenchable energies and appetites of Bakunin, as Herzen knew him: “He argued, lectured, made arrangements, shouted, decided, directed, organised and encouraged all day long, all night long.”10 Josh Hamilton deftly brings out the dissolute sweetness of the poet Ogarev—the one adult character on stage, again and again, to take a serious interest in the thoughts and welfare of the Herzen children. And Billy Crudup embodies the passionate, awkward Belinsky.
Stoppard’s inspired dialogue and Crudup’s inspired slapstick unforgettably convey the spirit of this brilliant, tormented man. Belinsky, Herzen recalled, found parties terrifying. He could not escape an awkward social situation without knocking over a table, spilling a bottle of red wine on his neighbor’s trousers, and running all the way home:
Dear Belinsky! For what a long time he was angry and upset at such incidents, with what horror he used to recall them, walking up and down the room and shaking his head without the trace of a smile!
But when it came to a matter of taste, in literature or life, Herzen’s standards were inviolable and his courage absolute:
But in that shy man, that frail body, there dwelt a mighty spirit, the spirit of a gladiator! Yes, he was a powerful fighter! He could not preach or lecture; what he needed was a quarrel. If he met with no objection, if he was not stirred to irritation, he did not speak well, but when he felt stung, when his cherished convictions were called in question, when the muscles of his cheeks began to quiver and his voice to burst out, then he was worth seeing; he pounced upon his opponent like a panther, he tore him to pieces, made him a ridiculous, a piteous object, and incidentally developed his own thought, with unusual power and poetry.11
Crudup makes us feel what it meant to have a calling for criticism, in literature and society alike, so powerful that it could overcome his own terrible weaknesses.
In the end, of course, the historian’s point of view is the wrong one. Stoppard’s trilogy is a work of theater. Its correspondence to particular texts and facts matters less than its effectiveness at giving an audience a world to contemplate—a world coherently made, humanly populated, with profound stories going on. That is, as always in the theater, a matter of collaboration, as actors, director, scenic and lighting artists, musicians, and others make of the playwright’s original vision something rich and strange. And the results here are mixed. Stoppard has written a linked series of intimate dramas. Yet Scott Crowley and Bob Pask’s often beautiful sets, flown in from the heights and raised from the bowels of the Vivian Beaumont Theater, do little to set one scene off from another. The miserable office in which Belinsky lived, slept, and edited his magazine does not look terribly different from Herzen’s houses in Geneva and London.
Worse still, the settings sometimes break forth into visually stunning but dramatically irrelevant pastiche. The forced-perspective boulevard and exploding statues that identify Paris in Shipwreck, the second play, look more like the sets for a road-show production of Les Misérables than a shrewd way to convey what Herzen and the other Russians experienced as they sat indoors, their windows tightly shut, and listened to the rifle fire in the streets. At least once—in the dream sequence that begins the third play, and that resembles an ill-judged revival from the Theater of Shock, vintage 1968—writer, director, and designers conspire to embarrass everyone in the theater. Individual effects dazzle. The drops and the living and mannequin serfs that form the background to the Bakunin family estate at Pryamukhino beautifully suggest the dream world in which the young anarchist and his family lived. They seem as unaware as sleepwalkers of the suffering of the serfs who made their pursuit of love and culture possible, even when they themselves inflict it. But the sets as a whole, for all their splendor, seem ill adapted to the core of the stories Stoppard wants to tell. So, indeed, do the vast stage and auditorium of the Vivian Beaumont.
And yet, and yet: in theater the audience’s judgment leaves little room for appeal. To watch these three plays in one day—to witness Herzen’s terrible life, Stoic courage, and passion for justice, to learn something of the thought and fates of his extraordinary friends and contemporaries, to live through voyage and shipwreck and salvage—is to undergo a temporary transformation, a revolution of the sensibilities. In the age of Blink and Blahnik, when the stupidity of a radio shock jock inspires a fit of moral indignation in the American press but the destructive ineptitude of the American government does not, Stoppard has made us see what it was like to love ideas with a whole heart, to fight for a better world with all one’s strength, to write for readers who waited for days for each new article, to hurt the people one loves most, and to insist that no ends, however good, can justify immoral means. The Coast of Utopia brings us face to face with complex, articulated characters, doing their imperfect best to solve the hardest problems with which existence confronts us. Whatever its flaws, it is an extraordinary achievement.
May 31, 2007
Nicholas Ogarev, “Bedlam, or A Day of Our Life,” in E.H. Carr, The Romantic Exiles: A Nineteenth-Century Portrait Gallery (London: Gollancz, 1933; reprinted by Beacon, 1961), p. 376. ↩
Isaiah Berlin, “Introduction,” in My Life and Thoughts: The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen, translated by Constance Garnett, revised by Humphrey Higgins, four volumes (Knopf, 1968), Vol. 1, p. xxxvii. ↩
Alexander Herzen, From the Other Shore and The Russian People and Socialism: An Open Letter to Jules Michelet, with an introduction by Isaiah Berlin (Meridian, 1963), pp. 27, 41, 36, 42. ↩
See Isaiah Berlin, Russian Thinkers, edited by Henry Hardy and Aileen Kelly (Viking, 1978). See also the remarkable study by Martin Malia, Alexander Herzen and the Birth of Russian Socialism, 1812–1855 (Harvard University Press, 1961), and for more recent perspectives see Judith E. Zimmerman, “Natalie Herzen and the Early Intelligentsia,” Russian Review, Vol. 41, No. 3 (July 1982), pp. 249–272, and Midpassage: Alexander Herzen and European Revolution, 1847–1852 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989). ↩
Berlin, “Introduction” to Herzen, My Life and Thoughts, pp. xxxiv–xxxv. ↩
Herzen, My Life and Thoughts, Vol. 3, p. 1357. ↩
Herzen, My Life and Thoughts, Vol. 2, p. 399. ↩
Malia brings out the degree of Herzen’s passionate engagement with German thinkers from Schiller, the god of his youth, to Hegel. ↩
Herzen, My Life and Thoughts, Vol. 2, p. 519. ↩
Herzen, My Life and Thoughts, Vol. 3, p. 1358. ↩
Herzen, My Life and Thoughts, Vol. 2, p. 411. ↩