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Arise, Ye Prisoners of Tom Stoppard

Somehow, the eight hours of dialogue in The Coast of Utopia leave one hungry for more talk.

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Illustration by Wes Duvall  

Some people leave The Coast of Utopia puzzling over its knotty Russian politics and complex philosophical debates; what I need explained to me is Ethan Hawke’s larynx. In Voyage, the first part of Tom Stoppard’s epic play, he sounded so hoarse I was sure his voice would quit by Christmas, a fitting reward for his strained, super-fortissimo portrayal of the young anarchist Michael Bakunin. In Salvage, the trilogy’s just-opened final chapter, the characters are 30 years older. Wearing an unmilitant paunch and gray streaks in his Beethoven hair, Hawke tortures his vocal cords as much as ever. Only now he’s giving the best performance in a show full of excellent ones.

What accounts for this late-breaking virtuosity? It could be that I'm suffering from some kind of artistic Stockholm syndrome, and after eight hours I’ve come to love that which I cannot escape. Looking back over the monumentally monumental work, I suspect the improvement may owe as much to what he doesn’t have to do in Part Three as to what he does. And therein lies the reward and the handicap of Stoppard’s whole enterprise.

Forget the three-part division of Stoppard’s trilogy. In fact, there are two plays here, with different priorities and objectives, and they fight for attention and stage time at every moment of the work. Stoppard being Stoppard, the better of the two is a kind of dramatized intellectual history, the fast-quipping story of how some wayward philosophy students and their politically minded friends dragged Russia into the nineteenth century. Jostling alongside this narrative is a kind of group biography, full of data about the thinkers’ lovers and families. You can’t blame Stoppard for piling up the details of their personal lives. As raw material for drama goes, the historical record is almost too messily good to be true: love triangles, affairs with each other’s wives, living with hookers …

Up to a point, of course, some personal insights help to flesh out the philosophy, and vice versa. In fact, the best argument for the length of Stoppard’s trilogy is that we get to see how Alexander Herzen’s tumultuous life bears out his view that history is governed by chance, and happiness akin to “flashes of summer lightning.” But more often, the narrative demands of all those stories and Stoppard’s interest in plumbing everyone’s politics aren’t so much mutually supportive as contradictory—especially as the trilogy wears on.

In Salvage, Herzen and his lifelong friend Nick Ogarev start an underground magazine, advocating a form of progress that doesn’t depend on the comforting illusion that a Utopia exists and resisting what Herzen calls the “fatal simplicity” of the assassin—enormously fascinating and timely themes. To while away their English exile, both men also enjoy fascinating trysts, Herzen with Ogarev’s wife. Even in a nearly three-hour play, Stoppard can’t do justice to the politics and the romance. The fault isn’t just how he divvies up his scenes, but what’s in them. Not for the first time, his rhetorical writing is brilliant here, but his affairs of the heart uninspired. I kept wishing he would quit the perfunctory household drama and give the political debates the level of detail they deserved, and only occasionally got.

Those intellectual clashes don’t just offer the show’s richest playgoing moments (and they do; the staredowns between Herzen and the militant younger generation who push him aside are riveting), they also make for the finest acting. As the late rise in Hawke’s stock demonstrates, nobody profits more by this than he does. In Voyage, he was mired in murky subplots about his sisters and their beaux. But in Salvage, the biographical burden is somebody else’s problem. Now Hawke’s every appearance means a break from the Herzen tots, a chance to watch Bakunin agitate for anarchism in a way that’s at once goofy and Mephistophelean. “Left to themselves, people are noble, generous, uncorrupted, they’d create a completely new society if only people weren’t so blind, stupid, and selfish,” he rasps. Full of schemes and adrenaline, loaded with charm, his Bakunin is the Tom Sawyer of revolution.

Billy Crudup, like Hawke, does his best work when Stoppard is at his most cerebrally Stoppardian. Though he doesn’t appear in Part Three, Belinsky’s impassioned addresses on how writing matters more in repressive Russia than the liberated West inform all the later scenes of exile. (And doubtless mean a great deal to Stoppard, the “bounced Czech” who befriended Václav Havel in the future president’s dissident playwriting days). Forever hovering around the edges of the drama, Jason Butler Harner gives another terrific performance as the wry, feline Turgenev. Only Brían F. O’Byrne (as Herzen) fares best not in the political skirmishes, where he’s hampered by an uncharacteristic flatness, but in the domestic exchanges. The scenes in Shipwreck in which he confronts his cheating wife are the only personal ones in the trilogy with emotional weight; alas, they come and go in half an evening.


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