’I don’t want to come over as some boringly self-deprecating person,” says Tom Stoppard. “But I don’t see myself as a groundbreaking writer in the way plays are structured. Pinter did that. Beckett did that—changed the theater map.”
At 69, the Czech-born Jewish refugee, now a knighted standard-bearer of English theater, still looks up to greater giants. You can see it in his allusive and eloquent plays about everyone from Joyce to Byron to the Dadaists. His immense trilogy The Coast of Utopia, which unleashes nine hours of drama on Lincoln Center this fall, covers 30 years in the lives of a handful of Russian exiles who, while witnessing the 1848 revolutions and the liberation of the serfs, lived, breathed, and wrote European revolutionary theory.
But the seed of the play, whose 2002 London opening was “a great watershed of my life,” came from Stoppard’s involvement with Czech dissidents at the end of the Cold War. “When I went back after communism fell,” he says, “there was a curious nostalgia for the ‘good old days,’ where it really mattered what you wrote.” Stoppard’s bickering exiles feel much the same disillusionment in Paris and London. It makes you wonder if Stoppard longs for life as a Czech dissident.
“No, that would be perverse,” he says. Besides, life in the free West has treated Stoppard very well. He works often as a Hollywood screenwriter (Empire of the Sun, Brazil, an Indiana Jones rewrite, and, of course, Shakespeare in Love). Sometimes his scripts are discarded or mangled, but “honestly, I don’t lose a night’s sleep over it. I’m a playwright who gets involved in movies when I’m not writing a play.”
But in theater, Stoppard is addicted to complexity; critics have said that his ideas overwhelm the drama. He’s acutely aware of that delicate balance. At the moment, Stoppard is eyeing the trilogy “rather beadily,” he says. “You’re in danger of falling into this trap of thinking that because something is true, then it absolutely must deserve its place.” Each of the three plays will roll out on its own; come February, theatergoers with iron glutes will be able to see the whole nine hours in one gulp.
Stoppard admits to tireless ambition—“I don’t understand an artist who is not trying to do it for posterity”—and even suggests that a few of his subjects “would be dealt with more deeply in prose.” But what’s likely to make The Coast of Utopia a delight rather than a slog (aside from Billy Crudup, Brían O’Byrne, Ethan Hawke, and Martha Plimpton) is a narrative scope—encompassing revolutions and doomed love affairs—that you’d expect from Cecil B. DeMille. Could this have been a film? “I think I would get the movie thrown back at me, because these arguments between Russians, they go on rather long,” he says. “To me it’s a fairly ordinary kind of play. I think I’m a difficult conventional writer.”
—The Coast of Utopia, By Tom Stoppard; Lincoln Center Theater; Part one opens November 5. Next: The Best of the Rest in Theater