By Jerry Tallmer
Nikolai Gogol only appears in “The Coast of Utopia: Voyage” that is to say, gets mentioned in passing as a young writer who, coming along in the wake of the great but all too tragically dead-by-duel Alexander Pushkin, may someday give the benighted dark-ages 19th-century Russia something to be proud of.
Gogol’s ironic masterpiece, “Dead Souls,” had already seen publication (under a different, censorship-imposed title) in 1842, two years before the last scene of “Voyage.” The word souls was Tsarist-era Orwell-speak for serfs, and the more souls you and/or your estate had, the richer and more comfortable you were. Without its souls slaves Imperial Russia would not exist.
What underlies every line and every scene of “Voyage” the first third of Tom Stoppard’s astonishingly dramatic, intellectually gorgeous trilogy on the intellectual-philosophical run-up to what some 75 years later will be the Russian Revolution of 1917 are the 500 souls belonging to crusty old Alexander Bukanin, pater familias of the beautiful easygoing Bukanin countryside estate at Premukhino, 150 miles northwest of Moscow. We see these souls either as hooded nonentities or massed spectral figures behind a scrim throughout Jack O’Brien’s no less astonishing staging of “Voyage” that opened Monday at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater.
Who but Tom Stoppard, our own generation’s heir to George Bernard Shaw plus Oscar Wilde, would tackle a subject that, in its trilogical span of 30 years, must bring to the stage 70 characters, most of whom except for (as here) Turgenev, Pushkin, and possibly Alexander Herzen are, to most of us, largely unfamiliar Russian philosophers, critics, editors, revolutionaries who, in their 20s and 30s, don’t yet know they’ll be revolutionists, including one or two who will be taken early by the White Death, tuberculosis, before we even get out of Part 1.
So here is Alexander Herzen, age 22 (he will reappear in depth in the later two plays, “Shipwreck” and “Salvage”), eating an ice cream at the skating rink at the Moscow Zoo:
“You remember those puzzle pictures when we were children. There’d be a drawing with things wrong with it, a clock with no hands, a shadow going the wrong way, the sun and stars out at the same time... and it would say: ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’… Someone sitting next to you in class disappears overnight, nobody knows anything. In the public gardens ice creams are eaten in all the usual flavors. What is wrong with this picture? The Kritski brothers disappeared for insulting the Tsar’s portrait. Antonovich and his friends for forming a secret society, meaning they met in somebody’s room to read a pamphlet you can buy on the street in Paris…There is something wrong with this picture.”
A breakthrough magazine called The Telegraph is closed down for giving a bad review of a play by somebody named Kukolnik whose stuff is admired by the Royal Family. There is something wrong with this picture. (A later playwright, name of Stoppard, squares accounts by having a haughty, huffy woman say to the Telegraph editor: “You’re going to look very silly, Mr. Polevoy, aren’t you, in a hundred years, when ‘The Hand of the Almighty Saved the Fatherland’ is a classic and the name of Kukolnik is synonymous with Russian theatre.”)
Herzen’s clear-cut evocation of life under tsarist tyranny, tsarist terror a police state that would eventually dispatch him to six years hard labor in Siberia winged its way into me with such unhistrionic natural force that I never until later (much to his credit) figured out who was delivering it: Brian F. O’Byrne. You may have the same difficulty with many of the cast of 26 leading actors, though Ethan Hawke, as dashing, erratic, impetuous, always-dead-broke Michael Bakunin, eldest son at Premulkhino, Richard Easton as Michael’s deeply disapproving old-world father, and Billy Crudup as the fiery literary critic Vissarion Belinski (“Russia has no literature!”) drew, each in turn, appreciative bursts of applause at the performance I attended. And I forgive Mr. Crudup, after his nuanced yet firecracker delivery of one of Belinski’s perorations, for having made a shambles, as I then thought, of Lincoln Center’s production of Mr. Stoppard’s “Arcadia” a decade ago.
“[I]t won’t help us” [Belinski cries] when every time we say ‘Russia’ we have to grin and twitch like half-wits from the embarrassment ‘Russia! Yes, I’m afraid so you’ve got it the backwoods, no history but barbarism, no law but autocracy, no glory but brute force, and all those contented serfs!’ … [But when] the word Russia makes you think of great writers first and foremost, the job will be done you’ll be able to walk down the street in London or Paris and when someone asks you where you’re from, you can say: ‘Russia, I’m from Russia, you poor bastard, so what do you think of that?’ ”
Old Bakunin, who never lets it be forgotten that he himself was in Paris at the time of the French Revolution, has this response to an earlier Belinski declamation: “If Mr. Belinski is a literary critic, so was Robespierre.”
Poor Belinski, brilliant as he may be, is physically, socially, and emotionally as clumsy as a clown. Nor yet just Belinski but every character in “Voyage” is indeed emotionally clumsy, aching for love, unable to reach it off on voyages of their own, with Mr. Stoppard interweaving, in his fabric of hard thought, those threads, the personal, the romantic, the sexual, the aching for tender young women (see “Arcadia”), the aching by tender young women, as only he can do.
Nineteen-year-old Michael Bakunin implacable all-out anarchist of the future is at war with his father and mother (Amy Irving) who don’t see why the kid has walked away from a cadetship in the Artillery. “The whole army’s obsessed with playing at soldiers” is Michael’s blithe dismissal of the question. And the canons make so much noise.
The ex-cadet is also making life miserable for his four sisters (actresses Jennifer Ehly, Martha Plimpton, Kellie Overbey, Annie Purcell), ruining their chances via disparaging sneers about this potential suitor or that one, being particularly nasty to an erstwhile comrade, the ultra-sensitive fledgling philosopher Nicholas Stankevich (David Harbour) who has the sweets for ill-married Varenka (Ms. Plimpton), sister No. 2. Michael himself is more than a little in love with his sister No. 3, 18-year-old Tatiana (Ms. Overbey).
It is as if the romanticism of George Sand were running wild through the veins of half the hopefuls in “Voyage,” though a cynical pamphleteer named Peter Chaadaev (David Cromwell) has a more acrid viewpoint: “If I could bring Pushkin back to life by reducing George Sand to a fine powder and sprinkling it on his grave, I’d leave for Paris tonight with a coffee grinder in my luggage.” It is this same Chaadaev who wants to know how did Russia become the Caliban the boorish, primitive troglodyte of Europe? Nobody knows.
All these young revolutionists are of course in the process of change, of going from the ideal to the practical, the pragmatic, from French flame to German soulfulness, from Fichte to Kant, or, as it may be, to Hegel philosophy is not the present playgoer’s strong point.
Philosophy apart, it is Alexander Herzen a clear Stoppard favorite, and yours too, I venture, before this trilogy is out who recalls for Stankevich the time of the Decembrists, when he, Herzen, was a boy of 13, and all those anti-tsarist Decembrist plotters presaging the fate of Adolf Hitler’s failed assassins were hanged on the Sparrow Hills in honor of the coronation of Tsar Nicholas I. “It was the hinge of my life,” says the maturing Herzen, and it is the hinge of this remarkable almost three hours (seems less, except on the behind) drama.
It is also Herzen who, toward the end of “Voyage” with “Shipwreck” looming and “Salvage” to follow puts into three sentences (to Belinski) the resolution of all the warring truths and E.M. Forsterian halfway houses between the ideal and the real: “You’ve got Hegel’s Dialectical Spirit of History upside down, and so has he. You don’t storm the Bastille because history proceeds by zigzags. History zigzags because when people have had enough, they storm the Bastille.”
I don’t know if that’s Herzen or Stoppard or both. But it’s something to take home with you.
THE COAST OF UTOPIA: VOYAGE. By Tom Stoppard. Directed by Jack O’Brien. At the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street, (212) 239-6200.