A Review of The Coast of Utopia

Alexander Herzen’s My Past & Thoughts is probably my favorite autobiography. When friends of mine went to see Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, I was a bit curious about its portrayals of Herzen (as well as of Bakunin and others). Eric Alterman reviews the play in The Nation:

The significance of the Lincoln Center Theater’s production of Tom Stoppard’s three-part, nearly eight-hour The Coast of Utopia lies in its status as a cultural rather than a literary event. As a dramatic work the play, which follows the lives of a series of Russian intellectuals and would-be revolutionaries across Europe between 1833 and 1866, suffers from all kinds of insoluble problems. For starters, even if you’ve done all your homework–including the extra credit–it’s damn near impossible to remember who everybody is, what they thought and with whom they slept, and why it might matter seven hours (and possibly months) later. But as an occasion for serious political and philosophical argument in a culture bereft of both, Stoppard’s magnum opus is cause for celebration.

Utopia resists simple summary. It begins in the years following the crushing of the Decembrist revolt of 1825, as Stoppard’s young idealists muse about the backward nature of their nation and the beautiful future they would create if only they weren’t saddled with institutions like the czar, serfdom, censorship and the Third Section, the KGB’s pre-Revolution precursor. In doing so, they use and abuse the arguments of various German Romanticists, French proto-socialists and even the odd novelist. An enormous Ginger Cat, representing the dialectic of history passing from Hegel to Marx to Engels, has a walk-on, too.

Eventually, as the action moves from the splendor of the Bakunin family estate in Premukhino with its “500 souls” to Moscow to Paris to Rome to Nice to London and, finally, to Geneva, the arguments focus on the various disagreements between Michael Bakunin–known to most of us as one of the philosophical fathers of anarchism but who here spouts an extremely confused and romantic Hegelianism–and Alexander Herzen, who remains today the hero of Russian constitutional liberals and who ought to be a hero to liberals everywhere.