Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Coast of Utopia, II

by Tom Stoppard

"Bakunin: The mistake is to put ideas before action. Act first ! The ideas will follow, and if not -- well it's progress. 
Herzen: Belinsky -- save me from this madness !"

The second in his Coast of Utopia trilogy, Shipwreck is a tale of the diaspora with the revolutionary idealist Michael Bakunin paired with the more tempered yet complex advocate of freedom, Alexander Herzen. Swirling around these men are other revolutionaries along with their friends, family, lovers and the complications that go along with such a diverse group.
Stoppard tries to hold the characters together as they move through a maze of vignettes. The play, like the first in the trilogy Voyage, is arranged into scenes that are mostly in chronological order moving from place to place as Herzen and Bakunin move throughout Europe. In doing so characters as diverse as Turgenev, Herwegh, Belinsky, and even Karl Marx appear on the scene. Neither Herzen nor Bakunin can return to Russia and one of the funniest scenes occurs when Herzen is in Nice (November 1851) and the Russian Consul brings him an order from Czar Nicholas I that he must return to Russia. The Consul's discomfort and attempts to persuade Herzen to accede to the Czar's request are progressively more and more ridiculous and hilarious.
But as in  Shakespearean tragedies the humor is used for comic relief.  Philosophy shares the center stage with family tragedy.  In Bakunin's case he is following what he sees as the "new religion" of Hegel and the ideal expressed in the phrase "what is real is rational".  Herzen seems to provide moderation while Belinsky tilts in various directions before deciding to oppose the Russian reality.  The propinquity of friends and family move them in new and disastrous directions as human nature takes its course.
Unlike the dreamlike quality of Voyage, Shipwreck is about the reality of their lives. Instead of finding the utopia they have been dreaming about, they discover that revolutions come with harsh penalties, and not much changes after all. In essence, this play is also about growing up. The characters began in Voyage as young men and women with hopes for the future. Their struggles were those of passionate youths hoping to make a difference. In Shipwreck, they have grown up and are now fighting to put their hopes into action. They learn the hard way that life does not always turn out the way we wish. They must face harsh realities and even death. There is a somewhat manic, frantic pace to many of the scenes in Shipwreck that underscores the characters' desperation as they yearn for political change while striving to hold onto some semblance of normalcy in their personal lives.

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