Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Coast Of Utopia

Last Friday I was given a number of plays by Tom Stoppard for Father's Day (Thanks, Ben). I just finished "The Coast of Utopia," Stoppard's most recent series of three plays about Russian radicals in the mid-19th C. They are all here: Mikhail Bakunin, Alexander Herzen, Nickolay Ogarev, Ivan Turgenev, all screwing up each other's lives and the lives of everyone they came in contact with; loving and hating each other, simply hating Marx, sacrificing the lives of family members (especially the unfortunate women who ran across their paths) to vast and contradictory causes.

Stoppard, who is Czech though he has lived his adult life in England, is unsparing and generally unsentimental about them. Their idealism does not capture him as it does more liberal writers in the West. Our literary and historical set sees them as noble but regrettably flawed, their bright dreams unfulfilled because of the sad ironies of life. Stoppard shows that their bright dreams were their flaws, and their starry ideals the cause of their misery. Only Herzen comes off well, forever true to an ideal of freedom and prosperity for the peasants, forever funding the unfree and violent schemes of the other radicals, forever a victim of those he sacrifices for.

I don't claim this is the single idea of this trilogy; Stoppard always keeps several balls in the air, smuggling the more serious ideas in under the humor. But nothing impresses so much in the plays as how petty and self-centered all these Great Hearts are. He sets us up to be fond of each, struggling tragically against the dark though bowed down by the oppressions of the world. We are drawn in, glimpsing the coasts of their utopias, but ultimately swinging wide as they destroy themselves and each other. They are not Shakespearean heroes with a single tragic flaw - they are thoroughgoing Flaws with a single tragic virtue. The destruction of millions that they wrought was a necessary consequence of their ideas, not an accident.

Character after character asks "What sort of Moloch is this that kills its children?", each surprised anew. They look to Rousseau, to Hegel, to Proudhon, and eventually to Marx for their answers. They sacrifice their children to their revolutionary ideals (often almost literally), which has its echo in the countries they feed into the maw of this dark god.

I should research what lessons the more marxist critics of literature and the theater have had to say about the three joined but separate plays "Voyage," "Shipwreck," and "Salvage." I already suspect they have missed the obvious.

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