Don’t Miss This Script: The Coast of Utopia Trilogy
Among all of Tom Stoppard’s plays, The Coast of Utopia trilogy may be make some of the best recommended reading. That’s because, despite its 2007 Tony Award for best play, the series is so grand in scope—with a 9 hour run-time and a cast of 70 characters—that you are unlikely to stumble across many productions of it.
For ambitious readers, particularly ones with an interest in pre-revolutionary Russia, The Coast of Utopia, comprised of Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage, could also become the jumping-off point for a much larger reading project. During the show’s 2006-2007 run at Lincoln Center, The New York Times offered a great reading list, including the primary sources that were research material for Stoppard.
If Russia circa 1833-1836 isn’t your area of expertise (it certainly isn’t mine), The Coast of Utopia still makes for fun reading. As in his plays like Arcadia or Rock ‘n Roll, Stoppard crafts a layered story full of vibrant, witty characters, while tossing in plenty of insider humor for well-read readers/viewers. And, unlike his 1974 tribute to James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and the Dada movement, Travesties, The Coast of Utopia involves far fewer staging tricks, making it much easier to follow on the page.
The entire Coast of Utopia trilogy focuses on the movers and shakers of pre-Revolutionary Russia. In the first installment in the trilogy, Voyage, the center of the story is the revolutionary and philosopher Mikhail Bakunin, argued by many to be the founder of anarchist theory. Stoppard portrays Bakunin as a starry-eyed intellectual whose excitement about philosophy quickly turns to disgust for anyone he believes to be living an unexamined life. His cockiness proves hilariously naïve at times, such as when he attempts to intervene in his sister’s arranged marriage: “This marriage cannot take place. We must save Liubov. To give oneself without love is a sin against the inner life. The outer world of material existence is mere illusion. I’ll explain it all to Father.”
As he becomes more infatuated with philosophy, Bakunin mooches off of his family and acquaintances in order to support his less-than-lucrative career writing for a radical, anti-czarist journal. The inherent problem underlying Bakunin’s life as a radical, anti-establishment philosopher is, of course, that none of it would be possible without his position of privilege and money borrowed from his aristocratic family.
The philosophical arguments that comprise a large portion of Voyage can be anything from compelling dialogues to insufferable banter among young men who are unwittingly waiting for a bomb to drop on their idyllic lives. Either way, Stoppard puts the musings of his characters to multiple purposes: offering insight into his characters and sometimes providing opportunities for irresistible humor (“We were discussing transcendental idealism over oysters, and one thing led to another.”).
The Coast of Utopia is available in a few different editions on Amazon, including a very pretty three-volume boxed set.