Saturday, May 26, 1990

NPR on Utopia

Stoppard's Epic 'Coast of Utopia'
25 November 2006
NPR: Weekend Edition - Saturday


A major theatrical event Monday, the Broadway premier of the first play in a trilogy by Tom Stoppard, "The Coast of Utopia." It's about 19th century Russian intellectuals whose ideas contributed to the Russian Revolution. The trilogy is one of the most ambitious productions ever mounted on Broadway, three plays spanning 30 years, featuring 41 actors in 70 roles, in plays that run for more than eight hours.

From New York, Tom Vitale has the story.

TOM VITALE: Part one of "The Coast of Utopia" is called "Voyage." It's about a group of young idealists in the 1830s setting out on a metaphorical journey to what they hope will be a better society. The play's characters are historical figures, including the literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, the novelist Ivan Turgenev, and one of the forefathers of socialism, Alexander Herzen.

The central character is Michael Bakunin, whose interest in German philosophy leads him to embrace the politics of anarchism. Ethan Hawke is in the role.

(Soundbite of "The Coast of Utopia")

Mr. ETHAN HAWKE (Actor): (As Michael Bakunin) How couldn't you know? Dawn has broken in Germany. The sun is already high in the sky. It's only us in poor behind the times Russia who are the last to learn about the greatest discovery of the age. The life of the spirit is the only real life.

Unidentified Woman: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back, I hope you hope you had a lovely lunch. We will be beginning on stage in one minute in scene four.

VITALE: The Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center. While part one of "The Coast of Utopia" is on the stage, part two of the trilogy is being rehearsed downstairs.

On a lunch break, Tom Stoppard smokes European cigarettes. He looks tired but younger than his 69 years. Stoppard says he set the first act of "Voyage" in the Bakunin country estate because of his affection for classic Russian plays by Chekhov and Gorky.

Mr. TOM STOPPARD (Playwright): I think I got into "The Coast of Utopia" partly out of a desire to do something like one of those plays, the family and friends just talking together out of doors with (unintelligible) stage left. You know what I mean?

VITALE: And talk they do. Voyage takes place over 11 years, beginning in 1834, as Michael debates with his family and friends at his country estate, and then in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

(Soundbite of "The Coast of Utopia")

Mr. HAWKE: (As Michael Bakunin) (unintelligible) is trying to get rid of objective reality, but Hegel shows that reality can't be ignored. On the contrary, reality is the interaction of the inner and outer world. You see, Father, we've exchanged windbags, that's all...

VITALE: Tom Stoppard is known for writing verbose, erudite plays. He won a Tony for his last Broadway play, "The Invention of Love," about the poet A.E. Houseman. And he won an Oscar for his verbal gymnastics in his screenplay for "Shakespeare in Love." Some say now he's gone over the top. When it premiered at London's National Theater four years ago, "The Coast of Utopia" was a hit. But some critics complained that Stoppard was bludgeoning the audience with monologues about philosophy, history and literature.

Stoppard says the audience in the theater doesn't have to be familiar with Pushkin or Hegel to appreciate the drama.

Mr. STOPPARD: The audience needs to pick up that these were people who felt that life didn't consist only of your material existence, your day-to-day reality. And they clasped gratefully to their bosoms the idea that your interior life is the one that really counts. That's the one that the secret police can't get to.

Mr. HAWKE: We're used to being talked down to. We're used to very simple ideas. We're used to people not challenging us.

VITALE: Thirty-six-year old movie star Ethan Hawke has given up seven months of more lucrative work to perform in "The Coast of Utopia" trilogy through March. Hawke says he'd rather get paid next to nothing in the theater to say good lines than make a bundle in movies to make dumb lines not sound dumb.

Mr. HAWKE: You know, you take your five movies that are usually nominated for Best Picture each year, like what we consider as good, intelligent artful cinema. It so often could be completely understood by a 12-year-old. I feel the great thing about watching Tom Stoppard, it makes you feel incredibly intelligent because you do get it. The ideas aren't that complicated.

VITALE: Stoppard couches his characters' grand ideas in personal dramas - father/son conflicts, betrayed friendships, failed marriages. In one scene, Michael's sister, Varenka, warns another sister to think twice about a perspective fiancé.

(Soundbite of "The Coast of Utopia")

Ms. MARTHA PLIMPTON (Actress): (As Varenka Bakunin) Pushkin is killed in a duel. But somehow it's all about the tragedy of a woman marrying unwisely. It's always putting you all between the lines. When he went to see "Hamlet," it was all Ophelia's fault.

Ms. PLIMPTON: People become movie stars so that they can find their way to something like this.

VITALE: Actress Martha Plimpton plays Varenka. She's better known as the teenaged actress in the films "Goonies" and on the TV sitcom "Family Ties." Plimpton says acting in the ensemble in Stoppard's epic trilogy is unlike anything she's done.

Ms. PLIMPTON: There's no star vehicle here. The plays are the stars here, and so it's sort of a wonderful opportunity for us as a company to really feel like pieces of the machinery and contribute each in our own way to this greater whole. And that's really - it's an opportunity you don't get all that often, it's really wonderful.

VITALE: Tom Stoppard didn't set out to write a trilogy. He says his script grew as he started writing because he admired these characters as writers whose work mattered to their audience. Stoppard says he'd like his work to matter that way.

Mr. STOPPARD: You know, because of the kind of society we live in, you don't, as it were, change people's lives. But you remind them of things. You remind them of truths. You remind them of what matters in society.

(Soundbite of "The Coast of Utopia")

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) But a gentleman has a duty to look after his estate.

Mr. HAWKE: (As Michael Bakunin) But my estate is the self and the future of philosophy in Russia.

VITALE: The rest of Tom Stoppard's trilogy follows the young idealists in "Voyage" as their dreams are shattered in the failed French Revolution of 1848, and then as they pick up the pieces and move on in the following decade.

Part two of "The Coast of Utopia" is set to open in December. Part three arrives on Broadway in February. In March, all three plays will be staged on the same day in a series of marathon performances.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

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