Tom Stoppard's work, from "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead" (1967), to "Rock 'n Roll," which premiered earlier this year in London, has earned popular and critical acclaim. Brendan Lemon, the American theater critic for the Financial Times, caught up with Stoppard after a recent Lincoln Center Theater rehearsal for the American premiere of "The Coast of Utopia," his three-parter about 19th-century Russian radicals.
Brendan Lemon: What do you learn in the rehearsal process?
Tom Stoppard: I try to learn how to work with the minimum necessary. The first draft is always far too long and you go through a period where you don't know what to do about it because everything seems necessary. The closer you get to having an audience, the more material you find that you can do without, and then audiences tell you more.
When we did The Coast of Utopia in London, at the National Theatre, we didn't really have enough time to step back and look at it. I didn't look back at it for a year or two after that run. There is something in my nature which puts these things off until it's almost too late. Two weeks before we started rehearsal here in New York, I took another look at the text, mostly to see if the narrative intentions where clear enough. And now I no longer refer to it as my nine-hour trilogy but as my eight-and-a-half-hour trilogy.
For New York, I've also added a few lines to give the audience more information, to make something clearer. In life, one very rarely has to spell things out. Context usually makes plain the subject of a conversation. You might say that that's also true in the theater, but only if everything is working and the audience is super-alert.
BL: What did you work on during the period just after the run at the National? Was it your latest play, "Rock 'n Roll," which opened this year successfully in London, and is still running in the West End?
TS: Not immediately. I began thinking about that play, but then I did some film work which didn't come to anything.
BL: Is it fair to say that no project you've done required as much immersion in source material as Coast of Utopia?
TS: Yes. I was reading for about four years. I had a background interest in a later period of Russian history. But the play was inspired by reading Isaiah Berlin's Russian Thinkers, and becoming fascinated by some of the people he wrote about. The first person was Belinsky, not Herzen. I had absolutely no idea when I started that I would be writing three parts. Still less that the first part would be mostly about the family of Michael Bakunin. The name Bakunin wasn't on my mind until later down the road.
I'd been working for a good year before being tempted by the idea of a trilogy. That happened because one day I made a skeleton of everything I wanted to include for the play. And I could see that I was deluding myself to think that everything would be possible in one evening.
BL: Why do the great characters in 19th-century Russian fiction, as well as these real-life characters from the period, absorb us so intensely?
TS: Their idealism and their optimism were very attractive. There's also the fact that they're Russian, and Russian-ness appeals to many people; certainly it does to me. One of the characters in The Coast of Utopia says that a great writer can represent Russia more than any formal institution can. Because of the very existence of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Gorky, Chekhov, not to mention the composers and poets, Russians could feel pride in being Russians, and non-Russians could feel respect for Russians and for Russia.
BL: The first character you took up was Belinsky, not Bakunin or Herzen. And in the trilogy's second part, Shipwreck, Belinsky has an indelible final speech. But once he's gone, I miss his passion. Does that concern you, for part three?
TS: I think Herzen is equally passionate in his way. In London, the actor playing Belinksy moved into the third play, too. But it seems right and proper that that actor shouldn't come back. So that's what we're doing in New York. I don't think Belinsky was a genius, but I think that in his own way that Herzen was. There is something heartbreaking about Belinsky's utter integrity, his fight with himself to be true to things, his willingness to admit when he was wrong. He lived for literature. His job was to find artists and encourage them. His was a combination of a noble calling and a pointless one. Whether people can find great artists without the help of any critic I don't know. In any event, that kind of discovery was his role as he saw it.
BL: The cast is of a size we don't often see in New York, which helps contribute to the excitement of putting on The Coast of Utopia here. Does the number of bodies onstage make it a challenge for this trilogy to have subsequent productions?
TS: One has to be grateful to any theater for undertaking a play of this scale. That said, this has to be treated like any play. Our director, Jack O'Brien, is very conscious right now of the need to keep in mind parts two and three while we're deep in part one.
BL: Herzen's exhortation for us to live in the present moment seems very much like something a person of the theater would say. For example, Stephen Sondheim always says what matters to him is less the record of a musical on film or video than its performance in the living moment.
TS: He's right. I don't mean to be mean-spirited about it, but I'm slightly unenthusiastic about the idea of preserving theater on video. First of all, you can't, really, capture the spirit of a play. It's just the technical record of what occurs. Rather selfishly, I like the idea of theater being ephemeral: you're there or you're not there. If you're not there, you missed it. In a way, this is what theater's got going for it.
BL: Do you find audiences in New York for your work are much different from audiences in London?
TS: I've never felt that there was any difference of any significance. The difference between England and America has to do with membership or subscription audiences. Which we don't really have much of in England. With a subscription audience, there's an element of people coming because they trust the theater rather than because they have any particular desire to see a particular play.
BL: In Moscow, The Coast of Utopia is being done at the National Youth Theater, isn't it?
TS: The name of the building where the play will be put on has got the word "youth" in it, but it is not in fact a Youth Theater. In the Stalin years, it was used as a youth theater. It's a shabby 19th-century theater building, but with wonderful atmosphere.
BL: What is the performance schedule for the Moscow production?
TS: They haven't got one. They haven't even got an opening date. It's a country where artists are on salary from the state. They start working on a play, and at a certain point they think about an opening date. The Coast of Utopia started rehearsing this year in January. Not every day. Now it's in a more intense period of rehearsal. The last I heard, it might open in January but it could be later.
BL: Which of your plays have had the most productions?
TS: Because of schools and universities, probably Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and The Real Inspector Hound. The latter is an 80-minute play, which lends itself to many uses. Nowadays, Arcadia is also done a lot.
BL: Last question: Do you see Herzen's political thought as relevant at all to the present moment?
TS: I think pluralism, which is part of Herzen's philosophy, is something that strikes a chord now. The insistence that we didn't get cut out by the same cookie cutter. That differences have to be fitted together as differences, not wished away. Society should be a contest of generosity. That's the only hope, I think.
The P&P DVD Boxset is available as of yesterday in the US.
"Pride and Prejudice" — To mark its 10th anniversary, the lush BBC adaptation of Jane Austen's classic, starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, returns in a lavish boxed set. Along with the five-hour miniseries, the three-disc set has an A&E "Biography" installment on Austen and a 120-page book about the making of the show. Not rated.