I just came home from seeing the first in Tom Stoppard's COAST OF UTOPIA trilogy, The Voyage Out. I expected to like it; what I did not expect was to be so moved by it. I can't find the right metaphor to explain how the play affected me-- each one I try sounds like something icky. Infection. Parasite. Crawled under my skin. Why aren't there pleasant words in the English language to describe the experience of being possessed by a work of art?
I hadn't read it, although I'd owned a copy of the first play since it debuted in London a few years ago-- my assistant at ASF went to London and raved about it, too. Still, I remembered that although I'd loved Invention of Love, it didn't read all that well, so I decided just to wait.
I didn't even do any "prep" about the period, or even read the many essays up at the Lincoln Center page.
You really don't need to.
The best thing you can do to prepare for this show is to get nostalgic about your college days.
I just got back from a college reunion so that part was easy.
The play isn't about school, but the characters in it are young and enthralled with ideas-- specifically with philosophy. They debate with enthusiasm and exuberance. They want to change the world. They hurt without meaning to, harm without waking up, they accomplish great feats almost by default, and they talk, talk, talk.
But Stoppard doesn't condescend to them-- nor does he glamorize them. The tone is affectionate and a little wry. The mood of the play by the second act is a bit elegaic, like the great Pushkin poem "Eugene Onegin" alluded to early in the play.
Did I mention the play takes place in the 1830s? This is NOT Anastasia-revolution era. But the writing's already on the wall. While the youngsters debate whether reality begins when you sit on a chair, or whether the chair is always there, the serfs beg not to be conscripted into the army, and get a slap for their servility. And young Bakunin, idealistic, self-absorbed Bakunin, has never even realized that his father's estate with its 500 "souls" (i.e., serfs) is an agricultural enterprise.
What really startled me is how, particularly in the second act, Stoppard captured the essence of the women's lives-- Bakunin's sisters who idolize him and absorb his philosophy, not always a good thing. In Act One, we see the women as golden-haired, bright, amusing characters, primarily. In Act Two, we see how much of their lives is surrounded by silence and stillness, as they wait-- for love returned, for understanding, for life to begin. In that respect, they really are like the silent scarecrow serfs standing behind the scrim.
One scene that really hit home to me was a scene in which Tatyana speaks to Turgenev at a dance. We've seen them earlier together, enjoying one another's company. The dance takes place some time later and we gather that she's written him letters-- if not love letters, than letters that demonstrate her love-- and that she's had little, if any, return. And yet she expresses, along with her embarrassment, her lack of regret because the time when she was in love with him she was so vividly alive, so elated (I paraphrase).
Anybody experience unrequited love when young? anybody kind of enjoy the misery? well, I have, and did. And I thought the insight was extraordinary.
Yeah, sure, it's Stoppard, so it may seem "talky." Big things happen offstage (but isn't that always the way?). It's epic-- and divided in acts not by time but by space. But that turns out to make perfect sense-- at least to me. I realized when I visited Stanford how memories of mine just live there, in the red tiles, sandstone, and smell of Eucalyptus.
The plot is not linear, and the main action is not simple-- which only proves that much of the playwriting methods we teach are at best limited. But I guess for most of us "don't try this at home" is still good advice.
In any case-- it was, for me, inspiring.
(and it inspired me to my first blog. So there!)
Markaley also saw it:
And tonight I saw the first part of Tom Stoppard's trilogy, The Coast of Utopia at Lincoln Center. It was very dense and long, cause that's how Stoppard does, but also very entertaining and good. Ethan Hawke and Billy Crudup were in it, among many others. I'm seeing part two and February and if I have time I'll hopefully see part three sometime around then as well.
Diehard Stoppard fan Tom Oldham hasn't seen the show yet, but he's dead excited:
Tonight was the first preview for the U.S. premiere of the first part of his 2002 trilogy "The Coast of Utopia." (I am writing my thesis on it as well.) I don't know how to stress just how big a deal this is. A major major theatre (Lincoln Center) is devoting six months to the trilogy, which (when performed in its entirety) is about 9 hours long. It features over 40 actors (which is huge) including famous movie stars like Billy Crudup and Ethan Hawke. Again, big big deal. Now, I did not go to see the show tonight. I am waiting for its official opening on November 5. I will probably say more about that when the time comes.