I don’t often go to the theater expecting a seminar on literary and philosophical history. But that’s exactly what we got this evening with part one, “Voyage,” of Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” -- easily the standout activity in a day that also included a tour of Lincoln Center’s performing arts library, a lecture on ballet history, and a viewing of a “Sleeping Beauty” rehearsal by the New York City Ballet.
I’m not going to actually review “The Coast of Utopia”: here’s just too much “there” there to soak up in one viewing, and it requires a great deal of concentration just to keep up with the plot and to follow the jokes. (For a show about the Russian intelligentsia in the 1800s, it was surprisingly funny.) Mini-treatises on Hegel, Schilling, Pushkin, and other literary giants are scattered throughout, but this chapter of the play does a great deal to put its own knowledge of these thinkers in perspective. A recurring theme is that intellectual pursuits do not necessarily lead to a full life.
For instance, Ethan Hawke’s character, Michael Bakunin, is portrayed as something of an intellectual buffoon and unrepentant mooch: he skips fashionably from philosophy to philosophy, each time convinced that this penseur du jour will show him where he was going wrong. As he borrows and scams money to finance the life of his mind, his lifestyle is clearly depicted as indulgent and wasteful, never more so than in the dire consequences he incurs for the family estate at the close of part one. Other characters use an affected intellectualism as a defense against messy emotional entanglements.
So I watched the play with a delighted ambivalence: I could follow the action and laugh at the in-jokes that require a background knowledge of, say, the Hegelian dialectic. Yet I also recognized that the play was critiquing my -- the audience's -- very ability to understand it. I could make some awful metaphor about boats held in thrall to a sublime and capricious sea, but that would just be silly, now, wouldn’t it?
Sunday, January 21, 2007
Here's a blog review (Well not quite a review) from "Snarl"