This week I had a chance to revisit the most spectacular theater experience I’ve ever had. It took place on a weekend in February 2007. Over the course of two days, I saw all nine hours of The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard’s trilogy on 19th century Russian intellectuals and revolutionaries. My New York friend Patricia and I hung around the new Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle and visited neighborhood cafes in between going to the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center for many glorious hours of theater. This week Lincoln Center Theaters celebrated that monumental theatrical achievement.
I flew to New York after work on Friday and met Patricia for an early lunch on Saturday, saw Voyage, part one, then had an early dinner and saw Shipwreck, part 2. On Sunday, we saw a matinee of Salvage, part 3. We had a final dinner, at which we both were almost too exhausted to talk. I had bought copies of the scripts and read Voyage on the way home on Monday morning. I saved the playbill on my bookshelf along with the three volumes of scripts.
The trilogy was also done as a marathon on a few Saturdays when you could see all three plays in one day, from 11am to 11pm.
I’ve never forgotten that weekend and like most memorable theater experiences, the visuals are imprinted in my brain, to be brought out when some tangential memory nudges them. That’s what happened this week.
Lincoln Center Theaters celebrated the 14th anniversary of The Coast of Utopia’s U.S. premiere in November 2006 with a virtual discussion that was open to theater fans. Director Jack O’Brien, four cast members—and—in person from London—the playwright himself. I was on a Zoom call with Tom Stoppard! No, he didn’t know I was there—only the participants were on the Zoom screen. But it was an exhilarating moment.
The play has more than 70 characters, performed by 40 actors in the New York production. The cast size and complexity of the story explain why this magnificent historical work has been produced only three times: in London in 2002, in New York in 2006-07, Moscow in 2007 and Tokyo in 2009. (This article describes the daunting nature of the production.)
Scenic design for the trilogy was by Bob Crowley and Scott Pask with costumes by Catherine Zuber. The gorgeous musical score, very much like a film score, was by Michael Bennett.
The actors participating in the discussion were Jennifer Ehle and Martha Plimpton, who played Liubov and Varenka Bakunin, two sisters, in Voyage; Ethan Hawke, as their brother Michael Bakunin, a writer and student of philosophy; and Billy Crudup, who played Vissarion Belinsky, a noted literary critic and radical.
The actors discussed the production experience, which involved a year’s commitment, starting with nine months of rehearsal. (The typical rehearsal time for a modern play is four to six weeks). Cast members prepared by studying Russian history and literature and four of the actors (including Plimpton) made a trip to Russia. “We did endless research…. We had books, piles of books, and notebooks where we noted reactions and questions,” one of the actors commented.
Before seeing The Coast of Utopia, I had been preparing too by reading Russian history and cultural history (Ivan Turgenev, Alexander Pushkin and Karl Marx are among the characters in Utopia). Many of the characters, including Belinsky and Alexander Herzen, are drawn from history. The play’s title comes from a chapter in Avrahm Yarmolinsky’s book, Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism (1959), which is on my to-be-read list.
The cast compared the production—especially the occasional Saturday marathon performances—like going to camp. Meals were brought in and there were dressing rooms available for naps, Plimpton said. The intense rehearsal and performance schedule meant they spent almost all of their waking hours together at Lincoln Center Theaters for a year.
One experience they all vividly remembered was when actor Richard Easton, who played Alexander Bakunin, the father of the Bakunin siblings, “died on stage” for seven minutes. It wasn’t part of the script, but the audience didn’t realize that at first. During a preview performance, Easton spoke a final line (it was “That is my last word” after an argument with Michael) and started to exit, only to crumple in a heap at side stage. He had a heart attack. When Hawke realized that the fall was serious, he asked the audience the classic question, “Is there a doctor in the house?” But a stagehand performed CPR. Easton was revived in the ambulance and underwent a procedure to fix a heart arrhythmia. The opening date was briefly delayed because Easton’s character was a pivotal part of Voyage.
Hawke remembered that Easton asked him to come to his hospital room to run lines. After that, Hawke said, “we were all in service to something larger than ourselves.”
The play begins in a Chekhovian way; Voyage is set at Premukhino, the Bakunin country estate 150 miles northwest of Moscow. The sisters and brother Michael all long to escape to the city. At one point, in the middle of Voyage, Michael, who is in Berlin studying philosophy and translating a history, is asked to come back to the estate because Alexander wants him to study “agriculture,” for which he has no fondness.
The storyline concerns philosophical and literary debates in pre-revolutionary Russia (and in Berlin and Paris) between 1833 and 1866. The actual Russian revolution, of course, was another half century in the future, but that didn’t hinder discussions about liberty and censorship. Shipwreck takes place in Russia, then in Germany and France; and Salvage is set among the intellectual and revolutionary community in Paris.
The most important character in the radical/intellectual theme is Alexander Herzen, who Stoppard defines as a “would-be revolutionary,” but is an important historical figure. One of the most moving scenes in Shipwreck is about an actual shipwreck on which Herzen’s young son, Kolya, was lost. His wife is eagerly awaiting the arrival of her mother-in-law who has taken her grandson Kolya on a trip to Paris. The scene where Herzen has to tell Natalie, his wife, that Kolya is not returning, is devastating.
Stoppard was asked what inspired him to write on the subject of the Russian intellectuals and radicals. He said he was moved by the status of the critic Belinsky in Paris, “where you could write anything you wanted and no one cared” whereas in Russia, “one could only read work like this at midnight.”
Stoppard was also asked when he knew he was writing three plays. It happened when I was writing the first, he said. And commenting on his own experience working with the Lincoln Center Theaters team, that nine months “was the most binding and bonding theater I’ve ever done.”
An audience member asked Stoppard whether we can learn anything for today from his work on radicals and revolutionaries. He responded that the strongest ideas in The Coast of Utopia are about families. That is the case also in his latest play, Leopoldstadt, about a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna going through another type of wrenching political change in the first half of the 20th century. The family had escaped the pogroms in the East but the fates of the generations are impacted by communism and fascism over the years.
I recently read the script of Leopoldstadt (I had to draw a family tree chart to keep track of the family branches). So far it has been produced only in London in January 2020. Had it not been for the coronavirus, it most likely would be on stage in New York by now and scheduled for Chicago in a coming season. It is a profound and moving play with nearly 40 characters over distinct time periods from December 1899 to 1955. I look forward to seeing Leopoldstadt performed on stage, perhaps in 2022.
Near the end of the discussion, director O’Brien summed up our mutual yearning for an end to our life of physical distancing. “Here’s what the theater does. You have to be there…. You’re in a room of people who are giving their heart and soul to you. We have survived pandemics since Aeschylus and we’ll survive this.”
Update: You can now watch The Coast of Utopia discussion on YouTube but only through January 10.
This article was previously posted in Third Coast Review.
The finale of the HBO crime drama, True Detective, ran Sunday night and I’ve watched it twice so far. I’ve been thinking about TD, its writer/producer and his literary influences–as well as his possible literary compatriots. Here’s what I’m thinking.
Sunday morning, I tweeted this out:
Nancy Bishop @nsbishop
The long, slow tracking minutes of Rust Cohle and Marty Hart wending their separate ways through the utter spooky weirdness of Carcosa*, with its skulls, bodies and overgrown foliage, were breathtaking. They sought and found the monster who committed the murders and, for a while, it appeared all three were dead. Marty had a hammer plowed into his right lung and Rust had a long knife jabbed into his midsection and still had enough strength to shoot the top of the killer’s head off. But in the epilogue, we learned that the two detectives survived. Another miracle of TV medicine. Since season 2 will feature a different plot and different characters, they could have been left to die. But instead we were treated to a final scene of the two outside the hospital looking up at the stars, with Rust telling how he felt when he almost died. Here’s a link to his final speech.
* What is Carcosa? The unearthly setting for this segment was an old brick military fortress, Fort Macomb, built in 1822 and decommissioned in 1871. You can see some photos of it here. More about Carcosa below.
I thought Matthew McConaughey’s Oscars acceptance speech was gag-making, by the way. I prefer this clever video recap that shows Rustin Cohle eviscerating McConaughey’s thanks-to-god speech. “And it’s a scientific fact that gratitude reciprocates,” he said. Really? Scientific? Personally, I’d rather have a beer with Cohle than McConaughey.
* * *
We really are in an amazing era of quality television, as New York Times media columnist (and one of my favorite journalists) David Carr wrote this week, in his article titled “Barely Keeping Up in TV’s New Golden Age.” He said, “The vast wasteland of television has been replaced by an excess of excellence that is fundamentally altering my media diet and threatening to consume my waking life in the process. And I’m not alone.”
Television recently has blessed us with several astonishingly good series, starting with my favorite, The Sopranos. I still mourn its disappearance (but I loved the ending…. Tony looking up from his French fries as the diner door opens, and then fade to black.). Six Feet Under, Mad Men and Breaking Bad were also captivating series.
This year’s True Detective has been called one of the best TV series ever by a number of critics. It’s almost a genre in itself. It’s brilliantly written and manages to create two contentious detective partners. Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson), on the surface a good old Louisiana boy with many personal complications. Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), a loner detective from Texas with a dark and troubled past and a propensity for opaquely gloomy comments. I quoted these when I wrote about TD in January.
“Time is a flat circle. Everything we ever done or will do we’ll do over and over and over again.”
“This place is like someone’s faded memory of a town, and the memory’s fading…like there was never anything here but jungle.”
“Human consciousness is a tragic misstep in human evolution.”
The eight-part series covered the detectives’ efforts to solve a bizarrely ritualistic murder; clues indicated that it was committed by a serial killer or a weird cult emerging in the swampy Santeria and voodoo culture of bayou Louisiana. The cinematography of the swampland setting was so visually powerful that it became a character in itself.
The show was written and produced by an English teacher turned scriptwriter named Nic Pizzolatto. Future TD seasons apparently will follow a similar eight-part anthology format with one story arc and different sets of characters in each. So we have seen the last of Marty and Rust. I have mixed feelings about that. The combination of story line, writing quality and characters took hold of me with a weirdly obsessive attachment.
One attribute of Pizzolatto’s writing that made it intriguing is his use of symbolism and stories from unrelated fields. Of course, True Detective draws on pulp detective fiction of the 1940s and 1950s. In addition, the Yellow King and Carcosa and the iconic figures made of sticks and straw are references not only to Louisiana bayou culture but also to the weird supernatural horror writings of Robert W Chambers, Ambrose Bierce and H P Lovecraft, among others. (So deep is my obsession that I’ve downloaded The King in Yellow Omnibus: Tales of the Carcosa Mythos to my e-reader. Believe me, reading horror stories or most any kind of genre fiction is not my taste. I lean toward literary fiction or nonfiction.)
Drawing connections among manifold fields of science, politics and the arts is a characteristic of two of my favorite writers: Playwright Tom Stoppard and novelist Richard Powers. Stoppard, for instance, combines obscure mathematics, English gardens and emotion vs reason in Arcadia; he creates a Zurich confluence of James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin and Tristan Tzara (a founder of Dadaism) in Travesties. Powers combines DNA discovery, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Gold Bug in his amazing and complex novel, The Gold Bug Variations; and literature, learning and neural networks in his 1996 novel Galatea 2.2. (I wrote about Powers in my review of the Spike Jonze film, Her—comparing Jonze’s concept with Powers’ Galatea 2.2.)
Anna Metcalfe of the Financial Times interviewed Richard Powers a few years ago and asked him what work he wished he had written.
Powers answered, “Tom Stoppard’s [play] Arcadia. I’d trade my soul for it.”
To me, this kind of literature crossed with science, technology and other arts is often more compelling than fiction that is purely plot- and character-driven—just as Stoppard’s plays give you something to chew on later, not just to laugh at in the moment.
I’m not saying that Pizzolatto deserves to be categorized with Stoppard and Powers yet. His resume is still short, but I think he may be heading in that direction.
Now I can go back to watching season 2 of House of Cards, which is a terrific show but I will not obsess over it.