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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

The Coast of Utopia

Tom Stoppard

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Coast of Utopia - boxed edition

Title: The Coast of Utopia
Author: Tom Stoppard
Genre: Drama
Written: 2002
Length: 339 pages
Availability: The Coast of Utopia (boxed edition) - US
Voyage - UK
Shipwreck - UK
Salvage - UK
  • The Coast of Utopia is a play in three parts (see also our review for each):
  • The Coast of Utopia is currently only available in three separate volumes
  • The Coast of Utopia was first performed at the National Theatre in London in the summer of 2002, in a production directed by Trevor Nunn

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Our Assessment:

A- : often powerful, often moving -- but a great deal of material

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly . 12/2002 Christopher Hitchens
Commentary . 4/2007 Terry Teachout
Daily Telegraph . 5/8/2002 Charles Spencer
The Economist . 8/8/2002 .
Evening Standard . 5/8/2002 Nicholas de Jongh
The Guardian A- 5/8/2002 Michael Billington
The Hudson Review A- Winter/2003 Richard Hornby
The Independent B- 5/8/2002 Paul Taylor
Int. Herald Tribune . 7/8/2002 Sheridan Morley
Le Monde . 10/8/2002 J.-L. Perrier
The Nation A 9/12/2002 Carol Rocamora
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 6/8/2002 Patricia Benecke
The New Criterion . 9/2002 Mark Steyn
New Criterion . 4/2007 Brooke Allen
The New Republic . 2/4/2007 Robert Brustein
The NY Times A 21/8/2002 Ben Brantley
The NY Times . 4/2/2007 Charles Isherwood
The New Yorker . 23/9/2002 John Lahr
The New Yorker . 8/1/2007 Hilton Als
The Observer B 11/8/2002 Susannah Clapp
Time A- 24/11/2002 Richard Corliss
The Times . 5/8/2002 Benedict Nightingale
TLS B 9/8/2002 Peter Kemp
The Village Voice . 28/8/2002 J.Yeh
Die Welt . 6/8/2002 Siegfried Helm

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, though practically everyone thinks it's too long. Impressed by aspects of it, but generally not bowled over.

  From the Reviews:
  • "The shroud that has fallen over Herzen was not so much lifted as shaken out by Sir Tom Stoppard earlier this year. In three plays (Ö) he in effect demanded that audiences at the Royal National Theatre, in London, commit about nine hours of their leisure to a reconsideration of the roots of the Russian Revolution." - Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "(I)t pains me to report that there are long, long stretches of The Coast of Utopia that appear to have been written with perspiration rather than inspiration. And the result is that this baggy monster of a production is too often an exhausting sweat for the audience too. (...) Yet if The Coast of Utopia is more like a vast curate's egg than a fully achieved epic masterpiece, parts of it are truly excellent." - Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph

  • "The Coast of Utopia makes a pageant of the lives of a stormy group of mid-19th-century Russian radicals whose theories, hopes and quarrels stamped the history of the next 150 years. For their sweep and daring alone, the three plays (...) make a journey well worth taking." - The Economist

  • "Often Stoppard parades these radical political theories in lengthy monologues instead of testing them in fierce dramatic argument. Indeed The Coast of Utopia occupies far too much stage time. The text needs vicious pruning. Yet when nagging questions of adultery and the ethics of borrowing another man's wife disturb both Herzen's first and second marriages, Stoppard turns tight-lipped and terse. He seems surprisingly reluctant to trespass in this murky erotic territory. It's as if he was uncertain how far The Coast of Utopia is purely political and impurely erotic." - Nicholas de Jongh, Evening Standard

  • "(I)t contains passages of breathtaking beauty and surprising ordinariness. But I wouldn't have missed it for worlds and at its heart it contains a fascinating lesson about the nature of drama. (...) Stoppard loads the dice in favour of Herzen, beautifully played by Stephen Dillane, but the fact is that his rationalist moderation is dramatically unexciting. The great paradox is that Stoppard's trilogy comes most alive when dealing with characters he intellectually disowns, in particular Bakunin. (...) The moral is that dramatic energy is more important than historical correctness" - Michael Billington, The Guardian

  • "Utopia is like a stage version of a nineteenth-century novel, leisurely, historically sweeping, idealistic, overloaded with characters who talk by the paragraph rather than in grunts and expletives. Like a traditional Russian novel, Utopia drags in places, but its cumulative effect is wonderful." - Richard Hornby, The Hudson Review

  • "With The Coast of Utopia, though, the diligent researcher is too often in evidence at the expense of the playwright. The trilogy is, throughout, intelligent, lucid, eloquent and enlivened by the author's wit and eye for the absurd (.....) But the plays (...) are like an over-inclusive crash-survey of the period, a theatrical supplement to one of Stoppard's prose-sources, Isaiah Berlin's book Russian Thinkers, rather than a drama that's ruthlessly prepared to throw material overboard in the interests of its tighter development." - Paul Taylor, The Independent

  • "Stoppard has done all the right research but sometimes seems unable to get his head above the vast pile of homework. There are precious few jokes, and little sign of the devious, brilliant wordplay that made his name. (...) One leaves the National after a 12-hour day (with meal breaks) wishing sometimes that less could have been more, but dazzled yet again by Stoppard's restless, demanding, wayward genius." - Sheridan Morley, International Herald Tribune

  • "Le mélange, très britannique, de drame et de comédie le prévient de toute duperie. L'as du trompe-l'oeil, de l'intelligence pour l'intelligence, peut s'abandonner à la générosité du conteur." - Jean-Louis Perrier, Le Monde

  • "(I)t's both a mesmerizing history lesson and a theatergoing discovery, leaving you dazzled, dazed and off to the theater bookstore to delve into this period of history that Stoppard has rendered so moving as well as enlightening." - Carol Rocamora, The Nation

  • "Die grösste Crux des Projektes liegt in der Form, darin, dass hier eine platt lineare historische Nacherzählung auf die Bühne gehievt wird, die einfach zu wenig dramatische Treibkraft hat für neun Stunden." - Patricia Benecke, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "But as the words and images and rotating players are flying past you, an awful lot gets lost. Stoppard has fulfilled his own itinerary: his trilogy sets sail on a vast sea and is drowned by the sheer scale of the subject. In the end, The Coast of Utopia must be counted a valiant failure." - The New Criterion, Mark Steyn

  • "The stagecraft helps to make this trilogy theatrical, but nothing quite makes it dramatic. For great drama is not about human beings in motion; it is about human beings in action. Lacking that compressed action, The Coast of Utopia remains a series of portentous book reports that skim over the surface of its subjects without ever penetrating the core of their being. Stoppard has replaced passion with peroration, poetic inspiration with the labors of the lamp." - The New Republic, Robert Brustein

  • "The Coast of Utopia takes the love of a good argument to spectacular extremes unknown in the theater since the heyday of George Bernard Shaw. (...) The pleasures of Utopia (...) are those of a fat novel that for all its long-windedness is a page turner. (...) Unlike much of Stoppard's work, Utopia lives far more compellingly on the stage than on the page." - Ben Brantley, The New York Times

  • "In my view much of The Coast of Utopia consists of great chunks of erudition and history untransformed by the playwright's imagination and craft into a compelling play. (...) The Coast of Utopia doesn't seem to build or deepen, to gain in emotional density; it just keeps going." - Charles Isherwood, The New York Times

  • "What's wrong with Stoppard's stage picture is that the drama is in the wings; what's onstage is just talk. (...) Stoppard makes the ideological disputes cogent, but his glib narrative shorthand lends itself to synthesis, not to psychology. As a result, the ideas are given life, but the characters are not." - John Lahr, The New Yorker

  • "But he has been far too timid in his use of the material: he has excavated rather than animated. All of the trilogy is humane, and there are peaks of brilliance, but large stretches -- great steppes -- of it are dramatically inert. It doesn't justify its length. Far too often a character looks out into the audience and dumps historical data on them. As if in excessive deference to Herzen's scepticism about the large arc of history, The Coast of Utopia is a galaxy of individual moments without a dynamic onward movement. It doesn't show or persuade: it states." - Susannah Clapp, The Observer

  • "The trilogy celebrates the fine art of talking: rhetoric, invective, verbal violence and flirtation, impromptu essays that generate heat and light. (...) I find that I am romanticizing my reaction to The Coast of Utopia. The trilogy is perhaps an hour, perhaps a play, too long." - Richard Corliss, Time

  • "Yes, The Coast of Utopia is refreshingly ambitious in its sweep. Yes, itís packed with reflections on idealism and political change that still have clout today. But the trilogy has its longueurs, its dips of energy, its relentlessly protracted arguments -- and only sporadically the fun that is Stoppardís trademark. (...) You leave it sated, exhausted, impressed." - Benedict Nightingale, The Times

  • "Throughout this trilogy that displays the nightmare of police-state censorship, you will find yourself wishing that the author had been willing to wield the blue pencil rather more extensively. Why Stoppard hasn't done this, and has permitted what could have been a grippingly taut and packed three-act drama to swell into a slacker, repetitive trilogy is a question the answer to which might be traced back to his earlier work." - Peter Kemp, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Perhaps he should have taken more liberties with the facts -- The Coast of Utopia, for all its eloquence, has surprisingly little to say." - J. Yeh, The Village Voice

  • "Zum Finale bezieht der Autor überraschend Position. (...) Hier klingt Stoppards Rhetorik wie Schillersches Pathos. Nie zuvor hat er das Theater so zur moralischen Anstalt erhoben. Stoppard schrieb, in allzu epischer Breite, ein Satyrspiel auf die Bewegung der romantischen Utopisten." - Siegfried Helm, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Coast of Utopia is a trilogy of plays describing the rise of revolutionary Russia -- not what came in 1905 or 1917 but the first efforts, generations earlier. (See also our reviews of the individual plays: Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage.) The two central figures are Michael Bakunin (especially in the first play) and then Alexander Herzen (who dominates the next two).
       Voyage, beginning in the early 1830s, shows the rise of the revolutionary spirit. Set around the very traditional (and wealthy) Bakunin household, it shows a society beginning to undergo a radical transformation.
       Shipwreck moves abroad: though the central figures remain largely Russian, it and Salvage are plays of exile. The European revolutions of 1848 are the pivotal events of this play -- moments of hope that are revealed as failures.
       Salvage continues with Alexander Herzen's efforts abroad, printing a Russian newspaper, trying to affect change. The 1861 Emancipation of the Russian serfs is the most significant event here -- though it happens far offstage.
       Politics and philosophy are significant throughout. Characters such as literary critic Vissarion Belinsky and novelist Ivan Turgenev represent the artistic ideals. But all positions are covered: there are also hardline theorists, obsessed with ideas, willing to make any sacrifice. There is Bakunin, the spirited, winning character who wants change and damn the consequences. And there is the calm, rational Herzen, unwilling to forget the individual (and individual happiness) despite all these grand ideals and their ostensible benefits for the masses.
       Politics is not the only source of drama here either. Stoppard firmly grounds the plays in the individual fates of his characters. Love often gets in the way, human passion as inconvenient and uncontrollable as, indeed, it is in real life. The family affairs here are a grand mess -- and there are simple, universal personal tragedies to be dealt with as well.
       In Salvage Stoppard has his writer stand-in, Turgenev maintain that he is the opposite of impartial: "On the contrary, I take every possible side." Stoppard tries to do as much here too. His sympathies are obvious: Belinsky, then Turgenev, and Herzen largely speak for him -- the first two especially regarding their concerns and interest in art (and the role of art and the artist), the latter as a wary revolutionary committed to change but always trying to keep the goals of that change in sight, and always concerned for individual happiness and justice. Still, Stoppard creates a grand character in Michael Bakunin as well, despite Bakunin's eagerness apparently to ferment revolution almost just for the sheer fun of it (or so it comes at times to seem). Stoppard perhaps makes Bakunin a bit too dashing and grand in his charming revolutionary zeal -- in one of his last appearances the stage directions describe Bakunin as "a huge and hirsute force, an emperor tramp" -- but it's still fun.
       Stoppard also doesn't shy away from characters like Chernyshevsky, arguing: "Only the axe will do." (In the stage directions -- which almost drip with such asides -- Stoppard notes of him: "He is to become, after his death, one of the early saints of the Bolshevik calendar." Oh, that phrasing, that revealing undertone !) Stoppard also allows Chernyshevsky to put Herzen in his place near the end:

You and your friends lived the usual life of the upper classes. Your generation were the romantics of the cause, the dilettanti of revolutionary ideas.
       But it's too clear that Stoppard, while having a smattering of understanding, has almost no respect for his point of view. And still: he doesn't make it easy for himself either, honest enough to know there were (and are) few easy answers. (As history proved -- and proves almost daily once again.)

       There's so much in these plays. There are the light dramatic echoes, nods in the direction of, for example Chekhov:
Michael : Yes -- we must get out -- out ! -- to Moscow !
       He leaves. Belinsky goes back indoors.
Liubov : Moscow ... !
       She follows Michael out.
       There are dramatic games, of acts coming full round to their beginning, or a scene repeated twice with a different focus. Dream scenes. Shots fired -- "A revolver shot ... the attempted assassination of Tsar Alexander" reads the scene taking place in April 1866, in its entirety.
       There's also history. History all about. Some of it is occasionally a bit contrived -- Stoppard had to work hard to get Marx into some this -- but most works very well. Except, of course, that not everyone will be familiar with the names or the events.
       Two things Stoppard does very well, here and almost always: philosophical debate (and most of the political debate here is essentially philosophical in nature) and the drama of human relationships (specifically those that don't quite work out). The lovers' games -- Herzen's in particular -- are as unsatisfactory and deeply human (in their honesty and intensity -- and failure) as the political aspirations of the characters. There is idealism all about, regarding politics and regarding love. But idealism is easily and often crushed -- and even Herzen can't help but do some of the crushing.

       A fascinating, often marvelous heap of a play. Both many of the small pieces -- bits of dialogue, a single scene or gesture or event -- and the grand whole are close to marvelous. Only in the in-between, in the attempt to fit all the pieces and make the sum of the parts all along the way -- in one-two-three plays and one even larger whole -- are there cracks to be found. Still: a play worth your close attention (and it requires close attention to be fully appreciated -- but makes it worth the effort).

       (See also our reviews of the individual plays: Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage.)

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The Coast of Utopia: Reviews: Michael Bakunin: Vissarion Belinsky: Alexander Herzen: Ivan Turgenev: Tom Stoppard: Other works by Tom Stoppard under review: Works about Tom Stoppard under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Drama under review

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About the Author:

       British dramatist Tom Stoppard, born in 1937, is author of such notable plays as Arcadia and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

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© 2002-2009 the complete review

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