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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

(The Coast of Utopia - Part I)

Tom Stoppard

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To purchase Voyage

Title: Voyage
Author: Tom Stoppard
Genre: Drama
Written: 2002
Length: 114 pages
Availability: Voyage - US
Voyage - UK
. Voyage - Canada
  • The Coast of Utopia is a play in three parts (see also our review for each):
  • Voyage was first performed at the National Theatre in London on 27 June 2002, in a production directed by Trevor Nunn

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Our Assessment:

A- : busy, clever, and entertaining

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly . 12/2002 Christopher Hitchens
Daily Telegraph . 5/8/2002 Charles Spencer
The Economist . 8/8/2002 .
Evening Standard . 5/8/2002 Nicholas de Jongh
The Guardian . 5/8/2002 Michael Billington
The Hudson Review . Winter/2003 Richard Hornby
The Independent . 5/8/2002 Paul Taylor
Int. Herald Tribune . 7/8/2002 Sheridan Morley
Le Monde . 10/8/2002 J.-L. Perrier
The Nation . 9/12/2002 Carol Rocamora
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 6/8/2002 Patricia Benecke
The New Criterion . 9/2002 Mark Steyn
NY Post A 28/11/2006 Clive Barnes
The NY Sun A 28/11/2006 Eric Grode
The NY Times . 21/8/2002 Ben Brantley
The NY Times A 28/11/2006 Ben Brantley
The New Yorker . 23/9/2002 John Lahr
The New Yorker . 8/1/2007 Hilton Als
The Observer . 11/8/2002 Susannah Clapp
Time . 24/11/2002 Richard Corliss
The Times . 5/8/2002 Benedict Nightingale
TLS . 9/8/2002 Peter Kemp
The Village Voice . 28/8/2002 J.Yeh
The Washington Post . 28/11/2006 Peter Marks
Die Welt . 6/8/2002 Siegfried Helm

  Review Consensus:

  Almost all those that discussed the individual plays liked this one best

  From the Reviews:
  • "Voyage, which opens at the Bakunin country estate, has a melancholy, Chekhovian lilt, as the anarchist Bakunin and his friends speculate about life, love and whether progress will best come to their country by way of western or slavic ideals. (...) Voyage is the one work in the trio that looks likeliest to have its own onward separate life." - The Economist

  • "Each play in the trilogy, dealing with 19th-century Russian revolutionaries, has its own style. Voyage, the first and best, focuses on the anarchic Bakunin and the critic Belinsky and seems like a tonic combination of Gorki and Chekhov." - Michael Billington, The Guardian

  • "Stoppard has hit upon an enthralling, little-known story and deftly welded it into a soap opera for the thinking classes." - Clive Barnes, New York Post

  • "By focusing on the blind spots and emotional underpinnings of the philosophies at the play's center, Messrs. Stoppard and O'Brien have united head and heart with a mastery that makes The Coast of Utopia, at least so far, the most exciting theatrical event Broadway has seen in a long, long time. (...) While Mr. Stoppard has certainly done his homework and is proud of it, he has tempered the torrent of verbiage with poignant strains of loss and regret. (...) This level of complexity, along with the sheer glut of material, requires an occasional bit of epic-theatre shorthand on the creators' part -- I'd advise against becoming too emotionally invested in any character that coughs more than once. But as with any of Mr. Stoppard's finest works, the heady perorations give way to emotional richness with surprising potency" - Eric Grode, The New York Sun

  • "Voyage, the first part of the trilogy, is by far the most artfully arranged and judiciously edited of the three." - Ben Brantley, The New York Times

  • "Voyage is paced and defined by the quicksilver changes of mood and conviction that come from being young in a time of flux -- by the feeling that everything and nothing is possible. (...) Voyage courses with a vitality that makes Les Misérables feel static. (...) Mr. Stoppard has trimmed the philosophical debates considerably from the script in London, which may dilute academic complexity but enhances theproduction's breathless momentum." - Ben Brantley, The New York Times

  • "(T)he most fragmented of the three plays" - John Lahr, The New Yorker

  • "Stoppard’s characters do not live so much as imagine what life could be, if it adhered to their visions. His dramatizations take us on a guided tour of the life of the mind, with all its blind spots, loves, and delusions, as it is shaped by the uncontrollable forces of history. Nevertheless, despite Stoppard’s obvious brilliance Voyage begins to feel too much like a lesson in Act II, when the action moves to Moscow." - Hilton Als, The New Yorker

  • "But if you want to sample a single play, I think the finest is Voyage, which starts in a genially Chekhovian style, introduces key characters, and gives you a sense of the intellectual hurly-burly of an age in which dissident aristocrats or "repentant gentry" were leading the opposition to a serf-owning society and a monstrously oppressive Tsar." - Benedict Nightingale, The Times

  • "The liveliest piece" - J. Yeh, The Village Voice

  • "Given the totalitarian path Russia eventually would take (Herzen would be cited by Lenin as a positive influence), the muscular optimism expressed by the young men of Voyage feels as if it's perhaps setting up the trilogy as tragedy. But working against poignancy is the unspooling of lives in a rush of scenes and events that allow little time for savoring." - Peter Marks, The Washington Post

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:

       Voyage is the opening salvo in Tom Stoppard's trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, setting the stage for the revolutionary times to follow.
       Stoppard goes far back in searching for beginnings: the play opens in 1833 and covers the period until 1844. It is set in Russia: the first act in Premukhino, "the Bakunin estate", the second elsewhere across Russia -- such as in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
       The play does not unfold chronologically -- or rather it does, but twice over. First, in the first act, come (almost) all the scenes set at the family estate, between 1833 and 1841. But bits are missing -- events that happen elsewhere (Moscow, St. Petersburg, etc.). These then are filled in in the second act, when the same timeframe is repeated, more or less (beginning back in 1834), but in the other locales (save the last scene, set back at Premukhino). It is a fairly effective device, allowing for oohs of recognition in the second act as open issues from the first are resolved ("That's what that meant !" or "That's where the penknife came from / wound up"), and making for some decent dramatic tension. (Of course, some of it also seem like simple dramatic gamesmanship.)
       Voyage is a crowded play. Michael Bakunin is the young, slightly wayward son of Alexander and Varvara who stands pretty much as the central figure. The Bakunins also have four daughters, Liubov, Varenka, Tatiana, and Alexandra, who play -- collectively and individually -- a fairly prominent role. There is also young philosopher Nicholas Stankevich and impoverished but enthusiastic critic Vissarion Belinsky. Among others to appear: Alexander Herzen (who comes to play a much larger role in part II of the trilogy), Ivan Turgenev, and even Pushkin.
       Flighty, intellectually curious Michael Bakunin, eagre to embrace what he see as the changing times, manages to meddle most everywhere. It begins when he returns from military school, barely twenty, and disapproves of the match arranged for his sister, Liubov. "This marriage cannot take place," he announces, beginning a subtle reign of terror as he sets himself against the old ways -- of familial duty and obligation -- and goes about promoting airy concepts such as love and free will.
       The marriage doesn't take place -- Liubov is saved -- but already barely more than two years later Liubov looks back to those times and laments: "That was the last time everything was all right." Love, and other airy ideals, continue to upset the old order, and to cause turmoil for everyone. For a play dealing with political themes, love is extraordinarily prominent. The characters tend to focus on the abstract (and -- worse yet -- the philosophical), and are defeated by reality (mirroring, of course, also what happens to their revolutionary ambitions). Early on, for example, Stankevich describes Liubov reading a book outside the room he is in, to explain his philosophical ideas. When she becomes real -- getting up ! coming in ! -- it is (hilariously) entirely too much for him.
       Pushkin's duel-death is also given considerable attention. Typically it too is understood by the characters largely only in abstract terms, with Stankevich insisting: "The duel was between knowledge and denial, the dialectic dramatised, it's all there in Hegel."
       Stoppard makes the point repeatedly, with many of his characters: too much attention is placed on theory, while the real is not allowed its proper, prominent place (as, really, the only thing that ultimately matters). A rare exception is Alexandra, displaying a down-to-earth sensibility largely absent among the otherwise largely intellectual Bakunin sisters. (She is also one of the few characters who seems genuinely happy for much of the play.) There is a scene when she walks with Tatiana and Varenka, who has just had a baby, and wants to the suckle the child. It is an absurd request, of course:

       Alexandra: Will you let me have a little go, Varenka ?
       Tatiana: Don't be stupid ! How can you ...
       Alexandra: Stupid yourself, I mean just to see what it feels like.
       Stoppard clearly sides with Alexandra, believing that this desire -- to know what everything feels like -- is laudable, and that the many failures of the other characters are grounded in their inability to express or even have such an ambition.
       Most of the characters obviously fail at love. Reality and their abstract notions don't meet. And miscommunication, misunderstandings and other confusions make for a great deal of heartbreak for practically everyone. The elder Bakunins, grounded in old traditions, are among the few who find any sort of happiness with another.
       Theory dominates many of these lives. Michael Bakunin jumps from one philosophy (and philosophical master) to the next: first it is Schelling, then Fichte, the Hegel that shows the way (and the only truth). He is easily carried away, full of convictions -- and yet always in motion (and, ultimately, in flight). He influences those around him, and yet is never there to clean up the mess he leaves behind, avoiding reality (and consequences) in yet another way.
       Among the most engaging characters is the impoverished but passionate Vissarion Belinsky. A literary critic with a limited education (deeply ashamed that he can not read French, for example), he has strong ideas and ideals, seeing what is wrong with Russian literature and ardently arguing for a change of ways. He describes his own style as one of "chaos, excess, and no mercy" -- which describes him in person too (though in person he is also painfully shy and often humble). His fervour is much like Bakunin's -- but he is more devoted to (and unwavering in) his ideals, and thus far more convincing as a truly intellectual voice. And, of course, there is some danger to his ideas and his forceful presentation: as the elder Bakunin notes: "If Mr. Belinsky is a literary critic, so was Robespierre."
       Still, Belinsky is a redeeming figure because he believes in art (while Michael Bakunin, for example, hardly seems to). Belinsky is truly moved by art and literature, and he believes it is the key to all, including a better future for his country. The alternative -- and it appears to be Bakunin's alternative -- he sees as very dangerous:
When philosophers start talking like architects, get out while you can, chaos is coming. When they start laying down rules for beauty, blood in the streets is from that moment inevitable. When reason and measurement are made authorities for the perfect society, seek sanctuary among the cannibals ...
       (This is, of course, also the position espoused by Stoppard.)
       The final scene is set again at the family estate, a final farewell for old Alexander Bakunin. The stage directions even point out the old man's age again ("aged seventy six"), one more reminder to emphasize the end is nigh. Immediately his wife warns "You'll catch your death !". Oh yes, and he's watching the sunset. An age is over, and new times are coming, the voyage begun .....

       Voyage is a packed play. Packed with people, packed with ideas. It is cleverly presented -- briskly paced, fun, thoughtful, often moving. But it is a great deal, and though most of it fits together very well not all of it unfolds entirely satisfactory. Certainly worthwhile, but not in and of itself an entirely rounded, satisfactory drama.

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Voyage: 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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