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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

(The Coast of Utopia - Part II)

Tom Stoppard

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To purchase Shipwreck

Title: Shipwreck
Author: Tom Stoppard
Genre: Drama
Written: 2002
Length: 106 pages
Availability: Shipwreck - US
Shipwreck - UK
Shipwreck - Canada
  • The Coast of Utopia is a play in three parts (see also our review for each):
  • Shipwreck was first performed at the National Theatre in London on 8 July 2002, in a production directed by Trevor Nunn

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Our Assessment:

B+ : packed tour of mid-19th century revolutionary Europe

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
The NY Post A 22/12/2006 Clive Barnes
The NY Sun . 22/12/2006 Eric Grode
The NY Times . 21/8/2002 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
USA Today A 21/12/2006 Elysa Gardner
The Village Voice . 28/8/2002 J.Yeh
Die Welt . 6/8/2002 Siegfried Helm

  From the Reviews:
  • "Shipwreck, the most tumultuous of the three plays, focuses on the failed European revolutions of 1848. To be crude, you could call this one Les Misérables for intellectuals" - The Economist

  • " Shipwreck, the least satisfying, deals with the impact of the 1848 French revolution on a group of nomadic intellectuals, including the libertarian socialist Alexander Herzen and the westernised Turgenev." - Michael Billington, The Guardian

  • "Stoppard has changed the play since the 2002 London version, sometimes for the better -- excising, for example, the pompous phrase, "Cynicism fills the air like ash and blights the leaves on the freedom tree." But to cut by half Natalie's fascinating aria on life, art and love after confronting a phony painting make her comments less meaningful." - Clive Barnes, The New York Post

  • "Too many arguments among Herzen and his philosophical brethren devolve into comic squabbles, and Mr. Stoppard falls prey to some uncharacteristically lumpy exposition" - Eric Grode, The New York Sun

  • "In Shipwreck, Stoppard dissects the absurdism inherent in belief, and he does so in a voice that is significantly less preachy than the one he uses in Voyage. His ambition here is as epic as Bakuninís, and suffused with a pathos that equals Herzenís. (To create such living, flawed men, Stoppard must have identi-fied with them to some degree.) But, unlike his often foolish and always sincere characters, he possesses the discipline of a great artist, who knows that in dreams lie responsibilities: to build a world, one must first fashion the bricks." - Hilton Als, The New Yorker

  • "Stoppard's piquant, probing dialogue allows Herzen to expound wittily, and movingly, on intellectual matters and matters of the heart, which are by no means mutually exclusive here. (...) Stoppard's script would sound glorious if recited by students in a dingy classroom, but to see such style and substance merge with spectacle is a rare treat, on Broadway or anywhere." - Elysa Gardner, USA Today

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:

       Shipwreck begins back in Russia, in 1846, a few years after the final events in the previous Voyage. Michael Bakunin is already abroad, and the focus shifts to Alexander Herzen and his family.
       The opening scene is again a domestic one, with Herzen's wife, Natalie, the poet Nicholas Ogarev, and several children, among others. Natalie observes: "Now grown-upness has caught up with us ... as if life were too serious for love." But, this being Stoppard, love will always interfere -- and Ogarev and the Herzens will have what seems like no end of love-provoked issues to deal with.
       Herzen and family soon venture abroad, finally given permission to travel; it will become a permanent exile. They have a fairly good reason for leaving Russia -- for the sake of their young deaf son, Kolya -- but thus become part of what appears to be a diaspora of the Russian intelligentsia. They all seem to find themselves abroad: Bakunin, Belinsky, Turgenev -- and eventually many others.
       All across Europe, these are revolutionary times. Bakunin is, of course, the most enthusiastic (and optimistic), certain -- in 1847 -- that: "The Tsar and all his works will be gone within a year, or two at the most."
       Bakunin and Herzen here represent the two main strands of ambition for the future. Bakunin storms ahead, focussed only on change, even if it is only for the sake of change. Revolution ! is the only thing that interests him:

Bakunin: The mistake is to put ideas before action. Act first ! The ideas will follow, and if not -- well it's progress.
Herzen: Belinsky -- save me from this madness !
       (Herzen was spared the madness (dying in 1870), but Russia, of course, succumbed disastrously to it soon enough.)
       The more guarded Herzen is concerned about consequences, and what actually might be won or lost. He too wants change, but he is suspicious of Bakunin's often almost aimless change for the mere sake of change.
       The 1848 revolutions ultimately disappoint. As George Herwegh notes:
We've had a terrible shock. We discovered that history has no respect for intellectuals. History is more like the weather. You never know what it's going to do.
       The disappointment is real, but does not convince all -- notably the ever-bubbly Bakunin who still believes in revolution (and in meddling) to the end. Herzen too continues his efforts, but they are of a different, more circumspect sort.
       All the while, there are also domestic affairs to deal with, and the difficulties caused by the heart. Herzen's life is, near the close of this episode, again touched by tragedy, which allows him to reaffirm his philosophical stance:
If we can't arrange our own happiness, it's a conceit beyond vulgarity to arrange the happiness of those who come after us.
       Bakunin, of course, revels in this conceit (and it is of course to Bakunin that Herzen speaks these words -- though they are presented as an observation, not a hectoring lecture).
       Herzen is a fine creation here, the mouthpiece for Stoppard and his ideals. Bakunin, all larger than life, threatens to become an almost clownish character, except that Stoppard always acknowledges his literally overwhelming charisma. Other historical figures, including Turgenev and Herwegh, are also used well -- and there is even a cameo by Karl Marx.
       Stoppard shows a fine touch with both the political and philosophical debates, generally presenting the succinctly and well, occasionally even with a bit of dramatic flare. They don't slow the play down much. Equally fine is the human drama, though for a time it gets lost in all the revolutions. Still, the stories here, around Herzen, are well done. And the few glaring theatrical devices -- a reprised scene at the end of the first act, a return to the beginning in the closing scene -- are also effective.
       The play is very full. It is crowded -- not so much by people (though that too) as by the events all around, and though Stoppard withdraws his characters to quieter corners the fill of events (revolution ! all around !) is hard to keep at bay. That is part of the play, of course, but it's hard to get it just right.
       A success, if not fully convincing with its many strands.

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Shipwreck: Reviews: Alexander Herzen: Michael Bakunin: Vissarion Belinsky: 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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