The Coast of Boredom

Last night Beth and I went to see Salvage, the final piece of Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, a trilogy about pre-Marxist Russian socialist and anarchist revolutionaries. Let’s put it this way: when the part of the evening out you’re most looking forward to is the book you’re going to read on the subway, something is wrong.

Sadly we had bought tickets for all three plays before seeing the first one. Was that ever a mistake! The plays did improve from one to the next. I fell asleep during Voyage, stayed awake for Shipwreck, and actually followed the plot (what there was of it) for Salvage. Still I can’t say I actually enjoyed any of them.

The three plays follow the lives of Nikolay Ogarev and Alexander Herzen, two Russian intellectuals from the landed gentry who finished their lives in exile. It took me to the end of the third play to figure out this much. The other characters pretty much oozed into the woodwork. Aside from Marx and Bakunin (whom I was already familiar with) I simply could not keep track of who was who, who was related to whom how, and just what any of them were actually doing. I still have no idea what was the point of the ginger cat in Shipwreck. (Hmm, it seems Stoppard has explained this; “Essentially, the Ginger Cat is an arbitrary purposeless malign or mischievous force/fate which deflects the individual life within the overarching Hegelian Law of History (‘the Moloch’) to which populations are subject.” Gee, that’s so much clearer.)

It’s possible that if one were really knowledgeable about 19th century Russian socialists and German idealists, these plays might make sense. They might even be funny. I did note one line that actually seemed witty two hours later when I figured out that the mysterious character on the Isle of Wight was actually himself a character from another character’s novels. It’s exactly the sort of mirrors in mirrors construction for which Stoppard is famous. Not that I (or anyone else in the audience) laughed at it, but if anybody had known that at the time they might have.

Stoppard’s plays have a reputation for being extremely intellectual. That works when the audience shares his frame of reference; for instance, when he’s referencing Shakespeare as in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead or Shakespeare in Love. Who knows? Maybe this play would have worked on a Russian audience. More likely you would have needed an auditorium full of Marxist historians. But on a random New York audience? Not a chance.

6 Responses to “The Coast of Boredom”

  1. John Cowan Says:

    Stoppard either delivers complete winners (R & G, Travesties, Arcadia) or complete losers (Jumpers, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour), and there’s no knowing which you are going to get until you walk in.

  2. cubiclegrrl Says:

    Actually, I wasn’t impressed w/Rozencrantz–and I was all pumped for it, too. “Shakespeare in Love” was cute, but after I found out that Stoppard might have plagiarized the storyline from “No Bed for Bacon”, I soured on it a bit.

  3. maddening Says:

    What a lazy interpretation of the play The Coast of Utopia. I respond with similar surface laziness. Any good work of art needs, wants, requires but also benefits from further study. A little time. A little moment to say, “Okay, this may not be a subject I am particualrly aquainted with but…” Van Gogh, Shakespeare, Dante etc. I am so very fatigued with the “Stooppard is intellectual” response. For goodness sake, he’s probably the greatest living language centered playwright. Please note, like Van Gogh, he will be appreciated for years to come. At least take the time to see what he’s doing instead of judging him by these casual everyday theatre goer standards. Voyage is touching and Chekovian, not sleep inducing. Shipwreck has many many “witty” lines (that do get laughs) for which a basic understanding of english is required to “get”. Oh Stoppard! What will you demand next!? The worst is the line in this “review” about undertsanding the subject matter first to “get” Stoppard. How could we EVER learn anything new if we had to approach every subject and particularly every work of art with some previously aquired knowledge? I’m sorry you were bored. I will not try and negate your subjective response. And, if you ever happen to read this, I won’t be checking this web site ever again.
    Not out of stubborness. I just don’t know how I found it. But these plays are great achievements. Extremely good works of art. Perfect? Of course not. But all those who have come with an open mind have thoroughly enjoyed them. Let your restrictive tiny definition of the theatre experience go. These are not plays written to live up to your narrow definition of the well made play.
    These are works that help to stretch and define what the well made play is.

  4. maddening Says:

    My goodness, what a terrible speller! …But I meant to mention: “Coast of Boredom”? See if Stoppard will write you a better and more esoteric title which will perhaps confound and bore you like his play. Imagine the circular scenario.

  5. snowboarder Says:

    Russian book better read at russian language. )
    How your amazon going?)

  6. sazonov Says:

    The spelling is what you chose to respond to? Amazing. Lazy.