Theater Review: Stuck on “The Coast of Utopia”

Not every critic is inspired by British playwright Tom Stoppard’s epic, Tony award-winning trilogy about the trials and tribulations of the 19th century Russian radical Alexander Herzen.

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By Bill Marx

I had high expectations for Tom Stoppard’s labor of love, but walked away from his bloated homage to the great Russian journalist and agitator shaking my head, reeling from confusion and fatigue. The liberal polemicist Alexander Herzen is worthy of our admiration. His intellectual courage, independence, and respect for aesthetic and personal freedom are virtues that remain as rare today as they were in the late 19th century, a time when enthusiasm for revolution swept reason and sanity before it. And he was also a writer of genius – the Oxford University Press volume of Herzen’s memoirs, Childhood, Youth, and Exile, provides ample proof.

But hero-worship and History Channel whoop-dee-do does not make for effective or thoughtful drama, especially since The Coast of Utopia takes easy aim at an extinct Cold War mentality. Dreams of utopia are scarce today – Communism’s hash has been settled, the new freedom of the all-powerful Market has replaced the old order of the Dialectic. Stoppard admires Herzen’s nerve, but shows little of his own, aside from demanding six hours of our time. Rather than use Herzen’s battles against religious dogma and capitalist exploitation to grapple with contemporary extremism, Stoppard is content to knock the dusty stuffings out of the anarchists of yesteryear. Herzen would be the first to laugh at the ersatz spectacle.

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