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A Drama of Russian Ideas Finally Opens in Moscow

After successful and award-winning stagings in London and New York, Sir Tom Stoppard’s epically sprawling nine-hour triology “The Coast of Utopia” has finally opened in Moscow, where the writer was surprised by the reactions of Russian audiences to these extended portrayals of intellectual titans like Bakunin, Turgenev, and Belinsky (even the accompanying reading list for the play caused Isaiah Berlin’s 1978 book of essays “Russian Thinkers” to sell out). Journalist Arkady Ostrovsky, who translated Stoppard’s play for adaptation, has an insightful piece examining how these philosophical debates of pre-revolutionary Russia still have major resonance in today’s society:

Afterwards, the spectators argue not about the merits of the production, but about what has been said on stage. This surprises Stoppard: “It is as if people are responding to statements. They seem to imply that my plays fill some sort of gap-I don’t quite believe it.” He should. From the moment Stoppard responded to the letter which led to my translating the plays into Russian, he talked about his fantasy of seeing them performed in Russia—”as a test for the play and a homage to the culture which inspired it”. He wanted to know how his Russian characters, many of whom died in exile, would be received at home. In fact, bringing the plays to Russia turned out to be as much of a test for the country as it was for the plays.


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Amid the vanity and din of modern Russian culture, it all seems a bit incongruous. The characters with their long speeches, old-fashioned sentiments and compassion do not fit easily into modern Russia. The performance does not fit the formula for success: no glamour, no farce, no cannibalism, no post-modern twist.Yet the audience’s enthusiasm on the opening night defied the critics’ predictions of failure. As the curtain fell, the house feted the actors, the director and the playwright with ovations, flowers and curtain calls. There were tears and elation backstage. Young actors danced the can-can and lifted the 66-year-old Borodin into the air. It was not just a celebration of two years of work, but also of an important victory, an act of defiance, vindication of the idea that Russian theatre should be more than just entertainment.Belinsky would have been cheering louder than anyone. The man who first sparked Stoppard’s interest in the 19th-century Russian thinkers saw the importance of literature not in its artistic form or its civic duty, but in its power to reveal the truth about life-its meaning and purpose. “What kind of literature and what kind of life is the same question,” as Belinsky says in the play.It is still the same in Russia today. Borodin’s production has everything to do with modern Russian life, its ideas and ideals, its comprehension of the past and contemplation of the future. “In other countries”, Belinsky says, “the advance of civilised behaviour is everybody’s business. In Russia, there is no division of labour, literature has to do it all.”That leaves Belinsky and Herzen with plenty to do. They have arrived on Russia’s shores just as the history of Russian thought is up for grabs, when a fight is raging for the country’s identity and for its past. Everything Herzen detested is being resurrected: censorship, the autocracy of the Russian state, a macabre union of Orthodoxy, nationalism and authoritarianism. After almost 15 years of a democratic experiment following the collapse of Communism, Russia’s middle class is voluntarily surrendering personal liberties for a notional stability just as the French did in 1848. As one of the audience declared, “I feel that this production is so up to date that it could be shut down.”Russian state ideologists are hard at work trying to persuade themselves and the country that democracy and respect for individual rights and liberty are of no use to its people, that Russia always prospered when it was ruled by despotic tsars and that there is nothing in Russian history to be embarrassed about. The characters have returned to a country where their dreams about justice and freedom evoke mostly sneers, whereas Nicholas I, one of Russia’s most senseless autocrats, evokes sympathy and respect. “I’d love to read an article by Herzen, with his lacerating wit, about contemporary Russia,” Stoppard says.Russian history has never been kind to Herzen and his circle. Isaiah Berlin, who inspired Stoppard’s interest in Herzen, wrote that “the singular irony of history was that Herzen—who wanted individual liberty more than happiness, or efficiency or justice, and denounced organised planning, economic centralisation and governmental authority—was canonised by the Soviet government, whose genesis he understood better and feared more than Dostoyevsky did.”But the Soviet system did not just distort these men’s ideas. It did its best to wipe out the type of people who looked to their ideas for guidance. During the Soviet period, Russia still produced intellectual giants and great writers. It had its Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, but it squeezed out the close reader of Belinsky’s pulsating articles and Herzen’s unhurried memoirs, the person who shared their sentiments and their rejection of enslavement (whichever form it takes): an educated middle class.The Soviet and post-Soviet eras also deformed the language that expressed those sentiments. Words such as “honour” and “duty” were first extolled and abused by the Communists then turned into a joke by their successors. Stoppard’s trilogy has not only taken off layers of bronze paint from Herzen or Belinsky and brought them back to life, it has rehabilitated their language.But it needed someone to make these words and ideas their own—to translate them onto the stage and into life. Why did Alexei Borodin take on that role? Why did he respond to the plays that left so many of his colleagues cold? Perhaps because he possesses the qualities needed to stage them, because they celebrated liberty, individualism and compassion, which resonated with his own life.