wordweaverlynn: (Default)
Saturday, April 26, the Shotgun Players did a marathon production of Tom Stoppard's trilogy, The Coast of Utopia. The three plays -- Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage -- follow a group of (mostly) Russian revolutionaries from their idealistic youth in the 1830s to old age. I was lucky enough to attend as a guest of [personal profile] wild_irises and [personal profile] pokershaman.

As in many Stoppard plays, the characters are actual historical people, albeit ones you may not have heard of. I'm fairly well up on nineteenth-century revolutions, and there were plenty of people I didn't know. If you do decide to go, it's worth reading a little background on a few prominent characters, particularly the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, the radical and journalist Alexander Herzen, the literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, and the novelist Ivan Turgenev. Or you can just read Stoppard's own essay on the origin of the plays.

Also like many Stoppard plays, the trilogy presents compelling drama from material that doesn't necessarily seem especially dramatic at first blush. Stoppard conveys the gist of complex ideas in humorous dialogue, and he punctures self-contradictions with glee.

Bakunin: Left to themselves people are noble, generous, uncorrupted, they'd create a completely new kind of society if only people weren't so blind, stupid and selfish.
Herzen: Is that the same people or different people?

But it's not all comedy. Radicals, even wealthy ones in exile, far from the oppressive government they're protesting, suffer the usual issues of ordinary life: illness, unwise romantic entanglements, loss.

Many trilogies are strongest in their first and last parts, but to me Shipwreck was more powerful, more unified, more intense than the other two plays. Voyage is lighter and perhaps sillier, which makes sense: it focuses on the young Bakunin, whose anarchism started out as hero-worship of Shelley, then Fichte, then Hegel. By the time of Salvage, a new generation has come along and made Herzen irrelevant. But maybe my reaction is colored by being in my Shipwreck middle years myself.

Herzen:  Because children grow up, we think a child's purpose is to grow up. But a child's purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn't disdain what lives only for a day. It pours the whole of itself into the each moment. We don't value the lily less for not being made of flint and built to last. Life's bounty is in its flow, later is too late. Where is the song when it's been sung? The dance when it's been danced? It's only we humans who want to own the future, too. We persuade ourselves that the universe is modestly employed in unfolding our destination. We note the haphazard chaos of history by the day, by the hour, but there is something wrong with the picture. Where is the unity, the meaning, of nature's highest creation? Surely those millions of little streams of accident and wilfulness have their correction in the vast underground river which, without a doubt, is carrying us to the place where we're expected! But there is no such place, that's why it's called utopia. The death of a child has no more meaning than the death of armies, of nations. Was the child happy while he lived? That is a proper question, the only question. If we can't arrange our own happiness, it's a conceit beyond vulgarity to arrange the happiness of those who come after us.

How did I prepare for nine hours of Tom Stoppard plays? A good night's sleep, layered dressing, good friends, and a picnic for the break. Picnic: Homemade sourdough bread, artisan cheese, asparagus with two dipping sauces, roasted chicken, and strawberries in balsamic vinegar, eaten at a concrete picnic table at the nearby Malcolm X schoolyard.

The marathon will be repeated next Sunday, May 4, and Shipwreck is still in repertory this week.

What have you seen or read lately that inspires you?
wordweaverlynn: (Stoppard)
A week ago I attended the first night of the revival of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. As of today, I'm still under the spell of the play: laughing at its jokes, pondering its philosophy, and occasionally overwhelmed by the profound grief that underlies the wit. The play is about gardening, math, sex, love, loss, weekend guests, and a turtle, and it is hilarious and thought-provoking in equal measure.

Arcadia, set in an English country house, moves back and forth in time between the Regency and the present day. The play poses and possibly solves several mysteries about the events of the past. What happened in 1809 that led to the disappearance of the poet Ezra Chater? Who was the mysterious hermit who took up residence in 1812 and lived many years in the grounds?

The nineteenth-century residents include the teenage Thomasina Coverly and her brother Augustus, her tutor Septimus (a friend of Byron's), and her mother, as well as Chater. (Neither Byron nor Mrs. Chater ever appear, but they are important characters nevertheless.)

In the present day, descendants of the Coverly family still live at Sidley Park: another teenage girl and her brother, a scientist, as well as a second brother who speaks only once in the play. This time their houseguests are a historian named Hannah who is researching the hermit, and Bernard who is trying to prove that Lord Byron was a guest in 1809 and killed Chater in a duel.

The present-day scholars are trying to decipher those events with, as it turns out, incomplete data, an inability to see the importance of what they do have, academic arrogance, and a great many theories in the way of the truth. Which is also true of the audience, at least of the audience members unfamiliar with the script. Stoppard inveigles the audience to misjudge the importance of almost every character; essentially, we see the play the way the modern-day characters see the past.

Stoppard is not generally considered an emotional playwright, but beneath the intellectual banter and the offhand adulteries runs a profound vein of love, sorrow, hope, and loss. Ironically, the repeatedly demonstrated point that we can never really know the past offers hope. So does the recurrence of lost ideas. And the house, Sidley Park, preserves the apparently meaningless artifacts that testify to the facts of the past; that continuity is essential to the play's action but also to its meaning. Individuals die; cultures and houses continue.

The production seems good. The basic set—a garden room with a table—serves for both eras. I was too ablaze with the play itself to pay much attention to nuances of performance. The American Conservatory Theater is housed in the spectacular Curran Theater, which is elegantly decorated but whose seats are sized for elves. (Seriously. Airplane seats offer more legroom.) It's worth going anyway. Go see this play. It runs through June 9. Then come back to talk to me about it.


“THOMASINA: ....the enemy who burned the great library of Alexandria without so much as a fine for all that is overdue. Oh, Septimus! -- can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides -- thousands of poems -- Aristotle's own library!....How can we sleep for grief?

SEPTIMUS: By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady! You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?”
― Tom Stoppard, Arcadia


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June 2014



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