The Coast of Utopia: More People's Friend than People's Will

Submitted by AWL on 13 September, 2002 - 10:22

by Oona Swann

If there was a dramatic equivalent of Poet Laureate Tom Stoppard would be it. He can play wittily with complex intellectual ideas and serve up populist entertainment, like 'Shakespeare in Love', which is equally stuffed with knowing treats for the discerning.

I like his stuff. I don't mind his (Thatcherite) politics because it's dressed up so appetisingly. So when I hear he's writeen three linked plays around the lives of 19th century Russian revolutionaries, I expect something a bit special. Not that I expect to agree with him, more that if anyone can wittily dramatise the competing political currents then 'Clever Tom' would be the man.

Which just goes to show. Stocks can go down as well as up. Previous performance is not an indicator of current….
HEALTH WARNING: it's 9 hours long. Don't go.

Forster, I think, said the essential critical questions are: what is the writer trying to do? Do they succeed? And was it worth doing?

So.
What is he trying to do?
Implicit in any examination of 19th century Russian revolutionary politics is the question: how far do they foreshadow Russia in the 20th century - the 1917 Revolution, Stalinism and its bloody empire? Stoppard was born Czech and involved himself in Charter 77 and the Czech democratic opposition, so the question is clearly prominent for him. He has, apparently, been intending for the last 30 years, since the 50th anniversary, to write something to 'commemorate' the Russian Revolution.

Maybe 10+ years after the fall of the Russian empire is long enough to give a considered response. Or if you prefer a conspiracy theory, anti-capitalism, 'Another World is Possible' is suddenly on the agenda, so the pro-capitalists ideologues (Martin Amis is another) need to flex their intellectual muscles.

Was it worth doing?
Yes, yes, yes. Intellectual theatre, the dramatisation of ideas and the recognition that ideas are important, is long overdue. We've been languishing in a fug of post-modern cleverness for too long. Politics under new labour has become slick philistinism. Yes, human being make history but they do so armed with political ideas, and it's worth critically tracing the interaction of those ideas with classes and individuals in history.

Does he succeed?
No. not dramatically, not politically, not entertainingly.

The setting is Chekhov (long summers on the estate, windswept exile, dinner table disputes and sighing girls) but the ambition is Shakespearean - 3 x 3-hour plays, linked by theme and overlapping personnel, big historic events, the epic and the personal. You set the bar high, Tom, and you flopped.

Dramatically, the plays are all over the place. There's no defined beginning and end, no rising tension, no collision of opposed forces, no resolution, no tragic flaw, no fate, no irony. In short, none of the things that make a drama dramatic. Or, more accurately, they are all there but under-developed, murky, confused. After nine hours, 30 actors and 169 costume changes, I was left asking: what was all that about?

I expected not to agree with the politics, but I did think I'd get some illumination, or that troubling questions would be raised that I'd have to think long about. Isn't that one of the reasons you go to the theatre, to be challenged, moved, disturbed even? I was just irritated.

The fundamental flaw in these plays, and unfortunately it's fatal, is that Clever Tom doesn't understand political passion. Ideas are a Game for him, an occasion for (some good, some yawningly predictable) jokes. So one is never really moved by the characters, because he hasn't got inside what motivates them. You cry out for Will Shakespeare (whose politics I'm sure I wouldn't approve but who knew something about what makes people make history).

An example of a good joke. In the first play, Voyage, set in Russia in the 1830's, wealth is measured not in land or money but in 'souls' (serfs who belong body and soul to their feudal landlord): 'A man who possesses 500 souls must surely increase his odds of getting to heaven,' - a nice ironic collision of economics and morality. And one of the few reminders of what is at stake in these dinner table arguments - a system where the human life of the lower classes is so little valued that a person's soul may belong to the master. But these are rare.

To make up for the lack of political drama, there's a kind of bed-hopping soap opera woven in to add a but of 'human interest'. Sadly, Tom understands women about as well as he understands politics. Where are the heart-felt attempts to construct new forms of relationship, the passionate kicking against the restrictions of women's assigned role that are familiar even from contemporary women novelists? Stoppard's women are drippy martyrs and dizzy tarts. More People's Friend than People's Will

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