That Old Feeling: Theater Past, Theater Perfect

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Have you ever traveled 6,000 miles to attend a single cultural event? I did, last month. The event was "The Coast of Utopia," a trilogy of Tom Stoppard plays directed by Trevor Nunn for the National Theatre in London. With a running (or ambling) time of 9hrs.30min, a cast of 30 adults and 15 children, and an elaborate physical production, "The Coast of Utopia" was unlikely to be mounted anywhere else. I had to be there.

Besides, I owed Stoppard. Since the mid-60s, with "Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," he has gifted me and countless others with some of the most intelligent, playful, sublime evenings of theater: "Jumpers," "The Real Thing" and the never-to-be-topped "Arcadia," to name three of a dozen offspring of his fertile imagination. Seized by the irresistible impulse to find out what Stoppard had in mind about 19th century Russian socialists, and abetted by the gracious offices of Aisha Labi, TIME Europe's Florence Nightingale for wayward visitors, I entered the National bunker for my Stoppard marathon one autumn Saturday morning.

Morning? Ah, that was the final lure: True acolytes could spend all day and most of the night on that Utopian coast. On weekdays, one or two of the plays were performed, but each Saturday the National put on a grand Stoppardian bouffe. The first of the trilogy, "Voyage," began at 11 and ended at 2:15; the second part, "Shipwreck," commenced at 3:15 and went till 6:30; and the finale, "Salvage," started at 7:30 and let out around 10:45. As a theater-binger from way back (the Royal Shakespeare Company's "Nicholas Nickleby," Bill Bryden's production of "The Miracles" for the National), I welcomed the chance for total immersion in non-stop-Stoppard with 2500 like-minded pilgrims.

"The Coast of Utopia" was part of a trifecta of new works by top English playwrights. London this fall also has on offer "A Number" by Caryl Churchill — of "Cloud Nine" and "Top Girls" glory —and David Hare's "The Breath of Life," a star vehicle for Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. (Would you import the Irishman Brian Friel to join this exalted company? I wouldn't, quite, but Friel had a new piece too: "Afterplay," a slight memory-play with old charmers John Hurt and Penelope Wilton as characters from Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" and "Three Sisters.")

London also boasts the finest stage rendition I've seen of "A Streetcar Named Desire," with Glenn Close as Tennessee Williams' fractured heroine Blanche duBois. Physically, Close seems wrong: she is pointy of face, sinewy of frame. She lacks those soft features that Blanche wants caressed by soft lights; Vivien Leigh's lingering luster, in the first London production and in the 1951 movie, convinced audiences well into the third act that Blanche was right about the world, and the brute Stanley Kowalski (Brando) was wrong. Close's angularity telegraphs from her first entrance that Blanche is not who she wants the world to think she is.

The actress finds Blanche's seductiveness in her musical voice, the practiced irony of her inflections, the remembered gentilities of a Southern belle long since cracked, her light-footed stroll through the huge, moving set in Nunn's sumptuous, pristine production (in the auditorium next to the one holding "The Coast of Utopia" at the National). Nunn is to stage-direction what Sinatra was to lyric-singing: He's a great reader, finding the undertone in every phrase and pause in the text, and translating that understanding into space, time and gesture. Because Essie Davis impresses more as Blanche's sister Stella than Iain Glen does as Stanley (his body and body language are too refined for the character), this beautiful play becomes the story of two sisters: one enslaved to her man because of the great sex they share, the other in the thrall of a past she must relive and deny.


Two actors on an uncluttered stage, speaking in elliptical sentence fragments. This must be modern theater — talk stripped down till it edges incoherence. The audience needs an act of severe concentration, and perhaps a peek at the program, to figure out what's going on. But once the plot is deduced, we see that "A Number" has as many S-F twists as a doomsday thriller.

Start with that first number: two. Two actors, but four characters: a man in his early 60s, Salter (Gambon), and three of his sons (all played by Daniel Craig). We are in the near future — say, the middle of this century. Thirty-some years before, Salter's wife had died and he was left to raise his four-year-old son Bernard, who had begun life as an angel ("You were the most beautiful baby everyone said"). But the father was neglectful, sometimes brutal to the boy; Bernard grew wild, sick. In anger and cunning, Salter took advantage of the new technology and had his son cloned: cloned as a new baby, the precious Bernard before he was scarred by his father's misuse. It took Salter a while to realize that the company that cloned Bernard didn't stop at one. Now there are dozens.

We learn this in the first two of the play's five scenes: conversations between Salter and the decent, cloned Bernard (B2), then Salter and his still-troubled birth son (B1). The "action" takes place off stage, but it's shocking nonetheless. Pin this: B1 visits B2 and threatens him; B2 flees to a distant island, where B1 finds and murders him; B1 confronts his father, who now fears he will track down all the Bernards and become a serial killer of his own clones — mass murder as mass suicide. But B1's only further victim is himself. In the last scene Salter meets the first of his other, widely dispersed, identical sons, on a mission to plumb the mystery of identity.

I imagine Steven de Souza or some other Hollywood scribe hearing of "A Number" and drooling over the exploitation possibilities. But Churchill is less interested in the garish colors of melodrama than the shadings of personality. In Salter, the joy of early parenthood turns bitter and abusive when his wife killed herself and he is left with dreams of killing his own son by reproducing him. In the nice Bernard, revelation upends an ordinary life: however hard it is to learn you were adopted, it must be — given the double-time march of science it certainly will be — harder to learn you're a copy, that you're not unique: "Walk round the corner and see yourself you could get a heart attack. Because if that's me over there who am I?"

This is the old evil-twin story, a gene-spliced Genesis, where Cain and Abel are closer than brothers. "You remind me of him," Salter says to the good Bernard, who replies, "I remind me of him. We both hate you." And where Adam, or God, is the villain, for siring an Abel whose goodness tortures Cain. (Perhaps Eve was cloned in the Garden of Eden; otherwise, where did Cain and Abel find their wives?) Salter, I guess, is Adam, and Abraham too, betrayed by the gods to whom he handed over his child — not to be killed but to be traded in for a better model.

Salter, like any liberal villain, has his reasons. As he explains to the first Bernard: "I spared you, though you were this disgusting thing by then; anyone in their right mind would have squashed you; but I remembered what you'd been like at the beginning and I spared you. I didn't want a different one, I wanted that again because you were perfect just like that, and I loved you." To the new, good Bernard, Salter was, by his lights, a good father; he had the chance to dote on his son instead of locking him in the cupboard. That leads him to the equivocation of a man still stained by his original sin: "I did some bad things. I deserve to suffer. I did some better things. I'd like recognition."

Gambon has played some monsters in his day — the gross thief in "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover," the tobacco company boss in "The Insider," the man everyone is dying to kill in "Gosford Park" — as well as the raging, pustulent fantast in Dennis Potter's miniseries "The Singing Detective." He can get at the agony of infamy as well as anyone, and does so here, though director Stephen Daldry ("Billy Elliott") has given him too many props; Gambon breaks the four-century theatrical record for the most cigarettes smoked ostentatiously in a single evening. Craig finds subtle distinctions among the three sons. But the role of both actors is to serve up the central idea: to make it at first opaque, then chillingly clear.

And all in 55 minutes; Churchill creates galaxy-size stories with black-hole prose. In "A Number" she has pared future shock, tomorrow horror, down to the bone — past the bone, really, to the DNA that makes every clone a Bernard, and every Bernard pathetically or tragically different.


Another two-character play, and the two women are the wife of a man who has just left her for a younger woman and the man's long-time mistress. Had anyone put this trope on stage before David Hare? A small, pretty, witty play given snap and stature by the presence of its stars, "The Breath of Life" reveals a major playwright in the narrowing career journey from the political epics of his early years to the intimate, no-less-barbed confrontations of "Amy's View" and this two-hander. Some theatergoers wanted to follow this trajectory; most wanted to see the two Dames dish. Even when "Breath" was in previews, scalpers were getting $300 for a single Saturday night ticket. (We bought two for $100 each from a gent outside the theater. Row X, in the back, but we were, after all, in the same big room with the stars. Maggie is the taller one.)

A spacious flat on the Isle of Wight. Frances (Smith), a specialist in the provenance of artworks, gets a visit from Madeleine (Dench), a novelist who's decided to write a non-fiction book — we don't yet know if it will be a true one — about her late marriage. Ex-hubby is off to Seattle with an American thing, and Madeleine has come to do research, to dig the dirt and possibly bury her old rival in it. At first the two have nothing in common but the familiar British condescension toward Americans. ( "Because they're richer than everybody else, so they have to insist their dramas are more significant," Frances snipes. "At one the most powerful people on earth and now, it appears, the most fearful.") But soon they get to the business at hand: hurting each other, probing with stiletto mots and cleaver accusations.

Movies show what's going on; plays discuss what went on. "A Breath of Life" (smartly staged by Howard Davies) is about understanding the past without surrendering to it. As Frances tells Madeleine: "The worst thing about living in the past, I'd have thought, is that you always know what's going to happen. ... He's going to leave you." We've all done it: the perverse parsing of a doomed love affair, the endless replaying of a favorite movie with an unhappy ending. I'm grateful that Hare lived in these women's past long enough to report on the everyday anguish of living a half-life, then living alone.


The early word on "The Coast of Utopia" was daunting: a nine-hour political debate, freely adapted from Isaiah Berlin's book of essay on "Russian Thinkers." Alexander Herzen, Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Chaadaev, Nicholas Ogarev: discuss their theories of social progress. Anyone? Anyone? Before seeing the plays I boned up on 19th century Russian radicals by reading the fact-packed 88-page program; by the time the lights went down Saturday morning, I felt ready to be a contestant on "Masterminds." Only with Stoppard does the theatergoer have to cram for a show.

Not to worry. As with Stoppard's last play, "The Invention of Love," the degree of difficulty here was exaggerated. Stoppard is a superb teacher, but he's mainly a showman, a seducer, an intellectual spieler who doesn't dare lose his engaged audience for a moment. Though the play spans 35 years, six countries and a dozen or so complex political philosophies, the contours are clear. Alexander Herzen (played by Stephen Dillane with that knowing, helpless smile he put to such attentive use in the recent revival of "The Real Thing") loves the play of ideas, loves the possibility for constructive social change, loves his wife and children more. The discovery of an infidelity wounds him like the news of a Tsarist outrage; the shipwreck of his deaf child collapses upon him like the failed revolutions of 1848.

The first words of the first play — "Speaking of which..." — cue "The Coast of Utopia" as part of an ongoing debate, passionate and civilized and open to irrelevancies. The trilogy celebrates the fine art of talking: rhetoric, invective, verbal violence and flirtation, impromptu essays that generate heat and light. Much of modernist art, and nearly all of popular culture, is suspicious of articulation. Modernism says that art and passion are precisely those things that can't be put into words; that the roiling impulses that rule are lives are either ineffable or just F---able. But the history of theater is an honor roll of articulate talk; the Greeks and Shakespeare, Corneille and Shaw thought so, and Stoppard is their avatar. Not talk for talk's sake — though why not, when he's so good at it? — but to clarify thorny ideas and to reveal thickety feelings.

In "Utopia," the men argue politics, spot lapses in their opponents' logic while stitching up the holes in their own. Or they follow the train of a piquant proposition and find they have talked themselves into a terminus. Do they contradict themselves? Very well, they contradict themselves. And they have such fun doing so; this is revolution as parlor sport. But the chat has gravity, for at issue is the question of how men shall live. Stoppard, himself a child refugee from the Soviet bloc, has embraced liberal humanism — human-ness, humaneness — in all his work. At the very end of the trilogy, when he bequeaths Herzen one final speech to rebut Marx's theory of historical inevitability, Stoppard is doubtless speaking for himself in articulating an enlightened middle way, the heroism of small graces:

"But history has no culmination! There is always as much in front as behind. There is no libretto. History knocks at a thousand gates at every moment, and the gatekeeper is chance. ... We need wit and courage to make our way while our way is making us. ... What kind of beast is this ... this Moloch who promises us that everything will be beautiful after we're dead? A distant end is not an end but a trap. The end we work for must be closer: the labourer's wage, the pleasure in the work done, the summer lightning of personal happiness... we have to open men's eyes and not tear them out."

And the women: do they get to talk? Yes, and when they do a small smile plays on their faces, as if they know that their matters of the heart will create more joy and crush more souls than "Das Kapital." Yes, their coquettery and evasions can exasperate men looking for an unequivocal answer to riddles of life and love. And when men have triumphed in their arguments with women, the women play their ace: they say, as Molly Bloom did, "Yes." This is the last word of the first and third "Utopia" plays; in each case it is spoken indulgently, as a mother would to calm a child's questing, questioning spirit. The political theories of Bakunin, Herzen and their coteries were expressions of a dream for universal betterment. As Shaw and Stoppard know, men are the dreamers, women the realists. Women are the land men return to when Utopia has faded or their ship foundered.


I find that I am romanticizing my reaction to "The Coast of Utopia." The trilogy is perhaps an hour, perhaps a play, too long. But I know why I am in a mood to wave away what I might have considered its excesses and obscurities. I just realized that the play is closing today, and may never be performed again (though a New York visit has been discussed). It is as if a dear friend, who had enthralled and exasperated me, who talked so fast and stayed so long, were suddenly reported absent, or missing, or lost at sea. Would I think of his faults? No, I would enumerate his virtues, in grief and gratitude.

As I type these words on a Saturday morning on an island in the Caribbean, it is noon at the National Theatre; the characters and the play are young, full of hope and vinegar. As my editor reads this column just after noon, the 1848 Revolution is giving Marx and his followers some brazen ideas, and a dear, deaf, dead child is wandering through the inaudible murmur of adult conversation. And if you, reader, happen to be scanning these words at sunset on Saturday, know that the cast is taking one last bow, and the audience — many, I'll warrant, who have seen the trilogy before and have returned for a last glimpse of the monument — is rising to salute the heroic craft of the author and actors.

What is to become of this monument? Edwin Booth said an actor was "a sculptor in snow." The gifted company of "The Coast of Utopia" sculpted a grand and intimate panorama of 19th century Europe from the marble of Stoppard's teeming brain. Tonight at 11, the sculpture begins to melt. It may be frozen — a living frieze — in the memories of those who saw the piece assembled, five nights a week and three times on Saturday. It is can be admired in its one official preserved form, on paper, and surely the plays read wonderfully in their published form. But print is both the fetus and the ghost of a theater piece. Reading a play, you know what it means but not how it feels.

The thrilling and melancholy fact is, you have to be there: in a crowd, watching these actors recombine uniquely, with all of tonight's little gaffes and unexpected epiphanies, at this moment, for their art and your pleasure. At its best a play restores, for a few hours, the age of belief. It gives you the shiver of a sacred rite, in a secular cathedral, and what you experience is communion. Can't get that with a book, where it's just you and the words. Can't get it at the movies, where the performers have been caught in aspic, and the snowman is cryogenically preserved. Only theater traps and enfolds you in the present tense — and then it is past.

It is the special gift of those who visited the National Theatre to know how the ship rocked, what birds of political fancy flew overhead, and when the rainbow of intellect and heart shone as we sailed past the coast of Utopia.