May 20, 2008
Two days of events celebrate, examine Stoppard's Coast of Utopia
Utopia is twisted into the American DNA. It's the reason why the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and why the Quakers founded Philadelphia. It inspired Whitman's verse and Bronson Alcott's doomed flight to Fruitlandsa catastrophe satirically chronicled by his daughter, Louisa May, in Transcendental Wild Oats.
Utopia has infected minds at least since Plato's Republic, but it haunted Russia, too. Think of aristocrat-turned-farmer Lev Tolstoy, or aristocrat-turned-anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, or Alexander Herzen, the so-called father of Russian socialism.
And, most recently, think of Czech-born Tom Stoppard, the British playwright whose critically acclaimed epic trilogy about those Russian intellectuals, The Coast of Utopia, broke records last year for the most Tony Awards ever won by a play. (It won best play, best director, best featured actor and actress, and all three design awards for costume, lighting and set.)
Steven Lee, a dissertation fellow at the Humanities Center who is an "American-Russian comparativist," saw both the American and Russian productions of The Coast of Utopia. Under the aegis of the Humanities Center and the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies, he has scheduled two days of events this week celebrating and comparing the Broadway and Moscow productions, with staged readings, guest speakers, presentations and panel discussions. All events, which will take place at the Humanities Center, are free and open to the public.
At 7 p.m. Thursday, May 22, students from the Drama Department will produce and perform a staged reading of one scene from The Coast of Utopia. After the reading, Alexei Borodin and Tony Award-winner Jack O'Brien, the directors of Utopia in Moscow and New York, respectively, will compare several video clipsselected by Stoppard himselffrom the two productions. Carey Perloff, artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater, will lead a comparative discussion of featured scenes.
On Friday, May 23, an all-day symposium at the Stanford Humanities Center will comprise four sessions. The first will introduce the trilogy through images and video of the productions, as well as overviews of public and critical responses. The second will put the Stoppard script in the context of Russian history post-socialism and the many other depictions of Herzen and his cohort. The third, featuring talks by the two directors, will examine the formal aspects of the play and its productions. The final session will juxtapose the New York and Moscow productions to consider visions of utopia and post-utopia today.
Between Russia and America, Lee sees a restless crosscurrent in utopian quests. Journalist John Reed rushed to Russia to document the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917a revolution inspired by its Western counterparts. Another example: In 1932, Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes went to the Soviet Union to work on a film about the plight of African Americans.
"One of the most exciting things about the project is movement, thinkers going back and forth and deriving something important from that," Lee said. There was always an element of wanderlust in utopian dreams"it captures that desire to be somewhere else." Lee points out that Thomas More, the author of the book that coined the "utopia" term, "very much had the New World in mind."
Exploring this crosscurrent led Lee to New York and Moscow. Lee said he was disappointed with the lavish New York production. With a research stipend last autumn, Lee and two colleagues viewed the Russian production. "I was hoping for something more subtle and nuanced in Moscow," Lee said. "It was."
Lee saw the production at a critical time: "I was there during a crucial election in November that ended up giving Putin an enormous mandate." The Russians saw the production as a place to explore "the possibilities of post-socialism utopia, trying to read this play as alternative space, a discursive place where people could articulate democratic aspirations," Lee said.
The cross-cultural movement of these Russian thinkers wanting to go West, and Americans heading for Moscow, prefigures "a very nice movement of our own," Lee said. "This was our own little voyage."
A schedule of events is available at http://sica.stanford.edu/events.html.