Tom Stoppard once jokingly described himself as "a bounced Czech," a reference to his peripatetic childhood and his birth in Zlín, Czechoslovakia, in 1937. But that also explains the fascination with freedom that threads its way through his work—an idea that finds its boldest expression yet in an epic trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, opening at London's National Theatre on August 3 in a production directed by Trevor Nunn.
Stoppard says Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage were inspired by Isaiah Berlin's book Russian Thinkers, a brilliant series of lectures on the romantics and revolutionaries who opposed 19th-century Tsarist autocracy. Stephen Dillane plays Alexander Herzen, the nobleman's son who argued that enslavement to any abstraction always leads to victimization. That, as we know from plays like Travesties and Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, is a classic Stoppardian position.
Laurence Olivier called theater "the first glamorizer of thought," and no doubt Stoppard and his new plays, with more than 50 characters, including Turgenev, Marx, and the anarchist Bakunin, will leave us much wiser about the Russian struggle for political freedom. But the playwright also hopes they will entertain. "I've used a framework of historical accuracy dramatized through imagination and occasionally invention," he says.
Isaiah Berlin divided writers into foxes, who know many things, and hedgehogs, who know one big thing. I have always thought of Stoppard as a wily fox, but The Coast of Utopia could prove him a theatrical hedgehog.
Michael Billington is the London theater critic of "The Guardian."