I am in a state of dismal about theatre. It is called "The Coast of Utopia." Part I.
Of course, Stoppard must be reflexively praised for his attempt—after all, he is "Stoppard," and Stoppard has earned the right to reflexive praise for being "Stoppard"—he hath endured in a business notoriously stingy with pecuniary success.
But, my gawd—so deadly dull most of the time, this artistic bloviation of a dead politics. (And really, who cares about the Russian Revolution any more? Or even about the word "revolution," as a descriptor of people taking control of their historic situations and changing them? Or even the word "change," since most people these days accept the commercial regime and earbud their iPods as compensation for their political submissiveness?)
It's not clear to me what Stoppard wants to accomplish with his theatricalized homework, what passion he hopes will spill over the edge of the stage into the hearts of the audience. But one thing is clear that this play will not achieve, ever ever ever: the political renewal of its observers, the "push" that gets them to re-think what they think about things, re-organize how they've organized the narratives they call their "selves."
This is because (as much as I hate to say this) theatre, at least in our era, is not built to make this happen.
In the last issue of this journal, Bill Ballantyne wrote a deft summary of a play's gestation "Writing A Play" (qv Scene4). In his concept of what drives a play's writing, Ballantyne foregrounds the power of imagination over rationality so that the play "[reminds us] of our humanity. We are all frail. We are all weak. We all have faults. Let us unbottle them, heart to heart, and celebrate our common lot." Humanistic in its celebration of shared imperfections, but also a prescription for political quiescence. The audience leaves the theatre musing on its collective frailties, reminded of mortality and, in that reminder, finding some measure of individualized solace for life's inevitable entropy.
If Ballantyne's analysis is right (and I think it is), then the theatre is no place for politics because the theatre's frail humanitarian box cannot really contain the explosive polarities of politics, which is really about how the holders of power want to keep holding onto it. Documentaries and novels and histories and biographies can dissect this better than theatre.
Theatre may be able to examine the effects of politics' explosions, but it is always an examination of the heart's precincts, the inner courtyards of human experience. The horizon is constricted, the words' audibility falling off after a few dozen meters, the audience's attention inevitably linked to how much these characters reflect back to them about themselves, how much "identity" knits up the space between stage and seat. "Tell the truth but tell it slant" as Emily Dickinson says. Theatre as Rorschach.
This makes theatre closer to poetry than anything else since poetry's ambit is always closer to the inner organs than to the outer storms of the political world. But theatre is always lesser than poetry because audiences can tolerate less strangeness, less disjunction in form and delivery. Distance in other art forms, like poetry or sculpture or (post)modernist painting, can actually work to make us feel closer to the art because it makes us re-work ourselves, the effort to make the strange less strange building an affinity to the work. Not so in theatre, which is why theatre remains the lighter-weight art form that it is, the hydrogen or helium of the artistic periodic table.
I won't go see Parts II and III—I have only so many hours left in my life (and only so much money in the wallet). And all of this makes me re-think my own commitment to the theatrical arts: if I wish to have my writing have more effect on those it reaches, is it time to seek out some other way of getting my work done? Well, Mr. Stoppard, if your play has done anything, its fearsome murkiness has made me re-calculate my own writerly directions. Your play is a dead-end for me; now how do I find my way back out?