As in many Stoppard plays, the characters are actual historical people, albeit ones you may not have heard of. I'm fairly well up on nineteenth-century revolutions, and there were plenty of people I didn't know. If you do decide to go, it's worth reading a little background on a few prominent characters, particularly the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, the radical and journalist Alexander Herzen, the literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, and the novelist Ivan Turgenev. Or you can just read Stoppard's own essay on the origin of the plays.
Also like many Stoppard plays, the trilogy presents compelling drama from material that doesn't necessarily seem especially dramatic at first blush. Stoppard conveys the gist of complex ideas in humorous dialogue, and he punctures self-contradictions with glee.
Bakunin: Left to themselves people are noble, generous, uncorrupted, they'd create a completely new kind of society if only people weren't so blind, stupid and selfish.
Herzen: Is that the same people or different people?
But it's not all comedy. Radicals, even wealthy ones in exile, far from the oppressive government they're protesting, suffer the usual issues of ordinary life: illness, unwise romantic entanglements, loss.
Many trilogies are strongest in their first and last parts, but to me Shipwreck was more powerful, more unified, more intense than the other two plays. Voyage is lighter and perhaps sillier, which makes sense: it focuses on the young Bakunin, whose anarchism started out as hero-worship of Shelley, then Fichte, then Hegel. By the time of Salvage, a new generation has come along and made Herzen irrelevant. But maybe my reaction is colored by being in my Shipwreck middle years myself.
Herzen: Because children grow up, we think a child's purpose is to grow up. But a child's purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn't disdain what lives only for a day. It pours the whole of itself into the each moment. We don't value the lily less for not being made of flint and built to last. Life's bounty is in its flow, later is too late. Where is the song when it's been sung? The dance when it's been danced? It's only we humans who want to own the future, too. We persuade ourselves that the universe is modestly employed in unfolding our destination. We note the haphazard chaos of history by the day, by the hour, but there is something wrong with the picture. Where is the unity, the meaning, of nature's highest creation? Surely those millions of little streams of accident and wilfulness have their correction in the vast underground river which, without a doubt, is carrying us to the place where we're expected! But there is no such place, that's why it's called utopia. The death of a child has no more meaning than the death of armies, of nations. Was the child happy while he lived? That is a proper question, the only question. If we can't arrange our own happiness, it's a conceit beyond vulgarity to arrange the happiness of those who come after us.
How did I prepare for nine hours of Tom Stoppard plays? A good night's sleep, layered dressing, good friends, and a picnic for the break. Picnic: Homemade sourdough bread, artisan cheese, asparagus with two dipping sauces, roasted chicken, and strawberries in balsamic vinegar, eaten at a concrete picnic table at the nearby Malcolm X schoolyard.
The marathon will be repeated next Sunday, May 4, and Shipwreck is still in repertory this week.
What have you seen or read lately that inspires you?
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