The Sound of a Distant Thunder: the Čexovian Subtext in The Coast of Utopia

Anna Muza, University of California, Berkeley

In the interviews given on account of The Coast of Utopia Tom Stoppard has been eager to acknowledge that the first part of the trilogy, Voyage, grew out of his admiration for Russian drama and a desire to write a play in the Russian style. Despite its title and unlike the other two plays of the trilogy, Voyage is for the most part set in one location, on a family country estate, and, in addition to such broad “atmospheric” Russian elements as a garden, a veranda, and “doleful piano music,” contains multiple specific allusions to Čexov’s plays. Comprising four sisters and a brother, a beginning writer and a foreign governess, fishing rods and a cry ”To Moscow!”, Voyage, to paraphrase a well-known expression of one of its characters, Vissarion Belinskij, resembles, if not an encyclopedia of Russian life, then certainly an encyclopedia of Čexov’s dramatic canon.  In the following parts of the trilogy, Čexovian references become less explicit and less intense yet continue to inform some of its recurring images, such as the sounds of a ”distant thunder,” echoing, of course, the sound of the broken string.

At the same time, Stoppard has stated that The Coast of Utopia should not be seen as a ‘Russian’ play but rather as a drama of ideas, in the tradition of G. B. Shaw.  However, Shaw himself had been tempted to compose in the “Russian style” and wrote Heartbreak House: A Fantasia in the Russian manner on English themes. Does Stoppard’s work address the “Russian manner” and the “Russian themes” in their own right, or rather within the framework of their Western (English) reception? Does his mélange of the Čexovian topoi expose, parody, or deconstruct a set of cultural clichés? The paper will consider the significance of the Čexovian subtext in The Coast of Utopia, and its relevance to the philosophical and artistic concerns of the trilogy as a whole.