‘The Absolute Whole Perpetually Renewing Itself’: Tom Stoppard’s Cat

Ruth Rischin, San Francisco

The Coast of Utopia (2002), Tom Stoppard’s dramatized group biography of the Gercen Circle in the years of the rise of Russian Hegelianism is, at its outer reaches, a critique of any liberal intelligentsia effort to propose the sacrifice of the present generation to “some predestined utopian future,” as Nicholas Rzhevsky reminds us, a conviction profoundly held by Gercen. Stoppard is surely with him. However, the playwright’s trilogy, based on belles lettres and memoirs of the years of 1848 in Russia and the fateful encounters of the Gercen group with Hegelian doctrine, was not intended to project a message but rather to make from these richly expressive writings a theatre event for an educated public. If elsewhere Stoppard has used parody and the grotesque to cool the dramatic poetry of a given literary text – I am thinking of The Invention of Love – he does so here as well, adding moreover a period gloss to the plays’ action, and above all, deflecting from the plays’ theme – “History has no libretto” – any cheap allusion to twenty-first century anti-foundational concepts.

In this paper, devoted to The Coast of Utopia trilogy, I focus on a single aspect of Stoppard’s use of parody and the grotesque. Specifically, I refer to Stoppard’s creation of an enormously tall and silent Ginger Cat as personification (hypostasis) of the Hegelian Absolute manifest in History. The Ginger Cat appears in the first play, Voyage Out, Act II, scene 12, at a masquerade charity ball given by the Moscow intelligentsia, under the sway of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Swirling among the assembled, the two-legged Ginger Cat (actually, a guest in fancy dress), drinks a toast to the Hegelian categories, to Essence, to Idea, and to Absolute Subjectivity. This figure is then replicated as a spectral image in each of the other two plays, where it represents a debased reflection of the misplaced hopes of the Russian intelligentsia. The charity ball scene, evoked by Gercen’s reminiscence of it in conversation with Belinskij, is taken from the memoirs of Vasilij Botkin. (See N. Kornilov, Molodye gody Mixaila Bakunina and E. H. Carr, Bakunin).

The Ginger Cat, however, as an ironic observer of Russian society and as a parodistic mirror of its fascination with Hegel, is Stoppard’s invention. My paper will analyze the function of the Ginger Cat figure within the trilogy and its provenance as a literary device.

Basing these plays on the writings of Bakunin, Gercen, Turgenev, and Belinskij, Stoppard drew upon a lush semantics of theatricalization, self-dramatization, and metaphor. This discourse challenged Stoppard to use their words in part but to manipulate them through allusion and device faithful to mid-nineteenth century semantics, functional to the action, and instrumental as markers of self-examination. The Ginger Cat does just that. If the mores of the Moscow intelligentsia of the 1830s provide a context for the Cat’s appearance, the fascination of the Gercen circle with a literary cat is also accurate period detail, a shared reading of E. T. A. Hoffmann: Gercen’s article on Hoffmann in the Telescope (1836); Nicholas Ketcher’s translation of Kater Murr (1840); and Belinskij’s review of the translation of the Murr novel in Notes of the Fatherland (in the year of the novel’s publication). “Byl on čelovek učenyj,” Gercen reminds his readers about Murr the Cat.  The genealogy of Stoppard’s Cat, extends, however, from Hoffmann to T. S. Eliot (Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, 1939) and to Anthony Lloyd Webber’s musical drama Cats (1981) for which Stoppard was commissioned to write a film scenario that he later had to abandon.  Continuing the line of predatory cat figures that goes from Hoffmann to Eliot, Stoppard exposes the underside of Left Hegelianism to which Bakunin subscribed: “He [Bakunin] shrank from none of the consequences of a strict application of the Hegelian doctrine: ‘Reality is a monster with iron talons and iron jaws,’” and which Gercen summarized in the phrase, “Who is this Moloch which eats its children?” – a phrase that is a recurrent motif in the lines of Belinskij and later of Bakunin himself.

If the father devouring his progeny is the sorry patrimony of Kater Murr, Stoppard does not give us a black and gray tomcat. To personify the Hegelian Absolute Spirit in History, Stoppard offers us a London equivalent, a descendant of the vanishing criminal Ginger Cat, Macavity from Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and so Tom’s Cat is “jarko-ryžyj, vysok i xud” (as Marshak renders the Eliot poem in 1975). Stoppard would have had a particular fondness for Macavity, the criminal feline descendant of the Murr line, reborn in Webber’s musical version of the Eliot poems. In The Coast of Utopia, the Ginger Cat, as ironic observer of his generation, also has a double (a favored Stoppardian device).

It is none other than the figure of Ivan Sergeevič Turgenev, who matches the Cat in size and elegance and in his unannounced appearances throughout the trilogy.

This paper is part of a larger work on Stoppard’s theatre that I began in London after viewing the plays in succession at the National Theatre in September 2002. The text of the trilogy that I use is the September 2002 edition by Faber and Faber.