Approaching Salvage, part three of Lincoln Center Theater's production of Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia trilogy, which begins previews on Tuesday and officially opens February 18, it might be wise to keep in mind some comments the author made at the recent SRO Drama Desk panel, A Conversation with Tom Stoppard. He was very amused by the list of background books The New York Times published not long ago in their Arts and Leisure Section as recommended reading to get a full grasp of the events and time depicted in Utopia. "You don't need to read tons of research to enjoy the plays," he explained. "It's all there onstage and quite accessible."   

Not that he didn't do a ton of research. "You get proud of your research, and you think something is important because it's true," stated Stoppard. "But reading all those books and memoirs of events can be a problem (for a playwright). It's much better to keep a distance from the actual rendering of events and phrase them in your own dialogue."

Stoppard was especially intrigued by the character of Vassarion Belinsky, the literary critic played by Billy Crudup. "Because he was living in danger of arrest if he returned from Paris to Russia, his friends said, 'Stay here! You can write anything you like!' But he felt he had to go home because writers really mattered there. People looked to writers as their real leaders. That irony hit me hard. It's not a choice I'd want to make. It was interesting and moving that he had to confront the fact that the importance of the artist was in an inverse ratio with the degree of suppression the artist lived under.

"I discovered something similar in Czechoslovakia during the Communist years," he went on. "There was a fever of excitement to their lives...which evaporated when Communism fell and the magazines were available at the newsstands. The energy dispersed. You could publish anything you liked, and it all disappeared."

Utopia's subject matter has interested Stoppard a long time, "I had no idea that it would end up with me writing a play. Much less three. I read deeply and something grabbed me. That's how these things develop. I don't have a slate of subjects for plays. I never have any idea what will come up.

"When I get to the point of wanting to write a play," he continued, "I find that many of the books which will be useful for research I've owned twenty and thirty years."

Stoppard was generous in his praise for director Jack O'Brien and his LCT creative team for their vision in the unique staging of his trilogy.  

What's next? He's written a new screenplay, "The Bourne Ultimatum," based on the Robert Ludlum novel. It's filming now, starring Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, and co-stars Joan Allen.

Sir Tom reported he has written a play since Utopia but that for the moment, he has no play in his head. "I'll write one in the end," he said, "but it could be about absolutely anything."

The Czech-born playwright is an Olivier multiple nominee (including a nomination for the Royal National Theater production of Coast), and a Best Play Award winner (in addition to numerous U.K. Best Play awards); a three-time Best Play Tony-winner (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Travesties, The Real Thing) and an Outstanding Play Drama Desk Award for Real Thing.

Stoppard was also nominated for Tonys and Drama Desks for Arcadia and The Invention of Love. He received a Drama Desk Outstanding Play Award for Night and Day. Stoppard received an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for "Shakespeare in Love" (Best Picture, 1999). He was Oscar-nominated for his work on the screenplay of " Brazil." Among other films he's written, Stoppard was brought in as a script doctor on "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."

In addition to Crudup, the 44-strong cast of The Coast of Utopia stars Richard Easton, Jennifer Ehle, Josh Hamilton, David Harbour, Jason Butler Harner, Ethan Hawke, Amy Irving, Brian F. O'Byrne and Martha Plimpton.

Parts One, Two and Three will soon be in repertory, and there will be opportunities to catch all three parts in one day.


Key Subjects: 
Tom Stoppard, The Coast of Utopia, Salvage, Drama Desk, Lincoln Center
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of <I>Jesus Christ Superstar</I>" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).
February 2007