Americans are not comfortable with abstract ideas. Neither, for that matter, are the English, and a theater of ideas has never prospered in London or New York, despite the anomalous success of George Bernard Shaw. Continental Europe’s passion for political and aesthetic philosophizing, which flourished from the days of the French Revolution on through the excesses of revolutionary Romanticism, Marxism, structuralism, and beyond, has never found a real echo in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Tom Stoppard’s plays are the exception to this general rule, and while his work has remained a more specialized and arcane taste than the wildly popular plays of Shaw, he has succeeded in injecting philosophy into the popular theater as few other Anglo-American playwrights of our era have done. The Coast of Utopia is a particularly audacious, not to say hubristic attempt: a trilogy of plays (Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage ...