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A Somber Theater

The Love-Girl and the Innocent

by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, translated by Nicholas Bethell, translated by David Burg
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 131 pp., $4.95

Five Plays of Alexander Ostrovsky

translated and edited by Eugene K. Bristow
Pegasus, 480 pp., $7.50

The Trilogy of Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin

translated by Harold B. Segel
Dutton, 265 pp., $6.95

The Complete Plays of Vladimir Mayakovsky

translated by Guy Daniels
Washington Square Press, 274 pp., $6.95

The Blind Beauty

by Boris Pasternak, translated by Manya Harari, translated by Max Hayward
Harcourt, Brace & World, 128 pp., $3.95

Meyerhold on Theatre

translated and edited by Edward Braun
Hill & Wang, 336 pp., $8.50

Notes of a Director

by Alexander Tairov, translated by William Kuhlke
University of Miami, 153 pp., $6.50

Solzhenitsyn, unquestionably the greatest living Russian writer, is proscribed in his own land. Since One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published by sanction of Khrushchev, his work, except for a few stories that followed immediately, has been smuggled out. This was true of his big novels, The First Circle and The Cancer Ward, and it has now happened to his play, The Love-Girl and the Innocent, which was banned after it had been accepted for staging in 1962. It has been done into English by the able translators of The Cancer Ward.

The setting is that of One Day, a Stalinist slave-labor camp, but the main characters are more like the political prisoners of The First Circle, and the tone is, as always, icy and bitter. For here, as elsewhere, Solzhenitsyn writes with clenched teeth and a grim sneer about life in “Campland,” as one inmate calls it, “an invisible country…not in the geography books, or the psychology books, or the history books,” a famous country, with its own laws, where “ninety-nine men weep while one man laughs” and each newcomer must decide for himself whether to join the majority or the minority. The one who laughs has vodka, women, and good food. The ninety-nine freeze, starve, and die of exhaustion or disease. “No honest man lives to see the end of his sentence”; to survive a man must cheat and toady, a woman sleep with any guard who wants her.

Rodion Nemov, “the innocent,” recently an officer in the front line, refuses to submit, and voices complaints about conditions of work and the treatment of prisoners. He is demoted from a supervisor’s job to hard labor and at the end is felled by the “medieval” mechanism he has objected to and has then been forced to operate, while the unfortunate, gifted girl whom he has come to love and whom he might have saved from the life of promiscuity to which she has been subjected since her fourteenth year, sees no way out but to knock, finally, at the door of the repulsive camp doctor who desires her. Her name is Lyuba, which means “love,” and she is known in camp as a “love-girl.” Love, along with all the qualities and virtues that men have ever prized—honesty, justice, decency, tenderness, intelligence—is debased in a land of slaves and tyrants, where a just man is hounded as an “enemy of the people” and ordinary crooks are respected and honored.

This is the theme, presented in the stark realism not of the photographer’s record but of the subject’s experience. Solzhenitsyn writes of what he himself has endured. He is both martyr and witness to martyrdom. And he has found a way of involving the audience relentlessly in the horror he has known by transforming the theater itself into his prison camp. According to his stage directions:

The audience will walk from a brightly lit foyer into the darkened auditorium. In here the only light comes from a number of tin-plate hooded lanterns which are placed, almost like crowns, on a semicircle of posts right along the edge of the orchestra pit. The posts are quite low…. They are wrapped with barbed wire which vanishes down into the orchestra pit…. There are two camp watch-towers to the right and to the left of the arch of the stage. Throughout the play the towers are manned by sentries.

Between the acts there is a change of sentries:

Having relieved one sentry, the guard party marches down into the stalls and across the auditorium in front of the first row. If members of the audience are in the way, the officer shouts at them rudely, “Get back from the wire! Stop crowding!” Then they relieve the other sentry.

Thus the audience is inescapably drawn in; but there is a curtain that comes between it and the action, puts the action on the other side, and casts the whole performance in a grimly satirical light. The curtain is “crudely painted” with “a poster-like industrial landscape, depicting cheerful, apple-cheeked, muscular men and women working away quite effortlessly. In one corner of the curtain a joyful procession is in progress complete with flowers, children and a portrait of Stalin.” It is lowered at the end of each scene, and each scene presents one phase of camp life: prisoners are marched off to work; they labor with primitive implements in a stifling foundry; women move “slowly as if at a funeral,” trying to push wheelbarrows that are too heavy for them; men talk about a consumptive comrade who has been thrown out of the hospital into “solitary,” a cellar where he is sure to die; they eat their rations, “spooning the porridge regularly into their mouths”; they fight savagely; Nemov asks, “How can a man live in this place?”

On these scenes the curtain comes down, a gaudy shroud lowered on men’s hopes, a hypocritical division between Soviet reality and its pretensions. At the end of the play, in a stage direction for the last scene, this hypocrisy is reinforced:

The set as in Act I, scene one…. A searchlight beam comes to rest on a newly hung placard with the slogan: “People are the most valuable capital.—J. Stalin.”

Nevertheless, in all this hell, the spirit of man survives. Solzhenitsyn has faith in it. He always shows men whose integrity, even in depths of vileness, cannot be shaken. His is a stoic’s passionate work, harrowing, realistic, and satirical.

This is very much in line with the main tradition of Russian drama, which, from its first great comedy, Griboyedov’s Woe from Wit, has taken political, social, or moral corruption as its theme and has seen the dramatic struggle to be essentially a conflict between the upright individual and depraved society. In this contest, whether in comedy or tragedy, the hero is usually destroyed but remains morally triumphant. And sometimes, as in Gogol’s The Inspector General, there is no hero at all and all humanity stands condemned. It is a serious and, by and large, somber theater, with tragedy lurking in the background of hilarious comedies and satire back of tragic situations. Rooted in actual life, even its fantasies and grotesques are transformations of reality or comments on it, not escapes. Neither “philosophical” nor “psychological,” unlike the Russian novel, it is focused on the typical rather than the peculiar and individual. There are no Raskolnikovs or Karamazovs in Russian drama. And no Anna Kareninas, except perhaps for one great tragic figure, Katerina Kabanova in Ostrovsky’s The Storm.

Alexander Ostrovsky holds a special place in Russian letters. The only major writer to devote himself exclusively to drama, he wrote some fifty plays—comedies, “scenes,” tragedies—and created a “national theater.” He has been produced hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times and continues to be a staple of the Soviet stage. (He provides a pointed reference in Solzhenitsyn’s play, where in one scene the prisoners, putting on a show, are about to perform Wolves and Sheep, Ostrovsky’s most devastating satire, in which “the wolves devour the sheep and the sheep not only allow themselves to be devoured, but seem to like it.”) A dozen or so of his plays have been translated into English, but they are scattered in journals (several were published in Poet Lore over a period of years), anthologies (Masterpieces of the Russian Drama, The Storm and Other Russian Plays), out-of-print editions.

The present collection brings together five of his most popular plays. There are helpful notes, and the translation is faithful. But no translation can give entirely the flavor of Ostrovsky’s celebrated dialogue, which is the delight of Russians—a picturesque, brutal jargon, used by the semiliterate merchants and clerks of provincial nineteenth-century Russia, whom he depicted to the life—rich, bigoted, tyrannical men and their pathetic, penniless dependents. A.F. Koni, a brilliant, enlightened jurist, wrote that often as he watched courtroom proceedings, he would ask himself: “Could this be a fragment from some Ostrovsky comedy I don’t know, acted by experienced amateurs?” The comedies are wry with the pathos of the helpless, and Ostrovsky’s masterpiece, The Storm, is a tragedy of passion in a setting of stupid rigidity, intolerance, and mean autocracy, a cruel morass of spiritual dreariness, in which an ardent, great-hearted woman is destroyed.

The action takes place in a town on the upper Volga, and the first spoken words are about the Volga: “Magnificent! Yes, I can truly say it’s magnificent…. The marvelous view. The beauty of it all….” This is Kuligin speaking, a self-taught watchmaker, a “crackpot,” who respects science, loves literature, is determined to find the secret of perpetual motion, and is the only man in town capable of appreciating “the beauty of it all.”

For the rest, the inhabitants are crude, ignorant, superstitious; and the most influential among them are the rich merchant Dikoy, a stupidly wilful tyrant, and his female counterpart, the widow Kabanova, the difference between them being that “the old woman runs everything through the odor of sanctity,” while “he acts as if he’d just broken his chain.” Dikoy, having summoned his nephew, Boris, from Moscow, is contriving to cheat him of his inheritance; Kabanova is doing all she can to crush the spirit of Katerina, her daughter-in-law, as she has long since crushed that of her son Tikhon, who is abjectly obedient, has no mind of his own, finds relief only in the pub, but loves his wife in his own pitiful way.

Katerina, deeply religious—a religion that is all emotion, compounded of ineffable ecstatic adoration and superstitious fear—simple, passionate, tries to be faithful to the sorry creature she has been made to marry, struggles arduously with herself, but having fallen in love with Boris, is driven to distraction by a terrifying sense of guilt, and during the outburst of a sudden storm, a sign to her of divine anger, confesses publicly; then, overwhelmed by the hopelessness of her situation, throws herself into the Volga. Kuligin carries her in: “Here is your Katerina. Do with her what you want to now. Her body is here, take it. But her soul is no longer yours. She is now before a judge who is more merciful than you.”

A lyric tragedy, intense, swift-paced, The Storm has probably aroused more controversy than any other Russian play. Turgenev, Goncharov, Dostoevsky all praised it as profoundly national, poetic, truthful; the radical critic Dobrolyubov, in a celebrated essay, “A Ray of Light in the Kingdom of Darkness,” saw Katerina’s suicide as a gesture of independence and a call to revolution. Meyerhold, Tairov, Nemirovich-Dantchenko produced it each in his own way, and Katerina has been variously interpreted by the greatest Russian actresses. Today, however distant in setting and antiquated in mores, The Storm remains a deeply moving drama of feeling, beauty, and the urge to happiness in helpless conflict with hidebound convention, ugliness, malice, and crass stupidity.

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