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.
It was written in 1859. The previous year another powerful, but very different, drama was finished, The Case, the second play of Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin’s Trilogy, a work that is unique in form and composition, and extraordinary in its history. Its author, born in 1817, was rich, handsome, cultivated, and aristocratic. His family was related to the reigning dynasty of the Romanovs, his mother presided over a literary salon in Moscow, one of his sisters was a popular writer, another a painter. He himself, as a young man, followed the intellectual and social fashions of the day: gambled, danced, flirted, studied at the University of Moscow, went to Germany for the sake of Hegel and to Paris for the sake of the theater. In 1842 he brought to Russia a French mistress, with whom he lived openly for eight years. Then, in 1850, her mutilated body was found near a cemetery on the outskirts of Moscow. She had been murdered, it seems, by her servants, but Sukhovo-Kobylin was held under suspicion and his case dragged on for seven years. To amuse himself in jail, where he was kept six months, he wrote Kretchinsky’s Wedding, which he had certainly conceived long before. It became the first of the three plays that occupied him for the rest of his long life. (He died in 1903.)
The mood of The Trilogy changes from laughter to nightmare, and its form from the “well-made play,” modeled on Scribe, to realistic drama and from realistic drama to black burlesque. It begins with the machinations of a young scapegrace, Kretchinsky, who, to retrieve the fortune he has lost at cards, involves with the police a goodhearted landowner, Muromsky, and his innocent daughter, Lidochka. Except for the girl’s heartbreak at the end, Kretchinsky’s Wedding is an entertaining social comedy.
But the second play, The Case, approaches tragedy. “The Powers” of “a certain official department,” sniffing the possibility of getting rich on bribes, fabricate a case against Lidochka, accusing her of illicit relations with Kretchinsky, who has been saved through her generosity, and of complicity in his shady dealings. In a desperate attempt to clear her name, her father, dragged through the labyrinths of the police bureaucracy, is drained of his fortune and finally of his life. In the third play, The Death of Tarelkin, the “Powers” try to do each other in over the Muromsky spoils, their modes of cheating rising in inventiveness to the gruesome contrivance of a man’s pretending his own death, gloating over the coffin in which a dummy, surrounded by rotten fish, is supposed to contain his own decomposing corpse.
Sukhovo-Kobylin’s Trilogy is excellent theater and has fair claim to being the most pessimistic drama ever written. Mr. Segel’s lively, fluent translation is the first in English, and his Introduction is informative and thoughtful. I cannot follow him, however, in his reading Hegel into the plays, in finding them a philosophic meditation on Good and Evil. In my opinion, The Trilogy, like Solzhenitsyn’s play, is an artistic transcript of a personal, tormenting encounter with injustice and corruption. The satire is savage, like Saltykov-Shchedrin’s, and absurd, like Gogol’s. Fate has no part in it. The place of the gods, as a Soviet critic has recently remarked, is taken by a depraved bureaucracy. And the ways and motives of bureaucrats are perfectly understandable. That good men have no redress against the perfidy of swindlers and are mortally enmeshed in their chicanery is infinitely pathetic, but not mysterious; the feelings Sukhovo-Kobylin arouses are pity, anger, and disgust, not fear and wonder.
Russian tragedies are amazingly few: Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, his so-called “Little Tragedies,” Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness, Ostrovsky’s The Storm. For the rest, Chekhov’s, Gorky’s, Turgenev’s, Blok’s, Solzhenitsyn’s plays are “comedies,” “scenes,” “visions,” “dramas,” not tragedies. The Russian theater, with its heart-rending comedies, its grotesque caricatures of grief, is unheroic, purposely muted, as if tragedy were so customary, so much the ordinary experience of men, that to heighten it on the boards would be to mock it; theatrical tragedy might seem, too easily, a travesty of tragic life. And so, Russian drama oscillates between realism and fantasy, spills over into the absurd, resounds with tragic laughter.
Mayakovsky’s plays are the most fantastic and absurd of all, satiric extravaganzas, like everything else of his. For exaggeration was Mayakovsky’s style, and his plays, written at various periods of his life—the first, Vladimir Mayakovsky: A Tragedy in 1913, at the outset of his career; Mystery-Bouffe, in 1918 and in a second version in 1921; and the last two at the close of his life, The Bedbug in 1928 and The Bathhouse in 1929—are all of them dramatic cartoons: of himself, of history, of Soviet society, like his drawings, and like his lyric epics, which are also verbal cartoons: The Cloud in Trousers, War and the Universe, 150,000,000, About What? About This.
Except for the first play, a drama of the Poet as martyr and would-be savior, which is exclusively Mayakovsky, designed, produced, and acted by himself, the rest were staged in collaboration with Meyerhold, who found in Mayakovsky the only author whose imagination was like his own and with whom he could work. Now we have the four plays in an excellent translation by Guy Daniels, who has succeeded better than anyone else in catching the robust, strident quality of his verse, his bright rhetoric, the loud colors of his wild images.
The Blind Beauty might have been, had Pasternak lived to finish it, the only truly philosophic work of the Russian stage. He had intended it to dramatize a metaphysical conception which he had outlined as early as 1916 and developed in Doctor Zhivago, a belief in “two modes of reality,” as Mr. Hayward defines it in a masterly Foreword, “that which exists in eternity and is represented by poetry (or art)” and “the second and lower reality…which we call by the name ‘history,’ and which exists only in time.” The “second reality” was to be embodied in the fortunes of a family of Russian noblemen in the nineteenth century, owners of an old estate, Pyatibratskoye, one of whose servants, accidentally blinded in a quarrel between her master and his valet, was to symbolize Russia, “always blind to her beauty and her destiny.”
The play was to have been composed of three parts, a Prologue and two Acts, and the time of the action was to extend from 1835 to 1880, from the reign of Nicholas I, that is, through the Reform Years and the Emancipation, to the eve of the revolutions of 1905 and 1917. This history of modern Russia, from serfdom to the supposed threshold of democracy, was to have been dramatized in the spiritual development of a whole society, exemplified by representatives of all its classes: Prokhor, the peasant serf falsely accused of assault and theft, flogged and sent to Siberia in the Prologue, was rehabilitated and transformed into a thriving innkeeper in Act I and, in the unwritten Act II, was to emerge as a rich merchant and patron of the arts; the Counts of Pyatibratskoye were to develop from murderers and oppressors to liberal advocates of the Emancipation; their legitimate children were tutored in Act I by a man who was presently to become a revolutionary and terrorist, and who was the son of the one-time mechanic on the estate; their illegitimate son—his mother the Countess of the Prologue, his father the Count’s valet—ignorant of his origin, brought up by the blinded serf girl Lusha, was to end up as a famous actor; and Lusha, Russia herself, was to be cured by a European doctor, brought to her by this glorious foster son—an epitome of all the major tendencies in modern Russian history: suppression and rebellion, the union of nobility and peasantry, the emergence of an enlightened merchant class, the influence of Europe, and above all, the triumph of art.
The symbolic conception is characteristic of Pasternak, whose spirit dwelt in a realm of metaphysics where temporary, material realities were enlarged and made eternal in art, and where the drama of death and resurrection, which he was always celebrating, was eternally acted out. What we have here, however, is the project only of an intricate design. Pasternak’s intention, given in the scattered comments of interviews and letters, is greater than the achievement of this unfinished fragment.
Russian directors have probably had more influence on the Western theater than Russian plays. Were it not for Stanislavsky, even Chekhov might be unknown, and Meyerhold is certainly better known than Ostrovsky or Sukhovo-Kobylin. In a curious way, the theories of the outstanding directors are polarized very much like the drama itself between realism and fantasy; Stanislavsky is at one end, Meyerhold and Tairov at the other. Stanislavsky’s renowned Method was predicated on the belief that a theatrical performance must create an illusion of reality so complete as to make the audience forget that it is in a theater. Actors were to become the characters they played, stage sets must be exact replicas. Meyerhold revolted from all this. Drama was art, he insisted, not life, and the spectator must never be permitted to forget this. Settings must suggest the mood and meaning of the play, not re-create the place of action. (In his staging of Sukhovo-Kobylin he produced a contraption resembling a colossal meat grinder, through which prisoners were passed.) The spectator’s imagination must be stimulated to fill in all that is not explicitly stated.
“Your play is abstract,” he wrote Chekhov about The Cherry Orchard, “like a Tschaikovsky symphony.” It was “the sound” of it he proposed to grasp and put on stage. He sought economy of movement, restraint in gesture and speech, silence rather than words, and did not scruple to change an author’s text: he altered the sequence of scenes, omitted lines or added others (in The Inspector General he incorporated passages from Gogol’s stories and from Dead Souls). A production was the director’s creation; and words, properties, action were the material he used for the effect he wanted. Meyerhold was indefatigable in searching out new ways to attain his ends, he had no set method; his work was brilliantly original, and the modern theater owes it a great deal. Edward Braun, of Cambridge University, has now translated and edited a selection of his notes, articles, letters, and lectures in a way that gives a very good idea of his development and importance.
William Kuhlke, of the University of Kansas, has performed a similar service for Alexander Tairov. Tairov wanted the theater to be even freer than the “stylized” one of Meyerhold, which seemed to him “a prisoner of painting.” The theater was to be nothing but theater, neither life, nor painting, nor literature, but the actor’s province, the sphere of pantomime, of “emotional gesture” and “emotional form,” of musical rhythm. A performance was a work of art presented to spectators as a poem or a painting is presented. There was no place in it for dilettantism, nor was it addressed to the masses, and it was not a ritual.
Tairov was the most exclusively professional of directors; his theater was a “chamber” theater, the Kamerny, devoted, by contrast to Meyerhold’s, to effects of beauty and perfection of form. Meyerhold’s theater, says Mr. Kuhlke, “smacked of the circus, Tairov’s of the ballet.” And this, he adds, was Tairov’s tragedy, that “his whole view of the theatre was aesthetic, not social, at a time when the concern of his society was just the reverse.” His struggle to establish the Kamerny was heroic, and some of the story is movingly told in Notes of a Director, which was written at the beginning of his career, from 1915 to 1920, when “he was free to do what he pleased…and did just that.”
The Kamerny Theater was closed in 1950 and Tairov died the same year. Meyerhold perished ten years earlier. He was arrested in June 1937 and “is believed to have been shot in a Moscow prison on 2 February 1940.” His wife, the beautiful and gifted actress Zinaida Raikh, was found murdered in their flat soon after his arrest. Now he has been “rehabilitated,” and a two-volume collection of his writings was published in 1968.
March 26, 1970