History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/Russian Pre-WWII
Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) continued his mastery from the previous century with "Три сестры" (The three sisters, 1901) and "Вишнёвый сад" (The cherry orchard, 1904).
"'The three sisters', more than any of Chekhov’s plays, has been read as a deeply pessimistic, almost nihilistic play, by many critics, both in Russia and in the West. Beverly Hahn described it as ‘a profoundly sad play’, before adding, ‘Lionel Trilling calls it one of the saddest works in all literature’. Many productions have likewise been extremely bleak affairs" (Borny, 2006a p 195). It is also a “drama of everyday trivialities” and “suppressed pathos” (Lamm, 1952 p 2102). Andrey “holds a position in which his position is meaningless”, Masha “once an accomplished pianist now has forgotten to play”, and Tchebutikin “has forgotten his medical training” (Brustein, 1964 p ?). "The body of Chekhov's play 'The three sisters' is broken. Not only do the play's characters speak so often in halting tones, at times addressing seemingly no one at all, but the play as a whole is overrun with misshapen subplots and unacted desires...[Masha finds emptiness on her married life], Irina complains of the emptiness of her new job at the local telegraph office...Olga reworks the same figure: 'Time will pass, and we will have departed forever, be forgotten, forgotten too our faces, our voices, how many there were of us, but our sufferings will turn into joy for those who live after us, happiness and peace will appear on earth, and they will remember those who live now with a good word.' In short, to pare down this figure of thought to its bare components, there can be no joy without meaning in life, there is no joy or meaning in the lives of the three sisters....Have the three sisters somehow drifted from mourning to a diffuse, generalized form of melancholia?...The sisters, unlike some of their guests, seem not to have suffered a 'fall in self-esteem', the trait Freud uses to distinguish melancholia from mourning. It is the sense of a mourning process gone awry, the persistence of loss through the long years the play records, that seems to beg a diagnosis of melancholia...As a result of being melancholy exiles from Moscow, their language and cultural values break down. Andrei names some of these dying languages in Act I: 'Father, heaven bless him, oppressed us with education... Thanks to father my sisters and I know French, German, and English, and Irina knows Italian as well. But at what cost!" Masha immediately adds: 'In this city, to know three languages is a needless luxury- not even a luxury but some sort of unneeded appendage, like a sixth finger'...In their broken, faltering, and hesitant dialogue with local inhabitants, the Prozorovs yearn to exert some cultural influence on those around them, to impart some meaning that might endure after their own lives have passed. Olga and Andrei have become teachers, and Irina, after losing her fiancé at the play's close, declares: 'Tomorrow I'll go alone, I'll teach in the school and give my whole life to those who perhaps might need it. It's now fall, soon winter will come, everything will be covered in snow, but I will work, I will work'" (Gatrall, 2003 pp 122-138). Olga is sometimes described as the least interesting of the three, appearing “motherly” and “fragile”, “incarnating the good but unable to defend it...Andrei “little more than an amiable esthete and his fierce wife’s willing victim, all of them self-defeating” (Bloom, 2005 pp 182-183). “Olga is the steadying point of the trio, never quite gay, yet never wholly sad. Of common, everyday happiness Olga is to know nothing; she has overstood her market and is not to marry, and she takes a brave view of what lies before her. Her name is serenity” (Agate, 1944 pp 103-104). The outcome of "The three sisters" is different from what one expects of each situation. "Masha and Vershinin express their cultural affinities by his humming a tune which she continues, akin to Congreve’s 'The way of the world' (1700) where Millimant completes Mirabel's verse by Waller...The play's central action turns on the contrast between the sister's longing to return to a fuller life in Moscow, and the irony of a fate which thwarts their desires. All the major episodes Chekhov presents are structured to highlight the contrast between what the characters want and what they get. Andrey marries for love and that love turns to dust; he grows fat, forsakes his ambition to become a university professor and settles for a position on the local town council. Olga says: 'I would have been very fond of my husband,' but never marries. Masha grows disgusted with her husband, and has an affair, but that too comes to nothing. Irena, in a pitiful effort to change her life, agrees to marry a man she doesn't love- and he is killed in a duel. At the end of the play, as at the beginning, the sisters are left alone... Chekhov reverses expectations concerning action: when Act I Andrey and Natasha fall deeply in love, we expect that love to be developed. Consequently, we are shocked when Act II opens some years later, the couple's courtship, marriage, first child, and disillusionment having been lost between the acts...Chekhov introduces significant thematic complications which are not really such; all the philosophical debate constantly promises to turn the play into a sociological treatise, but comes to nothing in the end. He introduces much incidental complication which is never developed and soon permits the main action to continue such as the various offstage noises which divert momentarily. And he includes much comic dialogue which repeatedly fragments the action, creating the discontinuity we commonly associate with farce...Chekhov's favorite device to achieve this illusion of inaction is the introduction into the plays of 'blocking characters', technically incidental characters whose chief function is to stand between us and the main characters and events of the play, and thus block our perception of the continuity of action. Chebutykin...is such a character; he seems to be in the play only for the sake of interrupting it" (Gruber, 1977 pp 513-516).
In “The cherry orchard”, "Mme Ranevskya, the owner of the cherry orchard, an estate celebrated far and wide for its beauty and historic traditions, is deeply attached to the family place. She loves it for its romanticism: nightingales sing in the orchard, accompanying the wooing of lovers. She is devoted to it because of the memory of her ancestors and because of the many tender ties which bind her to the orchard. The same feeling and reverence is entertained by her brother Leonid Gaiev. They are expressed in the Ode to an Old Family Cupboard: 'Beloved and venerable cupboard; honor and glory to your existence, which for more than a hundred years has been directed to the noble ideals of justice and virtue. Your silent summons to profitable labor has never weakened in all these hundred years. You have upheld the courage of succeeding generations of human kind; you have upheld faith in a better future and cherished in us ideals of goodness and social consciousness.' But the social consciousness of Gaiev and of his sister is of a paternal nature: the attitude of the aristocracy toward its serfs. It is a paternalism that takes no account of the freedom and happiness of the people, the romanticism of a dying class (Goldman, 1914 p 290).
“Which of these portraits do we like best? Is it that of Leonid Gayef, the sieve of sentiment, who will pour out his soul to an old cupboard and almost frighten you with his obsession of billiards? Have we not all some trace indifferently mastered? Or do we prefer Trophimof, that pathetic student who dislikes solemnity and takes himself with immense seriousness? Or Lopakhin, the successful man, who, we feel, will make too much money out of the villas he is to build on the site of the cherry orchard? Or Pishtchik, the fat, jovial sponger, who has had two strokes, takes other people’s pills, is as strong as a horse, and deems himself descended from Caligula’s ennobled steed? Or Ephikhodof, that marvelous grotesque? Or Yasha, that child of the steppes with the mentality of a Parisian gigolo? Or Firs, who is your ‘old retainer’ with a difference? Madame Ranevsky, that indolent reed, leads the women easily, though Barbara is a great pool of melancholy, and Anya is vaguely foredoomed to unhappiness. Even Charlotte the governess, whiling away her antiquated virginity with card-tricks and ventriloquism, is a terrifying figure. Yet how real they are!... The Cherry Orchard is an imperishable masterpiece, which will remain as long as men have eyes to see, ears to hear, and the will to comprehend beauty” (Agate, 1944 pp 107-108).
"The central themes of change and historical progress in 'The cherry orchard' are integrally connected with the railroad- the foremost symbol of progress in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century literature- which is mentioned some eighteen times in the play....The railroad has different meanings for the different classes. For the merchant Lopakhin, the railroad provides an efficient aid for gaining wealth...For the old nobility, the railroad is associated with pleasure, especially with food" (Baehr, 1999 p 103-104). Deer (1958) argued that what appears to be haphazard dialogue is instead a reflection of the characters' inner conflicts. In the opening conversation between Lopahin, the merchant, and Dunyasha, the maid, "they seem to be talking more to themselves than to each other...She either knows most of what he says or she is not interested in it at the moment. It does not affect her in any way...There seems to be no dramatic relationship between the characters or between them and the situation in which they find themselves...But a close examination of the dialogue reveals that Lopahin's rambling remarks are, in fact, actually expressive of internal conflict which is an integral part of the central conflict of the play. Lopahin has only partially accomplished his purpose of greeting the Ranevskayas by going to the Cherry Orchard. Once there, instead of going to the station to meet the returning party, he goes to sleep. Upon awakening, he chides himself for not completing his purpose...All of the major characters in the play face problems similar to Lopahin's: like him, they are torn by contradictory impulses and desires...Since the characters' attempts to achieve any of their important aims are thwarted by their opposing desires, like Lopahin they indulge in daydreams. But again like Lopahin, they do even this for two opposing reasons: one, to reaffirm their aims, and two, to escape from the difficulties they have in achieving those aims" (pp 31-33). A light on Trofimov is provided "in the curious and superb way [Chekhov] dramatizes Trofimov's relationship to Anya in Act IV. Oddly enough, they do not exchange a single word. Chekhov achieves this impression of unity in an extremely oblique manner. First, they are both engaged in the same sort of activity, getting people out of the house. They display similar kinds of energy in checking on details and calling on others to leave. Secondly, they have four pairs of speeches. In each of the pairs Anya speaks first and Trofimov reinforces or extends what she says without speaking directly to her" (Beckerman, 1971, p 397).
Despite the seriousness of the subject of losing an estate, comic moments constantly intervene. "Chekhov develops a comic incongruity between the serious situation and the trivial response...Mrs Ranevsky loans some of the little money she still has left to the indigent Pishchik; she gives a gold piece to a peasant beggar; she hires an orchestra and holds a ball on the day of the estate's auction. And in Act II when Lopakhin...puts the question squarely before Mrs Ranevsky, she refuses to meet the problem...Chekhov also uses the device of the comic anticlimax... When Lopakhin is about to proclaim that he has bought the estate, Varya, who has just chased Yepikhodov, thinks that the latter is returning and beats Loakhin with a stick...There is also the device of the non sequitur as in Gayev's billiard terminology" (Remaley, 1973 pp 16-17). The characters practice "self-deception punctuated by mawkish moments of self-awareness" as when Gayeff realizes the silliness of his speech to the bookcase but does nothing to help preserve the estate...Pishtchik "misses jokes and laughs in the wrong place; he is so absent minded that he even forgets that the house has been sold and promises to drop in on Thursday when they are just departing" (Latham, 1958 pp 23-28). "The source of the comic lies not in the play's fabula or situation, not in what happens, but in how it happens and to whom it happens...Especially noteworthy is the immature response of landowners before an unfamiliar situation, as in Gaev sucking caramels (Evdokimova, 2000 pp 625-632). This is also true of lower ranked characters such as Trofimov appearing as a "perpetual adolescent" (Beckerman, 1971 p 393). Pishtchik discovers white clay on his property, not enough to save the estate. Thus, the unexpected happy event has no dramatic impact on the outcome, loss of the family estate.
Chekhov "shows his people in their detachment from affairs. Their daily occupations, activities, and professional duties, where they have any, are not overlooked, but they are important only as the broad foundation of monotonous or purposeless or hopeless disillusioned lives. The immediate contrast is Ibsen’s world, its people immersed in their businesses, their undertakings, their newspapers, their mayors and councils, their clergymen, the public arena, the social cross-currents providing a great stir of character and plot. Chehov, in selecting his scene, virtually eliminates the buzz of practical affairs, and presenting his persons without the rigidities of the ‘well-made’ play, he allows us to observe them within the inner chamber of their character. He descends upon them in their leisure moments and discovers them not as servants of a job or a duty or a purpose, propelled by practical reason or animal egoism, but as men and women who, however paralysed their wills may be, are conscious of their souls and seem to wait on some great transfiguration. Setting them free in this way from all conventional appearances of work and economic struggle, Chekhov shows an essence of spiritual character. Whatever their intellectual degree or moral rank, whether they arc odd, or bored, or aspiring, or fluttered, or empty, or intensely suffering, these people are laid bare in their spiritual condition. It is upon this end that the artistic process of selection is bent. If a form is the emergence of an idea in terms of sensibility, Chekhov gets his form by isolating in the lives of his men and women the moments in which they are spiritually awake, when they hear a profound inner voice that detaches them from a lifeless material world and plunges them into a vital sensitiveness; when they suddenly become alive to questions, mysteries, meanings and the lack of them; when they become, in feeling, revolutionary. They hear echoes of worlds transcending their own, where love is requited, where there is less suffering, where men are happy, and they then have their characteristic impulse to do something to make the dream real, an impulse which in an odd sort of way is part of the dream itself. With such a purpose in his selection, Chekhov is really testing his people for the nature of their souls" (Peacock, 1946 p 81).
Brustein (1964) pointed out parallels between “The cherry orchard” and Boucicault’s “The octoroon" (1859) where the ”indigent buffoon”, Pishtchik, takes the place of the “humorous friend”, Salem Scudder, the irresponsible Lyuba Ranenevsky takes the place of the innocent victim, Mrs Peyton, and the warm-hearted Lopahin takes the place of the evil McCloskey and where the property is lost, not saved, the reverse situation of melodrama. The despoiler, Lopahin, seems the only one composed of “energy, purpose, and dedication". Characters have different relations with time: Lopakhin has a precise notion of it, Lyuba wants it to stand still, Trofimov wants to turn the clock forward to the future, Firs wants to turn the clock back to the past (Reed, 1977). The breaking rope at the end of the play has been interpreted as breaking with the past (Cross, 1969 p 510). At the end, "when Gaev and his sister linger behind all the rest and seem unable to tear themselves away from the walls and the floors that have been home, then human affection for inanimate objects which have been hallowed by human associations reaches perhaps its most eloquent moment in all literature. The glimpse of tragedy only a glimpse, for more of it would be unbearable- comes at the very end when old Firs, the butler, forgotten and left behind with the walls and the floors, totters into the room, only to find the doors locked and the windows barred. And so he draws himself up into a great black chair and breathes his last" (Sayer, 1922 pp 55-56). "Vershinin is a one-speech character. Whenever he is moved he breaks out into an impassioned discourse about the glorious future for which the thwarted petty lives of the present generation are a preparation. It is largely through his liberal eloquence that he first touches the heart of Masha. But as time goes on something mechanical ought to creep into his delivery. His speech ought therefore to [be...fervid] when...addressing a new audience, and his last repetition of it, when he is parting from Masha, would then by contrast have the flatness of a gramophone record; thus giving another turn to the ironic screw...Each character is like a different instrument which leads and gives way alternately, sometimes playing alone, sometimes with others, the theme of the miseries of cultivated exiles, or the deeper one of the longing of youth; the dreamy, once gay Irena, the sober and steady Olga, the passionate Masha, half ashamed of her greedy clutch on happiness— vulgarizing herself, she knows, but not caring for that. And what queer harsh notes proceed from that black pit of egotistic megalomania and ferocious diffidence, Solyony!" (MacCarthy, 1940 pp 120-122).
"The three sisters"
Time: 1900s. Place: Russia.
On the first anniversary of their father's death and Irina's name-day, Olga, the eldest, a school teacher, Masha, the middle sister, married to Kulygin, also a schoolteacher, and Irina, the youngest, idle but full of expectations, talk of returning to Moscow, to a cultivated life instead of a dull country one. Lieutenant Colonel Vershinin arrives to pay his respects. They reminisce and speak philosophy, notably about the future, when life on earth should be happier. Baron Tusenbach means well, but is constantly teased by the irascible Solyony, a captain with a penchant of smearing his hands with perfume. Chebutikin, a physician who has not practiced for a great while, makes well-meaning but cynical comments, and despairs in his drunkenness when not humming songs. The three sisters pin their hopes of reaching Moscow on their brother, Andrei, but instead he accepts a local government post and marries Natasha, who promptly begins an adulterous relation with Protopopov, Andrei's superior. One day, Masha comes home flushed and happy in Vershinin's company. When he leaves to attend to yet another of his wife's suicide attempts, she is in ill humor. Natasha starts to control the practical business of the home, asking Irina to leave her room for the sake of her baby. Irina despairs of her position as a clerk in a post office, finding it meaningless. First Tusenbach then Solyony declare their love for her, but she loves neither. One night, there is a fire in the town, when all contribute to help except the despairing Andrei. Olga, Masha, and Irina are angry at him for mortgaging their house to pay gambling debts and for constantly submitting to his wife's whims. However, when faced with Natasha's indifference to their aged family servant, Anfisa, Olga's own efforts to stand up to her fall short. At last, Masha confides to her sisters her love for Vershinin. Kulygin blunders in, doting on his wife as she stalks out. In the course of time, Irina despairs of her new position as a schoolteacher, finding that job as meaningless as the previous one. Resigned, she accepts Tusenbach's offer of marriage despite having no love of him, hoping to reach Moscow by his means. Andrei acknowledges his disappointment in marriage and begs his sisters' forgiveness. After being the sisters' guest for some time, Vershinin receives an order to leave town. More irritated than usual without reason, Solyony challenges his old rival, Tusenbach, to a duel. The latter is intent on hiding this from Irina, who likens her heart to a piano whose key has been lost. A shot is heard and Tusenbach's death announced by Chebutykin, considering that this event, no more than everything else, "does not matter". Masha despairs as Vershinin takes his leave of the three sisters and her husband returns good-humoredly. Olga reluctantly accepts the position of school headmistress, moving out with Anfisa. Irina says she wishes to persevere as a schoolteacher. Andrei is stuck pushing the perambulator, emblem of his submission to his wife. The three sisters embrace as the soldiers depart to the sound of a gay march. As Chebutykin meaninglessly sings "Ta-ra-ra-boom-di-ay" to himself, Olga wonders at humankind's future, and the reasons behind their present sufferings: "If we only knew....if we only knew," she wonders.
"The cherry orchard"
Time: 1900s. Place: Russia.
Lopakhin, a merchant, and his brother Gaev, meets Mme Ranevskaya at her home. She and her daughter, Anya, have been abroad for 6 years following the death of her husband and 7-year-old son. Anya asks Varya, her mother's adopted daughter, whether Lopakhin has yet proposed marriage to her. She answers that he is too busy in business affairs to think of her. Because of financial worries, the family's cherry orchard must be sold. Lopakhin advises Mme Ranevskaya to cut down the orchard and sell the grounds in lots to build villas, but she delays in answering, and finally considers the idea vulgar. Instead, she and her brother wait for financial help from family and acquaintances they know has little chance to succeed. Trofimov, her dead son's old tutor and Anya's friend, arrives, so aged from what he appeared that Mme Ranevskaya fails to recognize him at first. He is teased by Lopakhin as a perpetual student. Pischick, an accountant, asks Mme Ranevskaya 240 roubles for the interest on his mortgage, but she is unable to provide it. Nevertheless, he is confident she eventually will. Fiers, the old and almost deaf servant, scolds Gaev as if he were a child for one reason or another. Trofimov expounds on the poor condition of Russian affairs at all levels and how few people ever decide to work at all. He and Anya discuss a possible future together, seeking to escape from Varya's influence. He complains that Varya disapproves of their relation. On the day where the property is expected to be sold, Mme Ranevskaya worries that her brother will be unable to keep it. She teases Trofimov for his immaturity, who, aghast at what she says, runs away and falls downstairs, to Anya's amusement. When Lopakhin and Gaev return, a devastated Mme Ranevskaya learns that the cherry orchard now belongs to Lopakhin. Varya throws down the household-keys and runs out. Mme Ranevskaya decides to return to Paris to her lover, now sick and needing her help. Trofimov will go with Anya to Moscow and Lopakhin to Kharkov. Lopakhin is "tired out with doing nothing". Gaev accepts a position in a bank, but it is doubtful whether his laziness will permit him to be useful. Varya finds a place as a governess. Trofimov and Anya feel disturbed at already hearing the sounds of the cherry trees being cut down, which Lopakhin blames on his workmen. Englishmen have found valuable clay on Pischick's property so that he appears to be in better financial shape than before. Lopakhin says to Mme Ranevskaya that he is willing to marry Varya, but when they are left alone, nothing of that kind is said. Fiers is sick and has been sent to the poorhouse to be treated. When he returns, everyone has already gone and he has been abandoned. "Life has passed by as if I never lived," he concludes. There is a sound of a rope breaking as the cherry trees continue to be cut down.
Maxim Gorky (1868-1936) contributed to 20th century Russian drama with two gritty works: "На дне" (The lower depths, 1902) and "Последние" (The last ones, 1925).
"The Lower Depths" yield an “impression of horrifying reality” (Lamm, 1952 p 219). "All the characters are hardened by misfortune. They think and talk of their own interests, unmoved by what goes on about them. Dominating them all is Satine, a cheat and a drunkard. Yet from his lips and amid this appalling squalor there comes- when he is slightly tipsy- a passionate declaration of belief in man. The pilgrim’s tales are well enough, he says, for weaklings, but Satine, the bad lot, stands on his own unsteady feet and proclaims his unconquerable faith in the human spirit. There is true greatness in that, enhanced by the terrible realism of the setting and the depravity of the sordid folk it frames" (Wilson, 1937 pp 192-193). Sayer (1922) summarized the overall impression of "not so much a matter of utterable line and recountable gesture as it is of the intangible flow of human souls in endlessly shifting contact one with another. Awkward but eloquent pauses and emphases, the scarcely perceptible stress or dulling of word or gesture, the nuances and the shadings of which life is mostly made and by which it reveals its meaning, these and the instinctive understanding of the vision of the artist by those who seek to interpret him are the incalculable and unrecordable channels through which 'The lower Depths' becomes articulate" (p 55-56).
"The lower depths"
Time: 1900s. Place: Russia.
Text at https://archive.org/details/lowerdepthsplayi00gorkiala https://archive.org/details/lowerdepthsdrama00gork http://books.google.ca/books?id=NnXlZkdqQAkC&dq=gorky+lower+depths https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.531140 https://archive.org/details/twentyfivemodern001705mbp http://www.socialiststories.com/writers/maxim-gorky/ https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.151773/page/n13
In a basement resembling a cavern, Kostilioff, the landlord, marvels at the condition of his lodgers, whom he calls "citizens of nowhere, hapless and helpless." Looking for his wife, Wassilissa, Kostilioff knocks at the door in Pepel's room, who comes out and asks for 7 roubles owed him for a stolen watch, but he cannot afford it at the moment. The locksmith, Kleshtsch, scrapes keys and other metal-works unconcernedly while his wife, Anna, appears to be dying. Natasha, Wassilissa's sister and a cook, advises Kleshtsch to take better care of her. A new lodger arrives, Luka, a pilgrim. Medviedeff, Wassilissa's uncle and a police officer, takes due note of the new arrival, because on his beat, he must know everybody. Luka assures Anna that death is not so terrible, in fact tender. "Only in death will rest be found," he says soothingly. Pepel tires of his adulterous relation with Wassilissa and she herself is indifferent to a separation. "I have always hoped you would pull me from this cesspool here, that you would free me from my husband, from my uncle... perhaps in you I love only my one hope, my one dream," she says. She proposes to help him marry Natasha whom he loves better provided he murders her husband. Luka overhears this conversation and advises Pepel to escape from here with the one he loves best. They discover Anna dead. After hearing this piece of news, another lodger, Bubnoff, is glad of the outcome. "There will be no more coughing," he says with relief. In a vacant area, Nastiah tells the baron of her lover's unhappy life-story, which he does not believe ever happened but was picked from a book. Hearing the same story, Luka soothes the depressed Nastiah by declaring: "If you believe it, then you have had such love." Pepel chooses Natasha to go away with, but she wonders where they can go. "To prisons?" she asks sarcastically. Nevertheless, Luka advises her to go with him. "All you must do is to remind him he possesses goodness in him," he suggests. Pepel informs Kostilioff he is going away with his sister-in-law, Natasha. "I will prepare a glorious wedding for you," Wassilissa promises Pepel in a threatening voice. Luka intends on being on the move again, but Kostilioff disapproves of that. "A man must have a place called home," he states, to which Luka responds: "What if one is at home everywhere?" Frustrated at not obtaining what they want from her, Kostilioff and Wassilissa beat Natasha. A man named Sahtin proposes to serve as witness of the attack, but Luka refuses to cooperate, having served too often in this kind of business. While Sahtin speaks to Officer Medviedeff, Pepel brutally assaults Kostilioff after both had drenched Nathasha's legs with scalding water. Kostilioff is eventually discovered to be dead, his wife quite glad of it, as is Pepel, who kicks the corpse for good measure. While Wassilissa triumphantly accuses her associate of the murder, Sahtin comforts him. "Killed in a row, a trifle, only a short sentence for that," he assures him. However, when Natasha accuses both of murder, they are sent to jail for manslaughter. While the lodgers drink it off, Nastiah enters with staring eyes, surely with more bad news.
"The last ones"
Time: 1910s. Place: Russia.
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Since Ivan Kolomnitzev lost his job in the police force, he has been constrained to live at the house of his brother, Yakov, in love with Ivan's wife, Sonia. The Kolomnitzevs have five children, the youngest being Vera at 16 years of age. To make ends meet, Sonia often asks Yakov for money and, though not rich, he always accepts. Vera and her brother, Piotr, describe to their hunched-back sister, Liobov, about being recently harassed by three youths on the streets but saved by Yakorev, a police inspector. Pavel Lestch, physician and wife to Nadia, the eldest daughter, seeks to convince Sonia of the need for them to obtain a position for Alexander, their eldest son, in the police force, but he needs 500 roubles in bribe money. As usual, Yakov yields the money whenever needed. Pavel takes the 500 roubles but keeps 200 for himself, Nadia claiming some of that to buy a jewelled cross as a reward for thinking out this plan. As soon as he enters the police force, Alexander asks his mother for more money, because for any chance to obtain a promotion, he needs to entertain his colleagues. Hearing rumors that a revolutionary youth imprisoned for having shot but missed Ivan has been falsely condemned, Sonia asks his help to release him. Ivan answers he will think about it. He is outraged at hearing Liobov call Yakov "father", accusing Sonia of turning the entire household against him. His mood improves when Nadia announces that the district attorney has promised Pavel the position of police commissioner for himself. Alexander suggests he become his assistant. "Between the two of us, we'll recreate earthly paradise," he enthuses. Pavel informs Ivan he needs about 1,000 roubles in bribe money to secure the position, which must be obtained quickly because Kovalev, a man he intends as a husband to his daughter, Vera, desires the position for himself. When the mother of the falsely charged youth confronts Ivan, he refuses to help in view of concerns that his retraction will be interpreted in his disfavor at the police force. Alexander, Nadia, and Vera defend Ivan's choice, while Sonia and Yakov accuse him. A distraught Piotr faints on hearing of his father's choice. Instead of giving his brother the bribe-money, Yakov hands it over to the prisoner's mother. "Had you recognized your error, the money would have been yours," snickers Liobov. Refusing to marry Kovalev, Vera flees from the house. To the family, Yakorev announces that they are married and requests 4,000 roubles in dowry-money, to which Yakov agrees to contribute. He also asks for a position as rural police commissioner once Ivan obtains his. Unexpectedly, Vera returns to say she has changed her mind and will marry Kovalev. Still unmarried and disillusioned about Yakorev, she orders him out. In the turmoil of conflicting interests, Sonia kneels to ask her children pardon for giving them birth. Amid the yelling, Yakov suddenly dies. In full command as a result of his brother's death, Ivan is at last appeased.
The best known comedy of ear 20th century Russian theatre is "Тот, кто получает пощёчины" (He who gets slapped, 1914) by Leonid Andreyev (1871-1919).
“The clown who wishes to play Hamlet is a familiar literarv figure; but what of the Hamlet who wishes to play the clown?...His prince, his graceful, philosophic, dignified aristocrat, is a man who, at thirty-nine, wishes to daub his face with flour, to have it struck in the sight of jeering multitudes, again and again, by clowns and mountebanks. He yearns to be a laughing-stock; he hungers after humiliation. He wants to turn his back on responsibility, on art, on culture. These things are too heavy a burden for him to bear. Kings have abdicated: but here is something sadder, more tragic still, an abdication of the spirit” (Hobson, 1948 p 97).
"In Andreev’s play and other works, a performance is employed to hide the main character’s true emotions and psychological state. Even as he suffers on the inside, He plays the part of a clown and entertains the audience, demonstrating that people prefer the appearance of normalcy to the truth. As Andreev had suggested in his Letters to the Theater, this external action- the life of the circus, the slapping of the face of the clown, the laughter of the audience- is not the dramatic impetus of the play. Rather He’s feelings of betrayal, his attempt to lose himself in the artificial world of the circus, his developing love for the circus performer Consuelo, and the desire to inflict psychological pain on her suitor, the baron (and those like him) are the true, internal drama that informs this panpsyche theater...In He Who Gets Slapped the unattractive truth about the clown is that he is running from a failed marriage, betrayed by a good friend and his own wife. He is hiding from this psychological pain within the circus, where he can be a clown whose pain and humiliation are viewed by those around him as part of a humorous act. Those circus colleagues have their own secrets to keep and do not want to know why He suffers so greatly- maybe he is insane or a drunkard. They are more than willing to accept this veneer of a clown who is repeatedly slapped and humiliated as the real man. Tension, therefore, is created by the psychological dissonance found in the appearance of a circus clown, covering the tragic loss and betrayal of an intellectual who has turned his back on his former life. Once this is understood by the theater audience, then the secondary story of He’s love for Consuelo gains added meaning as the clown tries to save the young girl from a similar type of betrayal and humiliation. The clown’s love is further intensified because his rival for Consuelo’s affection is the baron, the same kind of scoundrel as the former friend who betrayed He’s trust and stole his wife" (White, 2016 pp 143-148).
"He who gets slapped"
Time: 1910s. Place: France.
A man approaches Papa Briquet, a circus manager, to be hired as a clown. When asked what he can do, he answers: "Why, nothing. Isn't that funny?" Thinking some more about it, he declares: "I shall be among you he who gets slapped." Jackson the clown suddenly slaps his face. Taken aback by the blow, the man who names himself He assures the circus personnel he will get used to it. When Papa and his lover, business partner, and lion tamer all in one, Zinida, ask him his name, He shows them his passport and they recognize the name. Alone with Alfred, a bareback rider, Zinida reveals her love for him, but he is not interested. "How will I make my lions love me?" she then asks him. Later, a rich noble, Baron Auguste Regnard, reveals his love to Consuelo, the bareback tango queen and daughter to Count Mancini, an impoverished noble, although specifying that he cannot marry her, but she also shows little interest. He the clown advises Mancini to give his daughter in marriage not to the baron but to Alfred or himself. But without money, Mancini thinks the baron will eventually win her. Frustrated in his designs, the baron writes Mancini that he is willing to marry her after all. During Zinida's number, Papa worries about her safety, for she is taking a great deal of unnecessary risks. Though finishing her performance safely, she enters pale and shaken, specifying to Alfred: "My lions indeed love me." To He the clown, Consuelo admits she does not love the baron, yet is nevertheless willing to accept him as her husband. But He considers himself as the only man capable of saving her. He declares his love, but gets slapped. "You are he who gets slapped," she reminds him. "Beauty has her fool," he declares, but she does not take him seriously. Prince Poniatovsky arrives to find He. The prince took away his wife and wrote a popular book by vulgarizing his ideas when He was an academician, but yet the successful rival is unhappy. "Everywhere you!" the prince exclaims. He asks only to be assured of one thing: "Will you ever come back?" He says no. In view of Consuelo's upcoming marriage to the baron, a benefit performance is accorded her, with all the parquet seats bought by the baron, who has also spreads the arena with thousands of red roses. One more time, He begs her not to marry the baron. "Take her away," He advises Alfred, who tells him to mind his own business. Zinida confirms He's suspicion that Consuelo is not the count's daughter, yet no one reveals it to her, indifferent to both the count and baron. "Ah, Consuelo, books have killed you," concludes Papa. At the intermission of the benefit performance, He offers her a glass of champagne before her number is called and takes one himself. Soon after, she feels sick and turns to find out what is wrong. "It is death," He declares. She dies. In despair, the baron shoots himself. To catch up with her soul, He hopes to die with the same poison.
"Мандат" (The mandate, 1925) by Nikolai Erdman (1900-1970) is a Soviet comedy of the French Boulevard type.
"The Communist bureaucrat with no purpose except to interfere in the lives of others, with his outward symbol of the briefcase, indeed becomes a popular figure for contemporary satire. He is made fun of in Nikolai Erdman's 'The mandate' (1925), whose hero, Guliachkin, is persuaded to join the Party and acquire (in addition to a few working-class relatives) documents to prove it, this in order that he may be offered as a 'dowry' for his sister to give his future in-laws respectability. He starts by buying a briefcase and then forges a document stating simply where he lives, but it is enough to strike fear into his listeners: 'I'll arrest every man in Russia, one by one,' he says, 'with this little piece of paper.' In this play...there are no admirable characters, for all are concerned with their own petty lives. The last line not only emphasizes their superfluous nature but again suggests the metaphysical dimension of the problem, involving the individual's basic desire for an underlying purpose and sense of identity: 'Mamma, how are we to go on living if they won't even arrest us? How are we to go on living? What are we to live by?'" (Wright,1988 p 11).
Time: 1920s. Place: Russia.
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Nadiedja, widow of a store-owner, wishes to marry her daughter, Varvara, to Valerian. Her son, Pavel, is stunned on discovering that one of the conditions of this match is that he join the communist party. By such means, Valerian's father, Olympus, hopes to protect his considerable possessions in case the bolsheviks seize them. Their conversation is interrupted by Nadiedja's irate lodger, Ivan, who hurries in with a pot over his head, the result of Pavel's hard hammering while hanging a picture on the wall. He threatens to inform the police about this matter until Pavel mentions his communist party membership. The lie shuts Ivan up immediately. To buttress his candidacy, Pavel proposes to gather acquaintances and pretend they are family members of the working class. Nadiedja receives a visit from Tamara, who has brought over a chest containing expensive items in danger to be seized by the authorities, particularly a dress once worn by the deposed Empress Anastasia, asking her friend to store it temporarily inside her house. Nadiedja agrees. Unaware of this agreement, Pavel and Varvara discover the chest and try to pick the lock to find out what it holds. In the dark, mistaking her son and daughter for robbers, Nadiedja almost succeeds in shooting them. All three are curious to see how the empress' dress looks on a living person and so they ask their cook, Nastia, to try it on. They are suitably impressed. Trouble starts when Nastia accidentally sits on Nadiedja's revolver. She is too terrified to move as the doorbell rings. Thinking their visitors are communist party members, they hide Nastia with the compromising dress under a piece of cloth. Instead, the visitors are Olympus and Valerian. Alone with her suitor, Varvara mistakenly thinks he has proposed to her, but Valerian informs his father he is not impressed by her. An irate Olympus reminds his son that Pavel will be useful to them as a "safe-conduct" to their business transactions. The dinner party is interrupted by a barrel-organ grinder, a woman with a parrot, and a man with a tambourine, hired by Varvara to act as if they were communist party members. The three new guests are disappointed at Nadiedja's fare, purposefully modest to be in line with communist doctrine. As the guests retire to another room, Nastia still refuses to move until Nadiedja and her daughter pour large quantities of water over her to drench the revolver. When Tamara unexpectedly returns, anxious to hide the state of the wet dress, they force Nastia inside the coffer. Worried about the dress, Tamara requests Valerian to remove the chest to a safer location, specifying that it contains "all that remains of Russia inside Russia". Ivan returns, still threatening to call the police, but his cries are quelled by Pavel's revelation of his mandate to act as president of the committee of tenants. "A copy of this has been sent to comrade Stalin," he proudly adds. The chest is delivered to Valerian's uncle, Autonomus, who mistakenly believes the discovered Nastia to be the deposed empress in person and is elated that the imperial family may yet regain power. He and Olympus try to convince her to remain in Russia under an assumed name. She believes this to mean they are proposing her to marry Valerian. Olympus seizes this opportunity by convincing his son to forget Varvara and marry her instead. When Autonomus informs Nadiedja that her wedding plans are canceled without giving any reason, she is surprised and angry. So is Pavel, making Autonomus cower on the basis of his new status. When several among Autonomus' friends come over to gape at the empress, they are stunned on discovering her to be merely a cook. A vengeful Ivan returns triumphant with the news that Pavel's mandate was forged, but he weeps bitterly on discovering that the authorities will not bother to arrest him.