Tolstoy's international fame as a novelist has perhaps served to obscure his accomplishments as a playwright. He wrote no less than eight plays and dramatic sketches. Although there is evidence of his desire to succeed in the theatre, he was never what might be called a "natural dramatist." Yet so rich and varied were his talents that even in this somewhat alien genre he did not fail to leave behind him traces of indubitable genius, and in his masterpiece, 'The Power of Darkness', one of the most impressive plays of the nineteenth century.
As a student in Kazan University the young Tolstoy acted with relish and ability in amateur theatricals. And when only twenty-eight we learn from his diary that the debauched surroundings of his village suggested to him the theme of a play: "Free Love." It would involve, he jotted down, the perverted relations of a
"proprietress with her footman, a brother with his sister, and a father's natural son with the father's wife, etc."
Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, in terms of Tolstoy's future literary image, only the bare beginning of this amazing dramatic design has survived in his manuscripts.
Tolstoy's first completed play is the little-known 'A Contaminated Family', in five acts, which he wrote in 1864, very likely as a kind of relief from his arduous labours at that time on 'War and Peace'. Its contents suggest that he had once again decided to pay off his radically minded critics, only now in a humorous, ridiculing manner, for the play depicts a typically vulgar group of representatives of the progressive movement of the 1860's. Among the principal characters is a landowner's daughter, with short hair, abbreviated skirt, dark spectacles, and a cigarette continually drooping from her mouth. In the jargon of the type, so celebrated in literature then, she regards herself as an "emancipated woman," scorns provincial aristocratic females and the "social web of prejudices," and while living off the substance of her wealthy uncle, she scorns him also. In addition, an ignorant, conceited, radical student, who imagines himself the most advanced of intellectuals, is amusingly satirized.
'A Contaminated Family' is a farce rather than a comedy, somewhat crude in stagecraft, but abounding in vitality, humanity, and common sense. For despite his personal sympathies, Tolstoy portrays his characters, who are fairly well individualized, with commendable impartiality, whether they belong to the new radicals or the old order of society.
Like any young dramatist with a first play, Tolstoy was eager to see it acted. With the encouragement of a relative, he went to Moscow to try and arrange the matter. As an initial precaution, he invited his acquaintance, the well-known professional playwright A. N. Ostrovsky, to hear him read 'A Contaminated Family'. The growling, bearlike Ostrovsky let Tolstoy off lightly with the terse remark that the play had too little action and ought to be reworked, but to their mutual friend N. A. Nekrasov he wrote the unflattering comment:
"It was so hideous that I positively had to stop my ears at his reading."
Tolstoy went blithely ahead and submitted the play for production, but he was informed by the theatre that it was too near the end of the season to attempt a new piece. Shortly after, in a statement in a letter to his sister, it appears that he began to have second thoughts about his play, for he wrote:
"Among other things I've done a comedy that I wanted staged at Moscow, but I had no success before Shrovetide, and the comedy, it seems, is poor; it was all written to ridicule the emancipation of women and the so-called nihilists."
Actually, 'A Contaminated Family' was never published or performed in his lifetime.
Two years later Tolstoy returned to the theme of nihilism. In the summer of 1866, on the occasion of a large gathering of family and their guests at Yasnaya Polyana, he proposed to the company that they do a little play for entertainment instead of the usual charades. They at once importuned him to write something, and several days later he brought them the manuscript of a comedy in three acts, entitled 'The Nihilist'. The plot concerns a conventional married couple who are visited by a group of young people, one of whom is an attractive student obsessed by the new nihilist ideas. The husband imagines that the student has designs on his wife, but in the end, after some fetching fun-making at the expense of the youthful nihilist, all is satisfactorily explained. The roles were acted by the young people present, and after several days of rehearsing under Tolstoy's direction, 'The Nihilist' was staged in the large dining room at Yasnaya Polyana, to the huge enjoyment of an audience composed of numbers of the household and neighbours.
Tolstoy did not soon follow up these two early attempts at playwriting with similar efforts, perhaps because he recognized then his inadequacies in the form, but more likely because of his deep involvement in 'War and Peace' and shortly thereafter in 'Anna Karenina'. However, the genre continued to fascinate him, especially as a literary form in which he had not yet achieved eminent success. When he returned to it twenty years later, his approach to playwriting, as to all forms of artistic expression, had been altered by the religious experience he had undergone in the meantime.
In 1886 the request of a well-known actor to rework some of his moral tales into plays for a people's theatre prompted Tolstoy to turn once again to dramatic writing. He quickly produced a comedy, 'The First Distiller', a dramatization of his short story, "The Imp and the Crust. " The several imps have no difficulty in ensnaring many members of the rich and idle classes for their master, the Devil. But the imp who is assigned to the peasants has no success at all because their lot of hard work remains a safeguard against sin. Only by teaching them how to make and drink vodka does the imp finally triumph over the peasants. This playlet, of course, is a forthright piece of temperance propaganda which, however, does not lessen its amusement when either read or acted. The scene where the peasants are corrupted by their first taste of liquor and lose their better judgment under its influence is executed with buoyancy and just enough realistic detail to sustain it on a high level of credibility.
During the same year (1886), another request, this time by the people's theatre itself, led Tolstoy to write his grimly realistic tragedy, 'The Power of Darkness'. It is based directly on the account of a crime he had heard several years before: a peasant confessed to the guests assembled at the marriage of his stepdaughter that he had murdered a child she had borne him and afterwards attempted to kill his own six-year-old daughter. Upon the foundation of this sordid crime Tolstoy built a moving drama that involved the darker aspects of peasant life. A good part of the play he wrote while he lay ill in bed with an infected leg. At times he would drop his pencil throw his head back on the pillow, and his face took on an expression of the mingled pain of bodily and spiritual suffering that he experienced in creating horrific scenes dealing with adultery, murder, and infanticide. Once he admitted that he could never read without tears the scene in the cellar where Nikita crushed his child with a board so that its "bones crunched." The horror of it all, however, is strangely neutralized by the compulsion to atone for sin and by the moral message of the terrible evil-begetting power of evil, which is suggested in the play's subtitle: "If a Claw Is Caught, the Bird Is Lost. "
The first act sets the main lines of the action, with no fumbling and with remarkable economy of effort, in the course of which are introduced all the principal characters in vivid, natural dialogue: the sickly husband Peter; his coarse-tongued, adulterous wife Anisya, who poisons him and marries her lover, the handsome, swaggering, village wencher Nikita; Anisya's slattern stepdaughter Akulina, whose illegitimate child by Nikita he and Anisya murder; Nikita's parents, the old God-fearing Akim, and Matryona, that triumph of wickedness, one of Tolstoy's great dramatic creations. Though he patently has no illusions about these peasants, we are convinced by the end of the first act that he feels deeply about them and, in terms of his new canons of art, he infects his readers with this feeling. As the play moves forward the feeling intensifies, and we share more and more the dramatist's concern for these men and women despite their tragic human weaknesses.
To compel belief in the action and characters of 'The Power of Darkness', Tolstoy employs some of the realistic subtleties of his earlier fiction, which he later condemned as superfluous in 'What Is Art?'. Though he has been criticized for reproducing a peasant dialect in the play, he had no alternative in the case of the men and women he portrayed. Thoroughly familiar with the peasant manner of speech, he artfully individualizes its peculiarities and intonations, in keeping with the personalities of the characters.
The power of suggestion achieved by contrast or juxtaposition of events or human attributes, so frequent in his novels, is brilliantly used to heighten tragic content in some of the great scenes in the play. As they try to go to sleep, old Mitrich, the rascally ex-soldier, tells Nan, Anisya's ten-year-old daughter, a story of fighting the Kurds and of capturing a little girl who becomes the pet of the regiment. At that moment we know — and Mitrich suspects — that Nikita's bastard child is being done away with only a few yards from them. And as we listen to the absorbing account about the little Kurdish girl, who used to hang around the neck of the old soldier after he had been flogged for drunkeness, we momentarily expect to hear the wails of the baby being murdered. There is also the scene of Matryona offering religious consolation to the dying Peter whom she had helped to poison, or that of her maternal tenderness to her distraught son Nikita after he has crushed his child to death, a deed which she had hounded him into doing. Then there is the striking episode of Nikita and Mitrich which George Bernard Shaw comments on:
"I remember nothing in the whole range of drama that fascinated me more than the old soldier in your 'Power of Darkness'. To me the scene where the two drunkards are wallowing in the straw, and the older rascal lifts the younger one above his cowardice and his selfishness, has an intensity of effect that no merely romantic scene could possibly attain."
The work soars to an impressive finale. With ineffable artistic appropriateness, Tolstoy places the truth of the play, its moral message of atonement for evil, in the mouth of old Akim, the least articulate of the characters. For after the conscience-stricken Nikita's act of repentance in making public confession of his terrible crime, his father triumphantly declares to all:
"God will forgive you, my own son! You have had no mercy on yourself. He will show mercy to you. God, God! It is He!"
'The Power of Darkness' has excellent acting qualities, and Tolstoy was anxious to have it staged as well as published, although he was aware that the official censor would hardly permit this. A friend and talented dramatic performer read the play with much success to Petersburg society gatherings at the beginning of 1887. He was then invited to give a reading of it to Alexander III and high court officials. The emperor seemed impressed, pronounced the play "a marvellous thing," and suggested that it be staged by the best actors and actresses of both Moscow and Petersburg theatres. Preparations went forward rapidly, until the plans were brought to the attention of K. P. Pobedonostsev, Procurator of the Holy Synod and arch-enemy of Tolstoy's new religious beliefs. He read the play and lost no time in writing to the emperor that 'The Power of Darkness' filled him with horror and that it represented a "negation of ideals," a "debasing of moral feelings," and "an offence against taste." In his reply Alexander III judiciously recanted. He admitted that the play had made a strong impression on him, but that it had filled him with aversion and that it was his
"opinion and conviction that it was impossible to stage the drama, because it was too realistic and frightful in its subject matter."
With fickle royal favour withdrawn, the play could not be acted, although apparently through some over-sight of the censor it was allowed to be published in 1887. A few weeks later the emperor sent a memorandum to the Ministry of the Interior:
"One ought to put an end to this mischief of L. Tolstoy. He is a downright nihilist and atheist. It would not be bad now to forbid the sale of his drama, 'The Power of Darkness', for he has already succeeded in selling enough of his nastiness and in spreading it among the people."
Zola, in Paris, was less squeamish. In fact, he was enthusiastic over 'The Power of Darkness' and arranged for its first performance in Paris in 1888. It was an overwhelming success and soon was running in three French theatres. Not until Alexander III's successor, Nicholas II, was the play certified for performance in Russia. At its opening in Petersburg (October 16, 1895) a capacity audience acclaimed Tolstoy, and aware of the victory he had won over the censors, they demanded that a congratulatory telegram be sent to the author. A little more than a month later the play was performed with equal success at the distinguished Maly Theatre in Moscow. At its conclusion a crowd of students paraded to his house to pay tribute to him, and, filled with embarrassment, he was unable for a few moments to say a word in reply.
It would be hard to imagine any greater contrast to the grimly tragic 'Power of Darkness' than Tolstoy's next play, three years later, 'The Fruits of Enlightenment' (1889). In the winter of that year the family remained behind at Yasnaya Polyana instead of moving to their Moscow home. The young people sought a play to perform to liven their evenings. One of Tolstoy's daughters recalled seeing the draft of a play among his papers. She purloined the manuscript and read it together with her sister and a young tutor in the family. It was just the thing — a merry comedy in four acts, in which high society and spiritualism were blisteringly satirized, while some wonderful peasant characters were introduced who provided a combination of farce and genuine distress over their lack of land. To the delight of the readers, they recognized among the characters members of the family, friends, and even some of their own peasants. Tolstoy, in contrast to his eagerness more than twenty years earlier to perform 'The Nihilist' at Yasnaya Polyana, now remonstrated: staging a play, he said, was an amusement of rich and idle people. But the young folk stood their ground and soon the author was more deeply involved than his children. Though the search for God preoccupied Tolstoy during these later years, a spirit of fun, always characteristic of him and never far beneath the surface, willingly responded to the gaiety of those around him.
The trouble was that the play had thirty-one speaking characters. Soon telegrams were flying in all directions to summon friends and several absent members of the family. Parts were quickly cast and rehearsals went on daily. Tolstoy was nearly always present, directing and encouraging the actors, slapping his sides and wagging his head in peasant fashion, and laughing until the tears came when his humorous lines were effectively rendered. With animation he lectured the cast on dramatic art. During the rehearsals he attentively observed the performance of each actor and took notes on the dialogue. At night he collected all the roles, retired to his study, and altered the dialogue, sometimes adjusting it to the personalities of the players. These changes continued right up to the very performance of the work.
'The Fruits of Enlightenment' was first presented on December 30, 1889, before a sizeable audience of family, their guests, servants, and neighbours, and it achieved a triumphant success. It had been a long time since such jollity reigned in the great manor house of Yasnaya Polyana, which had been turned into a center of spiritual activity after Tolstoy's religious conversion.
The play received its first public performance at Tula, but was not produced in Moscow until 1891, and then, interestingly enough, by Stanislavsky, who was just beginning his noteworthy career as a director with his own company made up largely of amateur actors. According to Stanislavsky,
"The performance was extraordinarily successful. The play ran till late spring, and helped us out of our financial difficulties."
The next year Tolstoy saw it performed at the Maly Theatre in Moscow, and it may be added that this play has held the boards in Russia ever since.
'The Fruits of Enlightenment' turns on a farcical situation in which a delegation of three peasants comes to the Moscow home of their wealthy master, Zvezdintsev, to persuade him to sell a large tract of village land which they desperately need for cultivation and grazing. Though he had formerly promised to do so, he now refuses because the peasants can afford only a small down payment on the total price. In the end, the maid, Tanya, who is engaged to the butler's assistant, Simon, whose father is one of the peasant delegation, tricks her master into signing the bill of sale at a spiritualism seance, then a popular fad among the gentry and one to which Zvezdintsev is passionately devoted.
Tolstoy contrives the situation in order to present a feverishly active gentry family living in the city with its swarm of servants, a representation not untypical of the time if we may judge from an abundance of concrete historical evidence as well as many other portrayals in nineteenth-century Russian belles-lettres. These utterly self-centered people are given entirely to pleasure and intellectual vulgarity. They and their social parasitism are effectively, and often humorously, contrasted to the servants and their hard-working way of life, and to the peasants with their concern for daily bread. Most of the characters are very much alive, especially the following: Zvezdintsev's cross-grained wife, Anna Pavlovna, who affects chronic illness and, convinced the peasant delegation is infected with diphtheria, drives them out of the house and has the room they occupy disinfected, and fires the butler because of his failure to cherish her lapdog Frisk, an animal she values above any of the servants; her son Vasily, who mocks the peasant delegation, lives solely for his membership in the Cycling Club, the Jockey Club, and the Society for Promoting he Breeding of Hounds; and the laughable Professor Krugosvetlov, whose erudition is employed more in the interests of self-deception in the practice of spiritualism than in the pursuit of truth.
The scenes below stairs in the servant's quarters, where the peasants are made welcome, are expertly managed in action, dialogue, and characterizations. Their gossip reveals their own failings as much as it does the manner of life of the people they serve.
Tolstoy's moral bias and social criticism are plain enough. The peasants' urgent need for land — a lost cause that he never wearied fighting for — is highlighted, as well as the simple virtues of country life, which some of the servants long to return to, compared to the evil, wasteful existence of city dwellers. But these postures are not labored in the play. Though Tolstoy is bent upon satirizing the fecklessness and reprehensible behaviour pattern of gentry and intellectuals, there is no meanness or bitterness in his many palpable hits. In fact, he brings out the human kindness of some of these upper class characters, as in the case of Betsy, Zvezdintsev's daughter, and his educated personal secretary, Fyodor Ivanich. Nor does he fail to poke fun at the follies and oddities of some of the servants and peasants.
The first two acts are full of life and reflect Tolstoy's obvious delight in creating characters that mean much to him; and he infects his readers with this delight. The final acts, however, tend to die on him, but not, as has been charged, because he betrays the characters in the end by his moralist's purpose. Rather, he excessively prolongs the denouement with altogether too much fussy business and detail when what was clearly called for was directness and simplicity in handling the conclusion.
Eleven years passed before Tolstoy attempted another play, 'The Live Corpse' (1900). Several years previously, his friend N. V. Davydov, head of the Moscow District Court, had related to him the details of a curious case which inspired him to write 'The Live Corpse': A married couple in the city had separated, for the husband was a weak individual, addicted to drink, and the wife was in love with another man. In order to enable his wife to marry her lover, and apparently with her connivance, the husband simulated suicide by leaving his clothes and identification papers on the bank of the Moscow River. He then disappeared, and the wife married. But later, through an indiscretion of the vanished husband, the whole story came out and the couple were arrested and sentenced to a term of deportation.
Tolstoy was apparently dissatisfied with 'The Live Corpse' and never subjected it to a final revision. When the theatre director V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko eagerly requested permission to produce it, Tolstoy refused. Aylmer Maude relates that Tolstoy told him that he did not wish the play to be performed while he lived, lest he should be drawn into expending time on revising it to the detriment of other tasks he considered more important Another reason offered was that an account of 'The Live Corpse' got into the press and was read by the first husband, N. S. Gimer, who appealed to Tolstoy not to publish the play since he feared to be compromised by it. Even the wife, through her son, is reported to have made a similar request, and Tolstoy willingly agreed, saying that
"a human life is more precious than any piece of writing."
It is known for certain that Gimer did visit Tolstoy, who aided him in obtaining work and exacted a promise from him never to touch liquor, which he kept. 'The Live Corpse' was first published among Tolstoy's posthumous works in 1911 and was given its initial performance that year by Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theatre.
On the basis of the Moscow court case, Tolstoy erects a powerful psychological drama that seems to have only a tenuous connection with Davydov's account. Here he is in his literary element, dealing with upper-class men and women who might have appeared in 'Anna Karenina'. Indeed, under different circumstances he might have turned this real-life situation into a full-length realistic novel as he did with another court case in 'Resurrection'. With so expansive a theme, he struggles with the confining limitations of dramatic form, violating the conventions of the contemporary theatre in piling up six acts, twelve scenes, and more than thirty speaking characters. Yet he meets the challenge with remarkable artistry, avoiding all non-essentials in projecting the actions and personalities of his men and women with the utmost frugality of means. The direct simplicity of his dialogue quickly individualizes the characters whose innermost unspoken thoughts are at times deftly suggested by precise stage directions, such as: "Karenin silently takes leave.... Lisa sighs and is silent."
Critical opinion on the merits of 'The Live Corpse', both in Russia and the West, varies considerably. In rereading the play for purposes of this appraisal, I found myself dissatisfied with a somewhat adverse judgment on it that I printed more than twenty years ago. The fact that Tolstoy wrote the play when he was over seventy has irresistibly attracted some critics to see in it reflections of his passionately held moral views at that time which, they claim, introduces a damaging subjective element into the work. Correctly read, however, the play yields little or no evidence of such false notes. It has been argued, for example, that Tolstoy wrote the play to demonstrate the harm that law — "government's organized instrument of coercion" — may do when it thrusts itself into the delicate relations of men and women. In a sense such a contention would place Tolstoy in a position of approving bigamy, however unintentional the crime is in the play. It is also maintained that he sacrifices the validity of his chief characters to his own personal moral position, although what that moral position is goes unstated by these critics unless it be the misfortunes that come from excessive addiction to liquor.
The truth of the matter is that the core of the play is an intensely human problem implicit in the nature of the given circumstances, and it is resolved with as much acute psychological insight as the central problem of 'Anna Karenina', to which it bears a certain resemblance. The breakup of the marriage of Fedya and Lisa is not really caused by his persistent drinking, but by the gnawing conviction that his wife, against her own intentions, has never ceased to love her child-hood sweetheart, Karenin.
"The very best love is unconscious love," Fedya tells Prince Abrezkov. "I believe she always did love him; but as an honest woman she did not confess it even to herself. But . . . a shadow of some kind always lay across our family life."
And later Fedya declares to his drinking companion, Petushkov, that there was no yeast in their marriage,
"there was never anything about her that made her creep into my soul...."
It is this pattern of frustration and not any innate moral weakness in his character that drives Fedya to drink and to leaving Lisa. Principles and integrity make it impossible for him to stoop to the lying and bribery necessary to obtain a divorce. At the suggestion of his gypsy friend, he goes through with the make-believe suicide in order to release his wife to marry Karenin, but only because he cannot take the terrible step of shooting himself. However, he unhesitatingly takes that step, after his simulated suicide is discovered, in the conviction that he must not stand in the way of the continued marital bliss of Lisa and Karenin.
No, 'The Live Corpse' is quite free of Tolstoyan dogmatic moralizing, and Fedya is one of the most attractive and convincing characters in any of his plays. Moreover, one detects a quality of mellowness and deep sympathy for the erring ways of humanity in 'The Live Corpse', qualities which were rare enough in the creative works of Tolstoy's old age. The play is an altogether successful dramatic embodiment of a strange but real situation in life, and it is written with all the objective artistic skill of Tolstoy's literary genius.
In the few remaining years of his life Tolstoy attempted two more plays, of which the first, 'The Light Shines in the Darkness', is by far the most important. He appears to have begun it in the 1880's, put it aside for a long time, and then returned to it in 1900. By the end of 1902 he had finished four acts and left behind him detailed notes outlining the concluding fifth act.
Tolstoy obviously regarded 'The Light Shines in the Darkness' as a significant work, for he wrote a friend:
"It will contain my own experiences, my struggle, my faith, my sufferings all that is close to my heart."
In truth, the play reveals his later personal life more fully and more deliberately than any other creative effort of his, and, quite appropriately, as a consistently autobiographical work, he never wrote the last act.
The correspondences between the course of family life at Yasnaya Polyana after Tolstoy's spiritual change and that of the characters in the play are very close, but for artistic reasons he wisely allowed himself a considerable measure of creative inventiveness in this depiction. Yet his plain determination is to dramatize the essential domestic tragedy in his household during this period — to show how his wife, family, relations, friends, and social surroundings prevented him, intentionally or unintentionally, from living according to his convictions.
Within the limited scope of a play one obtains a rather vivid impression of what must have been the daily life of the Tolstoy family at Yasnaya Polyana and in their Moscow home. But the action is necessarily concentrated on the painful and often poignant efforts of Saryntsov (Tolstoy) to persuade his family of a deeply felt need to abandon his rather luxurious way of life and live according to his new morality and faith. Saryntsov hopes that his wife and children will join him in this endeavor, but only if their consciences move them to do so. The contentious dialogue that ensues among the many characters is weighted with defense of, or opposition to, typical Tolstoyan views on non-violence, the brotherhood of man, the practice of the golden rule, the virtues of providing for one's needs by labor, the chicanery of the church, and the evils of property, army conscription, and government coercion. Although Saryntsov argues that the search for truth is the one indubitable means of achieving the union of men, he understands clearly why people are not interested in the search and constantly misrepresent the truth. With unusual fairness Tolstoy strives to put in the mouths of various opponents of his hero telling arguments against his own position.
The real tension of the drama, however, is centered in the struggle of wills of Saryntsov and his wife. Saryntsov, tormented (as was Tolstoy) by the poverty and unprofitable toil of his landless peasants and the arrest of one of them for stealing timber he desperately needed, pleads with his wife to divide the estate, from which the family derives most of its income, among the peasants and to work to support themselves. Although she confesses to a friend: "What makes it so terrible is that is seems to me he is right," she understandably objects to her husband's proposal. How can she agree to beggar her numerous children, she asks, and she wonders why his particular form of Christianity requires that she ruin her whole family. Saryntsov is forced to compromise by deeding all his property over to his wife in a dubious effort to free himself of the guilt of possession. Indeed, compromises with his beliefs at every turn, out of a sense of duty to his family, are the main causes of Saryntsov's spiritual anguish.
On the whole, Saryntsov turns out to be a kind of Pippa in reverse; he passes through his own world of affairs and everything he touches he blights. He estranges his wife and children; a young priest he converts to his cause soon returns to the Church; Boris, another convert, engaged to Saryntsov's favorite daughter, refuses to serve his term in the army and perishes under punishment; and then the daughter marries a socialite whom her father detests. Moreover, in the notes for the unwritten last act, Saryntsov meets a rather futile end, for the outraged mother of Boris shoots him down. But before he dies, the notes indicate, he learns that the young priest has joined a religious sect sharing some of his mentor's views, and Saryntsov rejoices that the fraud of the Church has been exposed and that the priest has finally understood the meaning of his life.
One of the main troubles with the play is that Saryntsov never recommends himself to us as entirely real. It is as though Tolstoy, self-conscious about the autobiographical nature of the characterization, feared to evince any prejudices in the delineation. Saryntsov is rather cold, unsympathetic, and fanatical, in no way resembling the towering, life-loving, many sided genius of Yasnaya Polyana, who in real life never allowed the exacting logic of an ideal to reduce him to fanaticism. Looked at from another point of view, the portrayal of Saryntsov calls for a tribute to Tolstoy, for only a morally great man would employ the sincerity of art to depict himself so unmercifully. That is, if he could not sympathetically dramatize his spiritual struggle, he did reveal with devastating realism its harmful effects on all those he loved.
'The Light Shines in the Darkness' may well convince many of the futility of Tolstoy's nostrums when they are put into practice to solve the evils of the world. However that may be, this was clearly not his intention, as the notes for the last act suggest. His intention was to demonstrate that whatever may be society's opposition to his search for truth, the search was good and necessary, and the results, if sincerely acted upon, would be beneficial to mankind. The implication of the title of the play is that darkness, which does not comprehend the light, will one day vanish, and then all will see the light. George Bernard Shaw, who regarded the play as something of a masterpiece, put it in another way:
"Nevertheless, Tolstoy does not really give the verdict against himself. He only shows that he was quite aware of the disastrousness of his negative anarchistic doctrine, and was prepared to face that disastrousness sooner than accept and support robbery and violence merely because the robbers and militarists had acquired political power enough to legalize them. It must be assumed that if everyone refused compliance, the necessities of the case would compel social reconstruction on honest and peaceful lines . . . he is a Social Solvent, revealing to us, as a master of tragic-comic drama, the misery and absurdity of the idle proud life for which we sacrifice our own honour and the happiness of our neighbours."
The final dramatic effort of Tolstoy, 'The Cause of It All', is a brutally realistic little vignette of peasant life in two short acts, which he wrote in 1910, not long before his death, for an amateur performance in the home of a disciple. It falls in the category of the moral tales that he began shortly after his religious conversion, and is designed to show the evils of drink and how human kindness can bring out the best in the lowliest of God's creatures. But the moral element is lost sight of in the swiftly developing action in the peasant's hut, where the tipsy husband and his friend arrive from the market and find a tramp wished on the household for the night by the village elder. In the drunken scene that follows, the tramp, a proletarian revolutionary type given to "expropriating" money for the good of the cause, saves the nagging wife from a beating by her husband. In the morning the tramp is caught with the package of tea the husband had bought at the market, and now it is the wife who performs the kindness, pleading that he not be turned over to the police. Her husband, not to be outdone by his wife, not only frees the tramp, but insists that he take the tea with him. Finally, the tramp touched to tears by their generosity, rails against himself as a scoundrel, leaves the package of tea on the table, and quietly goes his way. "How he cried, poor soul," remarks a neighbour after the tramp's departure, and the old peasant grandmother softly adds the moral: "He too is a man." Slight as it is, 'The Cause of It All', in its realistic details and wonderfully natural dialogue, shows that Tolstoy, even at the age of eighty-two, had lost none of his artistic touch.
Six of Tolstoy's eight plays, including his artistically most important, were all written after he had developed his new religious and moral outlook on life. Hence it is rather surprising to find him declaring in 'Shakespeare and the Drama' ( 1906):
"I myself have incidentally written for the theatre. I recognize them [his plays], just like all the rest, to be lacking in that religious content which should form the basis of the future drama."
One would assume from this that he regarded his plays as "incidental" in the total corpus of his artistic works, and that they lack a pronounced religious content, which the foregoing examination of them has been concerned to demonstrate, particularly in the two best ones — 'The Power of Darkness' and 'The Live Corpse'.
Fundamentally, Tolstoy's approach to playwriting was the realistic one of his fiction, and it is difficult to imagine what he might have accomplished if he had elected to devote major attention to the genre in his extraordinary earlier creative period, before the free expression of his artistic powers became somewhat fettered by moral and religious considerations. Despite significant achievements in his finest plays, he was not a born innovator in drama. In his later years he denounced Russian playwriting as "merely an empty and immoral amusement." Though this opinion had some point at that time, it is indicative of his inadequacies as a playwright and critic of the theatre that he could not correctly evaluate the few efforts being made then to write and perform plays that had fresh, innovating approaches to the art.
Among these new approaches was Chekhov's, and though Tolstoy had the highest admiration for him as a writer of short stories, he seemed utterly incapable of appreciating his famous plays. Although he laughed uproariously upon seeing the early conventional one-act plays of Chekhov, such as 'The Wedding' and 'The Bear', he damned 'The Sea Gull', which he read, and 'Uncle Vanya', which he saw acted. "Where is the drama?" he asked one of the actors after the performance of 'Uncle Vanya'. "In what does it consist?" The action never moved from one place, he complained, and Uncle Vanya and Astrov, he declared, were simply good-for-nothing idlers who had escaped from real life into the country as a place of salvation.
What particularly troubled Tolstoy, as he indicated in an interview shortly after Chekhov's death, was Chekhov's attempt to use a play instead of a lyrical poem to evoke a poetic mood. This confusion in form, Tolstoy suggests, results in the spectator being asked to pity Uncle Vanya and Astrov without ever being informed by the dramatist whether or not they deserve pity. (Here speaks the everlastingly logical Tolstoy, who believed that art should never conceal but reveal, that the reader or spectator should never have to wonder or guess at the author's intention.) Nor could he see any purpose in 'Uncle Vanya', or, for that matter, in 'The Sea Gull' and 'The Three Sisters', which he could not finish reading. With the conventional drama of direct action in mind, Tolstoy expected a play to deal with moral problems of society, and the characters involved in them to be portrayed in terms of their developing personalities through the actions and related dialogue. These expectations, which were shared by many of Tolstoy's contemporaries, were entirely foreign to what Chekhov was trying to do in his four famous plays of indirect action.
Chekhov was aware of Tolstoy's dislike of his plays, but his unfailing sense of humor and devotion to him would hardly have allowed him to be offended. He told a young writer of Tolstoy's frank opinions in this respect:
"You know, he does not like my plays. He swears I'm not a dramatist. There is only one thing that comforts me.... He said to me:"You know, I cannot abide Shakespeare, but your plays are even worse. Shakespeare, after all, grabs the reader by the scruff of the neck and leads him to a certain goal, not permitting him to wander off the road. But where are you going with your heroes? From the divan to the outhouse and back?"
At this point in his account, Chekhov laughed so hard that his pince-nez fell off his nose.
"But really, Leo Nickolaevich was serious," Chekhov continued. "He was ill. I sat with him at his bedside. When I began to get ready to leave, he took my hand, looked me in the eye, and said: 'Anton Pavlovich, you are a fine man.' Then smiling, he let my hand go and added: 'But your plays are altogether vile.'"