Leonid Andreyev Essay - Critical Essays


The major themes of Leonid Andreyev’s prose carried over into his plays, where they stood out in sharper relief as he shifted from realism to allegorical symbolism. Among the Symbolists , Aleksandr Blok, in his essay “On Drama,” singled out Andreyev for praise, noting his powerful dramatic technique in The Life of Man, in which Man from birth to death battles Fate, proving he is “no mere puppet” or “pitiful creature” but a strong being who will endure to the end in spite of the obstacles flung in his path.

Andreyev expressed his new and innovative ideas about Russian drama in “Pisma o teatre” (two letters on the theater), published in 1912-1913 in the theatrical journal Maski (masks) and in Shipovnik (the wild rose). These letters illustrate Andreyev’s shift from Symbolism (as it had become known as a literary movement) to what he termed “pan-psychism.” Andreyev advocated a reform of the Russian theater, rejecting large-scale productions in the tradition established by the founder of Russian realist drama, Alexander Ostrovsky. According to Andreyev, what was needed instead was a pan-psychic drama, which would correspond more closely to the mental state of the modern intellectual with his interest in such intense personalities as the “tragic” modern hero, Friedrich Nietzsche. To convey the full intensity of twentieth century people’s beliefs, doubts, torments, and aspirations, Andreyev argued, drama must be symbolic, uniting the inner world with people’s physical reality.

For Andreyev, real drama began not in the realm of physical activity but in silence and inactivity, whereby the dramatist must examine the innermost recesses of his mind and soul. Here a tragic struggle begins and a new Nietzschean Zarathustra speaks out. Andreyev, intensely interested in Nietzsche’s views on tragedy, also looked to another German, Arthur Schopenhauer, sharing his point of view that the highest form of drama is tragedy. In a letter to the director of the Moscow Art Theatre, V. I. Demirovich-Danchenko (December 28, 1914), Andreyev wrote that “in tragedy the misery of existence is brought before us and the final outcome is here the vanity of all human striving.”

Andreyev particularly looked to the Moscow Art Theatre to take up this new direction in Russian drama because it had already begun to show its unique and independent development in its productions of Anton Chekhov. While many of Andreyev’s plays did indeed enjoy successful runs at the Moscow Art Theatre, the directors grew wary of the public scandals and battles with the authorities that his plays regularly provoked. All his major dramas, The Black Maskers, Anathema, The Life of Man, and Samson in Chains, remained under constant fire, and some were even banned; only the early, less provocative plays such as Dni nashey zhizni (days of our lives) continued to run year after year.

All Andreyev’s works illustrate on a personal level his own psychological makeup, seen in the constant self-flagellation and self-aggrandizement common to all his central characters. In a larger historical context, Andreyev’s plays have given the world an intense portrayal of the gloomy atmosphere and prevailing depression that seized the minds of some as political forces, both before and after the 1917 Revolution, kept an iron grip on the Russian intelligentsia.

To the Stars

Andreyev’s first plays do not reveal the distinctive form and style of his later symbolic “tragedies.” The settings of the early plays, while not overly laden with details of everyday life, still remain within the confines of realism. Andreyev’s first play, written in 1906, suggests by its very title his somewhat apolitical, metaphysical bent. To the Stars revolves around a typical Andreyev hero, a dedicated astronomer, Ternovsky, who lives in seclusion halfway up a mountain, somewhere in Western Europe. His geographical position alone signals both his intellectually defiant attitude toward crude reality below and his own tenuous position as a mortal in relation to the heights of heaven. The theme of struggle between generations, common in Russian literature since Ivan Turgenev’s Ottsy i dety (1862; Fathers and Sons, 1867), emerges in Ternovsky’s debate with his children, who as political activists are involved in revolutionary activity at the mountain’s base. In response to his children’s claim that his scientific quest is merely a way of escaping social responsibilities, Ternovsky notes the relative insignificance of human acts when up against the universal forces, which are embodied in the stars. Because of the play’s political content, To the Stars was rejected by the Russian censors.


In Savva, Andreyev’s second play, the young dramatist assumes an even more ambiguous political stand toward revolutionary activity. The main character, Savva, is an inventor who, like Ternovsky in To the Stars, is to a certain extent bound up with the powers of the intellect. As a revolutionary, he would like to destroy all old forms of culture to make way for the new. His radical act of blowing up an icon, believed to have certain miraculous powers, is his way of fighting both people’s “innate servility” and their tendency to imprison themselves in superstitions, particularly religious ones. This isolated act of rebellion, however, leads only to Savva’s murder, revealing Andreyev’s own uncertainty about the destructive and violent results of people’s attempts to liberate themselves from themselves.

The Life of Man

Beginning with the drama The Life of Man, a marked shift can be noted in Andreyev’s style. Although he continues to intersperse elements of realism (bits of everyday trivia) throughout the text, he increases the use of colors, shapes, pictorial metaphors, and musical tones to symbolize abstract ideas. In The Life of Man, the symbolism, contained at the level of allegory, is based on a revision of the old medieval mystery plays: The characters, generalizations of universal types, are Man, Man’s Wife, and A Being in Gray Called He. They are surrounded by groups, or choruses, of people known only as Old Women, Friends of Man, and Drunkards. The Life of Man, a drama not in five acts but in five kartiny (pictures), depicts the unfolding of various scenes, or stages, of Man’s life from his entry into the world at birth to his exit back into the “darkness beyond” at death. The backdrop, a “large massive rectangular empty room without doors or windows,” gray in color, suggests no particular home or any particular social setting but is Everyman’s house—that is, the...

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