The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Life of Man begins with an empty gray room, feebly lit. Someone-in-Gray, so named for his hooded, shapeless gray robe, moves away from the wall and begins to speak. His tone is indifferent, dispassionate. He warns the audience that has come to the theater to “laugh and be amused” that it will see the whole of Man’s life—from a dark beginning to a dark ending. He sketches the course of this life in the five scenes to come and the lights dim.

The first scene, “The Birth of Man,” opens in utter darkness. Gradually, a group of women emerges, sitting in a large, dimly lit room. Though not midwives, they somehow obviously belong at the birth. In mocking, cynical tones they discuss the relative merits of boys versus girls, the husband’s comical fear and distraction, and the wife’s pain. They listen to her cries and muse on the ease with which animals deliver their young. As Man is finally born, Someone-in-Gray reappears and the candle in his hands lights. The room grows brighter and the Old Women scuttle away, to be replaced by the Relatives. Meanwhile, the Doctor and the Father trade remarks about the health of the child and the mother. The Relatives offer advice both moral and practical on what to name the boy and how to rear him. As the scene ends, the Relatives are discussing the merits of tobacco and the baby is crying.

In scene 2, “Love and Poverty,” the Man is already grown. The room is once again large, nearly empty except for a few pieces of rickety furniture, but it is warmly and brightly lit. Someone-in-Gray is present, but stands in the darkest corner. His candle burns strongly and steadily. The Neighbors, who adore the Man and his Wife for their beauty and kindness, enter. The Neighbors scatter flowers and fragrant grasses; they decorate the poor young couple’s room and leave them a fine cigar, a hair ribbon, a bottle of milk and some bread. They leave with hopes that Man will find work.

Man’s Wife enters as soon as they leave. Her monologue explains their predicament: No one has yet recognized Man’s talent as an architect; no one buys his designs. She has been in the city center seeking either luck or work, but has come home empty-handed. She prays for mercy and for a chance for her stubborn, independent husband to prove himself. Someone-in-Gray steps out to announce to the audience that indeed Man has been discovered, and that on the next day wealthy patrons will seek him out. Man comes home disillusioned and hungry; he has walked the city in search of work, stopping at every grocery window and raging at the well-fed, well-housed people he meets. Man and Wife console each other with fancies of Italian villas and Norwegian castles; she crowns him with a wreath of oak leaves and declares him her knight; the scene ends with their discovery of the Neighbors’ gifts and their waltz to an imaginary orchestra.

The third scene is no imaginary waltz, but a full-scale ball at the Man’s house. Some years have passed. The furnishings are sparse but rich and severe and somehow out of proportion. One group of Guests is dancing;...

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The Life of Man Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Andreyev’s vision of the new theater, “neorealist theater,” as he once called it, was more visual than verbal. He often declared his intention to present not life, but a reflection, a picture—and his later enthusiasm for film underscores how literally he spoke. An amateur painter, he conceived the idea for The Life of Man after seeing a work by Albrecht Dürer depicting the five stages of man’s life, block by block. Like a mystery play or a narrative woodcut, The Life of Man seems two-dimensional, a series of animated tableaux or friezes, and Andreyev’s text includes such detailed directions on sets, lighting, and blocking that he leaves the director and the actors little leeway in the matter.

The sets throughout are minimal, even at the scene of the lavish ball, where the furniture and windows appear out of proportion to the stage’s dimensions. Walls and backdrops are gray, but within that grayness Andreyev demands stark contrast between light and dark. The main stage effects are to be created by lighting rather than by other means, and there are to be no offstage effects (sound or light) whatsoever. There is to be no superfluous, unchoreographed movement, especially in the group scenes. The groups of minor characters are all grotesques, from the sinister, haggish Old Women to the painted puppetlike Guests. Monstrous and comic at the same time, they appear as exaggerated as figures wearing masks.

The language...

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The Life of Man Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Andreyev, Leonid. “Letters on the Theater.” In Russian Dramatic Theory from Pushkin to the Symbolists. Translated by Laurence Senelick. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Andreyev, Leonid. Photographs by a Russian Writer: An Undiscovered Portrait of Pre-Revolutionary Russia. Edited by Richard Davies. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1989.

Gorky, Maxim. Reminiscences of Leonid Andreyev. Translated by Katherine Mansfield and S. S. Koteliansky. New York: C. Gaige, 1922.

Kaun, Alexander. Leonid Andreyev: A Critical Study. 1924. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1969.

Newcombe, Josephine. Leonid Andreyev. New York: Ungar, 1972.

Woodward, James B. Leonid Andreyev: A Study. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1969.