Russian village. The setting of the play is an unnamed, large Russian village, in which peasants live and behave in a manner disrespectful of common decency. They mistreat each other whenever the opportunity arises, tolerate immoral marriages, steal from each other, and even murder one another when it serves their purposes. Himself a Russian count, Tolstoy underwent a profound religious conversion late in life and preached in his works a faithful following of Christian virtues and morality. Having lived most of his life in the Russian provinces, he was also keenly aware of the backwardness of the peasants and of their wont to follow their impulses regardless of the consequences.
Although Russia’s serfs were freed from virtual slavery in 1861 and expected to show great improvement in their life, there had been little progress when Tolstoy wrote his play. In the character of Akim, a simple, illiterate, inarticulate, and humble villager, who keeps reminding everyone that a man should have a soul and follow God’s laws, Tolstoy presents a model to be emulated. Akim’s insistence on righting the wrong brings his son, Nikita, who had committed several crimes, including the murder of his newborn baby, to a sincere confession and repentance at the climax of the play. What saves The Power of Darkness from being merely a preachy and moralistic exercise is Tolstoy’s flair for dramatic action, compact plot, and creation of distinctive characters. He presents his Christian message indirectly and dramatically, as a depiction of universal human tragedy.