Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 459

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Leonid Andreyev first came to fame as a fiction writer, and in the early years of the twentieth century he was ranked alongside Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorky. His short stories dealt with controversial social issues, which placed him more or less in the camp of nineteenth century crusading realism—on its scandalous side, since he favored taboo subjects such as rape, venereal disease, and criminal insanity. He himself tended to associate with the realists and their concern for political and social improvement, but at the same time, Andreyev’s fascination with the pathological side of human nature and with grandiose metaphysical schemes links him with the Decadents and the Symbolists.

These latter alliances were part of the general renaissance of Russian high culture known as the Silver Age, and their “reevaluation of values,” for good or ill, embraced all the arts. What this meant for theater was, in part, a rejection of realist conventions and a return to conscious artifice and even ritual, be it commedia dell’arte, puppet theater, circus, or Greek tragedy.

Andreyev did write a number of plays in a realistic vein, including K zvezdam (pb. 1905, pr. 1906; To the Stars, 1907) and Yekaterina Ivanovna (pb. 1912; Katerina, 1923). Early in his career, he declared his intention to reform Russian drama, and The Life of Man was to be the introduction “both in form and content” to an entire cycle that would do just that. The form would guarantee that the playgoer never lost sight of the mask, the artifice, that he never forgot that he was in a theater, watching a representation. The content itself was obvious from the titles: “King Hunger” (the only one of the cycle ever finished), “War,” “Revolution,” and “God, Devil and Man.” Death itself was to play a principal role; God would be the incarnation of movement, destruction, and struggle; the Devil, stillness and quiet; Man, bold thought and daring reason.

The Life of Man was a theatrical sensation in a way that more purely Symbolist plays could not be; although somewhat static, it was simply entertaining to watch. It combined the novel staging of the “new theater” with a dramatic and defiant hero who, although stylized, was no faceless Everyman. Produced and directed first by Russia’s leading avant-garde director, Vsevolod Meyerhold, and then by famed director Konstantin Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre, the play expressed both the philosophical and aesthetic preoccupations of its time perhaps better—or at least more obviously—than any other. However, like most of Andreyev’s plays, it has not worn well and is rarely performed. Of all of his dramatic works, only Tot, kto poluchayet poshchechiny (pb. 1902, pr. 1915; He Who Gets Slapped, 1921)—an allegory disguised as conventional melodrama, set in a circus—has kept its appeal.