Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1272
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; another sits stiffly on gilt chairs along the walls. The latter group admires Man’s wealth and good fortune, the size of his mansion, and the beauty of his young son, punctuating their remarks with exclamations of “how fine,” “how rich,” “how brilliant.” The Man and his Wife enter, followed by his friends—all handsome, graceful, and slightly disdainful. The Friends are followed by Man’s Enemies, who are as low and ugly as the Friends are noble and beautiful. This silent train slowly passes from one side of the stage to the other, accompanied by the Guests’ obtuse and fawning remarks. They admire the Man’s importance and fame, his Friends’ loyalty; they gossip about his Enemies’ cowardice. Once the procession passes, however, some of the Guests suspect they have been forgotten, and their talk takes a mean and spiteful turn. When they are invited to supper, though, they exit with all pomp, repeating their compliments of “how grand.” The orchestra continues to play. The candle’s yellow flame sharply outlines Someone-in-Gray.
Scene 4 is “Man’s Misfortune.” The candle is little more than a stump, and it flickers as it burns. The set is Man’s study—large, gloomy, and dark. Man’s only remaining servant, an old woman, tells the audience of his decline into poverty and obscurity. Styles have changed; his designs are no longer popular. His house is full of rats. He has lost his furniture, his car, his carriages. Worst of all, his son—now a young man—is dying from a chance blow to the head. The old servant directs yet another Doctor into the son’s room and continues her soliloquy. Her constant refrain is “It’s all the same to me. I don’t care.” The Doctor soon leaves, with cautious but reassuring words for the Man and his Wife. They are greatly aged. Man agonizes over the old broken-down toys in his study, and both pray: the Wife for compassion and mercy, the Man for justice. They reminisce and talk of his sketches and their old age. He falls asleep and she goes to tend their son, but soon returns with news of the boy’s death. For the first time in the play, Man addresses Someone-in-Gray directly: He curses the day of his birth and the whole of his life, and then defiantly curses Someone-in-Gray and whatever indifferent power he represents. This very curse is his legacy, his immortality. The two figures confront each other silently and tensely as the lights go down.
“The Death of Man,” the fifth scene, takes place in a tavern. Once again the room is large and barely lit, but now it is dirty and low-ceilinged. A shabbily dressed Man sits silently at a table in the center, surrounded by ragged, deformed Drunkards. Their voices are rough and coarse; their conversation is confused, alternately belligerent and tentative—they trade accounts of their hallucinations, fears, and complaints. One of their complaints is about the Man, who comes to sit and drink alone, taking no part in their feeble debauches. His Wife is dead, his mansion empty of everything save rats. The Drunkards taunt him with reminders of his fifteen rooms, his weak heart, his lost youth.
Gradually other voices are heard, and the Old Women from the first scene reappear, replacing the Drunkards entirely. They mockingly recall Man’s life: One describes her visit to the empty house and abandoned nursery, while the others imitate the ball. They mimic the Guests’ exclamations and caper around the silent Man. As the Old Women begin to sing, the Musicians from the ball reappear, and the Old Women slide into a dance, leaning toward Man and whispering that he will soon die. The dance becomes jerky and abrupt, but both they and the Musicians freeze when the Man suddenly stands up, calls for his wife-shieldbearer, then collapses and dies with a curse on his lips. After a moment of profound silence and darkness, the Old Women announce Man’s death to the audience, then renew their dance. The music rises as the dance turns into a frenzy of screeching and whirling, which continues even as the stage goes entirely dark except for Man’s face. Soon that light, too, is extinguished. The noise continues, reaching a nearly unbearable pitch, then abruptly dies away.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496
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 of The Life of Man is equally ceremonial, and with the exception of a few dramatic moments, the lines are intoned rather than spoken naturally. Dialogue neither spurs action nor reacts to it; it merely comments on a course of events long since determined. The most formal commentator and observer is Someone-in-Gray, that mouthpiece of some mysterious force that is not precisely fate and not precisely God; the closest Andreyev himself came to defining it was to call it the “iron circle of predestination.”
The play’s construction is an attempt to depict that inexorable symmetry. It begins and ends in darkness; in the first scene Man merely cries, in the last scene he utters his final line and collapses. The Old Women dominate, supported by Relatives in the first scene and by Drunkards in the last. (Andreyev later rewrote scene 5 to make it even more of a match, replacing the Drunkards with Relatives and transferring the action back to Man’s house.) In scene 3, the center of the play and the apogee of Man’s earthly success, neither Man nor his Wife speaks a word, and the lines spoken by the Guests are mechanical and virtually interchangeable. Scenes 2 and 4, however, are given over to Man and his Wife. All of their dialogues and monologues are in these two scenes; in other words, these two scenes contain the most lyrical and dramatic moments in the play. Formal and stylized as they are, they lend a hint of psychological realism to an otherwise abstract piece.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 101
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.