Mikhail Artsybashev devoted the period of 1913-1916 to writing dramas. His play War shows the influence of the approaching world war, but his other plays continue the themes of his prose works. The most important of these themes are the relationship between men and women, mostly of a sexual nature, and their social roles not only in the society but also toward each other. In this sense, Artsybashev’s works reflect the ideas dealt with in the works of leading European dramatists such as Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, and Frank Wedekind. Sexual explicitness, which was prevalent in his fiction and made him famous, figures prominently in his dramatic works. Employing the realism prevalent in Russian literature of the nineteenth century, he tackles the moral issues in Russian society at the beginning of the twentieth century, throwing light on some negative aspects of the human psyche, such as people’s preoccupation with sex, violence, and death, the latter manifested in murder, execution, and suicide. By striving often for a shock affect, Artsybashev shows his concern for the well-being of Russian society as well as his indignation at the injustices taking place not only in the lower strata but also in the higher strata of the society. Unfortunately, he was either misunderstood or deliberately persecuted for bringing these issues into the open, which eventually led to his leaving Russia altogether. It is not surprising that his characters are often embittered and alienated, in the best tradition of “the superfluous man” prevalent in the Russian literature of the nineteenth century.
The direct and merciless approaches of his moral criticism, most vividly in his plays, made Artsybashev very popular with readers and theatergoers, especially young intellectuals. However, because his works are so intricately connected with, and dependent on, a particular time period, they soon became period pieces and lost much of their original strength and appeal.
Technically speaking, Artsybashev’s plays have considerable dramatic qualities. He knows how to build a plot and suspense. The crude naturalism of his fiction is toned down in his plays, most likely because it is easier to describe it than to show it on the stage. When Artsybashev was writing plays, the Russian theater was still somewhat puritanical. The most serious flaw in his playwriting can be found in his tendency to use long speeches, which are frequently programmatic and schematic. There is also a repetition of themes, characters, and actions, which has prompted some critics to brand Artsybashev a one-theme writer and playwright.
Artsybashev’s first successful play, Jealousy, deals with an age-old human sentiment. The playwright juxtaposes two different views of the relationship between men and women. Journalist Andre has a rather cynical, almost nihilistic view of all women, denying their ability to feel sincere love and viewing them as nothing but self-indulgent creatures of conquest and deceit. In his view, women are rooted in the earth, from which they draw their pleasures and sensations. Their worthiness stems only from men’s raising them to a pedestal of adoration, for which men pay dearly in the end. The opposite view is expressed by a member of the Douma, Simon Simonovich, who thinks that women bring beauty, poetry, romance, refinement, purity, and bliss into men’s lives and that women are marvelously sensitive instruments on which men play according to their talent. It is the men who are at fault if they are unable to appreciate this beautiful gift of God, dirtying and ruining it instead.
Caught between these two extremes is author Sergey Petrovich, who loves his wife, Elena, and tends to ignore her habit of flirting while professing undying love for, and faithfulness to, her husband. When he finally finds out the truth about her relationships with other men, he strangles her in a fit of jealousy.
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