Mikhail Lermontov Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

John Garrard, following Boris Eikhenbaum, lists several major themes in Mikhail Lermontov’s juvenilia, which includes his five plays, written between 1830 and 1836. These themes include the tragic nature of love, the cult of Napoleon, the demoniac element, disillusionment, vengeance, passion for freedom, and original innocence. Of these, the most evident in the dramatic works are the tragic nature of love, disillusionment, vengeance, and the demoniac element. Lermontov reveals much autobiographical information in his plays, yet he also manifests in them the qualities of musical rhythm, ease of language, and facility with verse, along with talent for prose. Themes that were to characterize his lyric poems, such as friendship, vengeance, conquest of women, rivalry, and jealousy, are also present in his plays.

Particularly in his plays, Lermontov continues to seek an autobiographical hero. He is called Fernando in Ispantsy, Yury Volin in Menschen und Leidenschaften, Arbenin in both A Strange One and Masquerade, and both Alexander and Yury, in Two Brothers. Especially in the early plays, Lermontov’s model is the Byronic hero. During the years from 1826 to 1832, and particularly from 1830 to 1832, Lermontov was strongly attracted by both the author and the person Byron . Yet most critics, following Lermontov himself, stress the difference between Byron and Lermontov. While the English poet used his works as a stage, Lermontov was totally sincere and actually experienced the frustrations and disillusionment he expressed in his plays. A morbid, fatalistic young man who yearned for social acceptance yet never failed to antagonize people by his intensity and cynicism, Lermontov suffered from the discord between the real and the ideal and was haunted by the desire for perfection.

Lacking in self-confidence, Lermontov’s heroes consider themselves as victims of fate. In Masquerade, Kazarin speaks of the world as a deck of cards. The heroes, like their author, have a dual personality, very aptly described in the two brothers, Alexander and Yury, in Lermontov’s unfinished drama, Two Brothers, or by the repeated theme of the angel and the demon in Lermontov’s poetry. The brothers both respect and detest high society, desiring a social life as well as solitude. They are violent and intense men who are inclined to jump to conclusions. At the first sign of betrayal, their rage is uncontrollable and they seek immediate revenge. Arbenin of Masquerade, for example, poisons his wife at the slightest suspicion of infidelity, neither seeking proof nor heeding her protestations of innocence.

Lermontov was deprived of both mother and father during his childhood, growing up under the care of his domineering maternal grandmother, and thus his heroes express a longing for maternal and paternal affection. In Ispantsy, Lermontov’s first drama, Fernando is reared by a foster parent and eventually meets his real father. Then, unknown to him, he falls in love with his sister. Menschen und Leidenschaften depicts a series of quarrels between a grandmother and a father for the possession of the son, ending with a rupture with the grandmother and a curse from the father. In A Strange One, the father is the villain, caring little for the son or the mother, and he even permits the mother to die without forgiving her for the infidelity she has acknowledged and repented. In Two Brothers, a father is tortured by the rivalry of his two sons for Vera Zagorskina, a married woman formerly beloved of both. In none of these plays is the conflict resolved, and the hero never receives the acceptance for which he yearns.

Not only are maternal and paternal love unrealized in Lermontov’s plays, but also unrealized is romantic love. The desire for the love of a woman inevitably meets with frustration, and usually tragedy. Each play tells a story of unfulfilled love: Emilia and Fernando in Ispantsy, Yury and Lyubov in Menschen und Leidenschaften, Natasha and Arbenin in A Strange One, Nina and Arbenin in Masquerade, and Alexander and Yury for Vera in Two Brothers. The beloved woman is usually idealized, and she seems to represent either the mysterious Natalia Fedorovna Ivanovna or Varvara Lopukhina in Lermontov’s own youth. Yet at the same time, the woman is either unfaithful or suspected of infidelity. The most striking example is Masquerade, in which the loss of a bracelet leads Arbenin to suspect his wife’s involvement with his rival Zvezdich at a masquerade party.

Here the demoniac element comes into play. It is linked with a desire for vengeance, which seemed to characterize Lermontov himself, described by his friends as someone who always needed a victim. In their desire to avenge the betrayal—supposed or real—of a woman, Lermontov’s heroes either destroy the woman or ruin themselves. Sorrini, the villain in Ispantsy, plans to trick Emilia for her refusal of his attentions, and she is actually killed by her real lover, Fernando. In A Strange One, Arbenin, suspecting Natasha’s infidelity and distraught by his father’s curse, poisons himself. Masquerade again remains the most violent example of vengeance, with the sadistic poisoning of Nina and the cruel revelation of the truth by the Stranger in Lermontov’s second version of the play.

There is little variety in Lermontov’s plays. He frequently borrowed from himself, and Menschen und Leidenschaften and A Strange One are merely variations on the same theme, the desire for paternal love. While very romantic in tone, his plays never reach a general subject, nor are they detached from their author. This is probably attributable both to Lermontov’s youth and inexperience and to the fact that he had no Russian models. Most Russian theater in the 1830’s consisted of vaudeville and melodrama of French origin, Lermontov, however, was strongly influenced by Shakespeare and Schiller. Ispantsy was inspired in large measure by Schiller’s Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien (pr., pb. 1787; Don Carlos, Infante of Spain, 1798) and to some extent by Victor Hugo’s Hernani (pr., pb. 1830; English translation, 1830). Lermontov’s sympathetic treatment of the Jews was inspired by Gotthold Ephraim...

(The entire section is 2623 words.)