The Power of Darkness

by Leo Tolstoy

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 706

Leo Tolstoy came to playwriting relatively late in his career, after he had completed his prose masterpieces Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886) and Anna Karenina (1875-1877; English translation, 1886) and at a time when his religious conversion prompted him to view his writing in moralistic, rather than artistic, terms. Hence, the works of this period are heavily didactic and lack much of the balance, scope, and humanity of this previous efforts. Nevertheless, The Power of Darkness is a potent realistic play, one of the most intense and moving dramas of the period, and perhaps the outstanding realistic play of the pre-Chekhovian Russian theater.

Although there was no direct influence, The Power of Darkness resembles the powerful naturalistic dramas that were, at that time, rejuvenating Western theater. As in a typical naturalistic play, The Power of Darkness shows a group of weak, ordinary people who, after committing petty crimes out of greed, sexual jealousy, and self-deception, find themselves caught up by forces they cannot understand or control, driven to further, greater crimes, and ultimately destroyed by the momentum of the evil they had so thoughtlessly unloosed. Small sins automatically lead to bigger ones; lesser crimes require more extreme deeds to maintain concealment; casual observers or passive accomplices are drawn into active conspiracy. Each evil deed, the participants believe, will be the last one and the one to lead them, finally, to happiness. Instead, the opposite is the case; they bind themselves tighter and tighter in a suffocating net of their own making.

Tolstoy’s chronicling of this disintegration is fascinating in its realistic accuracy. Even in the middle of their depravity, the characters retain a certain sympathy; they are trapped and drawn to their destruction almost unconsciously. The catalyst is Nikita’s mother, Matryona, the one character who seems consciously and deliberately evil, and she is one of the most fascinating creations of the modern stage. She plays on the others and seems to enjoy intrigue for its own sake. She is the consummate hypocrite, acting the role of pious matron while engineering diabolical schemes. As Peter dies, for example, from the poison she had supplied, Matryona offers him religious consolation.

However, if in the process of disintegration and self-destruction described in The Power of Darkness it resembles naturalistic plays, its resolution is quite different. To the naturalists, human beings are the helpless victims of biological and economic circumstances. Naturalistic plays and novels were intended to illustrate that hopeless situation in the face of an impersonal scientific universe. Tolstoy’s vision was quite the opposite. To him, the power of darkness was more than balanced by the power of light, and his play is, above all, not a story of damnation but of redemption.

The focus of redemption is on Nikita. From the beginning of the play his sin is clearly the product of arrogance and sensuality, rather than any positive inclination to evil. When circumstances force him to the most vicious of the crimes, the murder of the baby, he is too weak to withstand the pressure of his mother, and he commits the act in a half-conscious frenzy. Immediately he is overwhelmed by guilt and remorse. He hears the breaking bones, the cries of the dying child, and seems on the edge of madness—but he is not granted that escape. He prepares to commit suicide, but that, too, is denied him.

Nikita’s insight comes when, in the middle of his suicide attempt, he is accosted by the drunken laborer Mitritch, who tells him a parable about the devil’s power, concluding with the words, “when you begin to be...

(This entire section contains 706 words.)

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afraid of people, then the devil, with his cloven hoof, will snatch you up right away and stick you wherever he wants to.”

Nikita thus realizes that his descent into evil comes from his fear of the opinion of others and his own foolish desire for transient material pleasures. Shorn of that fear he gains his resolve and goes to the wedding party to confess. He accepts all of the blame for the crimes, which is, in a spiritual sense, true, even though the other conspirators are responsible for the crimes as well. Despite the magnitude of his guilt, however, he is redeemed.