Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2553
The play opens in London in February of 1853 at the Herzen house in Hampstead. Herzen is napping and dreaming while Sasha, Maria, and Tata enter, flying a kite and pushing the two-year old Olga in her pram. In Herzen’s dream several émigrés and political refugees from Germany, France, Poland, Italy, and Hungary are talking on Parliament Hill. Kinkel and his wife Joanna are there with their friend Malwida von Meysenburg. Arnold Ruge, Karl Marx, Ernest Jones, Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, Louis Blanc, Count Worcell, Giuseppe Mazzini, and Lajos Kossuth join them. They all greet each other and make rude comments behind each other’s backs. As soon as Herzen enters, Marx leaves. In the background, the Kinkels and Malwida are arguing and Joanna shoots. At that same moment, Herzen awakens as a door slams. Malwida enters, and we see the rest of the people from the dream next door chatting. Malwida has received a letter from Herzen saying that he is looking for a tutor for Tata. She asks if she will be teaching in French or German and says she read Herzen’s book From the Other Shore, but only in German. He expresses the desire to have it published in Russian. Herzen agrees to hire her. The party is breaking up and discussing socialism and democracy. Herzen talks about how England is filled with émigrés because they invented personal liberty, so it is where political exiles go for refuge. As Ledru-Rollin is leaving, he mentions Herwegh. Herzen is visibly upset. Blanc mentions to Worcell that Herwegh’s name should never be spoken. Herzen re-enters and discusses Ruge and how influential he was when they were younger, but now he is nearly obsolete. Blanc is offended and says that Herzen grew up rich, so he has the luxury of complaining while men like Worcell has to struggle and is a true revolutionary. Blanc leaves, and Herzen explains to Worcell that he is done fighting and is happy to enjoy his quiet life and not write or stir up trouble any more. Worcell reveals to him that he wants Herzen to help him set up a Polish press in London. Herzen gets very excited by the idea and jumps in with both feet.
The next scene happens in February of 1853 in the schoolroom. Malwida enters and pretends to search for Olga who she knows is under the table. She finally “finds” her, and then asks Tata if she has done her homework.
In the next scene, another party is occurring, this time in May of 1853. Herzen and Worcell are there looking at some of their work, and Maria enters, upset that the children will not mind her. Herzen dismisses her, and the children come in. Herzen makes Sasha read what he and Worcell have been looking at. It is some of Herzen’s writing that has been published in Russian for the first time.
We next see the schoolroom in September of 1853. Tata is learning English from Malwida. Malwida is annoyed with Tata’s appearance. Maria comes in looking for Olga, and Malwida gets worried when she hears that Olga is missing. Finally, they hear Olga playing the piano and getting smacked by Maria.
In the next scene, it is November of 1853 and Herzen enters with his first earnings for the paper that he and Worcell have been publishing. Malwida enters, back from her vacation early because she missed the children. Malwida tells Herzen that she wants to move into the house and take charge of the children’s welfare in every way. She thinks that Maria should go back to being more of a maid. Herzen agrees.
The next scene opens in January of 1854 at the breakfast table in Herzen’s house. Malwida has obviously made progress with the children’s’ appearances and table manners. She rather slyly scolds Maria for not getting the laundry done in time, but Herzen comes in before Maria can argue back. They have another small snit over Tata drinking coffee (Malwida does not approve), and Maria storms out. After the children leave the table, Malwida tells Herzen that him allowing so many people in the house at all times is disruptive to the children. He agrees to only allow people to come by invitation and takes her suggestion that they move to another neighborhood. Worcell and Zenkowicz come in and tell Herzen that their delegate is heading to Poland to deliver their paper, but he needs more money. Herzen is put out, but he agrees to help. Sasha comes in and sits with Worcell.
The next scene is set on New Year’s Eve, 1854 in the Herzen’s new home in Richmond. There are many guests there, including Maria’s replacement, Mrs. Blainey. In addition to the Kinkels, Blanc, Jones, and Mrs. Jones, Ciernecki the Polish printer and Tchorzewski from the bookshop are there. Worcell makes a toast to French and British victory in the Crimean War. Herzen is shocked that people in the streets have been calling for Prince Albert’s arrest. He cannot believe that the government does not arrest them. Kinkel interrupts and asks Herzen why he will not be speaking at the 1848 revolution anniversary. He thinks he is and acts surprised. Jones reveals that Marx will not share the stage with Herzen. They decide they would rather have Herzen speak than Marx. Ciernecki gives Herzen a small, wrapped book just as the clock strikes midnight. Herzen gives Sasha a copy of the book From the Other Shore, which is published in Russian. Sasha is deeply moved, as is the rest of the crowd. Several of them go outside to ring in the New Year in the park. Sasha and Tata reminisce with Herzen about Natalie and Kolya. When the children leave, Herzen expresses his grief and thinks he hears Natalie behind him. Instead, it is Michael Bakunin. They have an exchange, but it is Herzen’s fantasy. He thinks that Bakunin is dead, but he is still in prison. He talks about his anger at being unable to do anything while he is imprisoned. He misses their friends, but Herzen tells him they are not revolutionaries but only speechmakers. Bakunin still has a rebel’s spirit, but Herzen tells him he is sick and tired of all the idealism because it does not work. Bakunin still has hope and preaches anarchy. He reminds Herzen that he once felt passionate about their cause, too. Herzen tells him that he is jaded because there have been so many advances in science and technology, but there is still poverty and fear. He feels like he is a failure, and Bakunin rebukes him for living comfortably and still pitying himself. He tells Bakunin that he is selfish, and Bakunin tells him that revolution is spirit set free and asks him to keep his faith. He cheerfully reminds him that the Tsar could die tomorrow.
In the next scene, March of 1855, the Tsar has, in fact, died. Herzen tells Sasha that he once met the Tsar during his time in exile and that he saw the Tsar’s father and thought he was very cold. During the scene, Worcell falls asleep in a chair and remains there into the next scene.
The next scene opens in April of 1856 in the evening. Herzen is reading and editing his new paper, the Polar Star. Worcell is napping, but soon wakes up. Herzen excitedly tells him about how Russia is opening up. Herzen asks Worcell to come live with them. Worcell declines and leaves. Malwida comes in and tells Herzen that she has been trying to read his letter to the Tsar but finds it too difficult. She notices that he is not wearing his wedding ring, and he tells her it broke into two pieces in the night. Just then, Ogarev and Natasha, who has married him, enter. Natasha is in high spirits and has gifts for the children. Ogarev is physically unwell. Natasha immediately takes over the house and decides that the children should not have school the next day. She wants to take them sightseeing instead. Malwida is having a hard time keeping up with the conversation. Ogarev and Herzen discuss politics, and Ogarev reminds him that preaching socialism made Herzen somewhat unpopular. He refuses to budge, saying the Russian socialism is not utopian. Ogarev has a slight epileptic fit, and Natasha tends to him. She leaves to use the restroom and Maria asks to speak to Herzen. Ogarev is surprised that she uses his first name and asks Herzen if they are lovers. Herzen dismisses the idea. Malwida tells Herzen that she expects the children to have their lessons as planned the next day. At the end of the scene, Olga screams and Natasha and Malwida comfort her.
In the next scene, it is June of 1856 and Malwida is leaving. Tata asks why, but Sasha understands that it is because of Natasha.
The next scene again takes place in June of 1856 in the late evening. Herzen and Ogarev are sitting in chairs while Olga sleeps on the couch and Natasha lounges at Herzen’s feet. She tells Herzen that Natalie was a saint, and she insults Herwegh. Herzen gets up and leaves. Ogarev cautions her not to mention things that hurt Herzen. Herzen gives Natasha a photograph of Natalie. Herzen talks about how grief-stricken he was to lose his family and says that he had lost Ogarev, too. He thanks Natasha for saving him. Ogarev tries to convince Herzen to write a cheap paper for the masses to read. Herzen gets excited about the idea. They decide to call it The Bell. Natasha fusses over Olga and tells Herzen that Ogarev cannot have children. Herzen’s kisses Natasha briefly, with Ogarev’s consent, and carries Olga out while the Ogarevs sit together and Natasha weeps.
Act I ends in January of 1857 at Worcell’s funeral. Herzen is depressed at being at another funeral. Blanc tells Herzen that Worcell sacrificed himself for Poland, which is human duty. Herzen disagrees and says that if everyone sacrifices himself, no one will gain anything. Blanc rebuts him by saying that future generations will benefit. Blanc leaves and Natasha enters. The scene ends with Natasha and Herzen sharing a long kiss.
Act II opens in May of 1859 in the Herzen garden. Herzen and Sasha, now aged twenty, are sitting with a copy of The Bell. Tata is calling to Mrs. Blainey, who is following Olga and pushing a pram with the baby Liza in it. Herzen is trying to interest Sasha in politics. After an emotional interruption from Natasha, Herzen and Ogarev talk about their mutual relationship with her, and Herzen’s fathering of Liza. Turgenev enters and talks of Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov, editors of Contemporary, who disagree with his work. Amidst the commotion of the children entering and exiting, Natasha returns to tell Herzen privately that she realizes they have hurt Ogarev deeply and she wants to take Liza and return to Russia. When a gunshot rings out, both fear that Ogarev has slipped off to kill himself, but it is only Turgenev teaching Sasha how to shoot.
The next scene is in June of the same year. Ogarev meets with his mistress, Mary, a prostitute. She tells Ogarev that she and her son, Henry, are about to lose their lodging, so Ogarev vows to find a solution.
The action moves a month later, as Chernyshevsky tries to persuade Herzen to advocate more violent opposition in The Bell. In the midst of Herzen’s refusals, Mary arrives with Henry in tow, and the whole household tries to cover up the nature of Ogarev’s relationship with her in front of Chernyshevsky. Chernyshevsky leaves warning Herzen that putting all of his faith in the Tsar to change Russia’s political system will not yield the results he wants.
A brief inter-scene in August of 1860 shows a windswept figure standing along the coastline.
The scene proper (set at the same time) begins with Malwida (who has returned to care for the children) walking Olga along the coast. As they exit, Malwida tries to persuade Olga to be more forgiving of Natasha’s outbursts. In the same area, Turgenev asks a doctor if he is done with his paper so that he may cut something out of it. The doctor recognizes him and the two debate ideas, specifically the notion of nihilism.
In March of 1861, Herzen, Ogarev and their international friends celebrate the Tsar’s decision to free millions of serfs in Russia. The celebration ends with Herzen and Natasha embracing and kissing passionately.
By December of that year, we see Herzen and company in an entirely different light. Herzen, Ogarev and Natasha are caring for month-old twins, a boy and a girl. Meanwhile, they note regretfully that the Tsar’s proclamation was not the liberty they had hoped for. Instead of being enslaved by a system, the former serfs are now constrained by pure poverty. Bakunin, freshly escaped from his exile, bursts in searching for a new revolution somewhere in Europe.
In June of 1862, there is yet another gathering at Herzen’s house, including Ogarev, Bakunin, Vetoshnikov and Sleptsov, whom no one seems to know. Herzen, Bakunin and Ogarev again debate their next course of action, but Herzen still holds out for a non-violent approach. Bakunin ultimately decides to go off on his own path and leaves. Amidst this, Herzen attempts to deal with an increasingly rebellious Olga, who reminds Herzen of Natalie, much to Natasha’s bitter chagrin.
Two months later, word reaches Herzen that Vetoshnikov was captured in the midst of a covert mission.
The next scene jumps to the Spring of 1864, as Herzen, Natalie, Ogarev, and Mary consider leaving London for Switzerland.
A gunshot signals an inter-scene taking place in April of 1866, when an assassination attempt was made on the Tsar.
The action moves to May of 1866, in a bar in Geneva. Herzen encounters Sleptsov, the young upstart who he met several years earlier in London. Sleptsov tells the elder Herzen that his ways of thinking are antiquated and out of touch. He suggests Herzen step aside for the new generation of thinkers and revolutionaries.
The last scene of the play (and the trilogy) takes place in August 1868 in Switzerland. Herzen, near the end of his life, and Natasha have lost their twins to diphtheria during a sojourn to Paris that Natasha recommended. Sasha, now a young man, has married a young Italian girl named Teresina. Tata is now caring for the again Herzen in light of Natasha’s inconsolable inertia. Bakunin visits, and tells Herzen and Ogarev of his involvement with some of the youth movements, still planning another revolution in line with his anarchic worldview. Malwida returns with Olga, who has been away, to Herzen’s delight. Herzen nods off to sleep and dreams of a brief tête-à-tête between Marx and Turgenev. Herzen awakes and tells the group that the only way for things to change is for the people to stop working towards a Utopia that does not exist. He laments that such pursuits have cost many to waste and lose their lives. As the gathering continues, Natasha notes an impending storm, and the play ends in lightning.
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