Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2171
The play opens in 1846 in the garden of Sokolovo, an estate near Moscow. Ogarev is reading to Natalie Herzen, and Turgenev is nearby. Natalie and Ogarev discuss the fact that things have changed amongst everyone. Turgenev is in love with Viardot, an opera singer, and Ogarev's wife, Maria, is living in Paris with a painter. Natalie tells Ogarev her views on love and the difference between youthful infatuation and real, adult love. She confesses to Ogarev that she knows of an affair Alexander had, too. Turgenev and Ogarev discuss the Contemporary, a newspaper they are reading. Ogarev mentions Belinsky's ill health. Natalie talks about Kolya's deafness and how difficult it is for her to bear it. Herzen and Granovsky come in from picking mushrooms, and Ketscher comes in with coffee that he has been trying to make taste better. They tell him it is the same and they all argue. Ketscher tells everyone that there is a new word in the dictionary to describe them: intelligentsia. Aksakov comes in to tell everyone that he can no longer be friendly with them because he believes too strongly in Russia and disagrees with them on their socialist views. They begin a long debate about socialism, religion, and Russia versus France and Germany. A policeman enters and gives Herzen a letter from Count Orlov telling him that he may apply to travel abroad to seek help for Kolya's deafness. They cannot find Kolya; everyone begins looking for him. The scene ends with thunder in the distance and Ogarev insisting that Kolya reacted to it.
The next scene is in Salzbrunn, a spa town in Germany in July of 1847. Belinsky and Turgenev are living together and reading manuscripts. Belinsky is very ill. Belinsky has written a letter to Gogol that Turgenev is critiquing. Belinsky has a coughing fit, and Turgenev asks him to travel to London with him. Belinsky tells Turgenev that he will be one of Russia's few great writers.
We next see Turgenev and Belinsky in the Place de la Concorde in Paris shortly after that. Belinsky tells Turgenev that Herzen is living in high style in Paris. Turgenev apologizes for running off to London and leaving Belinsky behind. Belinsky wants to go back to see a red-and-white dressing gown that he wants.
The next scene takes place in September of 1847 at a party. Belinsky is better. Herzen is there along with Turgenev, Natalie, Madame Haag, Sash, Kolya, George Herwegh and his wife Emma, Sazonov, and Jean-Marie, the servant. Herzen and Natalie are very Parisian in their appearance. There are several separate, overlapping conversations going on throughout this scene. Turgenev opens a present from Belinsky, and it turns out to be the dressing gown from Paris. Natalie gives Belinsky presents for his daughter, and he tells Sasha that his son died. Turgenev reveals that he has been in London to hear Viardot sing. Michael Bakunin comes in and tries to talk Belinsky out of going back to Russia, telling him that he could publish his critical essays in France without censorship. Belinsky prefers to write in Russia and be censored because he can inspire people. Bakunin says that he, too, will soon be going home to take part in a revolution. Herzen reminds everyone that there will need to be a European revolution first, and that does not look likely. Bakunin informs everyone that Herwegh was expelled from Saxony for political activity, mainly keeping company with Karl Marx. Natalie is touched by Emma's love for George, which leads to a debate about what love is and should be. They all start arguing over each other, and then become silent and "mime" their conversations while Kolya sits alone playing with a top. Turgenev and Sazonov help Belinsky leave, and he forgets his dressing gown. There is thunder again, and Kolya looks around. The thunder becomes gunfire and drumming. Natalie runs in and takes Kolya offstage.
The next scene takes place in March of 1848 outside in the Place de la Concorde. Bakunin is holding up a banner and meets Marx, carrying a copy of the Communist Manifesto. They discuss Bakunin's revolutionary activities, and Marx encourages Bakunin to get money from the French Provisional Government to go to Poland. Marx asks Turgenev for advice on his writing. Herwegh enters in military gear, planning to lead some German exiles in a march on Baden. Emma comes in with provisions for the troops. The shooting continues while Natalie and her friend Natasha come in chanting "Vive la Republique."
The women enter the next scene, which is set on May 15, 1848 near the not quite finished Arc de Triomphe. Herzen is encouraging Kolya to speak by holding Kolya's hands to his face while he talks. Natalie has given her dress to Natasha because she was wet, and she takes off her shawl to give to Herzen. He is embarrassed by her state of half-undress and her behavior with Natasha, which is like that of a lover. Benoit comes in with Sazonov and Turgenev. They are back from Italy. The think that the tsar is going to turn to them when Russia changes, like the rest of Europe. Herzen reminds them that the revolution in France did not really change anything; it simply renamed the government. Herwegh comes in with his beard shaven having returned from his mission in Germany with a price on his head.
The next scene in the act takes place in June of 1848 on a boulevard. Herwegh is angry that so many people are saying he was a coward in battle. He blames Emma for pushing him into his leadership role with the German democrats in exile. There is a beggar there with them, and he stays as they exit.
The beggar stays onstage as the scene changes to June 21, 1848, and Turgenev enters. He is writing about how the Second Republic grew frustrated with the rebellious workers taunting them and sent in the army. There is the sound of gunfire as Natalie and the children are walking. She hurries across the street with them to meet Herzen. They talk about the omnibuses full of corpses. The beggar again stays onstage.
The next scene occurs on June 27, 1848 in Herzen's apartment. The beggar is in the same place. The sounds of the revolution keep going in the distance. Kolya is playing with his top. Herzen sees the beggar and tells him they have nothing for him. The beggar leaves and there is happy music from the streets. Benoit lets Turgenev in and gives Herzen some letters. Turgenev talks about how the atmosphere around the city is changing. Herzen reads Granovsky's letter about what a failure the revolution was. He also reads that Belinsky is dead.
The final scene in Act I is a reprise of the party scene from September 1847. The scene begins with Natalie's entrance. The scene repeats, but instead of the overlapping conversations, we only hear Belinsky and Turgenev's discussion, and everyone else is mimed. Belinsky says he is tired of hearing about utopias. He talks about his love for literature and his dreams about how Russia will turn out amazing writers. Kolya ends up alone onstage and reacts to the thunder. Then, Natalie enters and says his name as he watches her. She sees the dressing gown and runs out of the room. Kolya says his name.
Act II opens in January of 1849. George reads to Natalie and Herzen from The Communist Manifesto. The three debate the merits of the work and suddenly a letter arrives. The letter informs the trio that Ogarev is engaged to Natasha. While Natalie is overjoyed, Herzen explains the unfinished business of Ogarev's estranged first wife, Maria.
In the next scene, April 1849, Natalie arrives at an art studio to talk to Maria. A large, nude painting of Maria catches Natalie's eye. Maria enters in a robe and the two begin discussing her marriage to Ogarev. Natalie wants Maria to agree to divorce him so that he can be free to marry Natasha, but Maria declines for financial reasons. Maria then challenges Natalie on her rather naïve view of romantic love, noting that she is not fully in touch with the sexual component (she recommends that Natalie herself pose nude for an artist as a kind of liberation). When it becomes clear that no headway is to be made, Natalie exits, defending herself and noting that the painting is a less-than-realistic rendering that glosses over some of her physical flaws.
The next scene takes place in May of 1849 in a prison in Saxony. Franz Otto, a defense attorney, is asking Bakunin about his activities in Dresden. He has been charged with treason and is facing the death penalty. Despite his lawyer trying to give him assistance in creating a story, he admits to plotting the destruction of the Austrian Empire, which is only the first step in his plan to set off a revolution in Russia.
June of 1849 is the time of the next scene. The characters are posed like the Manet painting "Dejeuner sur l'herbe." Natalie is naked and sitting in the grass with Herwegh. Emma is in the background with Turgenev and Herzen. Their discussions overlap. Natalie tells Herwegh that she wanted him to see her naked. They are obviously in the early stages of an affair and do not want anyone to know. They share their first kiss. Turgenev is sketching the pregnant Emma, and she asks him about his affair with Madame Viardot. She clearly suspects George and Natalie of having feelings for each other. Turgenev as much as tells her so. Herzen reveals that he and Natalie will be sharing a house with the Herweghs in Nice. Emma is not happy about it.
The next scene occurs in Nice in September of 1850. Herzen is writing while his mother is working with Kolya on his speaking. Herzen and his mother talk about Bakunin being deported to Russia in chains. Herzen refuses to go back. He leaves to pick up Kolya's tutor. As he goes out, he meets Emma with her baby. He asks if George is returning, and she says she does not know. Natalie enters, seven months pregnant. Emma gives her a letter from George after Herzen leaves. They argue over the affair. Natalie tries to describe how she loves everyone and did not mean to hurt Emma. George enters and both women run to him.
In the next scene, it is November of 1850, and a baby is crying. Natalie has just had a baby girl, Olga. George says he loves them all and then leaves in tears. Emma hints to Herzen about the affair between Natalie and George.
Herzen confronts her about it in the next scene in January of 1851. He asks if she and Herwegh have been lovers, and she finally admits that they have. She begs Herzen not to upset George as she fears he will commit suicide. The Herzens end up laughing and crying together. Emma comes in to tell them that George wants Herzen to kill him. She pleads with him to let Natalie go away with him. Herzen says he will send the Herweghs away together. Emma asks Natalie to convince George to take her with him.
The next scene occurs in November of 1851. A member of the Russian consul comes in with information for Herzen from Count Orlov. Orlov has ordered Herzen back to Russia. Herzen refuses. The consul is upset that he will have to be the bearer of bad news. He is afraid he will be punished for delivering the message. Herzen agrees to write back to Count Orlov to help the messenger out. Natalie brings Sazonov in with her. He is suspicious of the consul because of his earlier dealings with Count Orlov. The scene transitions to evening, and Natalie is preparing a welcome for Kolya who has been abroad with Herzen's mother. Herzen enters to tell her that their ship was rammed by another boat and Kolya and his mother have drowned.
The next scene is a dream where Herzen meets Bakunin. It is August of 1852, and they are on a boat together. Herzen asks if Bakunin is dead, but he is not. He tells Bakunin that Natalie died three months ago from her grief. Herzen expresses his grief and asks what happened to Bakunin. He says he has been in prison and has learned English. He still believes that there will be a Russian revolution, but different from the European revolutions. Herzen talks about socialism and its limitations. The scene ends with Herzen hearing Natalie calling for Kolya. He tells her he is sorry.
The final scene of the play is a continuation of the very first scene at Sokolovo in the summer of 1846. Thunder is heard and Ogarev says that Kolya reacted to it. Natalie comes in, in a panic at not knowing where Kolya has been. Ogarev reminisces about meeting Herzen when they were children. Sasha seems surprised that they are friends since he does not know Ogarev.
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