The distinctive feature of Yevgeny Shvarts’s style is his use of “old stories” to provide the plots, characters, and even the settings and costumes for his plays. This creates a reflexive sense of dramatic fiction as a playful, ironic variation on narrative fiction. His characters refer to themselves as the roles that they have been designated to play in old stories, and much of their dialogue refers explicitly to how the play’s action is progressing in relation to the fairy-tale plot or plots of which it is an adaptation. The dramatic conflict in a Shvarts play is typically a struggle between one group of characters, who want their old stories to be reenacted in accordance with their old plots, and another group of characters, who attempt to change the old story. For example, in The Shadow, the hero knows that his life follows the plot of Andersen’s tale “The Shadow,” in which the hero’s romantic idealism is destroyed by the cynicism of his worldly shadow or double. He attempts to change the outcome of the Andersen tale and maintain his idealism, while his shadow attempts to reenact the Andersen plot.
Sometimes the self-conscious ironic emphasis on plot in a Shvarts play serves a comic, lyrical function. For example, in The Naked King, the character Christian uses plot devices from Andersen fairy tales to promote the exuberant, comic love between the hero, Henryk, and the heroine, Henrietta. Christian’s artful invention of Andersen-inspired twists in the love plot is designed to prevent the impatient heroine from proceeding directly to the kissing and lovemaking that are the desired end of romance, but which, if reached too soon, would silence the aesthetic expression of romantic desire.
Sometimes, however, the plots of Shvarts’s plays express his tragic moral philosophy. In The Shadow, the shadow’s cynical reenactment of the old Andersen plot asserts the powerlessness of moral faith and free will in the real world, while the scholar-hero’s attempts to change the Andersen plot assert his faith in his own moral values. In a number of plays, such as Krasnaya Shapochka, The Shadow, and The Dragon, Shvarts uses the plots of old fairy tales to assert the pessimistic view that good is usually defeated by evil, given the endemic strength of evil in human nature and in the “dragons” of political institutions. He then presents his moral heroes and heroines (such as Little Red Riding Hood or Lancelot of The Dragon) as possessors of an absurd existentialist faith in the power of their own actions to thwart the seemingly inevitable triumph of evil.
Drawing on the Gogolian models and popular carnivalesque traditions that Meyerhold had introduced to Russian avant-garde theater, Shvarts complemented his main plot lines with a zany, carnivalesque profusion of subplots and verbal banter. This aspect of Shvarts’s writing is aptly described by Mikhail Leonidovich Slonimsky’s term for Gogolian comedy—“comedy whose name is muddle.” The Naked King creates a “muddle” by confusing or inverting a number of opposed categories: high and low classes are confused as the heroine-princess falls in love with the hero-swineherd, humans and pigs are confused as the swineherd gives his pigs the names of the king’s ladies-in-waiting, and so on. Muddles such as these are at the center of many of Shvarts’s most hilarious comic scenes, yet they may also appear in a dark, satiric light in his political plays when they are the creations of rogue-bureaucrats (such as the Mayor and his son in The Dragon) who create political muddles to obfuscate and confuse simple moral responses to their corrupt reigns. From Henryk of The Naked King to Lancelot of The Dragon, Shvarts’s heroic characters possess the roguish ability to best their antagonists in duels of obfuscation. Perhaps Shvarts’s greatest accomplishment as a playwright is to have created a number of brilliantly witty verbal duels between villains who are geniuses at obfuscation and heroes who can match the villains in this respect while also being able to penetrate muddles of amorality or immorality with their simple, clear moral vision.
The Naked King and The Dragon are Shvarts’s two best dramatic works. Together, they provide a good example of how the main plots of his plays are adaptations of popular fairy tales and legends, while the subplots are generated according to the zany, comic principles of Gogolian “muddle.” Together, they also represent the full spectrum of his moral vision, ranging from the optimistic comedy of The Naked King to the pessimistic satire of The Dragon.
The Naked King
As the curtain opens in act 1 of The Naked King, Henryk, the swineherd, is tending his pigs in a meadow and telling his friend Christian, the weaver, how much he loves the Princess, who lives in the castle nearby. Unlike the swineherd of Andersen’s “The Princess and the Swineherd,” Henryk is not a prince in disguise; he is a swineherd, but he borrows the plot from Andersen’s tale to lure...
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