In his plays, Yury Olesha grappled with the question that was of paramount importance to him, that of the position and role of an individual, especially of an intellectual, in a collectivist society. For this reason he was labeled by many critics as a one-theme writer. Both The Conspiracy of Feelings and The Three Fat Men, adapted from his longer fiction, as well as his two original plays, A List of Assets and A Stern Young Man, are indeed variations on a theme. They constitute his dialogue with his epoch, the Soviet period, during which many other Russian writers also suffered. Olesha’s tendency to focus on the problems of the individual in a collectivist society seemed potentially dangerous to the authorities and caused him much trouble and even persecution. It is to his credit that he avoided the pitfalls of monotony; each of his plays stands by itself and adds to the mosaic of the overriding theme. That is why his plays were popular in his time and have lost little of their original charm and significance. In a way, he answered the call of the literary bosses to write about social themes, but he did it in such a way as to ensure his place among the better Russian playwrights.
The Conspiracy of Feelings
The Conspiracy of Feelings generally follows the plot of the novel Envy, on which it was based. In the play, Ivan Babichev clings to the old virtues and wages war against the so-called progress brought by the revolution. He attacks his brother Andrey Babichev as the epitome of the new, especially railing against Andrey’s reliance on practical things in his efforts to create a cafeteria with the best fast food and sausages for the masses. Ivan, however, does not help his cause by wearing shabby clothes and rampaging through the streets of Moscow, creating the impression that he is a lunatic bum.
Nikolay Kavalerov, a young drifter, vacillates between the two brothers. He is in love with Ivan’s daughter, Valya, but he is also grateful to Andrey for picking him drunk out of a gutter and bringing him to his home to start a new life. Interestingly, Kavalerov envies both brothers: Ivan, for his free spirit and his despisal of material things, and Andrey, for his success in what he does. Kavalerov wants to be successful, too, and he is torn between the values represented by the two brothers. However, he is unable either to achieve his goals here and now like Andrey or to live in the past like Ivan. Enraged, Kavalerov decides to kill Andrey, but in the last moment, he changes his mind and kills Ivan, in fact killing his past, according to his own words at the end of the play. This is the only substantial change from the novel.
Because Olesha has publicly admitted that in Kavalerov he portrays himself and because of the Kavalerov’s desire and futile attempts to accept the new reality, The Conspiracy of Feelings can be viewed as Olesha’s catharsis. The writer Olesha wanted to be successful in the here and now, like Kavalerov, but his respect for some indestructible values of the past prevented him from becoming a successful new-style “sausage-maker.” In Olesha’s view, feelings should prevail over strictly rational concerns, otherwise life would lose all its worth and become a huge sausage factory. Olesha thus expresses a belief that the conspiracy of feelings will triumph in the end.
A List of Assets
(The entire section is 1413 words.)