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When the Whole Story Isn’t Enough

By (August 1, 2010) No Comment

With contributions from Anne Eakin Moss

The Demons

Directed by Peter Stein
Presented by the Lincoln Center Festival, 2010

What is the difference between a play and a novel? The question never bothered me before I saw Peter Stein’s production of Dostoevsky’s The Demons, a 12-hour Italian-language extravaganza. The New York Times had touted The Demons as the theater event of the year. The event of the year! And it was a fortuitous combination of two of my favorite things: Russian literature and the Italian language. My friend Anne and I took our respective buses from Baltimore and Boston the night before, meeting at a friend’s apartment at 3 AM, having each packed a black dress and a copy of The Demons. I am never very punctual on so little sleep, but we somehow made it, coffees in hand, by 9:45 as instructed, for the ferry that would take us to Governors Island. The world of Russian literature scholars is something of a select cabal, and we looked around for fellow professional acolytes. Our professor from graduate school, Monika Greenleaf, had seen the play the day before. We quickly found another of our Stanford classmates, Elif Batuman, who recently wrote her own version of The Demons – a book that, like Dostoevsky’s, involves a lot of possessed 20-somethings and their quest for intellectual fulfillment, except that it is about graduate school at Stanford. Elif was exhausted. She had just flown in from California for a friend’s wedding and was writing a minute-by-minute account of the show for The Paris Review.

I was fascinated to see what Stein would do with The Demons because it is the closest Dostoevsky came to an absurdist novel. The characters struggle to make meaning from meaninglessness, and their puppet-like qualities and the weird carnival of their interactions remind me of the best works of Nikolai Gogol. As in Dostoevsky’s other novels, the characters carry their ideas to the point of catastrophe. But here, the basic premise is political zeitgeist gone awry, and by the end of the book almost all of the characters (and there are really a great many characters) have gone insane, been murdered, or killed themselves. The older generation includes Stepan Verkhovensky, a tutor and would-be philosopher, who has, for the past twenty years, lived in the home of a general’s widow, the landowner Varvara Stavrogina, and tutored her son Nikolai, as well as the virtuous former serf Dasha, her brother Shatov, and the lovely neighbor Liza (whom Varvara hopes will marry Nikolai). Stepan is estranged from his own son, Pyotr, who becomes the leader of the town’s revolutionary group, but actually harnesses its members’ fervor to pit them against one another. The equally monstrous and stunningly handsome Nikolai is desired or hated by everyone and has ambivalent romantic relations with nearly every female character in the novel, including Dasha and Liza. He impregnates Shatov’s wife Marya and is secretly married to another Marya, the crippled sister of the drunken, abusive Captain Lebyadkin, who for his part is (like many of the men in the novel, including the narrator) in love with Liza. Meanwhile Kirilov, a nihilist and self-anointed Christ-figure, is researching why more people do not kill themselves, and a new governor takes office amid attempts by the radical movement to oust the government.

Dostoevsky wrote Besy (the title has been translated into the passive The Possessed and the active The Demons) in 1872, a decade after the Tsar-liberator Alexander II freed Russia’s serfs. The 1860s were years of political frustration. Freed serfs without their own land became indebted to former lords. The nascent revolutionary movement was gaining momentum, and upper-class student revolutionaries hoped to unite with the newly freed peasants. The revolutionary catastrophe Dostoevsky describes proves weirdly prophetic: in 1881, members of the Peoples Will party would assassinate Alexander II, hastening the reactionary reign of Alexander III. Stein claimed that he chose to stage The Demons now, because the play is relevant to our own age. After the performance I asked some of the actors what Stein had meant by this. Oh, you know, one of the actresses said, rubbing her fingers together as if to find the right word, “Dostoevsky is really universal. For example, in Italy, we do not like Berlusconi.” It occurred to Anne that perhaps Stein hadn’t understood what a reactionary Dostoevsky was. My father (who didn’t see the play) suggested that Stein was trying to get at some universal truth about the way ideologies can run rampant from one generation to the next.

Stein’s play was a demon run rampant in its own right. As Elisabetta Povoledo learned in an interview for the New York Times, the Teatro Stabile di Torino had asked him to direct a 1959 script written by Camus. But, as he told us before the opening curtain, he wanted to give us more, and so embarked on his own version. It just kept growing, the actors admitted on the boat home.


From left, Fulvio Pepe, Alessandro Averone, standing left, Giovanni Visentin, Luca Jervolino, and Carlo Bellamio in a scene from Peter Stein’s The Demons


The event actually lasted almost 14 hours from the time we boarded the ferry in Manhattan to the time we disembarked at around midnight. There were four short intermissions, and the coffee-hyped crowd ran to wait in line for the tiny trailer-bathrooms. A concession stand sold coffee at one end and beer at the other, and for those beyond the help of stimulants or depressants, an usher offered an early ride back to Manhattan. Like many of our fellow audience members, Anne and I started with coffee and migrated towards alcohol as the day wore on. For a lot of us, the highlights of the day were the two additional breaks for meals served at long tables, covered by awnings – an assortment of sandwiches for lunch; pasta, salad and berry pies served family-style for dinner. Anne thought she recognized someone sitting near us – it turned out to be Mark Bittman, who wrote a blog entry focusing entirely on the food. At these meals audience members confessed to each other their motives for spending upwards of $175 and 14 hours on Stein’s Dostoevsky. The only reasonable point of comparison was a wedding: “Are you here for the Italian or the Dostoevsky?” A disproportionate number of us seemed to be writing reviews. But the woman sitting next to us at dinner wished she had brought her sons. She loved learning about Russian history. She had also loved New York’s big theatrical event of three years ago – Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, a trilogy that she had seen twice in its entirety. (The glint in her eye reminded me of an ultramarathoner I had once met in St. Petersburg who claimed that running 100 K is much easier in the winter.)

This was my first ultra-theater event, although I had once watched a 7-hour film of The Master and Margarita in Polish. It had no subtitles, so I sat with the original Russian version open on my lap, turning the pages along with the Polish. Remembering that experience, during Act III I retrieved the copy of The Demons I had brought with me. I don’t think I missed too much when, on a few occasions, I lost track of the action onstage and slipped happily into the pages. The play followed the narrative closely enough to resemble a kind of abridged read-along: the actors handed us the main events of the novel with very little embellishment, replacing Dostoevsky’s verbose narrative with their even more verbose Italian dialogue. Anyone unfamiliar with the plot would leave knowing an impressive amount of what happens in the novel. This seems to have been one of the play’s major selling points and at least a few of the audience members I met seemed excited about “learning about Russia.” But this was also where the play failed. The seeds of wisdom that make The Demons a great novel – the narrator’s God-like omniscience combined with his human neuroses, the vanity of the landed aristocracy, the overwhelming power of guilt – were obscured by the compulsive attempt to give us the whole story.

The actors were clearly talented but not quite demonic enough to possess their audience for 12 hours. Watching them reproduce every major scene from an 800 page novel in animated Italian made me think of lines by William Carlos Williams: “You cannot get the news from poems, but men die every day for lack of what is found there.” This production lacked what is found in The Demons after the news of the storyline has been cleared away. Certainly there were some ingenious moves. Shatov, the former student and budding Slavophile, and Kirilov, the nihilist, both gave strong performances. They lived in apartments that were set on opposite sides of a rotating backdrop. In the novel, they live in the same house, and guests visiting one always see the other. Here, the characters’ guests spun the set around to reveal the room they hoped to visit. (“Like two sides of the same coin,” Anne observed.) While the actors were dutifully approximating how Kyrilov commits suicide and Shatov is shot, I thought about why it is I like Dostoevsky, and why it is I like to read novels at all. Novels you can take in slowly, living with them for an hour or two a day, so that their time obscures your time and the faces of the characters become the faces of the people you know. As Stein told us himself at the beginning of the play, he was giving us as much as he could of the original, and it was for us to interpret. But what I had hoped to see on Governors Island was Stein’s interpretation of The Demons. The Dostoevskian appeal of a 12-hour play, viewed in a warehouse with a small audience, aroused my fantasies about how the director might read The Demons. I imagined a bizarre but intense descent into a Dostoevskian underworld. I imagined the old Verkhovensky’s manipulative son Pyotr Stepanovich an exaggerated ringleader, and an Italian Stavrogin who was freakishly handsome, crouching among audience members, drawing us into the weird psychological scenes. I wondered whether Liza would appear on horseback. Anne, for her part, was distracted by her memory of Alexandre Marine’s adaptation of The Demons, …the itsy bitsy spider…, performed by New York City’s Studio Six on the small black box stage of Baltimore’s Theater Project. It cost her a lot less than $175 and 14 hours, and there were only a dozen people in the audience with her. She offers the following comparison:

“The contrast to Stein’s production couldn’t be starker. Studio Six is an ensemble of young American actors trained at the famed Moscow Art Theater School. Their tightly wound performance moved from the fever pitch of dialogue to athletic dance performance to the edge of pornography. (You can see a trailer here.) Marine stripped away all of Dostoevsky’s narrators, staging the actual action of Stavrogin’s horrifying confession thus making us, the members of the audience, feel downright dirty and just as guilty for watching the rape as Stavrogin was for committing it. This is what Dostoevsky wants us to feel!”

The more Anne told me about Marine’s interpretation, the more I became convinced that Stein’s version was not so much a play as a ritualistic rehashing of a plot – a kind of Dostoevsky meets Passover Haggadah. Nikolai Stavrogin lacked the wretched magnetism necessary to bring a town to ruin. In the book, his face is “like a mask,” which makes most readers assign him the face of his or her hometown Adonis. His mother Varvara Petrovna lacked the subtle desperation of a matriarch who has lost control of her family and former serfs (Anne proposed she was actually one of Fellini’s sadistic mother figures in Città delle donne); Liza’s mother Praskovya Ivanovna seemed better suited to a Romantic heroine than a bitter rival-matriarch. I found myself searching the play for interpretive additions – anything to offer some counterpoint to the novel. The narrator, who looked, with his thin face and beard, ever so slightly like Dostoevsky, acted a little like Roberto Benigni. He wrung his hands, cracked jokes, and banged out eighteenth century-style waltzes on the piano, written especially for this production. Nikolai Stavrogin did not look like he had a mask for a face, at least not from the back of the bleachers, but Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky did – in fact he bore an uncanny resemblance to Karl Marx. Was this intentional? I felt certain it was. Verkhovensky – a muddle-headed, vaguely revolutionary armchair philosopher and ineffectual liberal, was living under the roof of Varvara Stavrogina – the vaguely autocratic mother-Russia. Their children, collectively – natural, adoptive, spiritual – were demons. The novel indeed represents Dostoevsky’s critique of Russia’s ineffectual liberals and ill-conceived radical moment. Marx published Das Kapital in 1867, three years before Dostoevsky wrote The Demons. According to Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky’s wife Anna even translated sections of it. The overt reference to Marx seemed heavy-handed, and Verkhovensky looked like a bobble-headed Marx-doll. But it did set the character apart from his progeny, and it was a hint at something original: Verkhovensky was a kind of puppet in Dostoevsky’s demonic world where even the philosophers are automatons.

The theater, which seated 400, was set up in a warehouse. The rain beat intermittently on the roof, sometimes perfectly coinciding with key scenes that take place on a rainy night. When it wasn’t raining we could hear the love calls of seagulls, adding their inadvertent Chekhovian soundtrack. Because Anne and I were sitting in the far rear corner, several of our neighbors moved to fill vacant seats closer to the stage, and by the end we were each stretched out across two or three seats. Several of our fellow nosebleeders stood or propped their feet on the seats in front of them. There was a pole blocking part of our view, but I became increasingly certain ours were the best seats in the house. The production coincided with the World Cup finals in South Africa, and a guy behind us with an iPhone kept us abreast of the score. In contrast to the tiny seats, the stage was enormous, suggesting (I hoped, when we walked in!) the possibility of a three-ring circus – simultaneous scenes from the novel, dynamic acrobatics, or perhaps an elaborately built set. But the sets were minimal, the blocking classical, and the stage, which seemed far away, dwarfed the actors. During the second half of the play, Stavrogin’s meeting with Father Tikhon, his liaisons with Liza and Dasha, and his suicide were all performed in the rear wings of the stage, and the actors’ voices were amplified. The scene at Father Tikhon’s, when Stavrogin confesses that four years before he had raped a young girl who later killed herself, was censored out of Dostoevsky’s original version, and was added back only in the twentieth century. Anne was especially curious to see how it would be staged after her haunting experience in Baltimore. Instead of acting out the horrifying rape scene, Stavrogin paced up and down the stage, reading his confession aloud and swallowing his words. When he was finished, Tikhon said, from somewhere in the depths of the stage, “Sono io che devo chiedere perdono” [It is I who must ask for forgiveness]. I wondered whether Stein had added the scene at the last minute. Anne thought to herself, “Sure, you’re guilty for Stavrogin’s sins too, but not me! I’ve paid off the penance for my sins by sitting here on these uncomfortable seats for the last ten hours!”

As for whether Verkhovensky’s Marx-mask was intentional, the cast members on the trip home from Governors Island assured me it was not. The actor simply has a very fluffy beard and hair, but perhaps I should ask him myself. Verkhovensky was engrossed in his own conversation with Petr Stepanovich, whose birthday it was. He seemed less eager to chat with tourists than the loquacious narrator or the ruddy-faced Lebyadkin, who had given me his number and invited me to visit him in Genoa. But surely Open Letters’ readers deserve the truth! “Last chance,” said Anne. I tried to make my way through the crowd, but the ferry docked, a stream of actors with scrubbed faces, matted hair and VIP badges flooded off the boat alongside equally bedraggled audience members, and Stepan Trofimovich was swept away with the crowd, his curly Marx beard disappearing into the Manhattan night.

Amelia Glaser is an Assistant Professor of Russian Literature at the University of California, San Diego.