Conjuring Pushkin

Peter Wood

This article was originally published by FirstThings on September 9, 2018. 

Alexander Pushkin’s poetry notoriously defies translation.  Even Vladimir Nabokov made a mighty attempt at bringing Eugene Onegin, Pushkin’s masterpiece, into English, with results that pleased almost no one.  Edmund Wilson judged Nabokov’s four-volume rendering “uneven and sometimes banal.”  The review famously ended the friendship between the two men.  They did not, however, fight a duel.  Unlike Pushkin, both went on to natural deaths.

I know Eugene Onegin mainly through the 1977 translation by Charles Johnston. That translation makes me think that if you are, like me, not learned in Russian, the closest we can get to the rapid, beautifully fluent gallop of Pushkin’s verse is Byron’s Don Juan. And I imagine it is no accident that when Nabokov died in Montreux in 1977, an open copy of Don Juan lay beside him on his night table. 

Pushkin and Eugene Onegin recently came alive once again, this time at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture—a small, literally underground theatre.  Playwright Jonathan Leaf and director Christopher McElroen conjured Pushkin in the last tumultuous year of his life.  But to conjure Pushkin is also to conjure Eugene Onegin, in whom Pushkin forecast his own life and death.

So glut yourselves until you’re sated
On this unstable life, my friends!
Its nullity I’ve always hated,
I know too surely how it ends.

So reads the Johnston translation (Chapter 2, Stanza 39).  The spirit of those lines, not the lines themselves, burned on the bright red carpet in which Pushkin: A Life Played Out occurs—the red sometimes evoking the opulence of the czar’s palace and sometimes the sanguinary end of Pushkin’s life, thrown away in a meaningless duel with his brother-in-law. 

I saw the play on opening night, and found myself in the company of a group of ladies from the Pushkin Society in America. They came ready and willing to fact-check Leaf’s play, but by intermission were close to believing that Pushkin himself had been resurrected. Not that the poet would have provided them good company. He was a profligate gambler, recklessly impulsive, and far too sure of the czar’s favor.  Born into nobility and brought up in court, he was spared from execution despite being suspected of involvement in the failed Decembrist uprising against the state in 1825. 

Leaf could have written Pushkin as a Byronic hero, given that Pushkin played his own life as if he had stepped out of one of Lord Byron’s romantic poems. Eugene Onegin is rich with mocking allusions to the English poet: 

Lord Byron, with his shrewd caprices,
Dressed up a desperate egotism
To look like sad romanticism.

But what Pushkin mocked, he also envied. Later in the poem, he portrays Onegin as disapproving of almost all contemporary literature except Don Juan because in Byron’s poem man

Is represented truly,
That soul without a moral tie,
All egotistical and dry
To dreaming given up unduly
And that embittered mind which boils
In empty deeds and futile toils.

Pushkin brings vividness, intensity, and ideological passion to the stage as raw material. He wants the czar to free the serfs and he is delusional enough to believe that the force of his poetry will accomplish that emancipation. 

Leaf’s great accomplishment is to have captured this man, by turns rapturous and cynical, self-loving and self-loathing, in a play that hurtles, sled-like over the tundra, toward its tragic end. The man who predicted his own death at age 38 seems to orchestrate his life to achieve exactly that end. 

In Pushkin, we see the titular character tugged in many directions. His friends, including the novelist Nikolai Gogol, urge him to take a still tougher stand with the czar over emancipation of the serfs. His wife, Natalia, tries to end his gambling addiction and pull him into the distractions of the court. Natalia is a beauty, admired in particular by the czar and a French diplomat, and is by no means immune to their attentions. She also pressures her husband into admitting her two younger sisters, who need access to the court to find suitable husbands, into their household. Debts pile up, household expenses mount, and affections are diverted from their proper ends. Natalia, deaf to Pushkin’s poetry, drifts, and her younger sister Katarina has precisely the sensibility to understand the verse and, inadvertently, the man.  

Meanwhile Czar Nicholas and his political confidant are dealing with a war in the Caucasus and are in no mood to indulge a dreamy-eyed social reformer at home. The mounting troubles point to a coming catastrophe, except that Pushkin is rushing ahead to make his own more flamboyant exit. Why? In Leaf’s telling, Pushkin thirsts for the kind of respect only a man of action can enjoy. Dueling is the gentleman’s way to a certain kind of egotistical fulfillment. Win or lose, he says, everyone respects a duelist. 

Pushkin is an extraordinary achievement. Its run at the Sheen Center is now over, but it scored some powerfully positive reviews, including one from Terry Teachout in The Wall Street Journal, who called it “one of the best new plays to open in New York in recent memory,” and hopes to see it restaged in a full-size theatre. Teachout noticed something that I missed entirely: that the play is written in blank verse, iambic pentameter. The dialogue is so fluid and the actors in this production so focused on the taut emotions that this Shakespearean artifice is absorbed into the texture of the play. 

I second Teachout’s judgment that Leaf has created a work that will stand the test of time and which deserves to be seen by a much wider audience. Leaf has built his career writing serious historical plays on challenging intellectual themes, heedless of whether the public knows or remembers the characters and their conflicts. In Deconstruction he traced the affair between the novelist Mary McCarthy and the soon-to-be-celebrated Yale literary theorist Paul de Man, who was hiding his Nazi-sympathizer past. The play features Hannah Arendt and conversation about Martin Heidegger as the whipped cream on top of the sundae. Leaf clearly didn’t write Deconstruction hoping to give Beautiful: The Carole King Musical a run for its money at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. Nor was he aiming to unseat The Lion King when he wrote a play—The Fight—about the feud between Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Leaf’s natural territory just isn’t mass entertainment. He takes aim at deeper cultural discontents than those that can be captured in popular songs and spectacles. 

Is there room today for intellectually and morally serious theater? These phrases might suggest that Leaf’s plays are stuffy or that he is talking down to his potential audience, but he presents his tales with warmth and dramatic zest. It might help to know in advance that Paul de Man was a scoundrel or that Betty Friedan was iced out of feminist leadership by Gloria Steinem, but you could just as easily walk in knowing nothing of the story and follow it as well as Ash vs. the Evil Dead, TrustAtlanta, or any other scripted TV show. The difference is that Leaf’s plays reach toward the irresolvable perplexities of life.  

In Pushkin: A Life Played Out the perplexity is whether the great poet could in any way be separate from the profligate man. Pushkin means no ill. To the contrary, he is devoted to the ideal of freedom for the serfs, but he is immersed in a life of recklessness and betrayals on a path of self-destruction. His early death was an incalculable loss to Russian literature. Could it have been otherwise? The playwright allows us—for a time—to imagine an alternative, just as the play hurtles to its inevitable end.  

Tragedy awakens something in us: a sense of fragility and finality akin to standing at the edge of a tall building and looking down. Really good theatre gives us the opportunity to look into that depth and then walk away on the level street reflecting on it. Perhaps it helps if the tragic figure is not someone on the recent historical stage.  A Russian poet of another century is sufficiently distant in time, place, and culture to allow us to focus on the essentials of the matter. Leaf’s Pushkin, stripped as it is of any effort to conjure our own moment, somehow succeeds as a thoroughly American tragedy. Maybe that’s because of the over-confidence that drives Pushkin and the other characters. Or maybe it is the opposite: their thirst for affirmation. Or perhaps it is both.   

Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars.


Image: By Adrian Volkov -, Public Domain

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