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The Devils on stage

May 21, 2014

When it came out, Dostoevskii’s The Devils (Бесы, 1871-72) was topical; now many readers, and probably most non-Russian readers, first experience it without knowing much about the radical movement in 1860s and 1870s Russia or the years of nihilist/anti-nihilist polemics in literature. When did it start seeming universal instead of about current events?

Possibly (perhaps ironically, given the near future) around 1913. For some people, anyway. Here’s a story Lidiia Lotman mentions in her article about Dostoevskii, the French Revolution, and Anatole France:

In 1907 Viktor Burenin and Mikhail Suvorin put on a “one-sided production of The Devils” at the Suvorin Theater (controlled by Mikhail’s father Aleksei Suvorin): it was “presented as an anti-nihilist polemic [памфлет], with Stavrogin made up to look like Chernyshevskii, and Karmazinov made up to look like Turgenev.”

Karmazinov looking like Turgenev makes perfect sense, but what did they think of Stavrogin, or what did they think of Chernyshevskii? I see why he’s a good target from an anti-nihilist point of view, but can you imagine the seminarian Chernyshevskii pulling an old man around by his nose at the club? I don’t think they’d have had him at the club, and I don’t think he’d have gone if they would. Or can you imagine a Stavrogin with a reedy little voice or delivering lines in a monotone? I thought the nobleman Stavrogin was the opposite of the kind of person who would irritate Lev Tolstoi by not being able to “talk properly.”

A few years later, in 1913, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko wanted to put on a very different production at the Moscow Art Theater, called Nikolai Stavrogin instead of The Devils, “to create a ‘Russian tragedy’ based on Dostoevskii’s novel with a highly original hero at its heart.” He had already done a version of The Brothers Karamazov in 1910. But The Devils on stage was controversial, less than a decade after the 1905 revolution:

The very idea of dramatizing The Devils and staging it at the Moscow Art Theater elicited the determined opposition of M. Gor’kii. Learning of the planned production in the summer of 1913, he tried to influence Nemirovich-Danchenko, to persuade him to drop the idea. When he failed to halt work on the production, Gor’kii started writing polemical [публицистические] articles directed less against the play or how it was produced than the decision by the theater to put on a dramatization of a novel that denounced, as he saw it, the nihilist revolutionaries. At the same time, in his article “On Karamazovism” (The Russian Word, 22 September 1913, #219), instead of the political side of the matter, Gor’kii emphasized the excess of tragedy in Dostoevskii’s novel, the “abnormality” [болезненность] of many of his characters, their darkness, which could encourage a mood of dejection and pessimism, already widespread enough in Russian society in that period of reaction. The many polemical [полемические] responses to this article led Gor’kii to write a second article on the same subject, “Once Again on Karamazovism” (The Russian Word, 27 October 1913, #248). (Russian text)

Anatole France was apparently in Russia around the time of this debate, though Lotman doesn’t think he was following it. That’s just as well, since A. France and Gor’kii were friendly and corresponded with each other, but despite Gor’kii’s hostility to a stage production of The Devils, France goes on to write two novels about revolution that, Lotman argues, draw on The Devils and Crime and Punishment. These are The Gods Are Athirst (Les Dieux ont soif, 1912) and The Revolt of the Angels (La Révolte des anges, 1914). According to Lotman, Dostoevskii looks back at the French Revolution, Voltaire, and Diderot to create his literary Russian revolutionaries in The Devils, and then a French writer looks to Dostoevskii’s fiction to write a novel that’s actually set during the French Revolution.

Gor’kii evidently saw A. France and Dostoevskii as opposites:

In a letter to S. Zweig of March 15th, 1925, he wrote about France with much warmth: “I like the elegant, light, and witty way his mind plays, though his Epicureanism is foreign to me. I find that for us Russians, the skeptical smile of the French would be very useful, as we are always too quick to believe and always believe blindly. That’s why I envy a nation that has Montaigne, Renan, France to its credit. You must admit it isn’t easy to live with Tolstoi and Dostoevskii.” (Russian text; link added)

See L. M. Lotman, “Problema Velikoi frantsuzskoi revoliutsii v literaturnoi polemike kontsa XIX—nachala XX v. (A. Frans i Dostoevskii),” in Velikaia frantsuzskaia revoliutsiia i russkaia literatura, ed. G. M. Fridlender (Leningrad, 1990), 362-96.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. between4walls permalink
    May 21, 2014 9:17 am

    Thank you for this story. Stavrogin-as-Chernyshevsky made me lol, hard.

    I had no idea that Anatole France was influenced by Dostoevsky in his portrayal of the French Revolution! I’ve never had such a disappointment as a reader as Les dieux ont soif. What a waste of an excellent title (inexplicably translated in some versions as “The God Will Have Blood” because subtlety is wasted on some people).

  2. between4walls permalink
    May 21, 2014 9:31 am

    And speaking of France-Russia connections, here’s an interview with Camus about adapting The Devils for stage.

    • May 21, 2014 10:53 am

      Thank you for that interview! That must be the sort of thing that made Joseph Frank turn from the French existentialists to Dostoevskii. I didn’t know about Camus’s adaptation. When I wrote this post I was actually thinking about Sartre’s play Les Mains sales.

      It’s Lidiia Lotman’s thesis that France was influenced by Dostoevskii, and I’m not sure whether others agree — I gather other French writers of the time were more obviously influenced by him. I haven’t read France, so I have no opinion. Actually I just put Les Dieux ont soif on my e-reader, but maybe I shouldn’t rush to get to it. What made it so disappointing?

      • between4walls permalink
        May 21, 2014 11:29 am

        I’d never heard of Les mains sales but it looks interesting! Is it any good? The French play I think of in connection with the nihilists is Camus’s Les justes.

        Les dieux ont soif is extremely predictable– if you imagine him thinking, “I’m going to write a novel about a young fanatic who participates in the Terror,” you can work out the whole plot and character arc. Also, all the female characters are associated with sex; I’m not sure how to explain the problem with them, but they bug me. It does have some interesting things to say about art and jealousy, though. I just went in with very high expectations, thinking a novel about the French Revolution from such a respected French author would be a masterpiece like Hugo’s Quatrevingt-treize, but it turned out to be nowhere near the same league.

      • May 21, 2014 12:03 pm

        I liked Les Mains sales when I read it 20 years ago – from what I remember it was a bit straightforward, but good at pushing moral dilemmas about means and ends to dramatically effective extremes. Also, I think it was in 7 acts, so a bit long. I’ve never seen it on stage, but I bet it would succeed at making me uncomfortable. I don’t know Les Justes – I’m going to have to read/see more Camus.

        Thanks for the review of France and the tip about Hugo!

  3. May 23, 2014 8:56 am

    If anyone is looking for a good novel about the French Revolution and Terror with powerful female characters, I highly recommend Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. It’s long, gripping, and satisfying, and of course well written (it’s Hilary Mantel!).

    • between4walls permalink
      May 23, 2014 10:53 am

      Yes, it’s wonderful! She does chicken out at the end by giving Robespierre a totally invented motive to do away with Danton and yet maintain reader sympathy, but that’s my one complaint. It’s a brilliant novel, full of energy, and I love her sentences.

  4. May 27, 2014 3:09 am

    I would have never thought, of course, that France could have learned from Dostoevsky. Mikhail Kuzmin was very fond of France, but I’ve yet to read him.

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