Images: Context For the Social and Political Climate

Here are a few images intended to contextualize the words explaining what was going on in Andreyev’s world as he wrote.


Bolsheviks storming the Winter Palace to oust tsar Nicholas II, October 1917.

Storming the Winter Palace, 1917










Newspaper announcements in Russian and English of the Bolshevik proclamation issued after the successful coup, October 1917.

Russian Bolshevik Proclamation, 1917











English Bolshevik Proclamation, 1917








1919 propaganda poster, “Beat the Whites With the Red Wedge”, by El Lissitzky: a well-known example of revolutionary Constructivist art being produced in the wake of the October Revolution.

El Lissitzky, Beat the Whites With the Red Wedge, 1919


Brief Notes on Production History

He Who Gets Slapped was first staged in Russia in 1916, and in America in 1922.

This photograph is from a postcard distributed to advertise the first Russian stage production in Moscow in 1916.

Postcard, He Who Gets Slapped











(Of this production, the writer Boris Zaitsev recalls seeing Andreyev for the last time in his life at its opening night. Zaitsev recalls his impression of it: ““It is no masterpiece and it is far from perfect since Leonid Andreev produced little that was perfect. Chaos, haste, lack of restraint, fervor, excitability were too visible in his writing. These are the enemies of perfection. But as in all of the most important works that he wrote, there is in this play something very Andreev, caustic, very mournful, poisoned by bitterness… You can get angry, argue and criticize but you will not pass by indifferently.” When he saw Andreyev, Zaitsev noted that Z notes that Andreyev seemed fatigued and broken down; Andreyev’s only words to Zaitsev were these:  “They spoiled the play… They ruined it. The main role was misinterpreted. But look’, he pointed to a heap of clippings, ‘how happy all these asses are. It is such a pleasure for them – to kick me.'”)



This photograph shows the 1922 Theater Guild production at New York’s Garrick Theater.

He Who Gets Slapped, New York, 1922












Here are a few more images from that same production at the Garrick Theater.

Richard Bennett as He and Ernest Cossart as Briquet.

Richard Bennett as HE and Ernest Cossart as Briquet, New York, 1922












Margalo Gillmore as Consuela, Frank Reicher (center) as Mancini and Richard Bennett as He.

Margalo Gillmore as Consuela, Frank Reicher (center) as Mancini, Richard Bennett as HE, New York, 1922








Overview of entire set.

The Set of He Who Gets Slapped, New York, 1922










In 1956, Robert Ward completed an opera based on He Who Gets Slapped, named Pantaloon. An issue of the New York Times in April 1956 notes a “Columbia unit to perform Pantaloon at Juilliard” in May of that year, which was ultimately well-received by critics.

Quantaince Eaton’s Opera Production: A Handbook notes the following on Pantaloon: “Original tragedy has been mellowed to resignation, even with a suggestion of happiness to come. Highly melodic; arias and recitative; conservatively harmonized. No overture. Three acts, with short preludes to acts 2 and 3. Set is the same as the play; length 150 mins.”

This is a photograph from a production of Pantaloon at the North Carolina School of Arts, year unknown but likely between 1967-1974 when composer Robert Wardwas chancellor of the school.

Pantaloon, 1970s

Gorky and Andreyev: A Troubled Friendship

Maksim Gorky was one of Andreyev’s contemporaries, and arguably the best-known Russian prose writer of the early 20th century. His full name was Aleksei Maksimovich Gorky, but he was known as Maksim, though I’ll refer to him on a last-name basis from now on. He was one of the founders of the Socialist Realist movement, which by 1934 had evolved to a form composed of four parts: 1) Proletarian: art relevant to the workers and understandable to them; 2) Typical: scenes of everyday life of the people; 3) Realistic: in the representational sense; 4) Partisan: supportive of the aims of the State and the Party. (I confess: that was paraphrased from Wikipedia.)  He was a well-known revolutionary, more liberal in his leanings and generally more politically active than Andreyev, and he wrote frequently about the poor, concentrating on the great inherent worth and liveliness of the individual human being. He lived in exile from 1906 to 1913 due to health reasons and increasing government oppression of writers, but was allowed to return thanks to a grant of amnesty. His 1936 death is a contentious subject; those ‘in the know’ claim that he was killed by Stalin’s secret police, but Stalin himself denied this, even making sure that he was one of the pallbearers at Gorky’s funeral.

A photograph of Gorky:

Maksim Gorky












James Woodward opens Leonid Andreyev: A Study with the sentence “With the exception of Gorky, Russian prose writers of the early twentieth century have received scant attention in the West.  When Gorky, with his usual modesty, acknowledged the inferiority of his own artistic gifts to those of his friend, he was simply reiterating an opinion long held by most contemporary critics and literati, symbolists and ‘realists’ alike. Moreover, the general prevalence of this view, indicating that both camps found something to applaud in Andreyev’s works, suggests that in certain important respects he may be considered a more widely representative figure than Gorky of Russian literary and intellectual life of the two decades before 1917.” Thus, even though it seems that everyone up to and including Gorky and Andreyev themselves knew that Andreyev was the better writer, Andreyev still ended up in Gorky’s shadow.

As early as 1902,  Andreyev was quite aware of and thankful for Gorky’s assistance with his craft; he noted that Gorky helped him become more critical of himself as well as realize his own gifts and talents. Their relationship was not always smooth; as in any professional collaboration that also happens to be personal, they had their share of disagreements, no matter how indebted Andreyev remained to Gorky. When Gorky left Russia in 1906, he went to the Isle of Capri, inviting Andreyev to join him. Andreyev finally did so in 1907, but he described the experience of sharing a dark, humid villa with Gorky as one of the most trying of his life. He was dogged by thoughts of suicide, and wrote to Gorky later (in 1912) that during their stay together he wondered if he should perhaps sever all ties with Gorky then and there. Andreyev did eventually emerge from his funk and begin writing anew with a fresh onslaught of ideas.

Before he left Capri, Andreyev began work on the story “Darkness”, with which Gorky took great issue. The story is based on an incident in which one of Andreyev’s revolutionary acquaintances lectures a prostitute on morality; offended, she slaps him, and contrite, he kisses her hand in apology. According to Gorky, Andreyev distorts this incident into an implausible tale, perverting it beyond all hope. Andreyev defended his right as an artist to spin the incident as he saw fit, but Gorky (as stated in his memoir about Andreyev) felt keenly that “from that time on… something snapped between Andreyev and myself.”

Part of the writers’ relationship was collaboration on various literary journals. In 1916, the newspaper Russian Will was started, and its principal organizer announced that, among others, he planned to have both Gorky and Andreyev write for it. Gorky refused to participate, and Andreyev agreed to edit the literary, critical, and theater sections of the paper. He mostly agreed for financial reasons, though he did sincerely believe that it was a progressive paper and that he would be allowed decent freedom in his editorial decisions; neither of those turned out to be true, and he was quickly exhausted by constantly defending himself from criticism. He fled to Finland within two years of the paper’s birth, seeking refuge from an increasingly oppressive government in which he received no support – financial or otherwise – from Gorky.

While in Finland, Andreyev read with horror the reports of other writers going bankrupt and selling all of their possessions, and then begging Gorky for work, which Gorky gave to them. Reading this, Andreyev was disgusted, seeing Gorky not as a champion of the writer’s cause but as “a friend who has gone over to the enemy” – someone to whom he referred with “passionate indignation”. Gorky sent an emissary to Finland to offer Andreyev work – two million rubles’ worth, which is not by any means a small sum – which Andreyev immediately declined.

Andreyev died in 1919 of a heart attack, and before his burial, his coffin was stored in a chapel on the grounds of a house that Gorky had stayed in five years prior. Upon hearing the news, Gorky “remarked with tears in his eyes: ‘However strange it may seem, he was my only friend. Yes, the only one…’”.

The critic Frederick White in Memoirs and Madness, however, offers a different take.

White claims that the very thing James Woodward was doing above – that is, concentrating on the literary and political differences between Gorky and Andreyev that he says led Andreyev to be blamed for the failure of their relationship – is the wrong approach, and that much more important is Gorky’s own inability to “deal with people who could not play the role he assigned to them” combined with Andreyev’s great emotional neediness.

White outlines Gorky and Andreyev’s relationship as writers as Woodward has traced, adding that in 1911 Andreyev tried to reconcile with Gorky, but Gorky responded negatively, and though the two tried time and again to patch things up in the following years, they never succeeded. Andreyev’s agreement to edit Russian Will was the nail in the coffin of their friendship, as its ideas directly opposed those of the journal Gorky was editing – The Chronicle – and Andreyev at that point considered Gorky a literary enemy. (It’s here that Andreyev moves to Finland, where Woodward picks back up.)

White then goes on to discuss Gorky as an emotional entity – he grew up with a great degree of self-reliance, so he was often emotionally distant and “did not deal well with weakness or pessimism in other people”, which Andreyev immediately sensed and was often shocked by. Andreyev grew up “craving praise and acceptance” from others, which Gorky sensed and looked upon with disdain – but not at first, when he took Andreyev under his wing and helped him develop as a writer. Gorky was thrilled to have ‘discovered’ Andreyev, and Andreyev was ecstatic at having the help and praise of his new friend. “Gorky’s belief in Andreyev’s talent”, writes White, “was the one constant in their relationship”, but Gorky later came to regret that Andreyev never reached his full potential – most likely because Gorky himself thought he lacked talent such as Andreyev’s, and his protégé’s failure was doubly so his own failure. Andreyev was constantly thankful to Gorky for his patronage, but Gorky’s emotional distance caused Andreyev to wonder if Gorky was interested in him for his talent alone, or for something closer to friendship. As early as 1902, Andreyev was writing letters to Gorky claiming that he didn’t feel they were friends, begging him to accept him as more than just a pupil, pleading for emotional support; Gorky pulled away, stating a desire to only relate to Andreyev in literary terms, thereby setting the stage for an emotional coldness that would ultimately lead to the demise of their relationship.

By 1904, many had viewed Gorky and Andreyev as tutor and pupil, but when Andreyev published the story “Red Laugh” that year, White writes that “he… stepped out of Gorky’s shadow [emphasis mine] and established himself as a literary figure… This shifted the balance of power between the two writers”. Andreyev still sought Gorky’s opinion on his work, but was more willing to publish things against which Gorky protested for one reason or another.

White somewhat agrees that the time Gorky and Andreyev spent on Capri together led to the end of their friendship, but he argues that no single event led to a distinct fissure between them. Andreyev sensed that his emotional neediness was to blame for the separation, and that Gorky wouldn’t or couldn’t give him support, even though he constantly wrote to Gorky asking him for it.

Andreyev, then, sensed that they were both “ ‘too different’ in what each wanted from their relationship”, but Gorky couldn’t take any responsibility for this himself, casting Andreyev as the sole contributor to their separation. In his memoirs of Andreyev (published in 1922, three years after Andreyev’s death), Gorky likens Andreyev to a child when speaking of his depression and suicidal tendencies, and calls him a lazy and uneducated writer who got by on his talent alone. (Andreyev had a law degree from Moscow University and a very different – that is, much less regimented and much more sporadically manic – work ethic than Gorky.) Gorky goes on to paint a rather unflattering picture of Andreyev, calling him cruel for inflicting his emotional problems on others and accusing him of pretending to be suicidal so that others would reassure him that he was a worthy person. Thus, White says, was Gorky completely unable to grasp Andreyev’s deep depression and emotional issues; Andreyev laid himself bare, and Gorky never understood him – or even admitted to never having understood him.

Recall the quotation above from Gorky about Andreyev being his only friend. White says that “Gorky felt justified in making the argument that he had been Andreyev’s good friend. He had recognized Andreev’s talent and tried to encourage the use of this natural gift. It was Andreyev’s laziness, pessimism, and disrespect for the literary trade that had brought their friendship to an end. Gorky never seems willing to accept that Andreyev may have needed the emotional support and kindness of a friend, rather than the grimace of a disapproving older brother. For Gorky, Andreyev’s literary concerns represented the limits of his friendship.” Indeed, Gorky notes at the end of his memoirs about Andreyev that when they met in 1916, they could “only speak of the past; the present erected between us a high wall of irreconcilable differences. I shall not be violating the truth if I say that to me that wall was transparent and permeable. I saw behind it a prominent original man who for ten years had been very near to me, my sole friend in literary circles. Differences of outlook ought not to affect sympathies; I never gave theories and opinions a decisive role in my relations with people. Leonid Nikolaevich Andreyev felt otherwise. But I do not blame him for this; for he was what he wished to be and what he was capable of being – a man of rare originality, rare talent, and quiet courageous in his quest for truth.” Nonetheless, White notes, it was his overall tone of damnation that led Gorky’s memoir to be the text by which critics remembered Andreyev, which unfortunately explains the scorned obscurity in which he laid for decades.

The Circus in Russia and France

Y. Dmitriev in The Circus in Russia notes that like the theater, the circus began in public squares for the enjoyment of the common folk. This dates back to the early 11th century, when Russia was a newly-christened country, so the art form has a long and storied history there indeed. An attempt to adequately address the entire millennium of Russian circus history is beyond the scope of this particular project, so this post will concentrate on the circus contemporary to Andreyev.

Clowns at the end of the 19th century tended to be joke-tellers more than anything else, since they possessed little to no proclivity (or capability) for physical feats. (Sample joke: Clown cries. “Why are you crying?” ask his fellow circus-folk. “How can I not cry, when after a long and difficult illness my aunt…” he pauses. “Died?” “No, got better.” This dark humor isn’t exclusive to clowns, though.)

Eventually they evolved to be more musical, and more physical, especially during Andreyev’s time when artists began to be censored. Censorship did not exclude circus performers and clowns, an as their jokes fell by the wayside, they concentrated on the more ‘traditional’ aspects of clowning that are familiar to modern audiences. Yet there was still an edge of the forbidden in their work; clowns in Moscow continued to tell political jokes knowing full well the punishment for offending a government official who might have happened to be in attendance.

In 1905, circuses started kowtowing to Tsar Nicholas II, and soon became known as vehicles of bourgeois art; the very word ‘bourgeois’ was scorned, so anything bearing that label was shunned. The circuses became watered-down, in a sense, and pursued “clean entertainment”. By 1913, the journal Organ was asking in editorials why audience interest in the circus was falling.

While audience interest in the circus was falling, the intelligentsia’s interest in the circus had just been piqued. In 1909, Filippo Marinetti published some contentious articles in the Italian newspaper “Figaro”; he was a key figure of Italian futurism, and he got quite a bit of attention in Russia in 1914 when his “Manifests of Futurism” were translated into Russian. In the manifests, he agitated against war as “the only hygiene of the world”, expressing a desire to raise “love for danger”. Music halls – especially those connected with circuses – were the first to heed Marinetti’s call; they were seen as “schools of heroism”, especially circuses, because they put forth a “strong and healthy atmosphere of danger”. Critics said that the circus stunts showed the greatest character of circus art because of their daring and nerve. The intelligentsia saw this and immediately paid attention; here, perhaps, was something new and exciting to breathe fresh air into stale art. Pantomime and clowning – two things essential to the circus – interested the intelligentsia the most, since they offered the greatest opportunity to mock the regime and agitate ‘safely’. Art had to progress as part of the sweeping changes occurring across the country, and the circus was no exception.

This might explain why Andreyev chose the backdrop of a circus as the vehicle for telling HE’s story; in exploring a world of myth and fantasy, misery and beauty, pain and pleasure, he could use the circus as a setting for these risky exercises in liminality. (“Liminal” refers to a person or thing that is caught between two worlds; that space is magical in Russian culture, and imbued with all sorts of meaning and superstition. The circus might have been such a space for Andreyev, given that it is neither of the outside world nor completely apart from it.)

Wikipedia – ever that fount of well-sourced knowledge – notes: “In 1919, Lenin, head of the USSR, expressed a wish for the circus to become ‘the people’s art-form’, given facilities and status on a par with theatre, opera and ballet. The USSR nationalized the Soviet circuses. In 1927 the State University of Circus and Variety Arts, better known as the Moscow Circus School, was established where performers were trained using methods developed from the Soviet gymnastics program. When the Moscow State Circus company began international tours in the 1950s, its levels of originality and artistic skill were widely applauded, and the high standard of the Russian State circus continues to this day.


My history of the French circus is brief, especially as it pertains to early 2oth-century circuses beyond the posters and programs seen elsewhere on this site. The first ‘closed’ circus (i.e. in a tent or other enclosed space, as opposed to outdoors) was started by an Italian in Paris in 1782. Following that, French circus artists generally followed the trends of the circus in the rest of Europe, which meant that by the early 1900s their main attraction was equestrian artists. Exotic animals had been introduced to French circuses in the early to mid-1800s, but were overtaken in popularity by the equestrian acrobats in leaps and bounds. But, as the automobile began to replace the horse, the equestrian artists started losing ground to the exotic animals and their trainers, as well as acrobats, aerialists, and clowns, who had re-gained the upper hand in popularity by World War I.

The Social and Political Climate of Andreyev’s World


This is a very, very basic summary of the world in which Andreyev lived; it is not intended to be comprehensive, as entire tomes have been written on these subjects. Rather, this is simply to give the reader a glimpse into Andreyev’s social and political surroundings.


Russia had been operating on a landowners-and-serfs society until the serfs were emancipated in the 1860s. The government was autocratic (ruled by a tsar), and had long been ruled by a mere handful of family dynasties. Once the serfs were set free, people began questioning the need for an autocratic rule, which persisted for several decades. After the disastrous Russo-Japanese war of 1904, national sentiment ran very much against the autocracy; finally, in 1905, then-tsar Nicholas II signed a decree establishing a constitution for Russia and establishing a democratically elected parliament, called the Duma. Over the next decade, this system wavered and finally collapsed, when the Bolsheviks (Marxists in Russia who supported Lenin and his brand of Communism – opposite them, and opposing Lenin because they deemed him too radical, were the Mensheviks) staged a coup of the tsar’s palace and effectively ousted the government. This happened in 1917, two years before Andreyev died.


Andreyev was looked upon with favor by the Russian intelligentsia (writers and critics who were seen as ‘elevated’ above common folk). Most of them supported the Bolsheviks, but most of them were also deeply conflicted by their personal desire to move art forward and have it undergo its own sort of revolution. They constantly asked the questions “Where are we from? Who are we? Where are we going?” – not just in reference to themselves as artists, but to Russia as a country. To them, art and Russia were inextricably intertwined; to advance one was to advance the other, and if one moved forward without the other, chaos ensued. Several writers – and painters, and musicians, and thinkers – left Russia during and after the revolution for various reasons, one of which may have been that they felt they could not handle the enormous change sweeping through Russia at the time.


Andreyev was one such writer. In 1906 he declared himself free of all political affiliation, wishing to distance himself from the restraint he felt in aligning with a particular side. He was admired for this, which is why so many were shocked when he turned to conservatism after the 1905 Revolution, severing his ties with a revolutionary group started by his close friend Maksim Gorky. When the Bolsheviks assumed control of the government in 1917, his conservatism deepened even further. Disgusted with the turn of events in Russia, he left for Finland, saying that it was “no longer possible” for him to stay in his homeland. (It was his vitriolic anti-Bolshevism that later caused him to fall out of favor with Soviet critics in the 1920s and 1930s) Interestingly, Gorky was put in charge of the Ministry of Culture in 1918, and made one of his tasks the employment and housing of the Russian intelligentsia. He wanted them to flourish, so he did his best to create spaces and institutions that would support them, including publishing houses, one of which made available A Book About Leonid Andreyev. (When he heard of Andreyev’s death, Gorky was inconsolable, in tears saying that Andreyev was his only true friend!)


Andreyev was never censored, nor did he feel the fear of being censored or threatened by the government. Rather, his relation to the intelligentsia seems to be one of reluctant acceptance and then rejection, clearly marking his desire to forge his own intellectual path as an artist. His long history of mental illness may explain his sudden shift to conservatism, but it can be said with confidence that if Andreyev was ever truly happy, the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 erased any trace of that happiness. He lived out his life in Finland mostly alone and disillusioned, feeling betrayed by his government and unable – and possibly unwilling – to see how even his own friends were working to effect changes that might have buoyed his spirits.