Notes on Symbolism and Neo-Romanticism (WARNING: SPOILERS)


The critic Harold Segel in his book Twentieth-Century Russian Drama refers to the play as Romantic Escapism. He calls Andreyev a Neo-Romanticist, though he notes that Neo-Romanticists “disdained subjects drawn from contemporary life”; Andreyev broke from this with “HE”, which is very much set in the time in which Andreyev was writing.

Neo-Romantic plays can, for the sake of convenience, be typologically divided into several categories: allegorical with occult/supernatural themes, medieval with legendary themes; classical with mythical themes, plays woven from fairy tale and folklore; escapist with exotic settings in other times and/or spaces and/or societies; plays about art and artists and their places within the divisions of art in the cultural world at the time.

Segel says that the use of the clown isn’t accidental and is in fact a “tool of the antirepresentational concept of theater and drama”, which has its roots in the commedia dell’arte tradition of the 16th and 17th centuries. The setting of the circus isn’t accidental either; “to the Neo-Romantic mind, the circus was a sort of contemporary refuge from the ugly reality of the bourgeois world. The circus performers were artists in their own right and they had succeeded in creating a special world of their own, within the borders of society, yet at the same time distinctly apart from it and openly contemptuous of it.” Neo-Romanticists liked the circus because it offered an escape to the Middle Ages and even to the Middle and Far East. But, Segel notes, Andreyev’s circus in HE isn’t idealized or offered as a means of escape, but instead reflects the state of Andreyev’s mind at the time he wrote it.


One of the Neo-Romantic ideas at play in our play is that of HE as a sensitive person “who is infringed upon and finally overwhelmed by a less sensitive and scrupulous person, someone, in short, whom the author uses to represent the hypocrisy and venality of the bourgeois society.” Andreyev denies HE a successful escape from his persecution; HE finds temporary refuge in the circus, where through his slaps he can strike back at the bourgeois society that has marginalized him; “the slaps he receives represent a grotesque reenactment of the real plunder of his personal dignity”, but HE gets to return some humiliation to the audience based on their reaction to his slaps. But the refuge is only temporary, and HE ends up taking his own life.

Andreyev’s pessimism is “inescapable” here; in this world there’s no escape from vulgarity, crassness, or hypocrisy. The circus here is just a microcosm of the outside world, which none of the characters seem to realize – or, if they do, they willfully ignore this fact – with the exception of Consuela, with whom HE falls in love “as an ideal of beauty”, although “HE is still aware of the impossibility of any real communication between them”. That said, losing Consuela is for HE just as bad as being dispossessed by The Gentle(wo)man – he gets ‘robbed’ both ‘there’ and ‘here’ – and Segel casts his poisoning of Consuela as a selfish act since he can’t allow himself to stand by while “the object of his idealization” is “prostituted by being sold to a person from the other world”. Segel also casts the Baron’s suicide as an act of remorse, with HE being surprised that the Baron’s love for Consuela was so strong. Defiantly, HE declares his intent to fight the Baron for possession of Consuela’s soul in the afterlife.

Segel notes elsewhere in the book that Andreyev actually had very little to do with the Symbolists and that he “succeeded where the Symbolists failed at devising a theatrically plausible and at times even effective type of allegorical rather than symbolistic ‘cosmic’ drama that demonstrates perhaps better than the plays of any of his contemporaries the impact on Russian drama of Maeterlinck’s ideas on static drama and metaphysical tragedy (which Andreyev later repudiated).”

To the Soviets, Andreyev was totally unacceptable because he repudiated the revolutionary cause of the 1910s, to the point where he crusaded “venomous[ly]” against the Bolsheviks after the 1905 revolution. He fell out of fashion eventually and was regarded as a “once-popular but basically shallow writer of philosophic pretensions”, whose pessimism and taste for the macabre didn’t endear him to anyone much beyond the 1920s.

In general, Segel notes, “the ferment of Neo-Romantic drama spanned nearly two decades of the twentieth century and far outweighed the more purely Symbolist playwriting inspired by the early Maeterlinck”. Russian Neo-Romantic playwrights also had a predilection for legend, which may be where the mythical bits of HE originate.

Some more words from Segel on Symbolist drama:

He characterizes it as a revolt against Naturalism, and differentiates it from Neo-Romanticism and Theatricalism, and suggests instead that those three comprise what’s commonly known as “Symbolism”- each has subtle differences from one another, though. Symbolists-proper thought that “true drama… consisted not of the mirrorlike reflection of the world of the senses or in the theatrical working out of an intrigue assembled by the playwright in an often contrived, artificial manner calculated to achieve audience interest, but in the dramatization of an inner, spiritual existence. With respect to conflict, symbolism sought to shift emphasis from the external to the internal, which was now invested with a far greater and more universal significance… This intense preoccupation of symbolism with death led to a corresponding deemphasis of man’s physical life… the drives and ambitions of the physical life become ultimately inconsequential in the face of death.”

“Not only is everything earthly finally destroyed by death, reducing man’s physical life to an irrelevance absurd for its grotesque self-concern, but man appears no more than a helpless marionette manipulated arbitrarily by mysterious forces collectively represented often simply as Fate which his finite intellect is incapable of knowing.”

“A Symbolist drama had to reflect [the spiritual core of the work] by pointing up the insignificance of the mundane before the awesome infinitude of the supernatural and structurally by either eliminating or greatly minimizing external action.”