Critics’ Notes on Myth, Christ, and Other Concepts. (WARNING: SPOILERS)

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS. IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW HOW THE PLAY ENDS, DO NOT READ BEYOND THIS POINT.

Behind the scenes of the play, the critic James Woodward says, there are “two levels of meaning: the social polemic of the work, and the metaphysical in which the action is presented in the form of myth.” The ‘here’ and ‘there’ distinctions are obvious; Woodward relates ‘here’ to talent and ‘there’ to culture, separating the two – talent is associated with innocence (beauty), and culture with corruption (intellect). Culture vulgarizes talent – we see this in the way HE approaches his craft – but “the mere existence of talent is a source of profound embarrassment to the purveyors of culture”.

On the symbolic meaning of HE, the Russian writer Fyodor Sologub likens HE to Christ, saying they both take on themselves the sins of the world; Woodward suggests that Andreyev had in mind Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Underground Man – the nihilistic, egotistic protagonist of Dostoevsky’s story “Notes From the Underground” – and the pleasure the Underground Man derives from being humiliated.  The following is quoted from “Notes From the Underground”:

“It is so subtle, so inaccessible sometimes to rational understanding that slightly limited people or even simply people with strong nerves will find it totally incomprehensible. ‘Perhaps those who have never received slaps will also fail to understand’, you add with a smirk, and thereby you politely hint to me that during my life perhaps I have also experienced a slap and therefore speak as an expert.”

But Woodward then goes on to claim that Andreyev “seems to interpret the role of his hero as a form of vengeance”, and says that HE’s willingness to be slapped by the other clowns “is a parody of his fate in the external world, a parody of the profanation of his ideas… he is presenting his audience with the spectacle of their profanation of their own lives.”

WARNING: REALLY, IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW HOW THE PLAY ENDS, STOP READING IMMEDIATELY. PLOT SPOILERS BELOW.

Woodward also notes that Andreyev himself – in a letter to the actress E.A. Polevitskaya (for whom he wrote the role of Consuela) – insisted that Consuela, and not HE, is the center of the drama. Woodward says that Consuela is the Gentle(wo)man’s antithesis, and “these two figures mark the two poles between which the other characters are grouped, and we might say that the path followed by ‘He’ runs from ‘The Man’ to Consuela.” When HE comes to Consuela’s defense, the play enters into the realm of myth, which more or less is absent in this adaptation – the idea of gods and goddesses rising from sea foam is touched upon, but not explored to the depth that it is in the original. Woodward likens Consuela to Psyche, and HE to ‘an old god in changed garb’ who descends to Earth to rescue her. He says: “The mystical relationship between them is intensified as the play progresses… [E]ven so, there is an absence of true harmony between them… The ornate, passionate rhetoric of ‘He’ leaves her breathless, but she is already yielding to temptation. Unable to elevate her above the evil which is about to take possession of her, ‘He’ poisons her.”

Woodward reads the final death scene as HE taking Consuela’s soul, and using the rest of the poison to speed himself along to heaven, where he can truly be one with her in the afterlife. But he ascribes the Baron’s suicide to the Baron having quickly ascertained all of this, and deciding to take his own life in order to get himself into the afterlife even faster so that he can ‘beat’ HE to Consuela and assume eternal possession of her first. Thus, when HE cries out ‘I am coming!’, he is actually saying it to the Baron, and not to Consuela. (!)


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