History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/Russian Post-WWII

Aleksei Arbuzov

Aleksei Arbuzov described the prevalent chaos during the 1941-1944 siege of Leningrad by Nazi Germany

One of the main figures of late 20th century Russian drama is Aleksei Arbuzov (1908-1980), particularly with "Мой бедный Марат" (My poor Marat, 1965).

“Having established the background of war and having brought his characters together, Arbuzov then concentrates wholly on the human drama, on the interplay of three different personalities. The first act is the best of the three and is generally the most appealing to audiences. The war and the blockade have infected the characters' lives with anxiety and insecurity, though these are never depicted directly on the stage. Instead, interest is focused on the now sad, now lighthearted personality adjustments of the two boys and one girl. While frightened by the sounds of war around her and grateful for Marat's comforting and providing efforts (before Leonidik appears on the scene), Lika is the most stable of the three. A fondness on her part for Turgenev also reveals a romantic facet in her nature. Leonidik becomes an immediate contrast to Marat. Whereas the latter dreams of becoming a great builder of bridges, Leonidik wants only to write poetry...Perhaps as a sign of an identity problem on the character's part, Arbuzov has Leonidik frequently refer to himself throughout the play in the third person. Although survival is the chief concern of the young occupants of the Leningrad flat, the mood of the first act is far from somber, even when the noise of bomb explosions shatters the outside silence. In an easy, skillful way, Arbuzov explores the adjustments of his characters to one another, especially the early awkwardness between Lika and Marat and their hesitancy and uncertainty about establishing emotional bonds. To the pressures of their unsettled environment are added the pressures of adolescence. Their speech reflects their sense of awkwardness and tension, of insecurity, and of fear. The dialogue between them is often short, choppy, and separated by pauses. Shifts of tone and gesture accompany the uneven posturing of adjusting personalities. Awkwardness and tenderness alternate...With the coming of the second boy into the apartment, a subtle competition for Lika's affection begins. Marat pursues Lika through a show of bra- vado and exaggerated masculinity, even going so far as to fabricate a story of his capturing a German parachutist. Leonidik, on the other hand, aware of Marat's prior claim on Lika's feelings and envious of it, tries to reach out to her by projecting his deep need for tenderness and affection...[In 1946], Leonidik openly admits his love for Lika. Marat, however, is afraid to surrender to his true feelings. He fears that by giving himself to love prematurely he will be unable to realize his life dream of becoming a bridge-builder, thus compromising his own self-fulfillment. Aware, moreover, of Leonidik's great need for Lika, he appears willing to make a "sacrifice" of the girl as an honorable way of resolving their personal dilemma. And so, because neither Marat nor Lika can articulate their real feelings for each other, Marat is the one who decides to go...[In 1959], it soon becomes obvious that Lika has long remained on Marat's mind and that he feels unfulfilled without her. Unable to restrain himself, Marat asks Lika and Leonidik if they are happy. When they evade the question, Marat confesses to Lika that in losing her he feels that he has lost every- thing in life. Frustrated, Marat storms out of the apartment, bringing the scene to an explosive end...Arbuzov uses the scene to argue, in the spirit of post-thaw Russia, that emotional dilemmas and conflicts, very much like existential problems themselves, are not, in most cases, resolved merely by the passage of time nor by changes in the external environment. Individual human dilemmas can be resolved only individually...Arbuzov suggests that in order to cope the first step in self-awareness is to recognize one's own strengths, weaknesses, and fears. This call for honesty and realism in self-appraisal as well as in the solving of individual dilemmas relates unmistakably to the appeal for honesty and realism in post-thaw literature. Marat's revelation of a recurrent dream to Lika and Leonidik in the last scene of the play functions as a recapitulation of the drama's central issue. In his dream, Marat sees himself standing on an unfinished bridge which he must complete. A strong wind is blowing. On one shore he sees the world after the war, the new life. But try as he might, Marat is unable to unite the two shores, to bridge the gap between childhood with its stability, cheerfulness, and shelteredness, and maturity where the individual must face his conflicts and responsibilities alone...The moment for Leonidik's self-awareness is at hand. Moved by a new understanding and by his love for Marat and Lika, who he now realizes are better suited to each other for their mutual self-fulfillment, he resolves to leave...With Leonidik disappearing into the wintry night, presumably still in quest of himself, and with Lika and Marat at last reunited in love, the play closes on a note of subdued optimism with the beginning of a new year, a new decade, and a new promise of happier days ahead” (Segel, 1979 pp 368-372).

"My poor Marat"

Marat discovers Lika living in his apartment during the bombing of Leningrad

Time: 1942-1959. Place: Leningrad, Russia.

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Amid the 1942 bombing of Leningrad, a young man, Marat, discovers a stranger, 15-year-old Lika, living in his almost derelict apartment. Lika had been living with her nanny while her mother was out at the front as an army doctor when their house was struck by a bomb and nothing was left. He permits her to remain and takes her to the city service center where he works so that she can be of use to others. One day, a frozen and exhausted youth, Leonidik, bursts into the apartment and collapses unconscious before the fire. He recovers and all three learn to live together. One day, Marat returns to the apartment with his arm bound because of a knife-wound, the result, he says, of an encounter with a German soldier whom he subdued, a lie Lika notes as he dresses it, because the wound does not resemble a knife-cut. Lika starts work at a hospital as Marat becomes dissatisfied with a life between the three of them and instead joins the army as an aviator. Four years later, Lika is still living at the same apartment as a medical student when Leonidik arrives from the war with an artificial arm. Over the course of two weeks, Lika becomes distraught at the lack of news from Marat at a time when he unexpectedly shows up, so that the three of them begin once more to live together. Nevertheless, over the course of five weeks, Marat suggests to Leonidik that he move away because Lika does not love him. Leonidik suggests that they should ask her about that. Instead, Marat decides to move away to Saratov. "And you?" Lika asks Leonidik. "I'll only go if you send me away," he answers. Lika and Leonidik decide to marry, she at work as a medical doctor, he as a teacher and writer. After receiving no news from him for thirteen years, Marat unexpectedly shows up again. During that time, he built bridge and married, but is unhappy and quickly surmises that Lika and Leonidik are unhappy, too. "I lost you and I lost everything," Marat tells Lika. "How is it all going to work out now?" "As before, only better," Lika answers. It is now Leonidik who decides to leave. "I just haven't justified your hopes," he declares to her. "You put so much on me. You even forgot yourself. But it was all for nothing." After he leaves, she looks out the window and sees him alone in the street. "Just don't pity him," Marat advises. "You must believe in him again, Lika." "Only don't be afraid to be happy," she answers, "don't be afraid, my poor Marat."

Lyudmila Petruchevskaya

Petrushevskaya described family turmoils surrounding Nikolai, a man with two girlfriends and only one of whom his parents approve

Another drama of note, “Uroki muzyki” (Music lessons, 1983), written by Lyudmila Petruchevskaya (1938-?), concerns interactions between two families living in the same building.

“The two families...parallel each there in their similarly inhospitable and claustrophobic apartments, converging to squelch any possibility that that the young Nina has of thriving. Children are a threat and an impediment; in this battle for space among the generations, they crowd you out. Marriage is debunked, as Granya wonders: 'why have some useless man hanging around...washing and cooking and all that'. At base, family life involves learning how to lie. The music sessions that Nikolai never completed come to represent his general failure” (Barr, 2001 p 433).

”Music lessons”

Although Fyodor paid for Nikolai's music lessons, the ungrateful youth may still marry Nadya, a woman Fyodor dislikes

Time: 1980s. Place: Russia.

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Anna worries that her neighbor, Granya Gavrilov, is in danger of becoming a target of revenge by her boyfriend, Ivanov, recently released from prison after drunkenly striking a neighbor with a lump of wood and being denounced for it by her. But Granya is unafraid. Anna next announces that Nikolai, the former fiancé of Granya’s daughter, Nina, has returned from the army to his parents’ house next door, an event celebrated by the Kozlov family: the father, Fyodor, the mother, Taisa, the maternal grandmother, Vasilievna, and Nikolai’s new fiancée, Nadya, living at a student hostel. The Kozlov family agrees to put Nadya up for one night, but although the couple intends to marry, the old ones dislike Nadya for her apparent laziness and shiftlessness. After Ivanov returns to sleep at their place for one night, Nina is stunned on learning that her mother agrees to let him stay. She weeps and gets up from the kitchen table reeling and crying out: “What will I do? What can I do? Help me, somebody.” At Nadya’s student hostel, Nikolai brings over his mother’s sandwiches and biscuits. As soon as Nadya sees them, she knocks on the wall and her girlfriends rush over to eat them all, marking his coat with flour. When Nikolai shows irritation, Nadya sarcastically comments in a metallic voice: “I’m sorry I have corrupted you, but you are not my type.” Offended, Nikolai stalks away. While Nina is wheeling the pram containing Galka, her baby sister, in their yard, Nina’s younger brother, Vitya, informs her that their mother wants her inside, but she declines, unwilling to return home with her father there. At the Kozlov apartment, they receive the visit of Taisa’s sister, Klava, and her husband, Mitya. Klava considers that Nadya is unworthy of Nikolai’s love. Although Mitya objects to her interfering in this matter, Klava is convinced that a better bride can be found. “Why look for her?” Nikolai asks. “She’s there already, standing downstairs, waiting.” As a result, Fyodor and Taisa agree to invite Nina up. They like her better than Nadya as their son’s bride. When Granya knocks to retrieve her daughter in view that the latter must go to work early the following morning at the dairy section of a grocery store, Taisa proposes that Nina live with them permanently, provided that her mother curtail her visits. Granya hesitantly agrees. Unlike Nadya, Nina volunteers to clear the table after eating. Three months later, Granya breaks her promise to avoid coming over at the Kozlov’s. She must hand Galka over to Nina on her way to the hospital to obtain an abortion. A distraught Nina feels forced to accept, although fearing that the charge may compromise her eventual marriage to Nikolai. Resenting to having been forced to yield her room to Nikolai and Nina and to be relegated to the kitchen, grandmother Vasilievna insinuates that Nikolai cares little for her. “You can’t know that,” Nina protests. Unexpectedly, Ivanov knocks at the door to request 3 roubles, since Granya left no food at the apartment. Fyodor can only manage to yield 2 roubles. More bad news await the Kozlovs after discovering Galka in Nina’s room and then hearing a knock at the door by a pregnant Nadya. With no evidence to support their claim, Fyodor and Taisa reject the notion that their son is responsible for her plight. After Nadya leaves and Nikolai arrives, they pummel him with advice, mainly that he should marry Nina. He shows little interest for any of it. Anna knocks to announce that Nina should come over to the Gavrilov apartment, because Ivanov has invited friends over who are liable to steal whatever can be stolen there. An unwilling Nina is again forced to oblige, after which Nikolai is again assailed by parental advice but unwilling to commit himself. Incensed, Taisa reminds her son how Fyodor sacrificed himself for his music lessons while Fyodor, even more incensed, takes out his belt and whips Nikolai, who only manages to laugh at him. He finally agrees with them in regard to Nadya, who attempted to poison herself. However, he shrugs his shoulders in regard to Nina, who is observed by Taisa in the hall with Galka in her arms.