Friday, March 4, 2016

It's moving! It's alive! - Tolstoy's The Power of Darkness combats evil and good taste

With “The Kreutzer Sonata,” I was visiting an old enemy.  Completely new to me was Leo Tolstoy’s most famous play, to the extent that they have any fame at all, The Power of Darkness, published in 1886, the same year as “The Death of Ivan Ilych.”

At first the play looks like it might be a kind of peasant “Ivan Ilych.”  The father of a well-off peasant family is mortally ill at age 42, likely with some kind of cancer.  To my surprise he dies at the end of the second act; with three acts left, this is not a peasant “Ivan Ilych.”

He does not merely die at the end of Act II.  He is in his deathbed, and could die any minute, but his wife – his second wife, who married him for money and is having an affair with Nikita, one of their farm laborers – poisons him, or has Nikita poison him, at the urging of Nikita’s evil mother.  The widow can marry Nikita and they can all live off of his money.  Nikita celebrates by beginning an affair with the daughter of the peasant’s first marriage, who is now technically his step-daughter.  Another of the cluster of stories about lust, maybe.

This may sound a little soapy.  The difference is that it is hard to enjoy the outrageousness of the affairs and betrayals.  These characters are endangering their souls.

All taste of soap dissipates in Act IV:

Enter NAN (Nan is 10 years old).

NAN.  Mother!  Grandmother’s calling!  I think sister’s got a baby!  I’m blest if it didn’t scream!

ANISYA.  What are you babbling about?  Plague take you!  It’s kittens whining there.

Nikita’s mother and wife tell him that the baby died at birth.  Just bury it in the cellar. No one will know.  The baby is, in fact, alive, so while Nikita is offstage digging a grave, the two women argue about whether they should baptize the baby before burying it alive.

ANISYA.  Take it, I tell you! [Throws the baby to him.]

NIKITA [catches it]  It’s alive!  Gracious me, it’s moving!  It’s alive!  What I am to do…  [ellipses in original]

ANISYA [snatches the baby from him and throws it into the cellar (offstage)]  Be quick and smother it, and then it won’t be alive!  [Pushes NIKITA down]  It’s your doing, and you must finish it.  (Act IV)

Then follows an offstage – but just barely offstage – infanticide that is described in detail onstage, by character who are looking into the cellar and then again by Nikita when he returns to the stage.  I could barely believe what I was reading.  The scene is so awful that it is followed by an alternative scene (“the one usually acted”) that is still quite horrible, but at least the infanticide does not take place immediately offstage.

I am not used to reading Tolstoy writing about peasants, I am not used to him writing so clearly, beginning with the play’s title, about his sense of evil, and I am certainly not used to him writing in such bad taste.

No idea whether The Power of Darkness is a good play.  Any opinions about Tolstoy's other plays?

I am quoting from the Maude translation.


  1. Wow. That's....quite something. Ack.

  2. Ack! Aaahhh! Yugh! Etc. At least during that one scene, and to some degree in some others.