Wassa Schelesnova (1935)- Maxim Gorki

Last night I saw an excellent play. It started off a bit clumsily, sort of too suddenly giving the audience little time to quiet down. But it was artfully stage-designed and overall very well done. Continue reading to see if this is something you’d be interested in attending.

I was especially impressed by the stage-design. A single red couch in the middle of a black stage that was at an incline, meaning the back of the stage was higher than the front and that the actors were basically leaning into the audience. I was worried the actors would fall into us any moment. In the background, behind super high double glass doors, a fake body of water glimmered with the occasional sparkle in fake sunlight that changed throughout the play to give the impression of passing time. I was spent a lot of time looking at the construction of the room on the stage, inclusive two doors, the double glass doors in the back, a safe door and a revolving door (again, I was surprised it didn’t slide on the incline onto the audience).

I also appreciated the ways the actors’ shadows appeared on the walls throughout the play. The design was very artfully, very well done with a lot of attention to detail. Auch ihrem Ehemann Sergej (Markus John) begegnet Wassa Schelesnowa mit kühler  Distanz und gnadenlosem<br /> Pragmatismus

The acting was good too, though my favorite actor was the one who played the brother of Wassa and the uncle of her two daughters. He seemed to me to be the best actor of the group, probably the reason he was given the lead male role. He played a drunk belligerent most of the time, but it reminded me of Chekhov, where the drunk character makes some of the most insightful comments about the other characters and people in general. He also provided most of the entertainment in what was otherwise a serious play.

At a superficial level, the plot goes like this: Wassa Schelesnova is the wealthy owner of a Volga shipping company. She took over the company when her husband, a former officer in the navy, threatened to gamble it all away. She is the typical capitalist businesswoman; think Ayn Rand’s Dagny Taggart, but in pre-Soviet Russia. Her husband has just been accused of statutory rape (am I the only one surprised that this existed in Russia in 1910?), and to save the company from the court appearances, scandal, and court costs, she asks him to take his life or threatens to do it for him. This is the opening act which sets the frame for the rest of the actions that put on display the destructive powers of “steel” people in “stone” houses, as Maxim Gorki writes. Wassa has two daughters, one is slightly retarded in her mental development and the other is disturbed and bitter. Both are the “canvas” of Wassa’s destructive character. The tension of family versus business is already simmering before Wassa’s daughter-in-law, Rachel, appears. It is at this point that the deeper motivations of the play are revealed.

While waiting for the play to start (I picked up my UniFrei [free] ticket at 1920, so I had about forty minutes), I looked at the mini bookstore that was set up near the coat check. I found a lot of good books, including a journal about Elfriede Jelinek that included an article by one of my current professors! The one I spent the most time on was a collection of short stories/novellas by Gorki. I didn’t even get to look at the stories (that had been translated into German) before I was distracted by the foreword by Stefan Zweig (Schachnovelle, anyone?). Zweig starts his foreword by listing the prominent Russian writers: Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and then pointing out to the reader that these are all Russian “elite,” so to speak. They all belong to a class of Russians that control the ueberbau, as Max Weber or other Marxist critics would write. Zweig continues to describe Gorki’s heritage and notes that he is one of the first Russians to write “from and for” the people. So ja, that’s the way Gorki is remembered in German culture. I was surprised to look up Wassa Shelesnova when I got home last night and see that neither the play nor the playwright are very popular in the U.S., but when I think about how my father joked about the “dirty rotton commie pinko bastard” play, I remembered that the U.S. had a much different history with communism than the Germans. Anti-capitalism doesn’t really fly in most U.S. circles.

This brief interlude in talking about the play was to help explain my concurrent analysis. When Rachel, who was apparently illegally in Russia after a forced exile to Switzerland, appears back in Wassa’s life and wants to get her son Kolya back, who was placed in Wassa’s custody when Rachel left, the tension between family and business reaches its peak. This tension is heightened by Rachel’s blatantly socialist remarks about the destructive power of material wealth etc. What’s interesting, however, is that Wassa’s answers to Rachel’s outrage at Wassa’s behavior (she moves among her daughters like a matriarchial, prowling panther, and she absolutely refuses to give up Kolya) seems just as convincing about the destructive power of people. One of Rachel’s insults basically labels Wassa as an animal, and Wassa’s response is that “ha! You call me an animal? Well, you need to know, people are much worse! They are the worst.” So it’s not really clear whether Gorki was anti-capitalist or anti-socialist, or just anti-“modern” wo/man. I look at Gorki’s own words to help me find an answer:

Why I wrote? Because I saw people before me for whom the sole purpose in life was to suck the blood out of people, thicken it with kopecks, and then glue the kopecks to rubles. Yet, I still bow down to these people because without their incarnations of sense, fantasy, and innovation, I don’t feel or see anything in this world. And if it is necessary to speak of something holy in this world, then the only thing that is holy is the discontentment of people with themselves and the strive to be better than they are; holy is their own hate for the plunder of their survival that they created. – Maxim Gorki as translated by DT

In the end, it is the fight over Kolya, whom Wassa wanted to inherit the company to, that ends up killing Wassa (I’m sure it’s a generally unhealthy lifestyle of stress, a lot of drinking and little eating that did her in too). I suppose one can say that Gorki was mainly concerned with the role the accumulation of wealth plays in the “modern” wo/man, and how it ultimately just destroys him/her.

A great way for a poor college student to round out the evening. I found myself wondering about my own socialist tendancies, or at least my anti-materialism.  Whether I am that way because I don’t have a choice, or because I want to be, is a different, too personal question to discuss here.

I was really happy to have the opportunity to see a Gorki play, and I look forward to the next few months where I can see a lot more plays.

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