Gorky's 1905 play, Children of the Sun, is set among the intelligentsia of early 1890s small-town Russia. Protasov is a scientist (or at least a would-be scientist), who is convinced that his chemistry experiments will soon discover the source of life and point the way to the future. As with several Gorky plays, the relationships are all one-sided. Protasov's marriage has cooled and his wife, Yelena, is being wooed unsuccessfully by the preening artist Vageen. Protasov is unrequitedly adored by the rich widow, Melaniya, whose brother brother, Boris, a cynical vet, is loved by Protasov's sister, Liza. A few characters fancy the maid, Feema, but she runs off with someone else. Meanwhile the labourer Yegor beats his wife, Avdotya. While these characters discuss the values of art and science, beauty and truth, there are outbreaks of cholera in the town and the townsfolk blame Protasov's experiments. Soon the anger overspills and the house is invaded.
This is a play in a group of Gorky's most Chekhovian plays, Summerfolk (2004), Children of the Sun (2005) and Barbarians (2006). Earlier plays like Philistines and The Lower Depths (both 1902) were set among the downtrodden and the underclass. Later plays like Enemies (1906) were more explicitly political in their depiction of class struggle. These three plays, in the middle, have an obvious debt to Chekhov in their ensemble casts, upper middle class settings, their mixture of laughter and tears, their use of comedy and irony. Sometimes, as in Summerfolk, the debt to Chekhov is rather sardonic: the play feels more like a parody of Chekhov that an hommage. In this play, the characters spend much of the time imagining life in the future, like Three Sisters's Vershinin, but their predictions are the centre of a fiercely political critique rather than the object of despairing humour.
Not a great deal happens in the play. People pine after each other. Boris finally falls for Liza but she misses the moment and he kills himself, though, rather like Varya and Lopakhin or Irina and Tuzenbakh, it's not exactly centre stage. With Gorky it's a little more melodramatic, but there's still the sense of the emotional squalor of a missed moment rather than anything heroic. Otherwise, the relationships remain pretty stagnant; Melaniya declares herself to Protasov, but the passive hero doesn't get it; Yelena definitively turns down Vageen; Feema flirtatiously turns down the landlord's son and leaves. While much of the play appears to be devoted to the characters' discussions of science and art, this is clearly not the point; the nature of Protasov's scientific enquiry is conspicuously unspecific. The painting that the characters all discuss is never actually painted; instead we see a rather petulant small-scale work. It underlines the sense that these characters, for all their grand talk, their grand vision of the future, their apparently broad ideals, are actually deeply self-regarding and selfish. The stasis draws our attention to the play's outside: the real action, one senses, is offstage, the growing illness of the townspeople and their growing antagonism. At the same time, the moment where Protasov does express his vision of all humanity as children of the sun it's hard not to be seduced. I think it creates a sense of a utopian ethical horizon that is out of reach for these characters but nonetheless provides a broader perspective in which to judge their actuality.
I think the play has two key uncertainties in it that are invigoratingly complicating. One is that much of the discussion about art and science in the play feels like an analogue for a Marxist view of history (a view that Gorky held). I guess this is because we're so much less likely now to talk confidently about humanity marching towards a clear future. In 1905, I imagine, that kind of teleological view of history was so common across so many different things that it was sort of mentally cancelled out. Gorky only saw the differences between these discourses where we may well only see the similarities. But as a result, I wondered towards the end if Children of the Sun could be seen as a play about revolutionary ideas being pulled down by the ignorant mob rather than the complacency of a bourgeois intelligentsia ignoring the suffering of the real agents of history, the rural working class. The debate is further complicated because Naturalism, the tradition in which Gorky is most directly writing now, is avowedly a scientific form of theatre, yet science on stage is hard to sustain because the stage thrives not of objectivity, clarity, and logic but on implication, ambiguity and affect. When Ibsen writes An Enemy of the People, a play about a scientist trying to tell the truth to a hostile society (and certainly a comment on the hostile reception of Ghosts the year before), the play nonetheless can't help but draw attention to Dr Stockmann's naivety and arrogance and end with him adopting - I exaggerate only slightly - a kind of fascist view of humanity in which only the minority can be trusted to embody the future. It is a dramatisation of the role of scientists in society - and by analogy of naturalism - but also a ferocious and possibly inadvertent critique of the same. Here one might expect a discussion of science and art to be warmly considered by a playwright working within a tradition of scientific art; instead it seems to be deprecated but perhaps this is a kind of displaced abjection, attempting to disgorge the poison from the play's ideas, situating them as external to its meaning. But does it work? Is that a sustainable distinction?
A second aporia in this play is whether Protasov's experiments are in fact part-responsible for the ill-health of the townspeople. We know that the copper-lined vat that he has commissioned to hold the waste from his experiments has cracked, because of an either incompetent or corrupt deal on the copper from the entrepreneurial/capitalist landlord Nazar. We know that as a result, the chemicals have spilled into the water supply. The townspeople think that he is responsible and the bourgeois characters deny this. We know the illness sweeping the town is cholera, but do we know that the chemicals haven't, for example, attacked the people's immune systems? In our more environmentally-aware era this aspect of the play - as with the deforestation in Uncle Vanya - stands out to us in a way it did not, at least not in the same way, 110 years ago. If there is a possibility that the experiments, apparently conducted in the light of progress, universalism, reason, and humanity, have actually brought about mass destruction, we are in the realms of Adorno and Horkheimer's The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944, 1947). Writing in the immediate wake of the Holocaust, they argued that the Enlightenment - the flourishing of rational philosophy and politics in the eighteenth century in which progress, universalism, reason and humanity were guiding concepts - had promised liberation from authority through reason; instead it had brought a closing down of enquiry through mastery and knowledge. What is known is controlled, subject to power. Our sovereign rationality gives is confidence to declare everything knowable and thus everything controllable and, ultimately, we close off the 'enchantment' of things that would lead us to truer (dialectical?) knowledge. As they put it at the very beginning of the book, 'Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity' (Stanford University Press translation, 2002, p. 1). In their sense, one might say that Protasov has so swallowed the Enlightenment vision of science that he ironically no longer pays attention to the world and, in the process, destroys it. The play might be seen as foreshadowing the concentration camp and the Gulag, rationally-organised mass destruction on the basis of Enlightenment principles of progress.
I don't wholly swallow Adorno and Horkheimer's critique of Enlightenment; nor, do I think did they, really. The arguments against genocide are best articulated within the Enlightenment through notions like the dignity of the individual, the right of all people to equal moral regard, the obligation to treat people as ends not merely means, and so on. Yet there is clearly an debate to be had here about the value of abstract ideas in guiding particular actions. These are of particular pertinence to Gorky who would go on to be a leading ideologist for the Soviet Union, an enthusiast (in print, anyway) for Stalin, and a cheerleader for the grotesque policy of Socialist Realism, implemented in 1934, which did for many of his contemporaries like Bulgakov and Meyerhold. There are rumours, apparently, that Gorky's own death was on the orders of Stalin, after the writer threatened to leave the Soviety Union. Gorky lived to see the massacre of the Kulaks, the Ukrainian genocide, the deaths by famine elsewhere of 1932-33 in part due to inflexible Soviet policy, and the beginning of his systematic purge of the party. Was there, in 1905, a hint of the risks to come, the terror of not liberating but enslaving people through an abstract idea of freedom?
In this production, Howard Davies and Bunny Christie, as they did with Philistines and The Cherry Orchard, have moved the action of the play forward to the first decade of the twentieth century rather than the last decade of the nineteenth. The women are feistier, the technology is a touch more recognisably modern. The restiveness outside is more directly connected to the political stirrings of 1905 (though the resonance was entirely clear at the first performance in the Moscow Art Theatre, when the lead actor had to address the audience to reassure them that the people invading the stage were just actors). When Vageen brings in his painting of Yelena, it's a post-impressionist pastiche rather the symbolist painting I'd assumed they were describing. This clarifies the play, I think. Andrew Upton's version is very contemporary and Howard Davies allows the lines to tumble over each other. I'm not sure that the production always avoids stereotype - Nanny really is just Nanny - but Geoffrey Streatfield as Protasov, Lucy Black as Melaniya, and Paul Higgins as Boris in particular bring a vigour and authenticity to their roles. Bunny Christie's set is, as ever, a joy to look at (you kind of want to get on stage and explore it). The play begins by showing us the back wall, with a metal gate that a workman is struggling to fix. This is entirely drawn from the play, where the permeable boundary of the Estate is a literal and metaphorical concern throughout. I wonder if this responds to Gorky's conditions of life when he wrote this: he'd been imprisoned for his actions during the January 1905 uprising and I imagine him maybe unconsciously imagining walls and doors that you could burst through.
It's an enjoyable, low-intensity production (until the ending, which has been tricked up with an exciting but rather meretriciously explosive ending) though I think the play is a slow affair at the best of times. No characters is wholly likeable but, unlike Chekhov they're not always fully enough realised for us to care about them either. So it feels a rather chilly evening.