I. ON DOSTOEVSKY AS POETIC THEATER
a manifesto by the translator/playwright
“They [i.e. Bakhtin's concepts of intersection, consonance or interruption of open dialogue with remarks from the heroes' inner dialogue] emphasize the importance of producing a totality of ideas, thoughts, and words through several separate voices, each of which has a different sound. The dramatizer must not forget that the author’s object is the building of a theme on many levels in accordance with Dostoevsky’s consistent polyphony and dissonance. The dialogue nature of Dostoevsky’s novels, the dialogic vision of the world which permeates all his work, and the dialogic nature of his language make his novels particularly rich material for stage versions. But these qualities also oblige the theatres and the whole theatrical world to bear responsibility for adequate representation of the significance and profundity of the great artist’s word.” (Dostoevsky In Russian And World Theatre, p. 52)
I would like to propose a translation/adaptation into English poetic drama of Dostoevsky’s Possessed. Utilizing blank verse, a variety of other poetic forms, some modern, some traditional, rhymed and unrhymed, these plays in verse will be modern in spirit and will issue from a close, organic reading of the Russian text.
It is my belief that Dostoevsky’s prose novel translates fundamentally better into a poetic, mostly blank verse, drama than into a prose one. A paradox? Perhaps, but an unavoidable one nevertheless.
As every reader of the Elizabethan dramatists knows, the wonderfully flexible instrument we call the blank verse line or rather cluster of lines is capable of expressing everything ‑‑ or nearly everything ‑‑ on its essentially bare stage: Every emotion, every thought or concept, every kind of action, description, state of mind or state of irony,‑‑ there is nothing that cannot be rendered by it with subtlety or boldness.
It is my contention that an unbridgeable chasm separates a prose novel from the prose play based on that novel. The actual experience or act of reading at one’s leisure (and alone) a complicated 750 page novel ‑ whether in the original or in translation ‑‑ is fundamentally different from the experience or act of watching (and hearing, of course) a 75 ‑ 100 page prose dramatization of this same novel in the theater. The prose we read is one thing. The “prose” we watch and hear as spectators is something else altogether‑‑ even when the novel is inherently “dramatic,” as is the case with The Possessed.
The “drama” of the novel is, I think, a rather distant cousin to the “drama” on stage. In fact, I’d venture to say that any and all such 75 ‑100 page “prose” reductions of a work as artistically complex and technically demanding as The Possessed are doomed to failure, indeed, to ignominious failure because all such reductions cause irreparable damage to the organic multi‑faceted texture of the full‑length novel.
This inherent failure of a prose dramatization is brilliantly developed by Vladimir Seduro in his Dostoevsky In Russian And World Theatre (North Quincy, Massachusetts: Christopher Publishing House, 1977) an exhaustive documentation of Dostoevsky translations, adaptations, scenarios, readings, stage versions, specific performances and film interpretations in every language, on every continent, from the novelist’s earliest days to the 1970′s. Although occasionally marred by an unidiomatic style, this massive work on Dostoevsky performances is invaluable in demonstrating the complexity of Dostoevsky’s dramaturgy in both theory and practice. We come away from it with a deeper appreciation for the excruciating problems attending any attempt at staging his multi‑leveled works.
I have decided to quote from Mr. Seduro’s insightful discussion at length. The dramatizations in question are, of course, all prose ones. The time‑frame is 1910, when Anatolii Kremlev, representing many critics opposed to adaptations in principle, proposed that all stage dramatizations of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and other famous writers (other than by the writers themselves) be officially prohibited by law.
“The opponents of dramatization of prose usually allude to the laws of drama and stress the formal distinctions between epic narration and a scenic work. In their opinion, nothing can come from a dramatization but a series of illustrations for the novel, despite the most highly sophisticated and talented adapter and theatrical enactment. The novel loses its wealth of nuances, is impoverished and weakened in the theatrical interpretation, and even is distorted. Great art is belittled. Thus arises the problem of the relationship between the novel and drama genre. Undoubtedly, there is no need to deny the special property of dramatic work, that at its center lies a conflict which gives rise to a dramatic collision. In the drama nothing should interfere with the continuous, unfolding action, no retarding digressions outside the plot, whether descriptions, epic elements of information, lyric or historico‑biographical digressions, and so on, should impede the developing movement of the basic actions. Therefore the broader the range of events and more multi‑faceted and diverse a picture of life there is in the epic work, the more difficult it is, naturally, for it to undergo dramatic adaptation. Tolstoy’s War and Peace in this respect presents an infinity of difficulties, and many dramatizations of this grandiose work were doomed to failure thanks to the very form, composition, and contents which lend themselves only to the narrative manner of exposition. In the novel there is not one but dozens of dramas, hundreds of scenes and episodes.” (pp. 18‑19)
And if the latter observation is true for the epic, objective, stable narrative technique of Tolstoy, how much more is it true for the dramatically tortuous, unstable, subjective, indeed, multi‑subject structure of Dostoevsky’s art.
II. DOSTOEVSKY AS POLYPHONIC THEATRE
This latter peculiarity, that is, multi‑subjectivity, has been made famous by Bakhtin under the intriguing term “polyphony.” Going to the very heart of Dostoevsky’s structure and world‑view, it discloses the novelist’s genius as a kind of dialectic in space or set of simultaneous dialectics without resolution. This technique involves the juxtaposition and collision of “independent, unsubordinated voices,” whether expressed as the conflict between characters or as a conflict within the soul of a single individual (the phenomenon of “the double”) or, more likely, as both.
This is why Bakhtin considers Dostoevsky’s novels “great dialogues,” or dialogical novels, instead of the traditional monological novels, where all the characters of the novel are subordinated to a single consciousness, that of the narrator.
One may go further, as some scholars have, and argue that a Dostoevsky novel is less a “transparent” polyphony of dialogic voices , a great dialogue in which these voices participate in the creation of a totality, than an “opaque” polyphony of monologic voices that refuse to form a compositional whole. That is, Stepan’s humanism, Shatov’s Christ‑centered Christianity, Shigalov’s program for an egalitarian slave society run by an elite, Kirillov’s call for mass suicide as a way to God, the Mephistophelean revolutionary nihilism of Pyotr Verkhovensky, Nicolai Stavrogin’s aristocratic nihilism, Varvara Stavrogin’s social snobbery, von Lembke’s bureaucratic zeal, Marya Lebyadkin as a traditional “holy fool” [yurodivaia ], Captain Lebyadkin’s world‑view as the depraved “cockroach” deserving God’s grace, etc.‑‑ each of these is a monologue or rather a monomania seeking full realization, total submission, absolute domination. The result is not a “parliamentary” relativism, in which each opinion is ultimately reconciled to all other opinions, but an authoritarian arena in which each character, espousing an absolute truth, seeks to subdue and obliterate all other absolute truths. It is a kind of dialogue of the deaf, where the characters are at war with each other and with each other’s truths. However, that’s not all. Each is also at war with himself. I have in mind, for example, Kirillov as a gentle, loving young man who advocates a “theology” of mass suicide, Captain Lebyadkin as a scoundrel deserving of God’s grace (and our pity) precisely for being a scoundrel, Liputin as a miser advocating utopian socialist ideals, Marya Lebyadkin as an apoplectic half-wit who utters the high wisdom of a holy fool.
If all the characters in their self‑contradictoriness are at war with each other, then what, one may ask, is Dostoevsky’s ultimate point of view in The Possessed?
The answer is that Dostoevsky’s narrator is a dual figure: He is Anton, the genial, innocent storyteller, a minor character in the novel, a friend and confidant of Stepan, a link to all the other characters and a conduit for rumors, hearsay and information of all sorts, both spurious and authentic. But more importantly, he is Dostoesvky, the relentless, unsparing Christian tragic satirist, the fervent enemy of Western, rationalistic secularism and of nihilism as its Russian surrogate and of all souls who deny God and man’s instinctual longing and need for God. This second, un‑genial, thoroughly un‑innocent, razor‑edged narrator confronts us at every corner through the instrumentality of that same innocent Anton, his rumors, hearsay, suspicions, doubts, speculations and reports. The latter are among a whole array of devices utilized by Dostoevsky. In this respect, Dostoevsky, at once an artist affirming his Christian faith and a naive storyteller relating a variety of mutually exclusive absolutes, is reminiscent of the Chaucer of The Canterbury Tales, of Voltaire’s Candide and of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
In his study of Dostoevsky, Vyacheslav Ivanov called these polyphonic compositions “Novel‑Tragedies” and their author “the first Russian Shakespeare.”
Mr. Seduro elaborates on the Shakespearean dimension in Dostoevsky:
“The instinctive creative factor dominated the rational element and, like Shakespeare’s talent, contributed to his gift for “penetrating” into an alien “I” and experiencing the other “I” as a fully independent being. This is the source of the independence of each hero and the individuality of each separate world which is not dependent on the author’s will, with all its special logic and force of conviction. Dostoevsky seems to say to the true essence of the outer world, “You are!” and thereby overcomes extreme individualism by a great act of love. His understanding of the tragic responsibility of every person for everyone and everything deepened the catastrophic nature of the whole spiritual side of Dostoevsky’s world.” (pp. 44‑45)
Such a complex art, I posit, cannot possibly be captured by a dramatization utilizing prose, even if Dostoevsky had come back from the dead to do it himself.
The only way to recreate the organic whole of Dostoevsky’s masterpiece is to approach it organically, that is, to translate the organic prose fabric into an organic poetic fabric, to dismantle all of the major motif clusters of the novel, to select those motifs that the translator/playwright considers most crucial to his conception of the play and then to rebuild and reintegrate them into the new structure of his poetic drama. Nothing else will do.
My play is an adaptation that is built solidly on the original text. That is, where possible, I “merely” translated. This foundation accounts for anywhere from 25% to 50% or even more of the text. However, the translated part serves ultimately as a spring‑board for the invented (i.e. adapted) part as it concerns both the action and the dialogue. The transition from the translated to the invented part should be seamless, organic. This, of course, is crucial. A reader who is familiar with the novel in every detail would no doubt spot such “creative departures,” but even then, I hope, only when comparing the two texts analytically. In performance, when on a real stage or on the stage of his imagination, he should feel a natural, organic transition. Only afterwards should he say: “Hey, I don’t remember reading this in the novel.”
These invented creative departures are an attempt on my part to bring out on stage what is dramatically and theatrically implicit in Dostoevsky’s novel. Admittedly, that’s a lot of chutzpah, but that’s the whole point. The play either fails or succeeds on the basis of this technique. As an illustration of this principle, let’s look at Kirillov’s introduction on page 18:
“… somewhat absent‑minded, who is holding a toy soldier with a broken neck.”
Obviously, this is an invented detail. There is no mention in the novel of a Mischa or of a toy soldier with a broken neck. The text speaks only of a child tossing a ball to Kirillov. I’ve changed the child’s gender (a minor detail of little importance in the novel) and “orchestrated” this detail in order to bring out the dramatic possibilities of this scene (page 21, middle).
The same holds true for Nicolai, his chorus and his oracles in rhyme, for Marya’s song, for the utopian verse of Stepan’s “revolutionary” circle, etc. This is what I mean by an organic adaptation. It should feel right to the spectator/reader, regardless whether he has ever read the novel or not. On the other hand, a prose script would be no more than a mechanical compilation of motifs. Stripped of all harmonic/orchestral resonance, it could never hope to overcome its inherent fragmentariness, with the result that a performance based on such a text could only fail ‑‑ by definition. Of course, a poetic drama might also fail, but then only if the poet fails, that is, if his art fails to measure up to the task.
For example, in presenting Nicolai Stavrogin to the reader, the narrator of the novel gives us a long list of his scandalous sins (Chapter II, section 1). The list runs the whole gamut including insubordination, duels to all sorts, outrageous acts of perversion, sado‑masochism and depravity. The narrator recounts three of Nicolai’s more puzzling escapades, namely, dragging a certain general by the nose, sexually explicit public dancing with Liputin’s wife, and biting the Governor’s ear.
Quite obviously, no playwright could or should try to incorporate all of these ingredients in his play, whether in the plot or in the dialogue. Not only would such a foolish attempt at “novelistic totality” sink the play. More importantly, the dramatic possibilities of the theatre as a unique art form would never be realized. The whole play would choke on its own excesses, on its own insufferable “completeness.”
Therefore, a playwright should select the strand or strands from the complex offered by the narrator (Dostoevsky‑Anton) and, developing this strand dramatically, incorporate it organically into the symphony of the play. The “dramatic totality” of the play consists of all the selected strands of each character as they resonate with each other within the selective body of the plot. I have thus focussed most of my characterization of Nicolai on his perverse love relationships with Marya Lebyadkin, Liza and Dasha. The challenge is to make Nicolai’s “love” theme resonate with many of those other aforementioned motifs (i.e. sins) omitted during the initial process of selection. The same, of course, holds true for all the other principal or secondary characters.
We can better understand this if we look at Othello. Shakespeare’s Iago, as complex as he is, is seen almost exclusively in his Mephistophelian role as the tempter who seeks to destroy Othello by all means. Everything he does, says, thinks is focussed on this obsession. We know little else about Iago, dramatically speaking, because the playwright has selected Iago’s relationship with Othello as the pivot of his drama. All development moves relentlessly forward to the consummation of the plot. The point is that while Iago is perceived by the spectator in terms of the “destroyer of Othello” motif which Shakespeare has selected for his theme and characterization, the latter constitutes only one, albeit key, motif from amongst a whole cluster of motifs implicitly associated with Iago. Shakespeare then proceeds to develop this key “destroyer of Othello” motif dramatically through Iago’s manipulation of Roderigo, Cassio, Desdemona and just about everyone else in Venice.
The result is that Iago’s destruction of Othello resonates with a whole complex of nefarious thoughts and deeds that go beyond this one act of destruction to encompass a whole universe of evil, which we, the spectators, along with the inhabitants of Venice and Othello himself, have only caught a glimpse of. In other words, we experience this greater universe of evil in Iago (Iago as the Devil Incarnate) implicitly through his one key strand (“destroyer of Othello”) because Shakespeare has developed it in such a way as to make us feel the full range of its resonance with the other implicit strands of Iago’s character and personality (the numerous other unknown dark deeds of his secret “biography,” ) as well as with the key strands of the other protagonists , e.g. Othello as “primeval vengeance,” Desdemona as “pure innocence,” Roderigo as the “foolish, unrequited lover,” etc.
Finally, the selectivity of motifs makes possible a transcendence from high tragedy to myth. The visible gives way to the invisible: Othello, Iago and Desdemona incarnate the archetypes of the hero, the eternal feminine and the Devil.
Similarly, the love theme in Othello is the foundation on which Shakespeare builds the aesthetic, moral, social and metaphysical structure of his play. He does this partly through such linguistic and rhetorical devices as metaphor, parallelism, repetition, rhyme, rhythm, symbolic leitmotifs, classical and Biblical allusions, etc. as well as by structurally incorporating the destruction of Othello and Desdemona by Iago within the cultural framework of Venice (Act I and, by implication, Act V). Thus, the love and love betrayal theme resonate with a whole complex of related themes such as tragic cathersis (aesthetics), moral responsibility (ethics), Christian salvation and the afterlife (religion), appearance vs. reality (philosophy) and, finally, to an archetypal dimension in which the Medieval‑Renaissance hierarchical order is reduced to primeval chaos (myth).
In The Possessed, we encounter a similar structural complexity as it evolves directly or indirectly from the primal root‑theme of revolt against God, which leads inescapably to perverted love, nihilistic values and political revolution.
Coleridge claimed that all great poetry issues from the organic “imagination,” while the “fancy” is reserved for the lesser category of the merely mechanical and contrived. I contend that a prose stage version is doomed to the lower category of fancy, while a poetic rendition might well succeed on the higher plane of the imagination.
I. STEPAN VERKHOVENSKY AND HIS CIRCLE
(Enter alone Stepan Verkhovensky, a fine representative of the Russian liberal intelligencia. In his long, black frock coat buttoned‑up nearly to the top, Stepan walks on stage like a dandy. He is sporting a soft, wide‑brimmed hat, a white tie and a cane with a silver knob. Tall and lean, clean shaven, with hair down to his shoulders, he looks very handsome and imposing. Yet, Stepan is easily given to childish fits of laughter or tears. He is living on Varvara Stavrogin’s huge estate not far from Moscow. Her long‑time friend, confidant and tenant, he had once served as tutor to her son Nicolai Stavrogin, who has recently returned from his European travels. Pyotr Verkhovensky, Stepan’s son by his first marriage and raised by relatives in the country, has joined Nicolai with the purpose of stirring up the fires of insurrection and revolution. Stepan is as yet ignorant of his son’s return. The time is the 1860′s, not long after the emancipation of the serfs by Alexander II in 1859‑61. This epochal event in Russian history was inspired in the final analysis by Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War of 1855, from which emerged in many enlightened quarters a growing realization that the salvation of Russia depended on the abolition of serfdom and on radical reforms along Western “rational” lines.)
(Spotlight. Alone. Alternately arrogant and obsequious, thunderous and sobbing)
I’ve been forgotten (Mesdames et Messieurs),
Banished… from the orbit of their thoughts.
I’m of no use to them (vous comprenez?)
I’ve shouted out my truths on every square‑‑
My lips, like leeches, can command no more‑‑
Gulliver, too, returning from abroad,
From the crumbling shores of Lilliput,
Harangued the streets of London all night,
Waiting in the wings to crush their bones.
It’s no secret,
(in a loud voice like a circus ringmaster)
Madames et Messieurs,
(his voice suddenly faltering)
It’s … no secret at all‑‑
I’m a dissident,
(voice rising triumphantly)
A mighty bear driven to a sad exile,
(Tears well up in his eyes)
Hunted down from one end of Russia
(Strikes a pose as a sacrifical victim)
To another (comme je souffre toujours!)
A sacrifical victim on their altar…
(his shoulders stooping, he points up with his finger)
Up there they fear me, up there
Every other minister, every clerk
Quakes in his boots at the very mention
Of my persecuted name. I’m no mouse,
I’m ready to step forward, to do battle
For a glorious mankind…
(oui, mesdames, …
pour la beauté, pour l’ideal)
(Another spasm of cholera. Beaming radiantly)
To bring to fruition the universal dream
Of human regeneration, of eternal beauty,
Of the Sistine Virgin shimmering down,
A penumbra of spots erupting from the sun.
Oh, what I wouldn’t have done for the cause,
Were it not for them ‑‑
(pointing up with his finger)
for their petty decrees,
The whirlwind of circumstances that fell
On my bare head.
(sobbing intermittently as if carrying a great burden))
Oh, beauté eternelle,
Had you not come between me and my career,
Had you stayed put in your exalted niche,
In the Sistine chapel of the drooping sky, …
(regaining his composure and tilting his head back in a gesture of heroic defiance, he speaks dramatically and with ever greater forcefullness)
I would have set out against the tide
Like a knight‑errant storming the citadel
Or a noble athlete scaling Mount Olympus!
Oh, Holy Reason, constant as the North Star,
Queen of all who hunger for your lofty rules,
Show me the way, the truth, the steady light,
Which I, a mere insect, crawling…
(N’est‑ce pas, mes chers amis? Mais oui!)
(pointing to a book in his hand)
Do you know this book? No?!… Up there
They are still trembling from my brilliance‑‑
Yes, you are looking at The Revolt of Babylon!
A work surely not for the faint of heart!
Were it not for armies of spiteful clerks,
For envious ministers and fanatic saboteurs,
My valiant heroes would have surely long since
Put the finishing touches to a tower of hope,
Of cosmic harmony, love and understanding.
(Nous nous comprendrons en ce jour‑là)
They’ve forgotten me, banished me quite
(sobbing intermittently again)
To wander forever under the stagnant stars
Of Varvara Stavrogin’s luxuriant estate.
(in a tone of Biblical prophecy)
Victory shall be mine at the end of days:
shall stoop down to reap my light,
They shall come to me on tattered knees
To plead their case to the toiling masses,
(J’adore le peuple. Moi, je le comprends!)
They will send for me, ‑‑ yes, from there,
The good news shall flash like a comet
Through the obscure minds of our land.
Crushed with grief, racked with noble pain,
I shall make my move, at long last,
Overleaping, with revolutionary zeal,
The walls of prejudice and human rot.
(Quelle cause! Quelle grande idée!)
(in a spirit of self‑justification)
I’ll become the dissident I long to be
And sing of the universal bond of love
In Siberia’s comforting mountains of ice.
(Lights reveal a table with five or six chairs at upstage left. Seated at the table are the members of Stepan’s “revolutionary” circle, including Shigalov, Liputin, Shatov, Virginsky and his wife. Shatov sits apart from the rest, brooding and muttering to himself. Shigalov, the morose, aloof theoretician of the group, ignores the rest as he periodically intones his program of scientific utopianism. The rest are playing cards and drinking champagne)
Pining for love eternal
Across the steppes we march.
Inspired by hope fraternal,
Mankind lays a new arch.
In a Russia crawling with privilege,
With pride, class and high birth,
We’ve cancelled the bonds of marriage
To sing hymns to a new earth.
Still harping on Babylon, Monsieur Stepan?
(embarrassed, with a lump in his throat)
Babylon? Hmm, yes, for those days…
(Shigalov, who, until now, has been looking over what appears to be a thick notebook, looks up at the revelers. They stop whatever they are doing and pretend to be paying deep attention to him. Shigalov’s voice rises as he intones his philosophy of the future socialist society)
Ladies and gentlemen, the end is near!
Having consecrated myself to meditating
On the coming of the new social order,…
(Everyone involuntarily snickers at Shigalov’s pretentious, and solemn speech. Then the revelry resumes. Virginsky ignores Shigalov and addresses Stepan)
Come, Stepan, regale us with the old.
The new day rises from ashes cold.
I’ve come to the solemn, final conclusion
That all previous founders of social systems
Have been fable‑mongers, dreamers, saints‑‑
Fools all ‑‑ every one of them ‑‑ who parade
Their self‑contradictions before the world,
Who know nothing about the strange beast
We call man….
(Again Shigalov is ignored by the carousing and mocking revelers, who continue playing cards. Stepan talks over Shigalov’s head as he responds to Virginsky’s challenge).
Ashes cold? Where’s your sense of beauty?
You nihilists grasp at the minutest clump,
The dust, the fine, microscopic grain.
As for myself‑‑
We shall never cease our labors
Nor abandon our sacred cause.
Let’s beat on our ancient tabors
And build the Ideal with our laws.
Plato, Rousseau, ‑‑ that’s for the birds!
Let me depict the scope of human science,
Show off the elegance, the very soul
Of my materialist heaven. Come, join me
For ten evenings, so that I may impart…
(At the word “impart”, everyone bursts out laughing. Infuriated and crestfallen, Shigalov slumps back in his seat and pouts. The revelry resumes. Stepan gets up, picks up the copy of his Babylonian Tower and struts up and down the stage, all the while continuing his card‑game with the rest of the circle, except for Shatov, who seems to be nursing a wound. Sullen, bashful, awkward, given to fits of anger, the 25‑year old son of one of Varvara’s serfs. Shatov had once belonged to Pyotr Verkhovensky’s revolu‑tionary circle . After eloping with a governess to Switzerland, he had traveled to America with Kirillov, barely eking out a living as a manual worker. Returning to Russia, he disavowed his earlier socialist leanings. He is less a believer than a would‑be believer, longing for a God he cannot quite accept).
With us it’s mere child’s play‑‑
The moonlight or sun in May.
We wield the hammer till eve‑‑
Our utopia is no make‑believe.
The clouds will open, the storm will break,
Men and women will fall in adoration
On their knees.
The Eternal Feminine in us,
The pinnacle of man’s striving,
The dialectic we’ll discuss,
The gods and their contriving.
Soon we’ll grasp the Absolute,
Metamorphosing from a brute.
(now quite intoxicated)
Leap with us over the abyss,
Plunge with us into the deep,
Building utopia with a kiss,
Grasping God in our sleep!
Men, speak not of passion!
Ours is a life of sacred song.
We are not subject to fashion‑‑
The Absolute transcends all wrong.
(General applause except for Shatov. Stepan collapses on his chair, throws down two cards on the table and exclaims)
I raise you fifty kopecks!
(Pause. Then in pitiful self‑mockery)
I’m longing for death’s sweet balm,
For nothingness, for endless calm.
Cut off from God, from the earth,
I dread life and despair of rebirth.
(softly, with repressed anger))
Never, never have you suffered…
(like a shark)
… the people ache‑‑
Their cumulative misery cries out for the knout,
For our brotherly dagger.
(stops his revelry, looks at Shatov in mild stupefaction)
Good man, what are you babbling about?
Isn’t God kind to you? Come, a drink!
(offering him a goblet of champagne)
You’ve never… suffered for the people!
(silent for a long time, then continuing incoherently but with deep emotion)
You’re a dying planet, old Stepan,
Straying from its decrepit orbit.
Watch out for the overbearing sun.
(He stops, turns around bashfully, paces up and down, furious but self‑controlled, sits down on his chair, buries his head in his arms, then gets up again, walks intimidatingly towards Stepan and shouts out)
I’m not dazzled by your spotless rhetoric.
What about God, you fool, yes, God?
(amused by Shatov’s impertinent question)
Dieu? Of course, ‑‑ mais distinguons,
I set little store by a servant’s giddy God
Or a squire’s otherworldy “just in case.”
Monsieur, I do not burn for salvation.
(contemplating his glass goblet, then waxing poetical)
God knows himself through me like wine,
As He did in Goethe, a luminary and seer .
Ah, those were happy days, my Shatov,
When Dionysius and his pied pipers
Would lead men and women in a trance,
In a song of beauty with lilting refrains,
From cities of wild abandon to forest idylls,
Each praising nature in his own idiom.
(with biting sarcasm)
Virginsky, Liputin, you are all half‑baked,
Stampeded like a herd of orphan lambs
Into the jaws of a revolutionary machine.
(barely containing his fury )
What do you luminaries know of our people,
Of its drudgery, its rounds of love and hate,
Or of its God! You and your Dionysius!
He who has no people has no living God.
You have cut yourself off from the center,
From reapers submitting to the miller’s wheel,
From workers pushing the levers in a ring.
All of you who have left the circle of toil,
Riding the yoke of others.
(picking up on Shatov’s charge)
Well, of course, it’s all from idleness, my men,
From aristocratic indolence‑‑ yes, yes,
The landowners’ shuffling, the idle throng.
Our Russia suffers under this idle weight,
Like Atlas. We know nothing of the art
Of lofty struggle, of living by the sweat
Of one’s brow,‑‑ We need to push on, to strive,
To each carry our burden, to take charge,
To labor mightily…
(examining his cards)
I’ll match you and raise you fifty!
Promethean fire?!… Put out your cigar,
Stepan. How naughty…
(Puts out his cigar. In grand rhetorical style)
I’m crushed like a cockroach…
There is fire yet in my shattered bones
To light the groping minds of Russia’s youth,
(starts sobbing softly, regains composure, then resumes in grand style)
To break new ground, to chart their course
To a new childhood…
And how’s Pyotr,
Have you heard from your only son?
Not since I’ve sent him into the Siberian night,
To the safety of Nature’s wintry den.
Where is he, Varvara, my prodigal son?
If only I could turn back the clock,
I’d happily take him in my pale arms
And show him the vast wounds I’ve borne.
(with exagerrated bravado)
Then shall I charge like a knight in armour
Against the citadel of …
(cuts him off unceremoniously)
Enough, my child!
… Tsarist power!
How well I remember the talk of a new age,
Of iron logic, of revolutionary proofs,
Of conspiratorial twists, of men and gods.
(angrily but then in a pleading voice)
Stepan Verkhovensky, for many months
I held my ears close to the infirm ground
And heard their rumbling voices draw near,
While Petersburg’s fortress of royal right
Was inundated by revolutionary ideas. ‑‑
Oh, Nicolai, my son, I tremble to think ‑‑
And you, my noble child, Stepan, my dear,
On your knees you pleaded to tame them,
To show them a hero’s stern mettle.
(alternately crying and howling like a wounded animal)
I meant to charge like a battering ram
Against their fortress…
A tall order for a delicate knight, my child.
Yes, I said, why not break in like a thief
And reap the bounty of the Tsar’s high reward?
Ugh! What a fool‑‑ what beastly nihilists!
Idolaters who revere the earth’s golden dust.
(speaking softly with meek and pious demeanor)
“Banishing God from gentle Nature,
We’ll crown the new society
With jewels of science and piety,
With progress and a legislature.”
Arina (Virginsky’s wife)
“The earth tilts east or rather west,
The mighty Tsar sits on his throne.
The people’s cause is no mere jest.
Mankind’s lot is etched in stone,
In raised fist and flesh and bone.”
“Pushkin’s classic beauty we disdain,
His lofty rhymes make little sense.
The boots of peasants are humane,
While art’s devices cause offense
To hell with unholy pretense!”
(joining in arrogantly as he reminisces)
“In a world of dust and asteroids
There’s no use for fathers and Tsars.
We’ll expose the priests in our tabloids‑‑
(coming to his senses, he finishes this nihilist protest song in a whisper)
Inspiring terror like bete noires!
Mocking the generals’ four stars!”
end of scene
II. CAPTAIN LEBYADKIN AND VARVARA
(Varvara Stavrogin’s estate, specifically, her drawing‑room. Sunday afternoon. All principal characters present and waiting impatiently for Nicolai Stavrogin’s return home after a long absence. Enter Captain Lebyadkin, a Falstaffian character with mustache and side‑whiskers, part buffoon, part folk philosopher. Forty years old, tall, curly‑haired, corpulent, with a crimson, bloated face, blood‑shot, cunning eyes, and with cheeks that tremble with each movement of his head, he has come Intent on wooing Liza. His unexpected appearance at Varvara’s in evening dress, clean underwear, and black gloves stuns all present. He holds his right glove in his hand while his left glove, tightly drawn over (but not yet buttoned) covers fully half his fleshly left “paw.” In this left “paw” he holds a shiny new round hat. Obviously, he is making his appearance in public with this hat for the very first time. While not drunk, as is his wont, he seems to be in the hazy state of a man who has suddenly awoken from a drinking binge of many days. One has only to shake him by the shoulders for him to fall back into his state of stupor. In attempting to burst into the drawing room moments earlier, he had stumbled against the door mat. Marya Lebyadkin, his half‑wit sister, bursts out laughing at this clumsiness of his. Glancing viciously at her, he gets back on his feet and marches directly up to Varvara Stavrogin. Then, his voice thundering forth like a trumpet, Captain Lebyadkin commences his “oration,” only to be repeatedly cut off by Marya’s hysterical laughter and Varvara’s imperious voice)
Madame Stavrogin, I’ve arrived at last!
My good sir, kindly take your seat!
I’m sure to catch your every nuance,
Your shifting eye, your twitch, your move,
Over there by the wall! Your name?
(in a loud, boisterous voice)
Don’t mind my stance, my good Lady,
However obtuse. My name is Captain Lebyadkin!
Oh, Madam, I’ve come…
(backing away, hands shaking nervously)
Please, Lady, don’t mind me, please,
My trembling hands. Look not, Madam,
Into the pits of my eyes, so bottomless.
(Marya laughs hysterically)
I’ve come, Lady Stavrogin, I’ve arrived.
Answer me, Captain Lebyadkin, if you please:
Is this creature,
(points to Marya)
this wretched figure,
Who commands my heart ‑‑‑ your sister?
Is she your own?
(swaying back and forth in shame)
Yes, most certainly, very assuredly,
But she is…
(pointing with his finger to his head)
Yes or no, that’s all I demand of you.
Yes, yes, she’s under my brotherly care,
Which she has fled. She is, you know…
(again points to his head)
And just why, tell me, you impetuous bear,
Have you come here, “arrived”, as you say?
I’ve come for her, for helpless Marya,
To take her from this circus. Get it?
(bursts out in uproarious laughter at his own stupid joke)
My goodness, Lady, don’t you get it?
You vile, impudent…
Is she your sister?!
Indeed, Madam, she’s escaped, slipped
From under me.
Oops! You know,
(pointing again to his head)
I’ve come crawling on all fours
To express my gratitude to Your Worship
For your magnificence and kind regards,
For your bravado and most noble impulse
On behalf of my most unworthy Marya.
Next to this horn of plenty we’re nothing‑‑
Me and my Marya. Oh, how very true!
Oh, Marya, my dearest, my wretched…
(Marya laughs hysterically. Her laughs alternate with sudden, inexplicable “fits” of silence)
We are, I own, nothing, mere brutes,
Beasts, slime, freaks, forgeries, Lady!
(At this point Captain Lebyadkin tosses a bag of coins into the air before Varvara’s eyes. They fall onto the ground at her feet)
Here, Madam Stavrogin! Here they’re!
Here are my 20 rubles. They’re all yours!
(Losing the last ounce of self‑possession, Captain Lebyadkin tries desperately but vainly to count out the bills in his hands. To his profound dismay, one green note slips out of his wallet onto the carpet in zig‑zag fashion)
Twenty rubles, Madam Stavrogin!
(His face beading with perspiration, Captain Lebyadkin is wracked with pain. Seeing the note on the floor, he moves to pick it up, but, feeling shame, he abandons the effort).
A tip for your lackey! Let him remember,
Let him remember Captain Lebyadkin, by God!
I will not permit this! You scandal‑monger,
You scum! How dare ?!
In that case…
(He bends down to pick up the bank notes. Blushing, he approaches Varvara and offers her the money)
How dare you, you ungodly beast!
My lady, won’t you understand? From you,
Only from your hands would she take it,
(rolling his eyes)
she doubles the blessed portion
Of your philanthropic work.
If that’s your business, go down below,
Where my lackey will gladly sign you up.
Now, please, sir,
(Captain Lebyadkin steps back)
That’s better. You need not fear me
Nor my displeasure. How do you feel?
Well, to tell you the truth…
Why will your Marya feed like a sparrow
From my meager hands and only from mine?
Madam, your hands…
The secret, my lady, is buried deep within…
Where? In my hands?
Yes, yes, Lady Stavrogin, in your hands,
But I won’t release my sparrow, no way,
Not for the life of me! I won’t let her fly!
I won’t! Captain Lebyadkin is clever, so clever,
I’ve got eagle eyes! So watch out!
The secret, Lady, is there in your hands!
What are you babbling about?
You fed my sparrow your fine crumbs,
But my lips are sealed forever!
Sealed forever? Go on. Spit it out!
Because my sparrow is your… guest!
Tell me, Lady, have you ever suffered?
Well, if I do say so myself…
(oblivious to her presence, he pounds on his chest)
Lady Stavrogin, Oh, lady dear,
My heart is spilling over like a brew,
A fiery witches’s brew. God Himself
Will stir the pot until it’s quite ready
And pour His judgment on our heads.
And then His trumpets shall blare
To announce the Last Supper…
(Marya is laughing hysterically at this mixture of crudity and blasphemy. Barely sober and losing practically all self‑control, Captain Lebyadkin feverishly paces the room, gesticulating wildly, ignoring others’ entreaties and rebukes. Liza’s presence makes him giddy. Stepan is trembling, while Shatov maintains his previous detachement and gloomy pose. Strangest of all, Marya suddenly stops laughing, becoming horribly sad instead. She leans her right elbow against the table and follows her brother’s declamations. Only Dasha seems calm. Varvara, of course, barely conceals her revulsion for Captain Lebyadkin.)
Enough! This is nothing but mad allegory!
I want to know: Why? Why this frail sparrow?…
(He stares wildly at Varvara, at the others, at the audience)
You feed my sparrow crumbs,
And then you ask “Why?”‑‑ Nature groans,
The whole cosmos roars and belches like a pig
With this indigestible “Why,” when every insect,
Every worm, every scoundrel and rogue cries out:
“Why?” “Why?” For seven thousand years,
Every prey and predator, every goat and tiger,
Every beast has knocked his head…
(demonstrating with his head)
against this word
Like a drunken gate‑keeper‑‑ and you ask “Why?”
God knows why!
(He remembers his keys, takes them out of his pocket, jangling them like a child)
I have come for you, Marya, my frail sparrow,
To take you to the safety of our nest and cage.
Beware the beaks of these vultures…
Why a vulture?
My dear fellow, so ardent, so mischievous,
Open your heart like a child’s primer,
And spell out Marya’s secret tale
In crude x’s and y’s. Let me pity her,
Let me honor her simple form.
Her form? And why not a worm?
Get it? Worm, form!
So you think you can worm the truth
Out of me?
Well, nobody worms his way
Into Captain Lebyadkin’s heart! No, sirrie!
A worm? What worm ? Are you mad?
No, Madam, I’m just that… a worm,
Now hear me out. I won’t be long.
Did you hear that: “I won’t be long!”
Get it: I am a worm. In fact, good lady,
I’m not long for this world, no sir!
So hear me out:
“There once was a cockroach, tum‑tum,
Proud and delicate of substance,
Who fell into a bottle of rum, tum‑tum,
Empty save for flies who, by chance,
Found lodging in its drum, tum‑tum.”
You foul swine. I’ll have you whipped…
By all means, here’s the bottom line:
“It wasn’t long before the flies cried out,
Yelling and squealing at this lout,
Who pushed them around and about.
The butler then walked into the room
And dumped the bottle ‑‑ boom!boom!”
Enough! How dare you, you swine!
Yes, but did the cockroach complain?
Did he murmur or moan or protest,
And that’s my bottom line, I attest.
You see? He didn’t mind the rain,
He never groaned under this test‑‑
Oh, what a noble soul?!…A swine?
Why not a swan? That sounds better.
That was my swan song‑‑ to the letter.
(enters the living‑room and announces)
Ladies and Gentlemen, Nicolai Stavrogin!
(Consternation. Captain Lebyadkin stands transfixed.)
end of scene
August 1, 1996
 based in part on the historical Nechayev, who represented a debased, tyrannical version of the utopian, egalitarian, self-sacrificing Nihilist generation of the 1860′s, of whom the gentle, unselfish Kirillov (the person, not the theoretician of mass suicide) is the supreme embodiment. One may consider Lenin as an incarnation of Nechaev/Pyotr V., i.e. as the usurper who stole the revolution from idealistic Bolsheviks who, having committed violence under his command, now saw that same violence turned against themselves.
 In my opinion, Dostoevsky rightly omitted Nicolai’s confession (“At Tikhon’s”) from the published version of The Possessed. As Professor Victor Terras has observed, this would have transformed Nicolai from the mysterious Great Sinner into a melodramatic, petty criminal.