In his book “What is Art?” Leo Tolstoy wrote, “The business of art lies just in this,—to make that understood and felt which, in the form of an argument, might be incomprehensible and inaccessible. Usually it seems to the recipient of a truly artistic impression that he knew the thing before but had been unable to express it.”
Tolstoy articulated this concept late in life and it reflects a perspective he developed after a spiritual conversion in which he renounced his past work and became devoted to making challenging ideas accessible through stories, plays and philosophical writings.
Tolstoy’s short story “What Men Live By” exemplifies this approach. It tells of a peasant couple forced to grapple with the needs of a mysterious stranger and the change he brings to their lives. “What Men Live By” was adapted into the play “Michael” in 1917 by Miles Malleson, an actor and dramatist equally adept at playing a Shakespearean clown as he was at translating literature for the stage.
“Michael” is currently in performance alongside another Malleson play, “The Artist,” based on Anton Chekhov’s “An Artist’s Story,” which is a short story about a painter, Nicov, trying to rediscover himself on a trip to the country. “Chekhov/Tolstoy: Love Stories” is the title of the production that brings these two short plays together at the Mint Theater in Manhattan until March 14.
It’s an interesting pairing not only because of what these works say about Malleson but because of the contrast they draw between the original authors. Chekhov and Tolstoy were contemporaries who respected each other, but they also had profound differences. Chekhov remained firmly committed to the realistic approach that Tolstoy came to disdain. In an 1888 letter to a friend, Chekhov wrote, “In my opinion it is not the writer’s job to solve such problems as God, pessimism, etc.; his job is merely to record who, under what conditions, said or thought what about God or pessimism. The artist is not meant to be a judge of his characters and what they say; his only job is to be an impartial witness.”
His attempt at impartiality led Chekhov to take a searching approach within his work, as evidenced in “An Artist’s Story.” Malleson’s “The Artist” captures the open-ended exploration of character and ideas that Chekhov employed within this story. No tidy endings result from the conflicts and relationships that develop. Instead, we are left to ponder the philosophical disagreement between Nicov and young aristocratic Lidia about how best to help the poor, the love interest between Nicov and Lidia’s younger sister, Genya, and whether Lidia is right in trying to guard Genya from the advances of this older, wayward artist.
Within this searching approach, Chekhov does tip his hat towards an opinion, at least on one of the play’s subjects, yet his message is far less overt than the one sent by Tolstoy in “Michael,” which makes concrete assertions through the realizations of its characters. The fact that Malleson adapted such contrasting works demonstrates his eclectic tastes and intellectual curiosity. A socialist activist who espoused a libertine lifestyle, Malleson nevertheless handled the Christian themes in Tolstoy’s work with reverence. And the philosophical debate in “The Artist” includes a convincing defense of noblesse oblige as a better solution to poverty than utopian illusions.
Both plays share the same actors, who bring these stories to life with heart and a sincere search for each work’s meaning. Alexander Sokovikov commands the stage as Nicov in “The Artist.” Vacillating between self-deprecation and intellectual assertiveness, Sokovikov captures the combination of brashness and vulnerability characteristic of a bohemian artist.
Playing Lidia, Brittany Anikka Liu conveys the unrelenting sense of moral authority earned through her character’s humanitarian efforts. Anna Lentz as Genya is the more vulnerable sister, an open-hearted free-spirit capable of inspiring a man to change but susceptible to and sometimes in need of Lidia’s heavy-handed guardianship.
Malik Reed, Katie Firth, and J. Paul Nicholas carry the show in “Michael.” Reed plays Michael, the stranger who enters the lives of Simon and Matryona, a poor bootmaker and his wife. Reed captivates without speaking a word through most of the performance, first shivering from the cold and in need of charity, then as a savant-like loyal worker and, at times, an awestruck novice in search of transformation.
Ms. Firth and Nicholas team up for a diverting portrayal of Simon and Matryona, feuding one moment over money and bonding the next over shared values and hope in the future. Their ability to bring a sense of mystery to simple domestic interactions creates atmosphere that drives the story towards the need for a spiritual revelation. Adding to the ambiance established by Ms. Firth and Nicholas, Vinnie Burrows plays Aniuska, the elderly servant who delivers arresting reactions that draw the audience into the mystery as it unfolds.
In his 1888 letter, Chekhov references Socrates’ declaration that wisdom is evidenced by understanding how little one knows. Translating this idea to storytelling, Chekhov writes, “If a writer whom the crowd believes takes it upon himself to declare he understands nothing of what he sees, that alone will constitute a major gain in the realm of thought and a major step forward.”
This stands in stark contrast to the approach taken by Tolstoy later in life. But perhaps Socrates’ insight can actually strike a balance between Chekhov and Tolstoy. It’s not that Socrates actually believed he knew nothing. In Socratic questioning, for instance, he assumed an ignorant mindset to pose questions that would lead his students to discover wisdom. But he had to have some confidence in his own wisdom to know what questions might lead to fruitful answers. This seems a worthy approach for the writer because the most satisfying aspect of a great story is found in scenarios that awaken questions in need of profound answers.
Tolstoy’s intention to lead others to an understanding of his beliefs gives a refreshing sense of purpose to his later work, while Chekhov’s searching approach is a model of subtlety in the realm of realistic fiction. The pairing of Malleson’s “The Artist” and “Michael” in “Chekhov/Tolstoy: Love Stories” provides a unique opportunity to examine these two giants of 19th century Russian literature and their contrasting ideas of the writer’s role and the goal of storytelling.