LIFE WITH LEO
Art Work by Stephen Farris
Donald Freed’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych was given its world premiere in Granville, Ohio at Denison University—April 16, 2004. The play begins at its conclusion. We hear a dying man’s final breaths. This is followed by the announcement of his death: "Gentlemen! Ivan Ilych has died." We know from the outset (Tolstoy’s title, Smert Ivan Ilicha, is also a clue) that Ivan will not escape the fact of his mortality. In morphine-induced dreams, he remembers a syllogism from grade school: "Caius is a man. All men are mortal. Therefore Caius is mortal." The play’s movement is from Ivan’s denial of being Caius: "But I am not Caius!" to his acceptance of being mortal. By evening’s end an audience that converged from New York to L.A. will share that assurance. One wishes the residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue had also made the pilgrimage. When death and carnage parade as patriotism it is not viscerally believed. The Death of Ivan Ilych is believable death. This was a remarkable evening of theatre—an evening of life and enlightenment.
Freed is renowned for a venerated oeuvre of political dramas. His lifelong devotion to literature has also produced lesser known productions concerning Socrates, Shakespeare, Stendhal and Joyce. At the behest of the Jonathan R. Reynolds Playwriting Residency he was been given rein to expand his literary mise-en-scene to the world of Leo Tolstoy.
This was a dream production. Dan Bonnell flew in from Los Angeles to direct. The set design was by Brad Steinmetz, the lighting by John Edward Ore, the evocative screen presentations were by Christian Faur and Trent Edwards and the sound designs by Andrew Johns and Dan Bonnell. Period costumes were nailed beautifully by Cynthia Turnbull and Sarah Casebolt. Freed’s words are in no need of embellishment (the play would be a thing of beauty on a bare stage) but here in Granville it is wonderfully augmented by the creative team assembled at Denison.
The piece is composed of a prelude and 17 scenes. These record Ivan’s inexorable decline and demise. The scenes are further delineated by months, seasons, and hours of particular days. Ivan enters Scene 1 as a master of his universe – a member of the Court of Justice - a judge who will come to judge his life with the same contempt that Tolstoy had earlier judged his own. Ivan is played with a ferocious intensity by the celebrated Jon Farris, the former longstanding chair of the Theatre Department. His is a performance that never flags, achieved with an integrity that never falters. His wife is played by the arch (though ultimately touching) Megan Long and their daughter by the lovely Elizabeth Martinez-Nelson. Ivan as a child is played by Rankin Langley who also bows a mean cello.
Freed finds moments of terror that lie beneath the subversion of language. Ivan’s "no, no" trails off into "O, O, O." One is reminded of Lear’s "Never, never, never, never, never;" and Eliot’s: "O dark, dark, dark…." Farris made a minor career out of traveling down the dark corridors of Richard Nixon’s mind in Freed’s Secret Honor and later in Russell Lees’ Nixon’s Nixon. Here resignation is death and Farris’s silences are as harrowing as his howls.
From early childhood Tolstoy was well acquainted with death. His mother died when he was two, his father, seven years later, his grandmother, the following year and his beloved Aunt Aleksandra when he was thirteen. A young manhood of gambling and debauchery would prove as pointless a life as that which Ivan Ilych comes to reflect upon: "It’s all false from beginning to end… all lies." And as if to anticipate the miseries of Tolstoy’s concluding years with Sofya Andreyevna, Ivan asserts to his wife: "We despised each other, like all married people!"
It’s at this moment that Freed places Ivan’s confession of Tolstoy’s vision of IT: "IT would come before me—would look at me. The court chambers would melt away, and only IT was there. Filling up the court, filling up the world… IT would pop up from behind a screen staring at me! And my side would start its gnawing--like an animal inside me! – IT would be peering out at me from behind the flowers or the window sill. Aghh! Now—do you understand? Do you?... You must! This is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Not the "truth" of the court but the truth of life!"
That pronouncement recalls a concluding passage, at the beginning of his career, from the third of his Crimean War sketches, Sevastopol in August: "the hero of my story—whom I love with all the power of my soul . . . who was, is, and ever will be beautiful—is the truth." After completing his major novels, he underwent a profound emotional crisis. His wealth and fame seemed worthless in the face of "IT." He renounced the churches of Christianity. He abjured miracles, sacraments and the immortality of the soul. He used proceeds from his novel Resurrection to assist the relocation of the Dukhobors to North America. Nine years before his death he was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church. He returned to the faith of Rousseau and the noble savage of his beloved Russian peasant.
Here Freed and Tolstoy give us Gerasim. As lovingly played by Vasilios Yani Koumandarakakis, Gerasim is uneducated but clearly the wisest and most humane character in the drama. When Ivan ponders what he has to leave his son he contrasts his own shallowness with the simple gifts that a farmer (or perhaps a carpenter) might bequeath: "What have I got to leave? What tools have I left? What can I leave my son?" And then, in a refrain that runs through most of the Freed canon: "…how to dance the dance of privilege and power to play at being judges and Gods when we weren’t even men."
Although Tolstoy renounced Christ he never lost his affection for Jesus. Gerasim tends the dying Ivan with the tenderness of the Nazarene comforting the lepers. As Ivan descends into an imagined black bag held by his mother, Gerasim demands of Ivan’s demons: "Come out of the man." The Christian symbolism shifts to Ivan when Gerasim anoints his feet and calves with a soothing liniment.
In one of the most devastating moments of the evening, and, I have no doubt, one of the most devastating in recent theater, Ivan imagines that Gerasim is his mother inviting him into the black womb of death: "Ah, I’m in – I’m in – mamma, I’m in – kiss me on the mouth!" The stage directions read: (Gerasim kisses Ivan on the mouth. Time stops for Ivan Ilych. He looks into the youth’s face and he sees: all the truth of Gerasim’s love; then his mother’s visage; then, Christ’s; and finally, Gerasim, again …Ivan Ilych arches—stiffens—stretches out—dies.)
Richard Wagner begins his Ring Cycle with a single sustained chord. From it the universe of Der Ring des Nibelungend is unfolded over the course of four evenings comprising a near 17 hours of music. Director Dan Bonnell concludes Freed’s one act drama with a transcendent chord—also, inordinately sustained. In it one feels Tolstoy’s universe and Freed’s 17 scenes enfolded. Gerasim blesses Ivan and touches a leather button on Ivan’s death bed that had been featured in one of the dying man’s reveries. Gerasim then picks up Ivan’s commode and moves offstage. We are left with the enormity of the gulf between these closing images. A detail of life — a leather button, once featured in a memory—and a detail of death—feces returning to the Russian soil as the chord and drama concludes.
Tolstoy would be amused (if not appalled) by our culture of celebrity. In his essays on history he castigates the notion of great men sculpting their recorded eras. That the world would celebrate fame without greatness would have, undoubtedly, confounded him. To Tolstoy an infinite array of causes is involved in any single event. To attribute these to a celebrated few was a falsity. In this is much of the torment of his own celebrated mind and the reverence in which he held the simple and the unaffected.
Ivan Ilych is a powerful man who, in the face of dissolution, is reduced to whimpering incontinence. Count Leo Tolstoy was Ivan Ilych—so are we all. Tolstoy was the radical conscience of his age. He refused to support the violence that is the hallmark of nations and empire. He was a vast mirror into which the 19th century was invited to gaze. Eyes that surveyed the age of Napoleon anticipated the abattoir that would become the 20th century: "After that, after, ah…it all becomes dark and black—faster and faster—days and nights…nights and days scurrying past like black and white mice—speeding by in an inverse ratio to the square of the distance from death."
From the purview of a dramatic masterpiece equal to the literary one from which it was drawn, we are invited by Freed and company to contemplate the artless love of Gerasim, in anticipation of graves that in the 21st century will one day be our own.