Children of the Sun
by Maxim Gorky
Directed by Howard Davies
New version by Andrew Upton
National Theatre, London
Designer – Bunny Christie
Lighting Designer – Neil Austin
Music – Dominic Muldowney
Sound Designer – Paul Groothuis
Company Voice Work – Kate Godfrey
Staff Director -James Blakey
Protasov, a scientist – Geoffrey Streatfeild
Nanny, Protasov’s nanny – Maggie McCarthy
Roman, a labourer – Gerard Monaco
Liza, Protasov’s sister – Emma Lowndes
Yegor, a blacksmith – Matthew Flynn
Boris, the local vet – Paul Higgins
Melaniya, Boris’ sister – Lucy Black
Feema, Protasov’s maid – Florence Hall
Nazar, pawn-shop owner – Paul Hickey
Misha, his son – Matthew Hickey
Yelena, Protasov’s wife – Justine Mitchell
Vageen, an artist – Gerald Kyd
Yakov, a stranger – Jonathan Harden
Avdotya, Yegor’s wife – Rhiannon Oliver
Loosha, a new maid – Gemma Lawrence
Doctor – Lucas Hare
Villagers – Steven Blake Anna O’Grady Stephen Wilson Karren Winchester
Molotov cocktail hour. Writing a three-act play while imprisoned under orders from the Czar probably wasn’t as romantic as it sounds. But when the play is as good as Gorky’s Children of the Sun (premiered in 1905), the feat is impressive, all the more because it took him only a month. Gorky means “bitter” in Russian, and he had taken it as his pen name when producing reams of revolutionary journalism on behalf of the rising Bolsheviks. Yet this particular play isn’t bitter, revolutionary, or tilted toward gritty realism the way The Lower Depths is. That earlier play made Gorky world famous, luckily for him, since it took a protest by eminent foreign writers to coax the Czarist police to release him from the Peter and Paul Fortress, his new play drying on the page.
The National Theatre has done a great service by asking director Howard Davies to stage a series of mostly forgotten revolutionary-era plays, always with superlative casts and frequently enlivened by new adaptations that freely link the Russian originals with our own times of disquiet. Translator Andrew Upton pricks up your ears. Local critics may sniff at his occasional anachronisms (one doubts that “the fridge is on the blink” occurs in Gorky’s text). One can’t take for granted, however, Upton’s gift for making stage talk sound so alive. I suspect that Gorky found it easy to toss off this play because the situation — genteel landowners about to be swallowed whole by violent social unrest — was imitative of Chekhov. That, and a strong streak of Ibsenism in the “modern” topic of science bringing about a new order, keeps Children of the Sun from being a great play. It can’t help but be a fascinating one, though.
The plot is built upon a sturdy Victorian model, a family saga with criss-crossed lovers, buried resentments, old maids filled with longing (and no prospects), thwarted swains, and idealistic youngsters. It’s a template Oscar Wilde used often enough, and it was still breathing into the 1950s (see the well-made plays of Terence Rattigan, one of which, The Winslow Boy, is currently running a few blocks away at the Old Vic). A shudder is added by our knowledge that the Protasov family, lovely people gathering around the samovar, is doomed. Their cultivated chatter, highbrow tastes, and delicate sensibilities are like pitting butterflies against Armageddon.
The time is 1862, a transparent stand-in for Gorky’s turbulent days. A local cholera outbreak is superstitiously traced by the local peasants to the sulfurous smell given off by patriarch Pavel Protasov’s chemistry experiments. Pavel calls his privileged class “children of the sun” because their life is warmed by good fortune. Only his anxious invalid sister, Liza, sees the coming catastrophe, but Cassandra-like, she is blithely ignored (Liza writes poems in which the sun turns into the lower classes’ blood-red hatred).
Freeze frame. Although Gorky now figures in a few stray sentences somewhere in college literature anthologies, he has a monumental reputation in Russian (Gorky Park is one thing named after him — there was also a Soviet airplane). To prop up his celebrity as window dressing for Lenin and then Stalin’s regimes was very important. Gorky was a fervent Bolshevik (never mind that he later turned against Lenin and wound up, according to rumor, killed by the notorious state police, the Cheka, under Uncle Joe). Orphaned at eleven, Gorky ran away from home at fifteen, worked as an itinerant laborer, and became that rare thing, a writer of Zolaesque naturalism who was also a character out of Zola. You wouldn’t suppose that a nest of lounging artists and arty loungers would attract his sympathy, but the helpless characters in Chidren of the Sun are pitied and gently lampooned, while the roiling peasants are treated as threats to civilized life.
To everyone’s credit, this production wasn’t Cherry Orchard, the Sequel. We watch real individuals stumbling into their own psychological traps. I will only single out the Liza of Emma Lowndes, who skirted hysteria to deliver a frail, lonely truth-teller, and Geoffrey Streatfield as Pavel. A glance at a literal translation shows this self-absorbed scientist to be a selfish martinet, but Streatfield, wearing a Trotsky glasses and a red spade beard like van Gogh’s, makes him an innocent optimist, truly believing that the New Russia depends on his strange-smelling experiments, touched by dotty humor that becomes poignant as science gets steamrolled by violence. The interwoven social themes are like G. B. Shaw without smug facetiousness. Gorky manages to treat the emergence of women in the latter days before the Bolshevik revolution as well as the peasants’ pitiable ignorance and a clear-eyed judgment that the privileged classes had amassed their wealth on the backs of serfs. Everyone deserves what happens to them, and yet no one does — the system simply ground down the will to change.
Watching Children of the Sun, I felt twinges of moral compromise. Why should silk-swathed few who enjoy Pushkin be valued over the tens of thousands who died nameless in Bosnia, Rwanda, or Iraq? The artfulness that makes us sympathize with them is a trick — given the roll of the dice, we are more likely to have been born in a hovel than a manor house. The days of Gorky and even Chekhov may be fading, finally. In the last scene Upton and Davies contrive a different ending than the original. As the enraged peasantry attacks the Protasov estate, a crazed Liza rushes to let them in, and it is she who tosses a Molotov cocktail into her father’s chemistry lab.
A terrific explosion ensues with showering sparks and licks of flame (London fire marshals actually permit such a thing?), and all is lost. The redeeming element in Children of the Sun isn’t the special sympathy it evokes but the knowledge that once the privileged classes lost their grip, Lenin and Stalin slowly, mercilessly exterminated them. The world paid hardly any heed, and so fate decreed that these pampered creatures died as namelessly as the other victims of a blood-thirsty century without equal.