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.
Old shoes re-souled. There's a silent background to The Cherry Orchard for anyone born during the Cold War. The theme of social change, ambiguously written by Chekhov, took on a ferocious literalness after 1917. The niceties of the play are overshadowed by our knowledge of show trials, pogroms, and Soviet monsters to come. With all of that gone up in smoke, we find ourselves starting over. Now the opposite dilemma has appeared: what to do with a Russia sliding into irrelevancy? Putin is barely a mini-me compared to Stalin. The whole society, soaked in vodka and oil revenues, has been drained of significance: terror, class war, an ancien regime, elegiac memories, idealism, and even apparatchiks — all those soulful overtones gone flat-line.
Missing in action. A play is greatly fortunate when it receives a performance better than it is. The current revival of Arthur Miller’s family drama from 1947, All My Sons, needs that kind of help. You hear hollow echoes throughout of socialist catch phrases and pat Depression-era notions about the working Joe as mythic hero. Money stinks. Bosses are glint-eyed bastards. In the Soviet system such virtuous cant was backed up by totalitarian terror: if you didn’t write a paean to the crews who built a new dam in Omsk, the secret police were ready to stimulate your inspiration with a midnight visit. Miller wanted to be a good leftist and a great writer at the same time. We can be thankful that his artistic ambitiousness won out. Otherwise, All My Sons would be like a Christmas pudding studded with thumbtacks — as it is, the action stops for mini sermons on one-worldism, war profiteers, the corrupting decay of capitalism, and so on. Finger wagging isn’t helpful when you aim to be the working-class Sophocles. Who cares if Oedipus paid his charioteer a decent wage at the crossroad to Thebes?