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‘Life and Fate’ at the Lincoln Center Festival

Posted on Aug 19, 2009
Life and Fate

Sergey Kuryshev and Daria Rumyantseva in Maly Drama Theater’s “Life and Fate.”

By Eunice Wong

(Page 2)

Dodin narrows his focus to the evil of anti-Semitism. The driver who brings the Shtrums back to Moscow says to them, “You see, you’re Jews, but you’re good people.” Viktor’s colleagues at the scientific academy accuse him of wallowing in “the bog of Talmudic abstraction.” Characters walk downstage and open their arms, directly addressing the audience as they speak of the injustice “we Jews” suffer. This concentration on one evil, plucked from the vast palette painted by Grossman, is unfortunately myopic. Grossman was wary of nationalism, or of those who defined themselves, and especially elevated themselves, through ethnic or racial identity. Jewish victims, he said, should be regarded as human beings, not part of a separate nation. “[Chekhov] said something no one in Russia had ever said,” he wrote. “He said that first of all we are human beings—and only secondly are we bishops, Russians, shopkeepers, Tartars, workers.” 

Dodin sadly reduced probably the most important chapter of the book, a manifesto on kindness and goodness written by the “holy fool” Ikonnikov, into a fleeting rant by a prisoner in a group argument. It is impossible, with the severe abridgment of the text, and the placing of private and deeply pondered thoughts into a public forum, for the stage version to have a particle of the impact of the original chapter. One of the many omissions was the following passage, the moral nucleus of Grossman’s book:

I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious teachers, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning.

The meditations on good and evil are, admittedly, exhilarating for their ethical and intellectual flights rather than for their dramatic worth. But they are the heart of “Life and Fate.” Any stage adaptation that omits or truncates them is anemic and untrue to Grossman’s vision.

The final series of images in Dodin’s adaptation are undeniably powerful. The gas chambers are eerily, wordlessly evoked, followed by a tableau of Anna, a ghost, sitting alone amid overturned chairs, dirty dishes and scattered heaps of clothing—the ruins of an abandoned, interrupted life. But it is an image of desolation.

“[Human history] is a battle,” wrote Grossman, “fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.” Grossman ended his novel, after almost 900 pages of war, atrocity and the great struggle with evil, with a young, unnamed couple walking hand in hand, in the early morning, through a snow-covered forest. “They were together—and that was enough to make everything round about seem beautiful. And it was spring.” In the novel’s final scene we are reminded that life, even in the wake of unthinkable horror, grows new shoots of hope and resurrection. The ice in the forest is cracking, the snow is melting, and “there was so much light, it was so intense, that they seemed almost to have to force their way through it. … It was the past that slept under the snow, beneath this cool half-light—the joy of lovers’ meetings, the hesitant chatter of April birds, people’s first meetings with neighbors who had seemed strange at first and then become a part of their lives. … Everyone was asleep—the strong and the weak, the brave and the timid, the happy and the unhappy. … Somehow you could sense spring more vividly in this cool forest than on the sunlit plain. And there was a deeper sadness in this silence than in the silence of autumn. In it you could hear both a lament for the dead and the furious joy of life itself.”

The quotations are from a translation by Robert Chandler (Harper & Row), New York, 1980.

Eunice Wong is a full-time mom. In her other life she is an actor based in New York. Her Web site is

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