The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1943
"Distant Point" and the Soviet Theatre
"Distant Point" and the Soviet Theatre
"I remember him as a young man interested in the widest aspects of art and literature, and I remember him most of all as the author of one flawless play that moved me, with my fifteen years' experience as a dramatic critic, rather more than any play has ever moved me on any European stage. It was the voice of the future speaking, with the trained and cultured accent of the past."
(Hubert Griffith, in a memoir of Alexei Afinogenev.
The Critics who have railed at the conscious didacticism of the Soviet theatre, who have so hideously misconstrued the "Art is a weapon" Formula, will be confounded by Afinogenev's "Distant Point." They will have nothing left to do but to sneer, and even that will be very difficult. For it is not a new theory only which pervades the play, but a new life.
Alexei Afinogenev played his part in shaping this new life. He was only thirteen when the Revolution came, but in 1920, he tells us, he held sixteen different jobs simultaneously. In altering nature, we alter ourselves; and between Afinogenev's first play. "Robert Tim," and his last, " Distant Point," there lies a period when the author and the society he depicted were alike transformed. In this play "Fear," Afinogenev shows the new life being built up in one country; by the time "Distant Point" is staged the new life is an actuality, and the scene of the play is the whole world. "We all have only one Distant Point," writes Matvel in the book he presents to Glasha, "a world page 8 in which all men shall live their lives in freedom and happiness...." We all think of that, live for that.... to the very last second of our last hour. And when death comes—why, we'll die alive!
The adolescence of Soviet drama was a stormy period. Western intellectuals were alarmed at the excessive use of dominating slogans; they deprecated the interference of the State in the artistic field; learned enemies of the Soviet continent rejoiced at each successive crisis and denunciation. They forgot that a new art, like a new society, does not grow up overnight like a mushroom. They forgot—or perhaps they did not want to remember—that the growth of a new art involves experiments and excess. "Distant Point" at one blow makes their condemnations absurd, and their lugubrious sympathies merely pathetic.
Is it too much to claim all this for one play? No if it is considered as a symbol of the present stage of development of Soviet art. Speaking generally, to appreciate Soviet drama up until a few years ago, one had to be a Communist, or at least know a little about the history of the new regime. There was a tendency to dump the reader down in the middle of the Five Year Plan, or some such specialized period, and leave him rather bewildered over the whole business. To understand "inga" or "Tempo," one had to realize that "Trotskyite" and "Deviationist" were not just words to frighten the children with, and this feat of mental legerdemain was impossible to most Western critics. The Soviet people, who were fulfilling the Five Year Plan, and who in the normal course of the day's activities had to fight against Trotskyites and deviationists, applauded the new drama that was written for them, but the Western intellectual, peering from his ultra-democratic ivory tower, could discern nothing on the Soviet horizon but bogey-men and inordinate praises of Stalin.
The abandonment of the Meierhold Theatre project was an objective symbolising the end of experimentation for its own sake. The cultured traditions of the Moscow Art Theatre and Stanislavsky, with just a touch of Meierhold here and there, form the basis of the most modern work. It has now become trite to say that "Distant Point" owes much to Chekov; it is also the fruit of those years of experiment which led to the present synthesis.
The setting of "Distant Point" is significant. The time is the present—not the days of the Civil War as in "Days of the Turbins" and many other plays. The scene is not a factory, or a collective farm—indeed it is almost as far away from any manifestation of construction work as it could possibly be. The action takes place on a tiny wayside railway station of the Trans-Siberian Railway, called "Distant Point," and in the woods around it. We are introduced to the very ordinary station staff—Koriushko, the station master, and his family; Vlas, a former priest; Lavrenti, a linesman, and his wife Glasha; and other characters, each with a distinct and most minutely portrayed personality. Zheniz, the station master's daughter, is an irrespressible. Youngster, a member of the Young Communist League ("The number of my party ticket is nought-nought-fifteen-twenty-three"—that is Zheniz). Lavrenti hates the isolated life; he wants to go to Moscow and be written up in the papers as a Hero of Labour. He says:
"One can't live and die away in the wildrness... like an unknown pine tree... when around you there's constant great deeds and heroism... The Cheliuskin North-Pole people were saved.... people fly into the stratosphere... all sorts of records are being beaten all the time. They build canals, they build Dnieprostroy, towns in the Urals.... Everyone wants to be a hero, and I have to eat my heart out here.... There's no one even to write about us.... nobody to notice us.... That's how it is."
To this little station comes excitement and glamour, in the shape of a real live Red Army general, Matvei, whose coach has to come off at Distant Point for repairs. The way in which life at Distant Point is changed by his coming is the theme of the play. Let this not be misunderstood—there are no miraculous conversions, unless Lavrenti's final decision to stay at Distant Point can be classed as a conversion, and there are no long speeches praising the Soviet regime. And yet when the coach finally leaves, the inhabitant know practically the fact which they realized only in part before Matvei's arrival—the fact expressed in the following dialogue between the old pointsman Makarov and the disillusioned Vlas:page 9 Makarov:In the old days.... mmmm, in the old days... I was a pointsman and signalman on a railway.... Vlas:And now? Makarov (slowly):Now I'am a pointman and signalman on the same railway... but the signals and the railways and everything in the whole country now belongs to me. That's the difference.
Possibly the most interesting part of the work—one of the underlying themes, in fact—is its presentation of the Bolshivik attitude toward death. Matvei, it is disclosed, has an incurable disease, which will cause his death within three months. Vlas, with faith neither in the God he has rejected nor in the new regime he despises, is haunted by the fear of death, although he would be the last to admit it. In one of the finest passages of the play the two confront one another:Vlas:You'll have to die anyway... Wherever there's death. Matvei:Even, if necessary, we'll have to pass through earth. Vlas:And why should it be necessary? Matvei:Why?—because we're building our happiness here on earth, and while we're building it we've got to defend our earth and our happiness. Vlas:And if you're killed in the process? Matvei:Then there'll be Lavrenti here still—and Glasha—and Petka.... Vlas:But what does that mean to you? You'll not be here to see it. Matvei:What if I'm not? I won't be here to-morrow at the station! But the farm for breeding sables will be here! And Glasha will be starting her search for gold.... And the more I can bring off and accomplish in life for the happiness of those close to me, the longer I shall live after death. Vlas:And you've got lots of people close to you? Matvei(with the ring of a trumpet in his voice):Enough! More than plentry! The workers of the entire world....!
It is as Matvei says, a long way from his God to that of Vlas. Matvei does not seek immortality, but is glad that he will live "in the minds and memories of living people, in what I've done here on earth."
The liberalism of the play will astonish those pedents who have not read " Squaring the Circle." Says Lavrenti: "To compare people like Morae with Budyonny!—the Party people, except Matvei, are equally immature, although there is a certain charm in their immaturity. Vlas makes certain subversive remarks concerning the method of dealing with class enemies through the muzzle of a gun, and Matvei does not endeavour to explain things to him. All through there are magnificent opportunities for potent preaching which the author carefully passes by. He is concerned with the New Man, and such preaching as there is, is merely a commonplace statement of actuality, and not the conscious propagation of ideas.
You get to like these people, Gennadi and his guitar and his simple little songs grows upon you, even if the guitar is, according to Lavrenti, a petit-bourgeois instrument. Glasha, with her Yakut eyes which can read secrets in the broken twig on the pathway, with serene mysticism and the poetry of her people, is a fine creation. Even for Vlas we feel a bit sorry. They're a mixed lot at Distant Point, But finally we agree with Koriushko, who says, as he is saying goodbye to Matvei:
"And if you don't forget all about it, tell them in Moscow, Matvei Ilych... that you passed the station "Distant Point"—and that things were all right there.... as they should be with Soviet railwaymen. You don't have to remember our names... they don't matter... but simply tell them that the station 'Distant Point' is linked with the whole country..."
"Be content in that station of life," Does the play say no more than this? Lavrenti decides not to seek honour and glory in Moscow; he gives up the idea of becoming a Hero of Labour or of flying to the North Pole. He stays at "Distant Point" railway station, 6,782 kilometres from Moscow and 2,250 kilometres from Vladivostock, with his wife and child. In a capitalist country, such a page 10 "moral" in a drama would be reactionary. But in the soviet Union, it is progressive, and if you can't understand why, you'd better read this play and find out.
Alexei Afinogenev was killed by a Nazi bomb which fell on Moscow early in November 1914. He was 41 years of age. His death is not the least of those crimes against humanity for which the Fascists will finally have to account.
R. L. Meek.