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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

A Hero of Our Time

at Adams House through next Saturday

By Jerald R. Gerst

ONE OF THE CHRONIC problems of House drama, I've always been given to understand, is that it too often allows its ambitions to carry it far beyond its resources--monetary, physical, or personal. A Hero of Our Time is very ambitious. It is Steven Shea's first major attempt as a play-wright; it contains a large cast (eleven leads); and the physical obstacles to be overcome in staging it (something over twenty changes of scene) are enormous. That is part of the reason why, though it falls a bit short of its ambitions, its success is still considerable.

The "Hero" is Mikhail Lermontov, a literary contemporary of Pushkin who was much affected by Pushkin's life, his work, and particularly by the circumstances of the duel in which Pushkin is killed. The action of the play moves back and forth from Lermontov's own life and his more-or-less conscious attempts at emulating Pushkin to the life of Gregory Pechorin, Lermontov's idealized self and the protagonist of his novel, which bears the same title as the play.

The role of Lermontov, as Shea has drawn it, is exceedingly difficult because it bends back upon itself. The actor must be, sometimes almost simultaneously, Lermontov, Lermontov creating Pechorin, Pechorin as a character in his own right, Lermontov manipulating Pechorin--and in the end, perhaps, Pechorin manipulating Lermontov. The perspective is at times a bit like looking into one of two opposed mirrors, as you try to sort out the images and assign them to the figures, and a lesser actor than Bro Uttal would have made himself very dizzy in the attempt. It is no mean dramatic feat to slip from Pechorin's supercilious mastery of events to Lermontov's grotesque helplessness, but Uttal manages it as easily as taking off his coat.

In contrast to Lermontov stand Doctor Werner, his good friend, and Varvara Bekhmetyeva, his mistress, who pass through the novel unchanged. Michael Tratner, as Werner, plays from this vantage point with great skill, creating a physician who is solid and sensible, a man who has his head screwed on the right way. In doing so, he becomes the sorely-needed link between Lermontov's reality and his illusions, a function Lermontov becomes increasingly less able to fulfill himself.

WHILE SIMILARLY adding continuity, Robin Solit is able to simulate all the characteristics and mannerisms a generally abused mistress should have, save only outraged pride. Once she has mastered the indignation of a woman scorned, her Madame Bekhmetyeva, will be a completely believable figure.

Because, both in the novel and as her self, Ekaterina Sushkova is intellectually overpowered by Madame Bekhmetyeva, there is a natural tendency to underrate the actress portraying her. It is a measure of Michael Curtin's achievement that Ekaterina-Princess Mary tends to embarrass the female members of the audience with her simplicity and naivete. Perhaps in their defensive intellectual self-consciousness they failed to appreciate that her Ekaterina is the only sort of girl a man like Lermontov could "love," precisely because she would never threaten him intellectually.

Of the other figures that crowd about Lermontov-Pechorin, the most striking are Czar Nicholas and Bekhmetyev, the head of his Secret Police and Varvara's husband. James Burt makes the Czar a clever and proper bastard, and an amusing one. Jason Kanter, as Bekhmetyev, manages to create the figure to which, in some ways, Lermontov aspires, a man who lives by "intellect alone," devoid of emotion, manipulating and destroying the lives of others with absolute control.

To overcome the staging problems, Burt and Shea have come up with a number of tricks, some more successful than others. The film clips of the Decembrists being busted and Pushkin being shot, and Bekhmetyev's slide-show for the Czar, ease the action over places where words would have been too bulky. Similarly, the projected title for every scene is of great aid in following a very complicated plot.

HOWEVER, at the point where the shift of action is potentially most confusing, where Lermontov transfers himself into Pechorin and begins the novel, the staging could have afforded to have been slightly more obvious. Lermontov could have directed the stage-hands in their placement of props, as he did somewhat in later scene changes, and in so doing more firmly and clearly establish his new position as the director of events and the master of fates. As it is, the realization of what Lermontov is about, and why it is so important to him, dawns upon you a little too slowly.

But when it finally does, the question that has been forming in your mind--why Shea decided to write about Lermontov and not Pushkin--begins to dissipate. Of course Lermontov is a tinhorn, a two-bit mock-up of Pushkin, a caricature of a radical artist who is grotesque rather than tragic (though, by some trick, he becomes almost tragic in the end). That is precisely the point; Pushkin was above revolution, though he was a friend of revolutionaries. He saw through it. Lermontov was beneath revolution; he was merely bored, dissatisfied with things the way they were for some vague reason; he would have embraced revolution not for social change but as simply another existential adventure.

We have no Pushkins. In fact, we have very few revolutionaries. What Harvard has succeeded in producing in amazing numbers is Lermontovs, tinhorns with bullhorns, revolutionaries for the hell of it, motivated not by issues (though social ills are as real now as they were in Imperial Russia) but by guilt and boredom. They should see this play; they should see Lermontov's affectations, his need to sidestep reality and play back events as he would rather have seen them, his relentless desire to make a martyr of himself. They should see--but only if they have the honesty to see themselves.

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