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On Art and Politics

By Aileen Jacobson

(A Hero of Our Time is at Adams House, May 1-3.)

SINCE HE IS a radical, Steven Shea has no objections at all to the timing of the premier of his first play, A Hero of Our Time, except to hope that people will not be too busy with politics to come to watch his representation of the politics of another era. When he graduated last year as an English major, he had written prose and poetry, but never before a play. Now, as a playwright and as a person involved in the Harvard community, he is concerned with the relevance of art to politics, and with a synthesis between them, which he hopes his play accomplishes.

A Hero of Our Time deals with political decisions, but it is not, Shea points out, political theater, at least not in the Brechtian or propaganda sense. The author prefers to call his work a "play of character," in which the audience is supposed to deal with the problems in the play by identifying with the characters, not by being estranged from them. It is, then, a psychological play.

Mikhail Lermontov, the central character, is ten years younger than Pushkin and a great admirer of his. Like much but not all that is in the play, these facts correspond to historical reality. Both men are major figures in Russian literature and lived in the first part of the nineteenth century. The first part of the play shows Pushkin's involvement with the Decembrist uprising of 1825, an attempted revolution in which the intellectuals tried to gain more control by placing their own candidate for Czar on the throne rather than Nicholas I, and Lermontov's "radicalization" or at least politization upon watching the death of Pushkin. Both men's problems with women are also important elements of their lives, portrayed in the first scenes. Pushkin dies in a duel with a favorite of the Czar's, who calls him a cuckold because his wife is having an affair with the Czar.

The second part of the play is a masquerade, a play within a play, in which Lermontov, the young girl he wants to marry, the older woman who is his mistress, and her husband, become the characters of a story that Lermontov writes partly as an escape from his sorrow over Pushkin's death, which he attributes, with some justice, to the evil of the court. This story is taken from the novel by Lermontov from which the title of the play comes.

In the end Lermontov himself comes into direct conflict with the Czar and must choose whether to run off or to stay for a fixed duel which will make it obvious that he is being killed by the Czar, thus following in Pushkin's footsteps.

The play, then, does have relevance to politics, and it is a play that asks its viewers to find its relevance to them. But the exact nature of that relevance, or the relation of art to politics, is difficult to define. Steven Shea readily admits that he has no illusions about the power of art to actually change politics, not the way that a sit-in in University Hall can. But he does believe, tentatively, that art may become the root of a new consciousness and thus play a secondary role in the formation of a new political consciousness. The tension between art and politics, which is also part of the subject matter of the play, was present in Shea's mind as he was writing the play. If the play is a success, then, it ought to maintain that balance throughout and fall neither into the trap of direct political statement telling people to become radicals, nor into that of a decadent art-for-art's-sake, the two extremes that Shea tries to avoid. The first, he maintains, is usually not art.

Shea concentrates on and sometimes interprets certain elements in the lives of Pushkin and Lermontov that stress their roles as political actors and as outsiders to the system. Pushkin was the descendent of a Negro slave to the Czar and was dark himself, a fact not commonly known. In this play, he is portrayed by a black actor, mainly to stress his sense of difference and his antipathy toward the Czar. In Lermontov's life, too, the political acts are highlighted: his eulogy to Pushkin at Pushkin's funeral (based on the real Lermontov's poem), dangerous because Pushkin is out of favor with the court, and his appearance at military inspection once with a toy sword. The husband of his mistress is the head of the court police, and his rival for the younger woman is the police chief's assistant. Thus, as with Pushkin, the court is his oppressor in his personal as well as political life, and can use the one as excuse to rid themselves of the disturbance he causes in the other.

The theme of Don Juan is also used throughout the play to good purpose in emphasizing the estrangement of the two artists from the rest of society. In the first part, Pushkin and his wife attend Don Giovanni. Pushkin admires Mozart because he, too, was a natural genius, and he admires the Don Juan theme because its hero is a man who "did not take things as they are." Pushkin's most famous poem, Eugene Onegin, is a treatment of that subject, and it is partly on this poem and partly on Byron's Don Juan that Lermontov bases the story that is the second part of the play.

The production of the play has some interesting points, too. Film is used, but not to show actions that are important psychologically, Shea points out. Rather, the film sequences show major events in the lives of the characters that they then have to deal with. Pushkin watches the bloody raid on the Decembrist Revolutionists by forces of the Czar on film, and Lermontov watches the death of Pushkin on film. Later, the Czar sees part of Lermontov's novel, which he terms "self-indulgent," on the screen.

The rehearsal techniques that James Burt, the director, uses are out of the ordinary, too. The actors, in their parts, improvise scenes that are not in the play. Thus, they become more familiar with their parts and more involved with each other. These are methods employed by improvisatory theater, which involves everyone in the audience, too, but in this case they only appear in the rehearsals.

A student play is a rare occurrence among Harvard productions. A play this new, never produced before, is just as rare here. The thinking for it began last summer, the writing began in New York, and was finished here during February and March. Shea has had teaching jobs in both places. He read Lermontov's book long ago. And why this particular choice for the subject of his play? "It's good story." Shea already has another play planned, the story of Anton Mesmer. In it, the spiritualist will appear as Jesus in another play-within-the-play.

The author discounts any direct influence by a play like Marat-Sade (which he doesn't think is great), though it shared similar concerns and form on the surface. Nor does he agree with Brecht's theory of the theater, though he does use a few Brechtian techniques. He feels much closer to the theatrical ideas of the black theater in New York, and to the political interpretations of Shakespearean plays that Harvard directors like Mayer and Babe have experimented with.

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