JOURNEY of the Fifth Horse demands consideration on two levels. On the first, it cleverly interweaves the tales of two social misfits in the late-nineteenth century St. Petersburg. Zoditch (Richard Gruish), first reader in the ramshackle Grubove publishing Company, has turned sour and misanthropic in response to his social unacceptability. But Chulkaturin (Paul Benedict), an idle landowner of independent means, has adopted a gentle, wistfully philosophic air. His memoirs, submitted posthumously to the publishing company and read by Zoditch, constitute one of the play's two plots. The other revolves around Zoditch's impoverished life in a miserable boarding house.
On a second level, Journey of the Fifth Horse is a parable about mankind. Chulkaturin, reading from his diary, tells the tale of the titular fifth horse, harnessed for some mysterious reason to a coach which already boasts a full complement of four horses. The coachman, who has shackled the fifth horse so clumsily as to make it chafe and bleed, explains that the animal has no purpose in life but to run, senselessly and painfully. Chulkaturin thinks of himself in terms of this story, for he and the fifth horse are both defined by an utterly characterless superfluity.
Zoditch shares this trait with Chulkaturin and the fifth horse, but he does so unconsciously--as his overinflated sense of self-importance suggests. Journey of the Fifth Horse thus seems a treatment of modern man's alienation from his work. But because the landowing Chulkaturin also suffers from alienation, the play is more than a fable about the unsatisfied white-collar worker. Zoditch and Chulkaturin and the fifth horse represent Everyman, harnessed without reason to a life which he does not understand and cannot hope to change.
THE TWO OUTCASTS, who have adopted diameterically opposed attitudes, represent typical human reactions to the state of superfluity. Zoditch refuses to recognize his insignificance; he believes all women love him and despises their feminine weakness, which runs counter to his own assumed logic and coolheadedness. This supposed predilection merely masks his unbearable sense of irreparable inferiority.
Chulkaturin, infinitely more pleasant than Zoditch, has become gently pensive as a result of his own failure to win hearts both male and female. After one aborted attempt to win a girl's heart and thus to make an impression, he retreats--very gracefully, for a graceless character--into the background, and dies without complaint.
The two male stars act impeccably. Grusin's twitching, hunched, sour-eyed Zoditch recalls a Scrooge who has out-eaten his suit size and suffers itching and cramping as a result. Benedict constructs a mournful, perpetually apologetic Chulkaturin who simultaneously invites scorn and nurturing, contempt and sympathy. In a lesser part, Jeremy Geidt plays a convincingly gruff, patriarchal Ozhogin, father to the object of Chulkaturin's clumsy and unrequited youthful affections.
The interplay of Chulkaturin's memories and Zoditch's quotidian existence is handled very cleverly even on a purely physical level. Because the memoirs come alive only through the readership of Zoditch, Chulkaturin's history is played out among the paraphernalia of Zoditch's boarding house. The first reader's bed serves the focus for much of the action--parior scenes, forest scene, garden scenes all occur around the bed, on which Zoditch, himself sits, reading the manuscript, impervious and scornful.
Journey of the Fifth Horse, then, is a poignant, painful play about the inability of two men to traced their irrelevance. Unimportant in and of themselves, they cannot even gain confort from human championship; Chulkaturm suffers rejection and Zoditch forestalls it by taking the initiative and rejecting is not content however merely to relate a parable about a first reader a landowner, and a fifth horse. His play forces an unwelcome conclusion that this busy noisy Hurried thing called life is little is more than a futile lonely groping in the dark.