Saturday, January 23, 2016


Michael Artzibashef (1878-1927) is the most common English spelling of this author’s Russian name.  Another English version is Mikhail Artsybashev.  He was primarily a novelist who occasionally wrote plays.  By the time he wrote his play War in 1914-15, he was a renown novelist.  His novel Sanine, also spelled Sanin, written in 1903-04, became an international success after 1907, when it was first published in Russia.  By early 1915, Sanine had been published in every modern language. He was a literary sensation in Europe and highly acclaimed in the United States. The critics declared Artsybashev to be one of the three most important Russian writers of his day. The other two were Maxim Gorky (1868-1936) and Leonid Andreyev (1871-1919).

Artzibashef’s literary style is naturalism.  His novels and the play War is written in that style. Thomas Seltzer was responsible for the English translation of War.  It was initially published in a 1916 edition of the magazine The Drama.  It was published again in the same year as a book by Alfred A. Knopf, New York.  It was the first play Knopf published under his new series banner The Borzi Plays. Knopf announced the publication of three other plays at the same time—Moloch by Beulah Marie Dix, Moral by Ludwig Thoma and The Inspector-General by Nicolay Gogol.

Borzi is the Russian name for an elegant Russian wolfhound. There are interesting speculations about why Knopf selected the name Borzi. The ideas range from Knopf’s fiancĂ©e love for this breed of dog to his brilliant business strategy to obtain a memorable caption and a distinctive trade mark.

War is a four-act play. Act One takes place on the grounds of a Russian country estate belonging to a retired colonel.  It is a sunny day in spring.  This play, like a number of other World War One plays, depicts a happy provincial family. Then suddenly war is declared and the reader experiences the ensuing turmoil. The stroke of war ruthlessly changes everything and affects every character’s life. 

Act Two takes place a few weeks later. The scene is set in the dining-room of the same country house. The table is set for a farewell luncheon in honor of the young men associated with the household who are leaving for the war.  Act Three is two months later and once again set in the same room. The tragedies of war are now hitting this family as the deaths of their soldiers are being reported one by one.  Near the conclusion of the act, the Colonel and his wife receive a message that their son died in battle.

Act Four is set in “golden autumn.”  It is the same outdoor location as Act One. Nina, the daughter of the family, awaits the return of Vladimir, her wounded husband. She has no idea about the extent of his condition, but she is ecstatic about Vladimir’s return. Nina is oblivious of the feelings of everyone else who is grieving. She declares “It may be a small, insignificant life I am leading, but I don’t want anybody to mar and destroy it.” What awaits her in the final moments of the play is Vladimir’s return and the totally unexpected extent of his injuries.

War demonstrated Arztibashef’s shift away from Russian literature’s emphasis on sexual passion as well as its glorification of raw emotions.  The outbreak of World War One appears to have been partly responsible for authors making this alteration. However, for the more puritanical American tastes, this play would have remained shocking to a 1917 audience since it still contains remnants of these two elements.  It is interesting to consider Clarence Stratton’s article in The Drama, Volume 7, 1917:

Five years ago this tragedy would have revolted all sensibilities. 
We should have considered it a contradiction of all our boast 
of civilization,of all our religious petitions, as an exaggeration
of all the bestial instincts in man. Today its horror seems almost
like the restraint of Greek tragedy.

Obviously a 2016 reader would not experience a similar level of shock at the contents of this play as described by Stratton. However, I believe a contemporary reader of the play would still experience its forceful emotional pull, its strong antiwar message and its shattering conclusion.

I have found no evidence of War being staged in either America or England. I do not know if it was ever staged in Europe or Russia. It would have been extremely depressing to experience this play during the years of the war or even after its conclusion.

 The New York Times printed numerous articles about Artzibashef’s novels and his play War.  This drama appears to have remained a book drama even though it received wide spread publicity. Many newspapers across the United States carried articles about the play’s publication as did the Times in London. Once Artzibashef’s drama War is read, it is impressive enough to not be easily forgotten.

If you know of any productions of this play, please post them under comments.  Please include the name of the theatre, city, dates of run and any other information that would be of interest.

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