THE KREUTZER SONATA by Eric Samuelsen receives its world premiere in a co-production with NOVA Chamber Music Series October 18-November 9 featuring violinist Kathryn Eberle, pianist Jason Hardink and actor Robert Scott Smith, directed by Jerry Rapier.
When Jerry Rapier asked me to read Tolstoy’s novella “The Kreutzer Sonata,” my first reaction to it was a strange one. I thought; what a sad guy. The story’s protagonist and narrator, Pozdnyshev reveals himself as narcissistic, arrogant, sexist and, ultimately, violent. Also, unattractively self-pitying. But he’s also astute (and cynical) in his ruthless deconstruction of the patriarchal culture in which he was raised, and its destructiveness. His marriage is – as he well knows – a hideous farce, lacking the most rudimentary interpersonal connection, or even, most of the time, compassion or kindness. But he’s also capable of mourning, of sorrowful contemplation of the institutional prison in which both he and his wife are incarcerated. He knows himself, and he knows her, well enough to know that they should never have married. What he can’t do is escape.
What it reminded me of was August Strindberg’s “Inferno,” a novel written just seven years after Tolstoy wrote Kreutzer. Strindberg’s excoriating account of the horror show of his marriage to Frida Uhl, and his subsequent descent into madness has a similar flaying honesty, though Strindberg’s novel also suggests the possibility of redemption through Swedenborgian spirituality. But Pozdnyshev allows himself no similar escape. His paranoia and the grotesque fantasies with which he indulges and nurtures his neuroses can find no release, no ultimate resolution. What Nora, in Ibsen’s A DOLL HOUSE, calls ‘the greatest miracle of all’ (a real marriage, a genuine partnership), is out of reach for Tolstoy’s characters.
And then there’s Beethoven’s music, the inspiration for the novella. And Tolstoy’s protagonist cannot hear the remarkable violin sonata Beethoven wrote for the violinist Kreutzer with anything like the aesthetic distance with which even the most engaged listeners today encounter it. To him, the piece is a monstrosity, provoking passions that cannot find fulfillment, literally maddening. Without Beethoven’s music, Pozdnyshev’s marriage would remain his own personal nightmare. Add Beethoven, and it becomes an incitement to rage, to fury, and to murder.
When I learned that this project would involve working with world-class musicians Kathryn Eberle and Jason Hardink and an actor of the calibre of Robert Scott Smith, I knew that I had to do this, that this was as exciting an artistic adventure as any in my life. But I also recognized my challenge.
When we listen today to a brilliant performance of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, our reaction is essentially aesthetic. “That was beautiful,” we think, “that was remarkable, that was wonderful.” But the challenge Tolstoy presents to a playwright/adapter is this: I had to use his words and mine to help an audience understand, and perhaps even, in the tiniest way, feel the music the way Pozdnyshev feels it. The music is the key to an act of murder. Of course, that murder is an unspeakable act of utterly unjustifiable barbarism. But, at least, we have to understand why it’s such a trigger for him, why it launches him to act so horrifically. But we also have to retain our own civilization, our own sense of the beauty of Beethoven’s accomplishment and our own compassion for the lost souls Tolstoy created. Challenge indeed.
Eric Samuelsen has previously premiered MIASMA, AMERIGO, BORDERLANDS, NOTHING PERSONAL, RADIO HOUR EPISODE 8: FAIRYANA, CLEARING BOMBS and 3 with Plan-B. CLEARING BOMBS was also nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. His other plays include GADIANTON, A LOVE AFFAIR WITH ELECTRONS, FAMILY, THE WAY WE’RE WIRED and PECULIARITIES. Fluent in Norwegian, Mr. Samuelsen has also translated four Ibsen plays—HEDDA GABBLER, LITTLE EYOLF, A DOLL HOUSE and GHOSTS, the latter two produced by Plan-B as Script-In-Hand Series readings. Read his blog at mormoniconoclast.com. Click here for more information on THE KREUTZER SONATA, including tickets (single and season)!