Great art is transformative. Tolstoy, is a master storyteller. Weaving our higher morals with our deepest darkness. He guides us to reflect upon our own lives as a work of art. Seeing Anna Karenina in German, a foreign language and with different nuances, revealed yet further complications in love. As if there aren`t enough already. Tolstoy asks us to know ourselves, our values, what we stand for and live the highest path of our souls, however he is beyond preaching. This is not a moral and philosophical treatise. He artfully balances blame with sympathy, kindness with cruelty, societal conformity and justice with our own inner compass. The duality of human dilemmas laid out before us. A light upon both our greatest weaknesses and strengths in all forms of love. It is perhaps the most common of our emotions because of its all encompassing nature and yet, being so intricate and multifaceted we hardly know of it at all. Tom Stoppard, does this masterpiece justice by taking the conventions of Brechtian drama and pairing the script down to a sparse language that enhances the 'gestus' movement. Accenting the characters, the audience is left to wonder about their moral subject position, instead of solely identifying with them or losing themselves completely within their physiological and emotional sides.
"A firm believer in the use of theatre as an instructional medium, Brecht...sought to prevent audiences from becoming too involved emotionally with the events portrayed on stage. He considered it a shameful waste of the theatre's resources to mesmerize an audience and purge its emotions through an identification with the characters and situations. All such empathic theatrical experiences he identified as 'Aristotelian.' He called theatre that existed solely to give sensual pleasure without provoking socially meaningful thought 'culinary.' Theatre should inform the spectator; it should make him ponder the drama's Marxist implications--the need for societal change." Samuel L. Leiter, 1991, From Stanislavsky To Barrault: Representative Directors of the European Stage (NY: Greenwood Press), page 158.
Leo Tolstoy was not only a moral thinker but also a social reformer. From a Russian noble family, he was born into the society life of the Russian Empire in Tula and spent much of his life in St. Petersberg and Moscow. He went onto serve the state that had provided for him so well, but was thrown into existential questioning when witnessing the cruelty of the state apparatus in Paris. Finding solace and a voice to the world through novels and short stories, he explored his new found sense of moral justice. He went onto write about education and social reform that unfortunately was dispelled and rejected by the Tsarists who yielded great power in Russia, beyond his control. Nevertheless, echos of his educational teaching emphasising democracy and freedom of choice can be found at the Summer Hill school in the UK.
Anna Karenina is not as immoral as we would first like to think. There are complexities to her that go beyond a black and white, right or wrong. Yet having heard the opinion of Joe Wright, the Director, he was said to have hated her. Luckily, like Anna herself Keira Knightly showed some agency in her acting and portrayed her as a character trapped in the societal conventions of the late Russian empire. Having thought to have done the right thing from the outset, marrying Alexei, a man of great social standing in the government, allowing herself to be governed, was what was expected. Yet, Anna was a free spirit. She believed in romantic love even if she hadn´t experience what that was until she met Alexei Vronsky. He unlocked what she always knew she could feel inside, yet had not been given or given herself the permission to do so for the duty bounds. Instead she had let her passions swirl inside her as she read and wrote books fervently. She captivates herself in works of art, expresses generosity and kindness to her family and friends. The very opposite of her stern husband Alexei that commands respect at all times. Are we not free? Tolstoy seems to ask. Yet through Anna`s love for Alexei Vronsky, we are left wondering what is romantic love for in an empire so built upon edifice, is there any room for it here or indeed in our contemporary lives. Romantic love is true and pure and yet it seems worthless when surrounded by show, spectacle for it´s own sake and honors voyeurism. Ultimately Anna reaches a similar fate. Unworthy to society and her only love she commits suicide only at her last second saying "Forgive me". Contrary to what is usually thought, perhaps she is asking for a higher moral forgiveness not for being tempted by romantic love, but for not being strong enough to believe in it beyond the doubts imposed upon her by her own society that looks upon her in disdain. Tolstoy leaves this ambiguous, since we are never allowed to get too close to Alexei Vronsky. We know that he loves her, but is his love strong enough to look beyond the condemnation that eventually falls upon her.
The ideal love is played out through Levin and Kitty, where the facade is lifted and they are young enough to have found each other before being tainted too much by life`s woes. Yet they too are flawed characters. Kitty wishing to imitate the pretensions of Russian Society life and flounce her naivity around in the hope that Alexei Vronsky would be captivated and she would swoon into his arms, but Vronsky, clearly experienced is bored by her childish advances and instead recognises still a pure love raging beneath Anna`s surface, kept away safely from harm, untouched except another shade of that same love she gives unashamedly to her son. Levin, for all his moral standing against the more sensual aspects of love, is clearly disdainful towards his brother who has rejected capitalism and yet is suffering in health and is an outcast of society.
I´m certain that Tolstoy will continue to reveal love's complexities in his book that I am yet to read in full. However, Tom Stoppard with his skill in theatrical scripts and devices have gone beyond mere representation, to delving into the heart of what made Tolstoy so evidently a master at his own work. Tolstoy never asks of others what he does not first ask of himself and through this transforms us all. A true work of art that keeps living beyond the page.