The 1905 Russian revolution set a stage of political unrest for the nation at the outset of the 20th century, and academics and artists alike used the times as basis for work. Lenin and Kropotkin were among some of the famous Russian political theorists writing at the time, but the Russian arts had taken a massive blow with the death of Chekhov in 1904. Gorky, who would constantly compare himself to the master of realism, was imprisoned in the 1905 revolution and began writing for the Marxist cause. Barbarians was first performed in 1906 and departed from strictly political work, instead choosing to explore themes of love and heroism. Stepan, a student traveling with the engineers that disrupt life in the small town of Verkhpolye, represents the intellectuals of the movement as he attempts to organize factory workers and expose the injustices of a timber merchant. Cherkoon is the main ‘hero’ of the story, attempting to destroy the traditional barbarity that mayor Reduzobov has levied on the township. These characters all fall into place in one of the most difficult plays to successfully perform, especially in the translated English.
In order to achieve success with this play, there are a number of moving parts that must be properly aligned. The director must firstly properly understand Gorky’s intents and main themes with the play. Heroism is a central part of the play, with many characters searching for their true hero, a person they can wholly believe in. This concept of an ideal hero centralizes plotlines and love triangles, which allows Gorky to not only write about Russian life and ideals, but also the nature of love. With a strong director’s vision, the actor’s must be allowed to understand the characters, which is no easy feat. Some of the most complicated are the characters of Reduzobov, Lydia, Cherkoon, Nadiezhda, and Stepan himself.
While these characters can be read as one dimensional representatives of characteristics, this understanding would fall short of capturing Barbarians’ true intent. Stepan speaks optimistically, and is often described as laughing at the situations that some find dour, but he is not a purely happy character. Underlying Stepan’s front of optimism is a condescending attitude of the student who thinks he knows all. The revolutionary students of Russia would form Lenin’s vanguard, eventually transitioning into Stalinism and a failure of a communist state. This attitude is somewhat sinister, and cannot be ignored with Stepan. On the other hand, Lydia can be portrayed as aloof and disgusted by the Russian peasantry. The text does support this to an extent, but in the end, she is the voice of Gorky in the play. In any production of Barbarians, it will be a key to success that the actress playing Lydia can key into the true message Gorky has embedded in the play.
Gorky and especially Barbarians is known to be a difficult show, and it is quite an undertaking for young actors. The success of the show is predicated upon the actors’ understanding of these characters before trying to stage the show. The director can help facilitate this success, but only if the director is focused on the proper aspects of the show. USC has a wealth of talent, but a history of directors with questionable vision. If this infamous show is to succeed, it will require nothing short of a herculean effort.