The Only Ones Left on the Island
July 16, 2010 | by Elif Batuman
The final installment of a four-part review.
5:56 P.M. Another break. As sometimes happens with people under duress, our biological systems have warped into synch and pretty much all 400-odd culture lovers seem to have to pee this time. “Five-minute call!” I’m still in line on the trailer steps, where a faint but palpable ripple of panic passes through the crowd.
6:02 P.M. Back in the theater, I ask the LA Times critic how he is doing. “So-so,” he says. “Hanging in there.” He asks me whether anyone has ever tried to stage the dramatic poem written by Stepan Trofimovich in the first part of Demons. I don’t know that they have, but what a marvelous idea! The description of this lyrical drama is one of my favorite passages in Dostoevsky’s novel:
It is some sort of allegory, in lyrical-dramatic form, resembling the second part of Faust. The scene opens with a chorus of women, then a chorus of men, then of some powers, and it all ends with a chorus of souls that have not lived yet but would very much like to live a little… Then suddenly the scene changes and some sort of “Festival of Life” begins, in which even insects sing, a turtle appears with some sort of sacramental Latin words, and, if I remember, a mineral—that is, an altogether inanimate object—also gets to sing about something… Finally, the scene changes again, and a wild place appears, where a civilized young man wanders among the rocks picking and sucking at some wild herbs, and when a fairy asks him why he is sucking these herbs, he responds that he feels an overabundance of life in himself, is seeking oblivion, and finds it in the juice of these herbs, but that his greatest desire is to lose his reason as quickly as possible (a perhaps superfluous desire).
I am filled with a desire to see a turtle uttering sacramental the Latin words, and a mineral that somehow gets to sing about something. It strikes me as criminal that Peter Stein didn’t include these highlights in his performance. What excuse did he possibly have—there hadn’t been enough time?
6:05 P.M. I count seven empty seats behind me, and eleven to my right.
6:18 P.M. Nikolai has gone to confess to a monk that he once seduced a fourteen-year-old girl and drove her to suicide. This chapter was omitted from the first editions of Dostoevsky’s novels.
6:23 P.M. Nikolai confesses to the monk that he really did secretly marry the pretty retarded lame girl. The monk totally has Nikolai’s number. I hadn’t realized before how much this conversation resembles the exchange between Raskolnikov and the detective in Crime and Punishment.
6:40 P.M. Still confessing. “On my conscience is a premeditated poisoning that no one knows about.”
6:47 P.M. The confession shows no sign of ending. If this was a plane we would be in France by now. I glance at the program notes to see what else has to happen before the dinner break. The mayor has to explode in a fit of jealousy. I wonder how long that will take.
6:48 P.M. Nikolai is weeping in the monk’s lap.
6:49 P.M. The monk tells Nikolai that he, Nikolai, should become a monk. The novitiate will take five to seven years, which is about how long this confession seems to have been going on. “Damned psychologist!” Nikolai shouts, storming out of the monk’s cell, to scattered applause.
6:54 P.M. The mayor explodes in a fit of jealousy—dinner is near!
6:57 P.M. The mayor has gone completely bonkers. He is beating himself with his fists and vowing to throw Pyotr out a window. Then he sits down and begins to sob in his wife’s lap. The wife is laughing hysterically. They are both wheeled offstage on a moving platform.
7:05 P.M. Dinner is served “family style” and consists of two kinds of pasta, Caesar salad, and garlic bread. The salad and both kinds of pasta are covered with cheese. Because I don’t like cheese, I decide to sit this one out As a matter of fact, I’m not especially hungry, but J. seems very upset that I’m not eating. He scrapes some cheese off his pasta and offers it to me. When I decline, he proposes to ask the attendants to fix me something. He looks ready to leap out of his seat. I am both touched and slightly alarmed by his concern.
“Please don’t worry about my nutritional intake!” I say, more sharply than I had intended. In an attempt to seem like a normal person, I add: “I’ll go ask if they have any sandwiches left from lunch.” A few minutes later, an attendant brings me a gigantic wooden trough full of lettuce tossed with breadcrumbs and toasted nuts. “This is all we had without cheese,” she says. It looks like a perfect meal to be shared by a rabbit, a canary, and a parrot.
“Would anyone like some lettuce with breadcrumbs and nuts?” I ask. There are no takers.
The fat man seated in front of Patricia Marx, I learn, has “a bad case of sleep apnea.” Patricia Marx’s companion announces that he has decided that he really likes the performance.
“What was the deciding factor?” I ask.
“The characters just grew on me,” he says. I wonder if this is a form of Stockholm syndrome.
At 7:30 J. and I decide to take a walk—the dinner break is supposed to be an hour long, so we have half an hour. We are excited to walk around the island. We approach the waterfront. The bay shimmers in the low pink light and the Statue of Liberty’s torch has been lit.
“It feels so great to walk,” J. observes.
“Excuse me guys!” A young man wearing an earpiece and a Lincoln Center T-shirt materializes from some bushes. “I’m afraid you have to start heading back to the theater.” J. and I look in dismay at our watches.
“I’m really sorry—they just told me to start sending people back.” The young man points apologetically at his earpiece. Apparently we look so devastated that he relents, and says we can walk up to the water, provided we head right back afterwards.
Not needing to be told twice, we hurry anxiously along the waterfront, discussing our childhoods. J.’s parents, I learn, are Republicans and live in North Carolina. J. is the only boy in the family. He goes back to North Carolina on holidays, and his mother cries when he leaves. He doesn’t go to the theater very often, although he did recently see Wicked when his sister was in town. At a certain point it becomes clear that we are being pursued, very closely, by another Lincoln Center employee, a large young woman with plastic-framed glasses. Where did she even come from? “I’m going to have to ask you guys to head back to the theater right now.”
“How did you know who we were?” I ask.
She stares at me. “We’re the only ones left on the island.”
7:55 P.M. The governess’s benefit ball has commenced. I am suddenly terrified that the production will include “Merci,” a lengthy farewell speech to literature, delivered, in Dostoevsky’s novel, by a character intended as a parody of Turgenev. My heart is literally pounding.
8:16 P.M. The climax of the novel: the huge fire in which the Lebyadkins are murdered and their house set on fire. Smoke and red lights fill the stage. A helicopter-like roar fills the air. The footlights go out. It is now too dark for me to read my watch.
8:— P.M. Nikolai and Liza, partially undressed on a sofa, are discussing why Liza gave herself to Nikolai even though she knows that he (a) doesn’t love her, and (b) is married to the pretty, lame, retarded girl. He asks her to come to Switzerland with him: he doesn’t love her, but hopes to love her later.
A Few Minutes Later: Nikolai is screaming—literally screaming. Smoke everywhere. I surreptitiously check the time on my cell phone.
8:31 P.M. Liza wanders into the smoke. Stepan Trofimovich appears from somewhere, carrying an umbrella—he’s on his way to wander around Russia. Oh God, what if we have to watch him distribute Bibles among the people? On the bright side, we do seem to have evaded the Turgenev parody. Stepan Trofimovich is talking to Liza, in French, about forgiveness. Why does he have to talk so slowly? “But… you’re… crying!”
8:43 P.M. J. asks a polite question about my work. I begin to explain the various technical and interpersonal considerations involved with a certain journalistic assignment, and become very agitated. At some point I realize that I have been recounting to him, in an angry tone of voice, an incredibly tedious professional email exchange. J. looks alarmed. I break off midsentence with an apology. “No, I’m sorry,” J. says. “I didn’t mean to make you go on some long rant.” It’s not every day you go on some long boring rant and the other person apologizes.
8:55 P.M. Conspiracy plot to kill Shatov.
8:58 P.M. Brief nap.
9:02 P.M. They’re still conspiring to kill Shatov.
9:05 P.M. Shatov’s estranged wife has turned up. A sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Now we’re going to have to watch her have a baby.
9:08 P.M. Shatov’s estranged wife is lying on the bed, screaming and clutching her abdomen. Shatov keeps asking if she’s sick. She keeps telling him to shut up. Many audience members seem to find this amusing.
9:11 P.M. Shatov goes to Kirillov to ask for tea for his “sick” wife. Kirillov explains that he experiences the nature of truth on a regular basis, once a week, and it’s making him crazy.
9:13 P.M. Shatov gets back to his room with the teapot. His wife is asleep. He pours the tea with elaborate caution, checking three times to make sure he doesn’t wake her. It takes him literally a minute to pour a cup of tea.
9:15 P.M. The wife wakes up and asks if Shatov has become a Slavophile. “You’ve become… a…. Slavophile… right?”
“I… because I can’t be a Russian, I’ve become… a Slavophile.” I’m another minute closer to middle age.
9:19 P.M. Shatov’s wife gasps out, between shrieks of pain, that she wants to start a book bindery on rational associationist principles. More laughs. Clearly some people enjoy watching comedic representations of childbirth. I wonder what percentage of comedies include a labor scene.
9:20 P.M. “Can’t you see I’m about to give birth!” Shatov’s wife finally screams. Indulgent chuckles from the audience.
9:21 P.M. The freethinkers visit Kirillov to discuss their agreement. Kirillov: “We.. don’t… have… an… agreement.” J. and I simultaneously glance at our watches.
9:25 P.M. Ten supertitles flash by in rapid succession and then the screen goes blank. “I defiled them, but I only took the pearls.”
9:29 P.M. Shatov’s wife has finally given birth.
9:31 P.M. The freethinkers lure Shatov out into the forest with a story about a lost printing press.
9:38 P.M. How long is it going to take these clowns to kill Shatov?
9:42 P.M. Shatov has been shot.
9:45 P.M. Now Pyotr just has to convince Kirillov to write a suicide note confessing to the murder of Shatov. Kirillov was going to commit suicide anyway, because of his theory, so this could have been a quick conversation—except that Kirillov liked Shatov, and dislikes Pyotr. Kirilov slowly pulls out a chair and sits in silence. For a minute.
9:52 P.M. Pyotr and Kirillov are screaming at each other. “We are both despicable. I am about to kill myself, but you are going to live.” They burst into demented laughter, in which they are joined by a member of the audience.
9:55 P.M. “One day, man raised three crosses…” Kirillov retells the story of Calvary. He and Pyotr are now both sobbing and screaming. You have to hand it to these actors, they’re really bringing it on. “I’ll open the door to salvation! That is my terrible freedom. Give me the pen.”
9:59 P.M. It takes Kirillov four minutes to dictate a brief suicide note and kill himself.
10:00 P.M. Dasha (incredibly slowly): You did call me in the end.
A long pause.
Nikolai (still more slowly): Yes. I called you.
10:05 P.M. Stepan Trofimovich is collapsed in Varvara Petrovna’s arms. He is dying.
“You know it’s gonna take this clown twenty minutes to die,” I whisper to J.
“I have some Advil if you want,” J. replies.
10:07 P.M. “I… loved… you… for… twenty… years!” Varvara Petrovna is the one who looks like she could use the Advil.
10:10 P.M. “I… loved… you!” Stepan Trofimovich is sobbing.
10:13 P.M. “I was always a wretch, except with you!”
“With me, too.”
10:15 P.M. He’s been dying for ten minutes now. What if I die before he does? Now he is reciting from the Book of Luke. Varvara Petrovna picks up a Bible and reads along with him.
10:19 P.M. Nikolai Stavrogin appears in the back of the stage, holding a pistol. In the book he hangs himself, but at this point my feeling is, whatever gets the job done.
10:21 P.M. Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, time of death, I outlived him, but it was touch-and-go there for awhile.
10:23 P.M. Nikolai is staring at the pistol.
10:24 P.M. Nikolai puts the pistol in his mouth.
10:25 P.M. Nikolai pulls the trigger. The narrator comes out and explains that the suicide note said to blame nobody but himself, and that the authorities conclusively ruled out any possibility of insanity.
10:26 P.M. The actors emerge, to a standing ovation. I stand, too. The actors bow, and then they applaud the pianist, and then the actors and the pianist applaud the audience. “Where’s the director?” J. wonders. I feel certain that the director is at home with a big glass of scotch.
Monday: The epilogue.