Narrative Art in Dramatic Form: The Plays of L. N. Tolstoj

Karla Cruise, College of St. Mary’s

In L. N. Tolstoj’s dramas, there is a constant tug-of-war between what the author wants to say and how the dramatic form (satire, comedy, or domestic drama) will allow him to say it. Tolstoj had much to lose in exchanging his complex verbal medium of narrative fiction for drama’s reliance on dialogue and action, and his plays reveal his successful and unsuccessful attempts to make up for those losses by “staging” his dramatic techniques.

Not only do Tolstoj’s plays show the tension between the author’s literary imagination and the genre’s form, they demonstrate the degree to which he thought of his dramas as being primarily acts of persuasion and secondarily objects of art. Despite Tolstoj’s desire to instruct his theater audiences, he avoided the dramatic structures and devices characteristic of didactic drama and moralities. With the exception of his peasant plays, which were written for a largely illiterate audience, he refrained from allegory, refusing to make his dramatic characters into personifications of virtue and vice. Instead, as in his prose, Tolstoj often creates “dogmatic heroes,” protagonists whose quest for virtue and happiness instructs the audience. As the audience observes the protagonist’s struggle to articulate their thoughts and emotions and substitute realistic for unrealistic desires, it learns how it may do the same.

While in the narratives, consciousness could be revealed through interior monologue and the narrator’s commentary, the dramatic form afforded fewer opportunities for portraying the inner workings of the psyche. Throughout his career as a playwright, Tolstoj developed several dramatic devices to externalize the characters’ inner struggle, combining actions, gestures, language, indirect characterization and staging. However, these devices proved inadequate substitutes for Tolstoj’s omniscient narrator who could intertwine the author’s “objective” “Truths” with the characters’ subjective thoughts and impressions. In switching to the dramatic form, Tolstoj lost his narrator and his most important method of rendering his characters’ consciousness and maintaining authorial control.