Tolstoy on the Lower East Side: Di Kreytser sonata (1902)

Barbara Henry, University of Washington

Jacob Gordin (1853-1909), the Russian-born playwright of the American Yiddish theatre, was widely credited with its “reformation” into a medium that enlightened as it entertained. This process was in part predicated upon his adapting classic works of Russian realism for the Yiddish stage. One of Gordin’s most popular plays was a treatment of Lev Tolstoy’s Kreitserova sonata (1889). Gordin’s Kreytser sonata (1902) shifts the action to New York City, transforms Tolstoy’s wife-murderer into a woman who kills her husband and sister, and introduces subplots revolving around the financial and moral challenges facing Jewish immigrants in America.

Surprisingly, for a man regarded in Russian-Jewish intellectual circles as a passionate Tolstoyan, and who for ten years was the leader of a quasi-religious agrarian commune in Ukraine, Gordin’s Kreytser sonata reads as a repudiation of Tolstoy’s prescriptions for artistic, social, and economic change. Where Tolstoy champions agrarian redemption, Gordin illustrates its ruinous folly; where Tolstoy advocates chastity, Gordin defends “free love”; where Tolstoy impugns music as the most dangerously seductive art, Gordin finds the written word—and Tolstoy’s in particular — the most likely to produce intemperate reactions.

Gordin’s implication of the written word as the catalyst for the violence with which both novel and play conclude reflects a little-studied element of Tolstoy’s Kreitserova sonata itself, which conceals an attack on literary fictions under cover of strident warnings about the perils of musical seduction. This paper will discuss the anti-literary bias that Gordin’s play finds in Tolstoy’s novel, the implications of this bias for the fate of the character of Pozdnyshev, and why fiction, and not music, is the most “dangerous” of arts. Drawing on Caryl Emerson and Liza Knapp’s discussions of the Platonic bases of Tolstoy’s aesthetic theories, I will argue that Gordin’s turning of the tables is an attempt not only to signal both his debt to and liberation from Tolstoy’s influence, but to reclaim the ethical force of musical and dramatic performance that both Plato and Tolstoy appear to deny.


Emerson, Caryl, “Tolstoy’s Aesthetics: A Harmony and Translation of the Five Senses,” Tolstoy Studies Journal (XII: 2000), 9-17.

Knapp, Liza, “Tolstoy on Musical Mimesis: Platonic Aesthetics and Erotics in The Kreutzer Sonata,Tolstoy Studies Journal (IV: 1991), 25-42.

Plato, The Republic, trans. by Benjamin Jowett, with an introduction by Scott Buchanan (The World Publishing Co., Cleveland and New York), 1946.