I am proud to team up with the hit Broadway musical, Natasha, Pierre, and & The Great Comet of 1812, which does for War and Peace on stage what I try to do in my book, Give ‘War and Peace’ a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times, and in my keynotes: bring Tolstoy alive for a wide contemporary audience. In this blog series, I share my experience of the show and the ways it captures Tolstoy’s vital relevance for today. The Great Comet, like Tolstoy’s epic, offers not only a rousing, unforgettable story, but also an urgent moral compass and a celebration of the deep joy of living. The musical is wise and funny and profound, but it’s also jaw-droppingly fun entertainment, proving yet again the wisdom of Tolstoy’s words: “Great works of art are only great because they are accessible and comprehensible to everyone.”
This is the fifth blog in the series. If you missed last week’s blog, you can read it here.
About two-thirds of the way through The Great Comet the madcap, shaggy-bearded troika driver Balaga comes on stage, and all hell breaks loose. As this larger than life Cossack (played wonderfully by Paul Pinto) leaps about the stage dancing the kozachok in his wide trousers, burka overcoat, and lamb fur hat, a wildly festive spirit penetrates every inch of stage, theater, and sound space.
All the actors dance and sing and party away—on the stage, in the aisles, in the balcony. Pierre drunkenly raises a glass and gets in on the action. Natasha and Sonya are dancing, too, with Natasha bringing Anatole, her soon-to-be abductor, a violin. Level-headed, matronly Marya Dmitrievna is making out with Hélène and playing a giant floor tom, while quiet, spiritual Princess Mary is rocking it out in the mezzanine. How are we to explain such bizarre, out of control behavior?
Don’t even try, Tolstoy and The Great Comet say. There are moments in life so full of raw, irrational energy—like sex, battle, and a Balaga-inspired party at the Imperial Theatre—that they break normal social rules and transcend ordinary consciousness. It is in moments like these that we stop thinking and trying to figure things out, and just live in the now.
The seductiveness of Balaga’s fun-loving character and the frenzy of this scene are so intoxicating that I want to stand up, steal shots of vodka right out of Pierre’s hand, and dance alongside the actors who are having more fun than I ever thought you were allowed to have in a Broadway show.
There’s a lot of destruction taking place, too: glasses are being smashed onto the floor, Balaga sings of lashing his whip at peasants and running down pedestrians on the street, and, as a backdrop to it all, Anatole is preparing to abduct Natasha and ruin her life. But we are all having so much fun we don’t want it to stop.
But it does, and how! Matronly Marya Dmitrievna, family friend of the Rostovs with whom Natasha is temporarily staying while her parents are out of town and from whose house Anatole is about to abduct Natasha, suddenly comes in, stands at the top of the stage, takes one stern look at this Bacchanalia in which she herself was participating just moments before, and becomes enraged. In the six most powerfully delivered words I think I’ve ever heard or seen on a stage, she puts an end to the jamboree. To Anatole and the entire theater Marya Dmitrievna roars:
“You will not enter my house, scoundrel!”
In that moment, everything stops. The orgiastic excitement. The intoxication. Everything. It’s as if a pail of freezing ice water has just been dumped over our heads, as every one of us on that stage and in our seats is suddenly shocked back into reality.
Show creator Dave Malloy and director Rachel Chavkin know exactly what they are doing here, and it is ingenious. They have seduced and intoxicated us, and then—wham!—hit us over the head with a sobering truth: This whole time we have actually been partying with and rooting for Anatole, who is on his way to wrecking a person’s life.
The most outrageously entertaining stretch of the musical, then, is also its most slyly instructive. We are suddenly reminded that those vital energies that bring an entire theater to the heights of ecstasy can also bring a mob to root for a charismatic scoundrel or condone atrocious acts of immorality that we in our right minds would never tolerate. But we are not in our right minds here. We are out of our minds, which is what makes it all so intensely intoxicating, delightful—and dangerous.
Tolstoy was intimately familiar with such moments. Long before he became the famous, gray-bearded sage most people know him as, he was a young man who knew how to have fun. He drank himself into oblivion with the Bashkirs, fathered an illegitimate child with a local peasant girl, lost the house of his birth in an all-night gambling spree, and killed people on the battlefield. He knew from personal experience that evil can sometimes be terribly attractive and destruction a creative force.
He also knew that in such a state we forget another, equally important truth, one with which Pierre will excoriate Anatole in the very next scene:
“You must understand
That besides your pleasure
There is such a thing as other people, and their happiness and peace
And that you are ruining a whole life for the sake of amusing yourself!”
Ouch. “Was I condoning and celebrating that?” I think to myself when I hear those words. Yes, I was. We all were, unbeknownst to ourselves.
What, then, are we to do with all of that wonderfully vital energy inside of us? Go ahead and raise your shot glass, Tolstoy and The Great Comet say. Bang the tom, dance, go crazy, have fun. Live in the now. But always love people even more.