Tolstoy and 'The Great Comet' on the War in Our Midst

03/30/2017 11:02 am ET Updated Apr 23, 2017
<em>Napoleon at Borodino</em>, from Leo Tolstoy’s <em>War and Peace</em>, publisher “Partnership Sytin,” Moscow, Russia, 1914
A. P. Apsit
Napoleon at Borodino, from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, publisher “Partnership Sytin,” Moscow, Russia, 1914

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 second blog in the series. If you missed last week’s blog (“How The Great Comet Shines a Brilliant Light on Tolstoy’s World and Ours”) you can read it here.

Enjoy!

Here’s how it opens: Theatergoers are greeted in a decadent party atmosphere by jovial actors offering fresh-baked perogies for us to munch on. But then, an accordion begins playing a soulful Russian melody. Prince Andrei Bolkonsky silently finishes putting on his uniform, says goodbye to his fiancée Natasha Rostova, and heads for the front. The musical’s first words are then sung:

“There’s a war going on

Out there somewhere

And Andrei isn’t here.”

Thanks to the clever director Rachel Chavkin, I’m not just watching a show. I’m in the story. For like the Moscow socialites who will party, drink, gorge, gamble, fornicate, cheat, scheme, and chat it up at the swank English club while tens of thousands of Russian soldiers are being maimed and killed on the battlefield, I’m too busy licking pierogi crumbs from my lips to be bothered by… a war going on out there somewhere.

But as Tolstoy and The Great Comet remind us, the proverbial “war” is always a lot closer than we might think. No matter where and when you live, people are killing each other on the battlefield. Nations are saber-rattling. Political parties are at each other’s throats. Crises are brewing. The rough historical sea in which we are all swimming, whether we realize it or not, is seething in its depths.

We all woke up to that lesson on Wednesday, November 9, 2016. Whether you were for or against the man who became our next president, the one thing most of us had in common is that we never saw it coming. The unexpected rise of this figure and the seismic shift in the American social landscape it has uncovered, will soon enough be studied as “history.” But history was happening the whole time. The tectonic plates were shifting right under our feet. We just didn’t see it.

I also learned this Tolstoyan lesson in a personal way back in 2008, when I was reading articles about the so-called “financial crisis” then underway. It seemed so distant, so abstract—until, that is, I got a call one day and found out that I, like millions of others, had just lost a significant chunk of my and my family’s savings in the market crash. Suddenly the financial crisis wasn’t out there. It was in my home.

So, too, Napoleon’s troops will soon be invading Russia, taking over Moscow, and literally entering people’s living rooms. The characters in The Great Comet just don’t know it yet.

While Tolstoy dedicates hundreds of pages of his novel to the “war” side of nineteenth-century Russia, The Great Comet ingeniously reminds us of this historical backdrop through the missing character, Prince Andrei, whose absence paradoxically makes him all the more present. Andrei appears silently in silhouette form in several key moments—at the very beginning when he leaves for the front, again when Natasha pines for him in “No One Else,” and then again, as a ghastly, bloodied soldier appearing during the opera scene, precisely at the time when Anatole Kuragin hatches his plan to seduce and elope with Natasha.

We see Andrei one more time, when he returns to Moscow from the front, only to discover what has happened in his absence. For the first time, we hear Andrei sing of his sadness—the sadness not just of a betrayed fiancé but of a young idealist disappointed by the callous egoism of people.

Andrei’s dear friend, the bumbling, big-hearted Count Pierre Bezukhov, is one of the few characters who instinctively gets how skewed his and others’ priorities are. His very first aria—typically an “I Want” song in musical theater—is about the things he doesn’t want in his current life of partying and personal gratification. The song ends with:

“I pity you, I pity me, I pity you

I pity you, I pity me, I pity.”

And so does Tolstoy, whose characters can teach us profound lessons. Once we come to realize, as Prince Andrei does and as Pierre eventually will, that there is more to life than our personal gratification, that tragedy is closer than we think, and that we’re swimming amid vast historical forces much bigger than ourselves, this discovery puts everything we do into a new perspective. Anatole Kuragin and his smug set, who shield themselves from these harsh realities by focusing only on getting what they want, end up with little to show for their efforts other than an unceremonious flick by the hands of fate into the dustbin of history.

Prince Andrei and Pierre and Natasha, on the other hand—large, complex characters who struggle and err and search for a meaning to life larger than themselves—have their share of pain and disappointment, true. But they also find fulfillment and experience the exhilaration of a life fully and decently lived. They come to understand one of Tolstoy’s and The Great Comet’s key messages: The war isn’t going on out there at all. It’s right down here, under our noses, in our cities, in our living rooms, and in our own hearts. Which is why now is the perfect time to live well and choose our priorities wisely.

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For more information about the show or to buy tickets, please visit the show’s website. To order a copy of Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times, please visit here.

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