Theatre Review: A Question of Class Identity
Summerfolk, by Maxim Gorki. National Theatre.
Summerfolk is a compelling, exciting, entertaining, hugely relevant play, that was written in 1904; that is, in the same year that the Socialist Party of Great Britain was formed. Like Philistines and Barbarians, two of Gorki’s other plays written at about the same time, it is about the emergence, in significant numbers, of the “professional people”—lawyers, doctors, engineers, administrative civil servants, etc—who were needed to service the emerging capitalist state. Today’s chattering classes jet round the world for their extended holidays, but in turn-of-the-century Russia the practice was to rent summer villas in the country. Summerfolk follows the lives of one group of such people and their dependants, over a period of several weeks.
Anyone familiar with the plays of Chekov and Turgenev (see, for example, the review of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country, Socialist Standard, April 1999) will recognise the terrain. Indeed Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard describes the sale of land which is to be divided into building lots for summer villas. Most of the new breed of professionals and their partners, are the sons and daughters of serfs. Most of them, as once of the characters puts it “knew poverty in our youth”, but now it is many of their lives which seem impoverished, listless, and apparently lacking in point and purpose.
Whilst Chekov and Turgenev frequently seem content to describe the behaviour of their characters and to acknowledge their collective ennui, Gorki is concerned to understand the roots of that behaviour and to speculate about its consequences. One critic argues that Chekov has more “symphonic mastery”, by which he presumably means that Chekov handles his plots with greater panache and subtlety. But then Chekov seems intent on accounting for human behaviour in terms of individual traits and characteristics which make no reference to people’s social experience. For Chekov it seems, the psychological domain is not only prime, it is often, in practice, all that there is.
Gorki takes a contrary view. His characters behave differently, firstly, because they are attached to different views of the world; and secondly, because these opinions are socially constructed. At the heart of the play is a dilemma. Are newly-rich professionals entitled to “a good meal and a drink”, content with the justification of “My right to live any way I want”? Or should they, as a matter of loyalty to the class from which they come, strive “to improve and regenerate and illuminate the lives of our own people—people who toil and toil, till the day they die, trapped in dirt and darkness”? This is the question that Gorki would have us face and interestingly, the more enlightened, humanistic perspective is voiced predominantly by the female characters. The gossip, the drinking, the conflicting points of view—the talk of evolution or revolution, despotism or democracy, pessimism or optimism—are all finally tied to this central question.
Whether Gorki has “symphonic mastery” of his material may be a moot point. I can only report that three minutes listening to a reformist politician has often felt infinitely longer than the spell-binding three-and-a-half hours during which the drama unfolds across the vast expanses of the Olivier stage.
I frequently meet people who accept both the legitimacy of the socialist case and its implications for their status as workers. But, like some of the characters in Summerfolk, they argue that given their professional salaries, health benefits, share options and alike, they feel little sense of identity with the more deprived members of the working class in this country, let alone the wider world. For them, and for people like me who would have them think otherwise, Summerfolk is as relevant today as it has ever been. I hope to find an early excuse to see the play again, and to marvel at the skill of the actors and the wonder of its staging. Thoroughly recommended.