Children of the Sun by Maxim Gorky, National Theatre
Children of the Sun is a masterpiece. Its blend of slow Chekhov style pondering in the first half combined with the drama of the 2nd half of this national theatre production makes it intellectually challenging, funny and tragic all in one. The play is a portrayal of a middle class family and their friends and servants. It is about the scientist, Protasov, and his quest for scientific knowledge at all costs- including the destruction of his family. This leads to his wife spending a lot of time with an artist (if you know what I mean). To top it off Protasov is also attracting attention from a rich widow, Melaniya, who offers to spend her money in order to build Protasov a grand laboratory. Whilst all this is going on Melaniya’s brother and Protasov’s mentally disturbed sister are also in a messed up relationship. The pointlessness of all this is put into perspective by the impoverished workers who, after some of Protasov’s chemicals spill infecting the town, revolt and kill the family and their friends but not before suicides, attempted suicide and mental. Despite all this tragedy and destruction the play is very comedic- it is essentially a satire of the middle classes but at the same time a play about the greatest philosophical question of all- the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Now, forgetting for a moment that you already know the answer (42 of course), the play addresses this through several perspectives with the main ones being the artist and the scientist. Gorky does not manage to come up with an answer to the question but instead he ridicules both science and art in his play rendering their claims to the meaning of life redundant. He also questions the purpose of humanity and whether we are any different from animals. The answer seems to be yes because, as Protasov’s wife, Yelena, concludes, animals do not have the ability to be selfless whilst humans do. However, the actions of the characters in the play do not match up to their supposedly selfless nature with all of them acting with their own interests in mind which eventually brings about their destruction. Another theme is that of God. Protasov believes that if there is a God then it is the sun (hence the title ‘Children of the Sun’) because life on earth could not survive without it whilst the artist is sceptical of his idea. There is a lot of contrast between the artist and the scientist in the play with both being made fun of throughout. This is why I believe that in fact it is Yelena, Protasov’s wife and the artist’s ‘friend’, who is the character closest to the truth being both interested in science and art.
However, the main ‘point’ of the play is a political one. It is about Gorky’s disillusionment with the middle class. Gorky was at first a believer in the middle classes ‘goodness’- that they would help the poor through their new found money from industry and other ventures. Then, in 1905, on the slaughter of peaceful protesters that was to be known later as bloody Sunday Gorky’s views on the middle classes rapidly changed. He believed that it was a lack of leadership and intervention by the middle class that had led to the failure of the 1905 revolution and the slaughter of innocents. It was whilst he was imprisoned for signing a public document condemning the Tsar for his actions on bloody Sunday that he wrote ‘Children of the Sun’. It is readily apparent through the characters in the play that Gorky believes that actions speak louder than words. The middle class characters always speak about helping the poor but never actually do anything about it causing their overthrow at the end. It is Protasov’s ‘mad’ sister who actually recognises the danger of a lack of action in tackling poverty and helping the workers. But, just like Cassandra of Troy who she is compared to in the play, no one listens to her prophetic words.
The stage was very elaborate with a dining room, a laboratory, a rear ‘garden’ and a front porch. However due to the angles of some of the corridors I couldn’t from my face see everything which was very infuriating as an audience member. There was some fantastic acting from Scottish actor Paul Higgins in the role of Boris and I don’t think there could be a better casting of Protasov than Geoffrey Streatfeild who, although there could’ve been some lines delivered with more passion and anger, his delivery of the monologue about the wonders of science was beautiful. His real skill was in the comedic moments when showing his complete disinterest in Melaniya. I think it was a poor directorial decision to split the play into two halves as it had a very flowing feel to it that was disrupted by the interval and as a relatively short play the actors shouldn’t have needed a break. I can only suppose that the theatre makes money during the interval from drinks and other such consumables. This just goes to show how profit and art don’t mix-I’m sure Gorky would’ve have agreed.
**** Brilliant play and a solid production
Picture from partially-obstructed-view.blogspot.co.uk