THE OFFICIAL GREAT COMET BLOG SERIES
Author Andrew D. Kaufman (Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times) has teamed up with The Huffington Post to create The Official Great Comet Blog Series. Check out his posts below to discover how The Great Comet brings Tolstoy vividly alive for a contemporary audience.
Pierre rushes in to help patch up the mess created by Natasha after she has nearly eloped with Anatole. Natasha, guilt-ridden and suicidal, asks Pierre to beg Prince Andrey, her former fiancé, for forgiveness on her behalf and not to speak ill of her would-be abductor, Anatole. This is a big, coming-of-age moment for Natasha: She takes responsibility for the pain she has caused others, and realizes for perhaps the very first time in her young life that she—glamorous, beautiful, perfect Natasha—is a flawed human being, just like the rest of us.
People in War and Peace behave like, well, people. Nobody is all good or bad. Good people do bad things. Bad people do good things. The French invaders no less than the Russian patriots are described as full-blooded human beings with families and dreams and hardships. Even the arch-enemy Napoleon, whom Tolstoy positively dislikes, is, at least interesting, and even pitiable at times.
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.
Something terrible is about to happen in the home of Natasha Rostova, and Sonya, the poor, distant relative who has lived with the family since childhood, is the only one who knows about it. Natasha has been acting strange and erratic, insisting suddenly that she has fallen madly in love with the near stranger Anatole, that she plans to break off her engagement to Prince Andrey, and that Sonya had better not interfere with her plans to elope with Anatole, or else. The honor of Natasha and the entire Rostov family is at stake, Sonya well knows, and there are no good options for her.
It’s easy to forget about or feel superior to this bewildered count, who after inheriting an enormous fortune quickly winds up in a disastrous marriage to the fortune-hunting Hélène (sister of Anatole), and then fails as an estate manager, a social reformer, a religious zealot, and at pretty much everything else he tries. When we first meet him in The Great Comet, he is going through yet another existential crisis, and nobody seems to care or take any particular notice. Except for Tolstoy, that is—and show creator Dave Malloy, who knows what Tolstoy knows: if Natasha occupies the dramatic center of the novel, Pierre stands at its moral center.
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.
I’ve read War and Peace around 15 times, wrote a book about the novel, and have given talks on the vital relevance of Tolstoy to audiences ranging from college students and incarcerated youth to retired seniors and corporate executives. So it’s particularly exciting for me when an adaptation comes along that allows me to see the book in a fresh light and stirs me to tears over moments I thought I knew by heart. This is what happened when I experienced the hit Broadway musical, Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812.