Last reviewed: June 2018
August 21, 1871
September 12, 1919
Leonid Nikolayevich Andreyev (uhn-DRYAY-yuhf), called by one critic a morbid pessimist and mournful humanist, was born into turbulent times in 1871. Born and educated in Orel, he continued his training for law in Moscow, where he was awarded a university degree in 1896. Depressed by his background and poverty and uncertain of his future, he was said to have attempted suicide on three occasions. Leonid Andreyev.
Andreyev’s training for the law gave him his first writing job as a court reporter, and he later worked on the staff of the Moscow Courier. His first story, “They Lived,” was published in Zhizn (life), a monthly magazine, in 1899, arousing the interest of the public and critics alike. Maxim Gorky befriended the young writer and urged publication of a series of short stories, which appeared in 1901. Some of these caught the eye of the critic Michailovsky. Andreyev also came to the attention of Sophia, the Countess Tolstoy, with a story called “In the Fog,” which she labeled indecent in 1902. Because of censure he lived for a time in Finland, a country to which he fled later for quite different reasons. He also served a short prison term with Gorky in 1905 for anticzarist activities. He opposed war, dictatorship, and capital punishment. Later he supported the Kerensky faction rather than the Bolsheviks, advocating the cause of democracy during World War I.
In his plays he vacillated between realism and symbolism, achieving a greater degree of success in the latter because he could find a wider range for his expression of the deterioration and bitterness he observed at every hand. His two earliest plays, To the Stars and Savva, are realistic in technique. The former tells of an astronomer who assuages his grief over the execution of his revolutionist son by remarking that his troubles are as nothing in the face of all eternity. In Savva, Andreyev’s most successful early play, he opposes the hold of the Church over the people. Katerina presages a theme of Luigi Pirandello, for the title character allows herself to become the symbol of the fallen woman her husband erroneously thinks her to be. The Waltz of the Dogs, more expressionistic than realistic, shows the defeat of a man at the hands of a brother, who schemes for his life insurance, and his fiancé, who proves disloyal.
This unrelieved gloom, powerful in its mordant irony, is lightened by a Shavian-like comedy called The Pretty Sabine Women, in which the Sabine men attempt to rescue their spouses from the ravaging Romans by moderate means, law books, and careful footing—one step back for two forward. He Who Gets Slapped, a seemingly flippant play, tells of a man who leaves his unfaithful wife and best friend to become a clown in a circus; he finally kills himself and his beloved circus rider friend to relieve them both of the restrictions imposed on them by society. One of Andreyev’s early symbolic plays, The Life of Man, was thought by many to be a travesty.
When Anathema was produced, many thought the production so far outran the inherent worth of the play that critically it was difficult to evaluate. Certainly the Faust-Mephistopheles theme is not original, nor is the final resolution of the play noteworthy: Faust dies when he finds he cannot help suffering humankind sufficiently, while the devil looks on sympathetically but without power. As in many of his other plays, Andreyev advanced interesting hypotheses without convincing proof.
Regarding his two greatest stories, however, critical opinion is undivided. “The Red Laugh,” published in 1905, proved prophetic of the Russian Revolution to come; here Andreyev wrote one of the strongest indictments of war ever composed. In the preface to an English translation of “The Seven Who Were Hanged” (also “Seven That Were Hanged”), he says that the story is intended to castigate capital punishment, and the unrelieved anguish of these seven creates an effect of powerful revulsion.
Unlike Gorky, Andreyev rejected Bolshevism and left his native Russia. Disillusioned, he died in exile in Finland in 1919.