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Let’s die for ideas, OK, but only of slow death

March 8, 2012 10 comments

The Suicide by Nicolaï Erdman 1928. French title: Le Suicidé. Translated into French by André Markowicz.

Mais rappelez-vous comment ça se passait dans le temps. Dans le temps, les gens qui avaient une idée, ils voulaient mourir pour elle. A l’époque où nous sommes, les gens qui veulent mourir n’ont pas d’idée, et les gens qui ont une idée ne veulent pas mourir. C’est une chose qu’il faut combattre. Aujourd’hui plus que jamais, nous avons besoin de défunts idéologiques. But remember how it was in the old days. In the old days, the people who had an idea wanted to die for it. Nowadays, the people who want to die don’t have any idea and the ones who have an idea don’t want to die. It is something we must fight against. Now more than ever we need ideological deceased.

I’d never heard of Nicolaï Erdman before I watched his play The Suicide at the theatre the other day. If you’re like me, then a bit of biography won’t hurt. Nikolai Erdman (1900-1970) is a Russian writer. His first play, The Mandate was played in 1925 and was a huge success until 1930 when the authorities thwarted it. It wasn’t showed again until 1956. He wrote his second play, The Suicide (In French, Le Suicidé, literally The Suicided) in 1928. It was censored in 1932 and won’t be put on in Russia until 1982. It will be the end of Erdman’s career as a playwright. From there on, he will live upon his job for the cinema and will influence the Russian theatre by working with young directors. He will always remain in the shadows but according to the foreword of my French edition, he will be highly influential.

Now, the play.

First scene. Semione, an unemployed Russian of the 1920s wakes up his wife in the middle of the night because he’d want more of the sausage they had for diner. His wife isn’t pleased and they start arguing. During their fight, Semione resents that his wife has a job when he’s out of work. He feels bad to live on her wages and his wife is afraid he might commit suicide. When he leaves the room, she wakes up the neighbour and tells him his husband is suicidal. From then on, the word spreads among a small community and all kinds of people want to use his suicide for their own profit and want to influence the substance of his farewell note.

The intellectual representing the intelligentsia asks him to mention that he killed himself for the sake of the persecuted intelligentsia. A nymphomaniac wants him to explain he couldn’t live without her and committed suicide for unrequited love. A writer also wants to use Semione’s suicide to promote his cause. The priest wants to use his suicide to show that the Church is oppressed.

They all go very far, negotiating what he should write, organizing a farewell lunch, setting an hour of death and taking care of the funeral. Only Semione doesn’t want to die.

In one of his songs, Georges Brassens says Mourons pour des idées, d’accord, mais de mort lente, which is the title of this post. In this play, Erdman explores the reasons why someone should sacrifice themselves for a cause. As mentioned in the opening quote, those who have ideas don’t want to die and those ready to die don’t have ideas, the intellectual says. It reminded me of the terrorists who put a bomb while they know they won’t survive. They are manipulated into thinking they are heroes for their cause, that they bought their ticket to paradise. Several people try to feed Semione with ideas to take over his suicide for their own ends.

On the verge of killing himself, Semione wonders about life after death and someone advises him to ask the priest, as he’s a specialist. Here is the priest’s answer:

Le Père Elpidy– Voulez-vous que je réponde comment: selon la religion ou selon la conscience?Semione – Quelle difference ça fait?Le Père Elpidy – Une difference co-los-sale. Ou je peux parler aussi selon la science.

Semione – Moi, ce serait selon le plus juste, mon père.

Le Père Elpidy – Selon la religion – c’est oui. Selon la science – c’est non. Et selon la conscience – personne ne sait.

Father Elpidy– Do you want me to answer according to religion or according to consciousness?Semione– What’s the difference?Father Elpidy – A HU-GE difference. Or I can speak according to science too.

Semione – For me, I would like the most accurate, Father.

Father Elpidy – According to religion, it’s a yes. According to science, it’s a no. And according to consciousness, nobody knows.

Semione questions the meaning of being human, there is a direct reference to Hamlet in the text. He brings historical events at a human-being’s height. For example, he says that when there is a war, leaders think of political moves while all John Does only wonder if their battalion is call up right away or not. In French we say, chacun voit midi à sa porte (literally, everyone sees noon at their own door) or in other words, we all grasp events and circumstances according to our own selfish and narrow or limited perspective. It’s also from a man’s point of view, far from Nations and big collective concepts.

The Suicide is like a Vaudeville with a Gogolian sense of humour and a slight touch of Beckett. Can you imagine it? It’s hilarious and cynical at the same time. The text includes incredibly bold sentences on Marxism and the author certainly knew well that the play would be censored. It’s about suicide but it’s also Erdman’s suicide as a playwright.

I think the French title, Le Suicidé (The Suicided) is better than the English one. The word doesn’t exist in French either but the neologism express very well the plot of the play: everyone wants Semione to commit suicide and be a useful victim when thinking of suicide only makes him realize how much he enjoys life, as miserable as he can be, it feels good to be alive.

Highly recommended.

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