Friday, March 29, 2019

Characters in Conflict

In my recent New Books in Historical Fiction (NBHF) interview with Joan Neuberger, professor of history at the University of Texas, Austin, she talks about Sergei Eisenstein’s attempt, in his Ivan the Terrible film trilogy (1946), to create what Eisenstein himself called a “Bach fugue on power.”

By this phrase Eisenstein referred to his use of secondary characters as variations that illuminate the approach to power taken by his main protagonist, Ivan IV “the Terrible”—who in this metaphor represents the theme. To show the conflicts that drive Ivan, Eisenstein externalizes them (no interior dialogue in cinema!) by creating other characters who embody elements of these conflicts and allowing Ivan to argue with them, oppose them, overcome them, and at times yield to or accept them.

We’ll get to some examples in a moment, but what makes this idea interesting to me—enough that I decided to write about it—is that a version of Eisenstein’s fugue appears in many novels, stage plays, and films. In Ivan the Terrible the fugue is focused on power because power—its temptations, uses, misuses, and ultimate costs—is the underlying moral theme of Eisenstein’s trilogy. But the same phenomenon can occur around other themes: love, vengeance, justice, truth, and honor, to name just a few.

So how does the fugue work in Eisenstein’s films? In brief, as Joan and I discuss during the interview, he creates a pair of characters (actually multiple pairs, but let’s not get too complicated) who are presented as close boyhood friends of Ivan’s: Prince Andrei Kurbsky and Fyodor Kolychev (yes, the same family name that appears in my Legends novels; they were a real boyar clan, although everyone who bears that name in my novels is fictional).

In pursuit of his goal, Eisenstein—who had studied as many historical studies of Ivan the Terrible as he could get his hands on—had to distort history to some degree. That’s one way we know he was making a deliberate artistic choice. Both Kurbsky and Kolychev were real people, but only Kurbsky was of the same generation as Ivan and eligible for the role of boyhood friend. Even then, evidence of such early friendship is lacking.

Kolychev, in contrast, ran away from the court to take monastic vows under the name Filipp in 1537, when he was about thirty years old (Ivan was six). He then spent much of his time until 1566 as abbot of the famed Solovki Monastery in the White Sea. Only when the Russian Orthodox Church appointed him as metropolitan of Moscow did he return to the capital. 

But no matter. In Eisenstein’s understanding, Kurbsky and Kolychev mirror Ivan in different ways. Kurbsky wants the same things Ivan does, but for himself. He woos Ivan’s wife, he yearns for Ivan’s crown, and when he doesn’t get those things, he abandons Russia for its western neighbor, Poland-Lithuania, hoping for advancement there. Kurbsky doesn’t object to Ivan’s goals, only to watching someone else take the spoils.  

 Filipp, in contrast, wants nothing more than to retire from the court altogether. When Ivan lures him by dangling the power represented by the metropolitanate, Filipp gives in to temptation but also formulates a moral argument against Ivan’s excesses. Although he doesn’t succeed in deflecting Ivan onto a better moral path—at least not for long—he “gets into Ivan’s head,” as we might say today, causing Ivan to doubt himself and unleashing the extravagant bouts of repentance that punctuate the tsar’s descent into ever more extreme abuses of power, even after Ivan reverts to the crudest method of silencing his former friend: ordering Filipp’s strangulation.

Eisenstein makes similar use of other characters. Ivan’s aunt, who bears little or no resemblance to the historical princess of Staritsa, wants power too, but for her son more than herself—although we all know who will wield that power if she gets it, because her son is presented as a buffoon. Like Ivan’s wife, his aunt cares about relationships, something Ivan has no compunction about destroying. That wife adores him, although she can’t quite resist Kurbsky’s seductive gaze. The members of Ivan’s private army adore him too, even as their homosocial extravaganzas introduce elements of gender diversity that intertwine with the theme of power in the persons of King Sigismund of Poland and the (never filmed) Queen Elizabeth I of England, whom the historical Ivan IV once petitioned for asylum and whose lady-in-waiting he sought to marry.

It’s a clever tactic, and it works, even though the exaggerated acting and cinematography often seem cartoonish today. But the deeper point is that a quick look reveals a similar process at work in many works of fiction, cinematic and otherwise. In Song of the Siren, for example, the fundamental question is how to handle past and present injuries. Juliana has physical damage caused by smallpox, but the real hurt lies in her soul, the result of decisions made by others when she was very young. Felix, in contrast, has a clear physical disability, which does affect his sense of himself and his worth but is largely offset by the support of a loving family, a comfortable lifestyle, and a rewarding career. Alexei’s wounds are largely laid out and resolved in the previous series, but the effect of those wounds on his past relationship with Juliana enliven their interactions here. Koshkin goes about the world in blinders, oblivious to the damage he inflicts on himself and others. I could draw such parallels for any of my novels.

In this sense, stories involve casts of characters rather than individuals: a kind of hive mind that gives rise to distinct and credible people who happen to be working on different facets of a single problem. That reality, more than anything else, blends a series of solo performances into a single connected whole.

And if you’d like to learn more about the fugue of characters in Song of the Siren, including why I wrote it and which parts are fiction and which not, you can hear me talking about the book with Galit Gottlieb on New Books in Literature. Transcript and interview also on the Literary Hub as of Friday, Mar. 29, 2019:

Screen shots from Sergei Eisenstein, Ivan the Terrible, parts 1 and 2: Andrei Kurbsky swearing allegiance; Metropolitan Filipp (Fyodor Kolychev) taking a stand; the members of Ivan the Terrible's private army celebrating together.

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