May I Suggest..."The Great Comet" as Travesty

Stuart Spencer

May I suggest that Natasha and Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 is a travesty? Before umbrage is taken, I hasten to add that maybe it isn’t. But that may, in fact, be the problem.

I use the term travesty not in its modern, colloquial sense of ‘a hot mess’, but in its specifically theatrical sense: “a burlesque of a serious work or subject”. Travesty was one of the earliest American musical theatre forms. Indeed, the legendary The Black Crook, which is often pegged, however inaccurately, as the first Broadway musical, was a travesty of melodrama, sending up all the absurdities of that form by making them still more absurd. In its wake, the 19th C. saw dozens of similar shows that parodied everything from Greek myth to the poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The first Broadway revue, The Passing Show of 1894, was also travesty — a series of skits parodying the Broadway shows of the previous year, a sort of Forbidden Broadway of its day.

The form exists to mock the pretensions of a more serious underlying work. Its raison d’être is the poking of holes in overinflated reputations and it relies on exaggeration and over-simplification in plot, character, or style to wreak its havoc. In its opening sequences Great Comet does exactly that. Where War and Peace is subtle, the Great Comet is in-your-face obvious. Where War and Peace is punctilious in weaving a fictional story into the historical record, Great Comet uses anachronism, sight gags, and funny voices. Where the characters in novel are psychologically complex, the show offers cardboard.

And where the novel is earnest, Great Comet oozes irony as any good travesty should: “It’s a complicated Russian novel/Everyone’s got nine different names/So look it up in your program/We’d appreciate it, thanks a lot.” Soon after that, the most multi-faceted characters in literature are reduced to a single descriptive syllable each: “Dolokhov is fierce/Hélène is a slut/Anatole is hot/Marya is old-school/Sonya is good/Natasha is young/And Andrey isn’t here.” If that’s not travesty, I am Marie of Rumania. But even travesty — maybe especially travesty — has its rules. And the golden rule, as articulated by Mel Brooks who knows a thing or two on the subject, is, “If you’re going to go up to the bell, ring it.”

And that’s where the trouble starts.

 Josh Groban (Chad Batka)

Josh Groban (Chad Batka)

In the section of War and Peace from which Great Comet is adapted, the irascible old Prince Bolkonsky has demanded that his son, the impeccably virtuous but emotionally peculiar Prince Andrey, absent himself from Natasha’s presence for a full year in the hope that the flame of their love will be snuffed out. Andrey, who despite his palpable love for Natasha seems to have internalized his father’s skepticism about their intended marriage, suggests she might test her love by falling in love with someone else. He’s taken a bad situation and made it worse. Now Natasha’s head is full of doubt. Why he would suggest such a thing? She’s not merely in love with Andrey; she worships him, idolizes him. But after he’s gone, his icy virtue is no match for the flesh and blood of Anatole, whose flesh is molded into a very pleasing shape indeed. Better still, Anatole is warm and charming, and doesn’t entangle Natasha in bizarre psychological twists and turns. Nevertheless, we’re ambivalent about Natasha’s falling into Anatole’s arms and nearly into his bed. On the one hand, Andrey will never be right for her, and part of us wants her to escape his tortured psyche. On other hand, we know that the shallow, caddish Anatole is all wrong for her too.

At the top of Great Comet, in contrast, the situation is simplified, travesty-like, to its most basic components. Natasha pines for Andrey, who has simply gone to war without any of these complicated questions in his wake. She’s no longer caught in a complex web of emotions in which she simultaneously misses him, dreads disappointing him, and struggles with this seemingly impossible test that she’s been given — a test for which she doesn’t even understand the question. Rather we find her in a simplistic, overly familiar condition in dramatic literature: a lonely woman pines for her missing man. But this particular flatness of character and simplification of plot puts one in mind not of travesty but of melodrama. The director, Rachel Chavkin, even characterizes the show exactly thus in her notes to the Samuel French Acting Edition. But if she and Malloy are transmuting this transcendent novel of spiritual quest and redemption into a melodrama, then what happened to travesty?

The show also insistently avoids characters who speak to each other. The internal monologue is a trend in musical theatre generally these days, but here it’s taken to an extreme. The extremity in itself ought to be a sign that we’re heading towards travesty but the ironic use of internal monologue never pays off as parody, and for good reason: the show’s internal monologues are most often nothing of the kind. They’re just a way to deliver exposition, as when Pierre sings, “The doctors warn me/That with my corpulence/Vodka and wine are dangerous for me.” Not perhaps the most elegant way to glean this information. The show is employing dramaturgy from the 19th C. melodrama when characters announced who they were and how they figured into the plot.

Exacerbating the problem, the libretto also makes the ill-advised choice to put into the mouths of the characters the very same observations that Tolstoy made of them via the novel’s omniscient narrative voice. Much has been made of the fact that the libretto lifts passages directly from the novel, but this is trouble with a capital T, and that rhymes with B, and that stands for Bolkonsky.

Or at least he makes a good example.

In the novel, old Prince Bolkonsky is a Tolstoyan masterpiece of complexity and subtlety. An irascible old man who feels the coldness of death encroaching, he weaponizes his existential dread by tormenting the one person who loves him and who he knows will never abandon him: his daughter Mary. She loves the old man, feels nothing but sympathy for him even as he harangues her. One begins to suspect that on some level she doesn’t really mind being tormented; it’s better than having no father at all and at least it gives her a sense of purpose. It’s a complicated relationship, to say the least, exquisitely limned in a series of subtle interactions between these two characters — words spoken and unspoken, behavior observed, thoughts noted.

In the show, these are again rendered in the form of travesty — ironic commentary made directly to the audience — but not the substance. Bolkonsky sings: “I’m full of childish vanities/I forget things/And I live in the past.” Like any good travesty, that’s oversimplified, to be sure. But having been lifted almost directly from Tolstoy’s description of Bolkonsky, there’s nothing very funny about it, and since it’s exactly the kind of self-aware observation that Bolkonsky could never make himself, it doesn’t work as character development either.

Again and again, the show places some of the deepest truisms of the characters into their own mouths. When Mary says, “It’s now or never, my fate is slipping past me,” or Pierre says “None of us are great men, we are just caught in the wave of history”, they are clearly aware of the essential truth that they ought to know but don’t — at least not yet. Tolstoy lets us know that these things may be true of Mary and Pierre, but neither of them would ever think it themselves, much less say it. And putting such a thought into, say, Mary’s mouth, the show deprives her moment of any subtext and any chance of a bonafide dramatic journey.

 Mary Bolkonskaya

Mary Bolkonskaya

But wait. Didn’t I say this was travesty? Who cares about bonafide dramatic journeys? Well, once the show starts hinting at deep moral complexities, existential angst, and complicated and contradictory feelings, I do.

One wonders what prompted the creative team to adapt this fragment of the world’s longest, arguably greatest novel. That’s not a rhetorical question. To adapt well, you have to have a reason — you have to have something to say. It might be the same thing Tolstoy said, it might be your own statement, but it has to be something. A travesty, however, needs no theme. Its only purpose is to make sophomoric fun of a revered object. I love a good travesty, a real one. It’s hard to believe that’s what’s intended here. Despite the fact that the show keeps announcing again and again that it’s a burlesque, it never delivers on that promise. The creators, indeed, seem to want it both ways — introducing the piece as a silly but spirited send up, and then, having not done the hard work of character development, asking us to take it seriously when it suits their purposes. They go up to the bell, but then consciously decide not to ring it.

To my thinking, the real travesty of Great Comet is that it’s not travesty.

Stuart Spencer is a playwright and novelist. He teaches playwriting, dramaturgy, and theatre history at Sarah Lawrence College, and is the author of The Playwright’s Guidebook: an Insightful Primer on the Art of Dramatic Writing published by Farrar Straus & Giroux. You can follow him on Facebook.