On 13 April, Dutch theatre organisation Noord Nederlands Toneel had a play by nineteenth century Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky on stage.
Well, the play was not by Dostoyevsky. It was a famous novel by Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment; made into a play.
This Dutch video is about Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, as played by Noord Nederlands Toneel.
Dostoyevsky first got the idea for his novel while he was a political prisoner, exiled to Siberia. The main character of the novel, and now of the play, ex-student Rodion Raskolnikov, is partly autobiographical. As Raskolnikov was sent to exile in Siberia as well.
The novel is only very partly autobiographical. As the “crime” for which Dostoyevsky was punished was membership of a discussion group about literature, where there was also criticism of czarist absolute monarchy. While Raskolnikov had killed two women: one “guilty” usurer, and one “innocent” one.
Dostoyevsky, along with other people discussing literature, was condemned to death. 23 December 1849: the firing squad for killing the literary “criminals” had already lined up. Dostoyevsky and his fellow “enemies of the state” were already tied to poles. Then, presto! came a last-minute letter of His Imperial Majesty Nicholas I, sparing the “criminals”‘ lives and sentencing them to hard labour in Siberia instead. This mock execution was cruel psychological torture. Not only czarist autocracy, but also other tyrannical governments used to practice and still practice it.
Dostoyevsky had his feet and hands shackled until his release from prison camp. After the end of his imprisonment, and his subsequent five years of forced military service, Dostoyevsky was able to start his literary work again. But his life did not become happy. The czar’s secret police kept spying on him till his death on 9 February 1881. Financial problems plagued him, especially after his wife and his brother died, and he had to take care of two families as a single parent.
Dostoyevsky’s literary work faced the dilemma of all nineteenth century Russian writers: self-censorship to avoid government censorship, or not getting published. He had to get published because of his desperate financial situation, writing frantically, avoiding conflicts with state authorities. Sometimes, he burnt his manuscripts to prevent trouble with censors. While all the time, the horrors of his mock execution and prison camp years continued to haunt him.
Wikipedia writes that “it is unknown whether Dostoyevsky believed in what he wrote”. This ambiguity led to many speculations about what Dostoyevsky “really” meant, especially in later work, advocating, at first sight, czarist autocracy and its state church.
Is Dostoyevsky’s depiction of Sonya, Raskolnikov’s girlfriend, as a “hooker with a golden heart” maybe a reference to the author’s own situation full of contradictions?
The name “Raskolnikov” is derived from “raskolniki”, a term of abuse for Christians excommunicated from the Russian state church in the seventeenth century. Often refered to as “Old Believers“, they consider themselves the true Orthodox Christians. While Dostoyevsky does not depict his protagonist as a follower of that religion, again at first sight, this might look like a conformist swipe at heterodoxy. But, again, here we don’t know what Dostoyevsky “really” meant with the name.
In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov, though a murderer and exiled to Siberia, is finally redeemed by reconciliation with authorities and Christianity. The Noord Nederlands Toneel play chooses another conclusion: his love for his girlfriend Sonya saves Raskolnikov.
The roles on stage in the play, apart from Raskolnikov include Razumikhin, a friend of Raskolnikov; Semyon Zakharovich Marmeladov, a drunkard; Marmeladov’s daughter Sonya, a prostitute; Polja, Sonya’s little sister, played by a small girl; Alyona Ivanovna, the murdered pawnbroker; Alyona’s half-sister, Lizaveta, also murdered; Dounia, Raskolnikov’s sister; Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigaïlov, Dounia’s ex-employer. And finally Porfiry, the police detective investigating the murder of the pawnbroker and her sister. On stage, actress Malou Gorter played Porfiry, though women were not allowed to work in the nineteenth century Russian police.
Noord Nederlands Toneel says that Dostoyevsky’s novel is from the nineteenth century. However, a central theme in the book is still important today. Raskolnikov sees poverty and injustice all around him in Russia (in spite of Dostoyevsky’s need for self-censorship). He does not want to be a passive onlooker. He wants to act in a way which he thinks will bring improvement. In practice, that act turns out to be a double murder which keeps haunting his conscience. “Doing nothing is not an option” is a platitude used by supporters of bloody “preventive wars”. Like the Iraq war, which did not cost two lives, like in Crime and Punishment, but over a million lives. The play shows how, at first sight, good intentions are used for bad acts.