Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov on stage

This video is the trailer of the theatre play The Brothers Karamazov, as played by Toneelgroep Maastricht in the Netherlands. The play, lasting for three hours, is based on the novel The Brothers Karamazov, by Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881).

A review of this play is here.

Last year, another famous Dostoyevsky novel had been on a Dutch stage: Crime and Punishment. Adapted by a different Dutch playwright; and played by a different theatre company: Noord Nederlands Toneel.

This video is about another version of The Brothers Karamazov on a Dutch stage, in 2009.


Dostoyevsky wrote the novel The Brothers Karamazov just before his death. Earlier in his life, he had been a political prisoner, exiled to Siberia. The “crime” for which Dostoyevsky was punished was membership of a discussion group about literature, where there was also criticism of czarist absolute monarchy.

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.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky writes about a middle-aged well-off man from the lower nobility class, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, and his four twenty-something sons. He does not have a good relationship with any of the sons. One of the boys murders father Fyodor. Police arrest the wrong suspect, the eldest son Dmitri. Dmitri is then convicted to hard labour in Siberia (like happened to Dostoyevsky). Two of his brothers plan to help innocent Dmitri escape to the USA.

Now, from the nineteenth century novelist to the twenty-first century play based on his work. On 29 November 2014, Toneelgroep Maastricht performed it in Leiden. Erik-Ward Geerlings had written the play.

In the play, the father Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov becomes a pimp. Unlike in the novel, where he is an unsympathetic character, whose business empire includes ownership of pubs. The two female characters Katerina (Dmitri’s fiancée and second brother Ivan’s love interest in the novel) and Agrafena, also called Grushenka (Dmitri’s, and his father’s, love interest) become prostitutes in Fyodor’s brothel in the play.

Another change: even in a three-hour play, you have to cut out some of the many hundreds of pages of the novel. The trial for murder of Dmitri is not in the play.

The Grand Inquisitor of Sevilla, a story told by atheist Ivan to his religious youngest brother Alyosha, is also left out.

Cast: Lore Dijkman (Agrafena), Gitta Fleuren (Marja, brothel manager; not a character in the novel), Freek den Hartogh (Ivan), Erik Koningsberger (out-of-wedlock brother and servant Pavel Fyodorovich Smerdyakov), Krisjan Schellingerhout (youngest son Alyosha), Hans Trentelman (Fyodor), Martijn van der Veen (Dmitri), Jessie Wilms (Katerina).

In the first scene, Ivan tries to persuade Katerina to run away from his father’s brothel, together with him. Though Katerina loves Ivan, she has doubts about starting a new life. She is from a very poor family (contrary to the novel, where the character Katerina is from a rich noble family, a colonel’s daughter); as a prostitute, she makes at least some money, which penniless Ivan does not have.

Like in the book, Dmitri has a conflict with father Fyodor about inheriting money from his deceased mother. Contrary to the book, he wants to use that money to start a new brothel, as competition of his father’s business.

Also like in the book, Fyodor is murdered by out-of-wedlock son and servant Smerdyakov. In the book, Smerdyakov confesses this to Ivan only, and then commits suicide. In the play, Smerdyakov confesses this while all the other characters are present, and then commits suicide.

So, Smerdyakov is dead, and cannot be held accountable any more. Does anyone else have at least some guilt? Basically, they all had motives to hate Fyodor. Marja says: ‘I am not even in the book. So, I am not guilty in any way’. She leaves the stage. Katerina and Agrafena say that they are not family, so it does not concern them. They leave. Then, Alyosha says he has become a monk, so he cannot discuss guilt of the murder with his brothers. Ivan quits as well. That leaves Dmitri, who confesses to at least some guilt.

This is a music video of the song De zusters Karamazov (The Karamazov sisters), by Swiss-Dutch comedian Drs P. It is about two elderly sisters, quarreling about an inheritance. One of them tries to poison her sister, but accidentally tastes the poison herself and dies. The name ‘Karamazov’ is only in the title, not in the lyrics. The connection is that both in the song and in the novel, someone murders a relative; and there are inheritance issues.

3 thoughts on “Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov on stage

  1. Pingback: Actress Luise Rainer, RIP | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. Pingback: Theatre play Oeroeg in Leiden theatre | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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