‘We are not the elite! We are summerfolk in our own country… our only concern is making our lives as comfortable as possible.’
A group of educated and well-off metropolitan types spend the summer in the country and combat their crippling boredom with spirited conversations and copious amounts of alcohol. A writer comes to visit. Varvara, wife of the unscrupulous lawyer Bassov, feels attracted to him and gives the brush-off to the rich idler Ryumin, who has fallen for her. Suslov, a civil engineer, watches his wife’s affair with increasing incomprehension. Olga, a mother of several children, fluctuates between hatred for her husband, the unsuccessful director of the local hospital, and for herself. Finally, Marya, a capable doctor, falls in love with the much younger Vlas, who even returns her feelings. An aging factory owner tries in vain to make friends, and a young artist removes herself to Apollonian peaks.
Gorky’s Summerfolk demonstrates incredible potential for a future society based on contemplation. The intellectual clout of the people who gather together in the play is immense. They unravel their own existence with analytical precision and ask the right questions, but don’t act. Instead, they become entangled in the highly emotional world of their own thoughts. Sublimation takes the place of action. They long for a fulfilling future – to be redeemed by love, to have a meaningful purpose. But when confronted with unpleasant facts, they fail to react adequately. Indifference, coldness and egoism lurk underneath the surface of their sophisticated intellectual discussions. There seems to be no way out of this existential state.
In his 2003 book The Other Russia, the Russian political provocateur and writer Eduard Limonov wrote: ‘It’s not surprising that the revolution ignited after people read Gorky. Someone had to take a hammer to this world’. Indeed, Summerfolk premiered in November 1904, just months before the Russian Revolution. This gave rise to several political demonstrations in the theatre, with audience members making loud calls to overthrow the government, which led Gorky to write: ‘The performance of Summerfolk was a scandal and I’m satisfied. The play is not special, but I hit the target I was aiming for!’ His portrait of upper-class individuals and their inability to act must therefore be read as apathy in the face of their own imminent downfall. If the play had a fifth act, the end of czarist autocracy would also deprive nearly all the characters of their material livelihoods. But nothing has happened yet, leaving room for discussions of an existential nature.
The play will be staged by Evgeny Titov, born in Kazakhstan in 1980. With their images drawn from the depths of the subconscious mind, his productions bear a meticulously original stamp. Titov’s affinity to the œuvre of Maxim Gorky was instilled during his acting studies at the Theatre Arts Academy in St Petersburg and several years of acting work in Russia – after which he came to Vienna to study directing at the Max Reinhardt Seminar. His previous work, which includes productions for the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus, Staatstheater Wiesbaden and Landestheater Linz, has attracted great interest among audiences and critics. He makes his debut as an opera director at the Staatstheater Wiesbaden in 2020 and at the Komische Oper Berlin in 2021.
Translation: Sebastian Smallshaw