This analysis of The Pretenders was originally published in The Continental Drama of Today. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1914. pp. 44-7.
The Man Who Was Dead is, like most of its author's plays, written with a purpose: it is intended to show the evils of the Russian divorce laws [of the time]. Besides being a thesis, or purpose play, it is a character study; while Fedia is technically a means to the author's ends, he is interesting as a psychological study.
Although Tolstoy disregarded many of the laws regulating the "well-made" play, he introduces certain of its elements, such as the conventional exposition and the delayed entrance of the "hero." The first departure from the trodden path is the entire change of scene (Scene 2): the playwright is by no means desirous of giving an effect of unity to his first act. But the play gains in variety by this procedure, while a greater unity is felt throughout, as a result of the fixing of our attention upon the central figure: he is the unity of the play.
The end of the first act is no less effective than if it were carefully prepared; the way, for example, a Pinero play is prepared. The unemphatic "curtain" adds to the realism of the scene, and the interest is carried forward, because the audience has more, and knows it, to learn about Fedia and his adventures. It might almost be said that in this case the unemphatic ending becomes emphatic.
Having determined that the theme of the play was to be the divorce laws, and since one of its chief points of interest was Fedia, the author seems to have cared little how his work as drama proceeded. The action is abrupt, and in places, a little tedious. Observe, for instance, that although in the second scene of the second act Fedia declares that he will disappear in order that his wife may be free to marry Victor, the resolution is not carried out nor the action developed, until after the elapse of an entire act. The story, per se, suffers.
After all the circumstances are made clear, after the audience is familiar with the main characters, we may expect the "big scene." The last act, laid in the Magistrate's office, is where Tolstoy drives home his lesson, and makes his plea against the laws. The scene is good, because it seems natural, the suspense is kept up and interest sustained until the catastrophe, Fedia's suicide.
Court scenes and cross-examinations are nearly always effective on the stage, as they are in life: Galsworthy's The Silver Box and Justice, Alexandre Bisson's Madame X, [and] Brieux's Red Robe and Maternity are good instances of this.
Note what Tolstoy does in this last scene: besides making his final plea against the law, he naturally ends his play with Fedia's suicide. What else does he do?
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