by Wesley Doucette
Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812 has been mostly discussed in three ways: 1) Its audacious staging; 2) Its rise from a shoebox theatre to the most nominated show of its Broadway season; and 3) The casting controversy which ultimately did it in. I am going to weigh in on exactly none of that. Instead, I want to analyze what I think makes the production such a profound work of art: its morality. Most who left The Great Comet left it with the sense that its achievements were mainly aesthetic and structural. This is, if not a mistake, then a missed opportunity. While I admit at first glance this play seems like a hollow exploration on melodramatic archetypes, with further investigation The Great Comet is one of the most profound explorations of guilt and forgiveness I’ve seen on a Broadway stage. Its moralizing is just well cloaked beneath its audacious aesthetic.
Most musicals, after Rogers and Hammerstein, rarely float to the self-aware upper classes but rather engage with a resentful lower. They tend to take place in a world where those on the lower class fight to survive. Poor people are allowed to engage with any manner of activity without losing their audience’s sympathy. In Les Miserables the Thénardiers are given a moral carte blanche due to their social standing whereas Jean Valjean, now wealthy, is a living saint. In Hamilton immoralities such as infidelities and restlessness come not from being a powerful aristocrat but from being “Young Scrappy and Hungry.” Such moral excusing reaches its lowest lows in Rent where the struggling artists voluntarily opt for this moral hammock. They believe this renders themselves immune to criticism, and so they defer from reaching out to social structures around them such as work and family. The wealthy, when given a name, are either saints or not meant to be cared for. Sondheim is the rare writer who gets away with high class moral ambiguity. He, smartly, doesn’t generally examine the nature of privilege in his work. His bread and butter is more individuals with internal conflicts, than social struggles. The odd man out in his catalogue is Sweeney Todd, another Thénardier who falls off the moral ladder in a way that is excused by the audience due to how low he is on the social ladder. These theatre spaces present a world of structured morality graded on a curve. The rich have no reason to be anything but happy and the poor can do as they please. Not so in The Great Comet where the aristocracy, who talk to us like we’re intimates, are selfish, capricious, remorseless, and human. The only real moral precursors to this musical in terms of social perspective are Kander and Ebb’s Chicago and Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. In Chicago, Threepenny, and The Great Comet the world doesn’t reward kindness and rarely punishes cruelty regardless of social class. The society in The Great Comet is, uncharacteristically for a Broadway Musical, unapologetically frivolous and wealthy. Though the question can be posed, as we look around at ourselves in the audience/stage, who are we to judge?
There are two emissaries from Moscow society in The Great Comet. The first is the devout old school Marya and the other the semi-sociopathic siblings Hèlene and Anatole. I say semi because Hèlene, especially as performed by Amber Gray, gets the short shrift contextually. Not to deviate too much from the conversation at hand but she too is trapped in a loveless marriage and she isn’t exactly apathetic to the life of Pierre during “The Duel” despite what he accuses. Anatole, on the other hand is the pure product of a society which places morality as little more than a system of rules and regulations. His life is founded on a rejection of personal morality and he treats social morality as a sport. He perhaps recognizes the democratizing playing field offered by such an internal compassion. Our Alice/Dorothy archetype to this world is Natasha, and reactions to her have surprised me. Many of my most stridently feminist friends have taken a Maria route in discussing Natasha’s actions: “Horrid girl. Hussy.” By their criticism she’s just another Broadway waif whose whole existence seems to be man centered and she’s too easily thrown off balance by sparkly objects. While I too am critical of the lack of weighty female roles on Broadway, such criticism here feels superficial. For one, the play overtly lets us know that if you don’t like Natasha, you’re not alone. Natasha isn’t universally likable in the world of the play. While Maria claims her as “her favorite” both Bolkonskys hate her from the word “go.” Also, should we not defend the right for people, including women, to make stupid decisions? Does every female character have to be a Job archetype or Malala to warrant the respect of compassion? If so, your bar is much too high and are thereby offering yourself an unfair acquittal to offer forgiveness to near anyone in your day to day life. This is a compassion you will one day undoubtedly have to ask from someone near to you. In short, if you find yourself dismissive of Natasha’s plight at the end of the play, how much better are you than the Moscow society which brought this girl to the point of suicide?
The morality of this play shares the narrative structure of Hamilton. In both pieces the story is centered around one character (Natasha here, Alexander in Hamilton) while the philosophical journey belongs to another (Pierre here, Eliza in Hamilton.) While here these two characters don’t cross paths until the end, during the play they happen upon the similar realizations. They discover that they live in a society which, when push comes to shove, will not value their lives. “So I shall be killed. What is it to you” from Pierre and “What is it to me? I shall die.” from Natasha. Moscow brings us to a society where the only thing that deserves pursuit is one’s personal pleasure, or pedestal. Pierre hasn’t mastered the former and Natasha fails at the latter. Pierre is more incapable of such an escapism than he is critical of it. He longs to be like Anatole and the others who can exist without internal examination. He is emotionally bogged by an intellectual hunger and searches through books to find answers in the world. He only shelves his books and his drinking in the final act of the play when he is brought in to diffuse the elopement scandal via Maria. He achieves this diffusion through three conversations.
The first conversation he has is with Anatole. It doesn’t go well. He begins by calmly, but crudely interrogating Anatole. Anatole dismisses him due to this perceived vulgarity. Never mind what he himself had attempted today, social niceties must be respected. Not women. Niceties. Pierre, reasonably, threatens to bash Anatole’s head in with a blunt object. Anatole, reasonably, is terrified by this. Pierre relents and coldly commands Anatole to leave Moscow. Anatole will do so on the condition that Pierre apologizes for his manners. The interchange feels in the moment like a plot cul de sac once Pierre apologizes and Anatole leaves. Yet consider that in this moment Pierre apologizes to a man who has attempted to elope with a young girl who was fiancéd to Pierre’s best friend for no reason other than his word choice. At this apology Anatole smiles. It is in the first of the three smiles Pierre witnesses at the end of the play. This smile is seen as “base” by Pierre. It’s a smirk of a smile that proves this sociopath has achieved what he set out to do and will continue in his life unchanged. In the way Pierre seems incapable of enjoying life Anatole is equally incapable of basic sympathy. “I don’t know that and I don’t want to.” This conversation places in front of us the perverted kind of forgiveness demanded by arbitrary hierarchy. When personal moral standards aren’t prioritized, anything is justifiable within a system and a cart blanche from society is a carte blanche from the conscious. In The Great Comet the rich are just as culpable of using a moral hammock.
The next conversation Pierre has is with André, his close friend and Natasha’s now ex-fiancé. André has had a bad go of it. He is the only character who has truly endured the war. Others had been in the war but they seem to have been able to leave unchanged. André however, comes in as the play’s sole emissary from reality. His entrance is greeted with a hangover like glaring white light. Pierre asks, unbidden by anyone, for André to forgive Natasha. He even references André’s own moral system, stated sometime before the actions of the play, wherein a “fallen” woman should be forgiven. André proclaims that he has found that he can not do so. The underlying hypocrisy is acknowledged by André but he simply doesn’t have such grace. On its face this is incredibly reasonable but for the second time here we see cruelty in a smile. He wears this smile “Coldly. Maliciously.” once Pierre tells André how badly Natasha is faring. Such consequences for Natasha in the eyes of André aren’t proof of the necessity of his forgiveness but rather a kind of justice. While again I’ll admit that on the cast album this is the song I’m most likely to skip, one can not eschew its importance not just narratively but also thematically. How often are we shown that forgiveness is something easy and obvious? Were this another musical we would watch André repair his relationship with Natasha or we’d watch Natasha grow into a person who doesn’t need anyone because of her fortitude and newfound independence. Instead André’s spite forbids him to help this girl and this lack of forgiveness further isolates and weakens Natasha.
The final conversation is between, for the first time in the musical, Pierre and Natasha. I know many people who call this scene anticlimactic. Musically we hit bedrock with the orchestration disappearing leaving us with nothing more than two people in conversation. Natasha makes no overt grand discovery on life opening the chance to belt to the rafters. Pierre doesn’t do a stirring reprise of “Dust and Ashes.” They have a brief conversation followed by some light stargazing on Pierre’s part. If a reunion, or a death, or a kiss could be found on your dramatic wish list, you perhaps left the theatre disappointed. What can be found in such an otherwise underwhelming moment that causes Malloy and Tolstoy to place so much dramatic faith in it? For me the beauty lies in its representation of true forgiveness and the depth of these easily dismissed characters. I think the wellspring of depth in Natasha’s character resides in the words “No I know it’s over. I know it never can be. But still I’m tormented by the wrongs I’ve done him. Please tell him to forgive, forgive, forgive me for... everything.” For the first time Pierre talks to someone who realizes that they’ve done something wrong. What’s more, he talks to someone who asks for forgiveness not from high society but from the person that they hurt by virtue of the fact that they hurt them. On top of that, when prompted to throw Anatole under the bus she chastises Pierre “Don’t call him bad.” She defends Anatole’s honor even after she has learned he has a wife. This also isn’t the naive residue of infatuation, as she admits to Pierre that her love has faded at least to the point of uncertainty. “…but I don’t know. I don’t know at all.” One should consider the rarity of a person like that. I know many people who find Natasha not worthy of such positive critical engagement but if we examine the beauty of this moment we should all want to emulate her. Pierre sees her weep. Important to note that Pierre, for all time we spend with him, never has an interaction with someone who weeps. He sees her weep and Pierre, knowing such isolation too well, offers her redemption. In this moment, while Natasha leaves the room and glances at Pierre, she looks at Pierre and offers him the third smile.
It this third “grateful last glance” that teaches Pierre something profound. He learns that this forgiveness is the love he has been looking for in life. It is her smile that makes mankind seem “So pitiful. So poor.” The depth of this moment is underlined in its personification by way of The Great Comet. A comet that, while presumed to bring misfortune by Moscow Society, is gazed at joyfully by Pierre. He finds in it his proof that good exists and his life might have meaning. If he witnessed the comet before his interaction with Natasha I imagine he would have felt nothing. Yet the purity of their simple, profound conversation unleashed a shift from cold-classism to optimistic romanticism. The Great Comet was more than just the new shake up of aesthetic. It teaches us how to hold ourselves to humanist moral standards in an era which frames compassion as a defect. I expect we’re going to need more such plays very soon.