Refuge . . . of a sort

Fact and fiction blend in a play about a play with 'isms' center stage

by Michael Hoffman

The main character of the one-act play that follows is loosely based on the few known facts concerning a Russian nobleman-refugee named Semyon Nikolaevitch Smirnitsky. Born in St. Petersburg in 1879, Smirnitsky fled the Russian Revolution in 1919 and spent the rest of his life in Japan, mostly in Otaru, Hokkaido, as a teacher of Russian at Otaru Commercial High School — today’s Otaru Commercial College. His personality was at least remarkable enough to have inspired some of his students to write affectionate, if patchy, memoirs about him. After World War II, he was briefly detained on an apparently baseless suspicion of spying for the Soviet Union. He died in 1948.

All characters other than “Smir-sensei” are entirely fictitious.

Scene 1:

Late afternoon of a day in early February 1932, dusk just beginning to fall. Ono, muffled and hunched against the cold, walks rapidly along a narrow street, frozen snow crunching underfoot. As he approaches his destination his pace slows and he seems to hesitate. He turns into the walkway of a large two-story wooden Japanese-style house. At the door he hesitates again, then pulls the bell handle. No answer. He rings again. No answer. Gingerly he tries the door, which slides open. He steps inside. Suddenly a monkey springs at him; Ono screams, but at once recovers himself.

Ono: Oh, it’s you, Tolstoy. Where’s Smir-sensei? (looks at his watch) It’s 5 o’clock. (turning to two boys, Takahashi and Yano, approaching from behind) Sensei’s not here.

Takahashi: Let’s go inside, I’m freezing.

Ono: We can’t just walk in . . .

Takahashi: Sure we can. “Make yourselves at home,” he’s always saying.

Yano: “My home is your home.” (He brushes past Ono and leads the way through a long corridor into a very large kitchen. Little animals scurry about everywhere — rabbits, small dogs, cats. The wood-burning stove is glowing; it’s very hot. The boys remove their coats; they are wearing high school uniforms. On the large table are strewn pots and pans and cooking utensils of all kinds, as though the occupant of the house had been suddenly called away while in the midst of preparing a meal. The monkey chatters volubly.)

Yano: Quiet, Tolstoy!

Ono: He fixed the time himself, didn’t he? Can’t he at least . . .

Takahashi: Where’s Pushkin?

Yano: (snickering) Taking a nap in the study, maybe.

Ono: (kicking aside a clinging dog) Is this a house, or a zoo? Who’s that? (enter Inoue)

Inoue: Tagawa will be along in a minute. He stopped at the pharmacist’s to get his medicine. Where’s Smir-sensei?

Takahashi: Ask Tolstoy here.

Yano: He knows, but doesn’t speak our language.

Takahashi: Let’s go into the study and see the snakes.

Ono: (irritated) Never mind the snakes. We’re here to . . .

Yano: Here’s Tagawa. Did you get your epilepsy medicine? You’re not going to have a fit or anything, are you?

Tagawa: (mildly) I don’t have epilepsy, I have asthma. I don’t have fits.

Ono: We’re here to rehearse. The play is in three weeks; we haven’t even started re . . .

Takahashi: How can we rehearse? We don’t have a script.

Ono: We should’ve had the script weeks ago!

Yano: The trouble with you, Ono, is you’re too serious. If Smir-sensei has anything to teach us, besides Russian, it’s that being serious is not the way to get through life!

Ono: You don’t need anyone to teach you that — and as for me . . . (The sudden noise of someone furiously flinging open a door. Enter a man in a Russian fur hat and long overcoat. Tall, imposing and heavily bearded, he speaks Japanese with a heavy Russian accent.)

Man: (glaring fiercely) Arrest them! You are friends of Smirnitsky? Eh? Well? Smirnitsky has been arrested! He has confessed! He is a spy! You are all spies — traitors! To the firing squad with them! The firing squad! (roars with laughter, removes his hat, rips off his false beard) Ha ha! (now speaks with scarcely a trace of an accent) Ono-kun, you are white as a sheet! Ha ha! You’d think you’d be wise to my little pranks by now. (removes coat, tosses it carelessly over the back of a chair) Tolstoy! Ah, you are glad to see me! How is Pushkin doing? (to the boys) Pushkin is not well. I am worried about him. He is dull, listless, not himself. . . . Let’s go into the study and see how — Pushkin! (enter a second monkey, yawning and rubbing his eyes) You’ve had a nap, you look better! Doesn’t he look better, Tolstoy? Yes. . . . (to the boys) Just before, he seemed so out of sorts that I ran to consult my friend Dr. Kondo. That is why I am late. Kondo said he will come and look at him as soon as he is free. . . . (to Pushkin, stroking the monkey’s head) But now I look at you and I wonder if there is any need to trouble him. What do you think, boy, eh?

Ono: Sensei . . .

Smir: Yes, Ono-kun.

Ono: Sensei, forgive me, but . . . (embarrassed) the play is in three weeks . . .

Smir: Plenty of time, plenty of time!

Ono: But we are not actors, like you.

Smir: Like me! Ha ha ha!

Ono: (doggedly, eyes lowered) And we are not Russian-speakers. We need time to prepare, to rehearse.

Smir: Quite right. I ask your pardon. Come into the study. You will see I have not been idle. Begging forgiveness of the divine Chekhov as I worked, I have prepared an abridged, simplified version of his immortal play “Uncle Vanya.” There is one copy for everyone. I was up two nights in a row writing out copies — and yet I don’t feel tired, not in the least! It was as if Chekhov himself was in the room with me. You have of course all read the play in Japanese — yes? Takahashi-kun! I have a special favor to ask you. You mustn’t refuse me. I want you to take the part of Sonya. (muted snickering)

Takahashi: Me?

Smir: You!

Takahashi: Play a woman?

Smir: Trust my instincts, Takahashi-kun! And my makeup skills too, which . . . well, you will see. You will see! A sudden inspiration I had: This part is for Takahashi, Takahashi alone — because Takahashi is sensitive and . . . She is a plain woman, you see, in love with a man who does not love her. It is tragic. You must play her with delicacy, subtlety, nuance . . .

Takahashi: But sensei . . .

Smir: “But sensei, I am not a woman!” Of course you are not a woman! You are Takahashi. Does that mean that on stage you can be only Takahashi? Is that theater — Takahashi being Takahashi? In the theater we leave reality behind, we create new reality! That is what . . . (The doorbell rings.) Ah! That will be Dr. Kondo. Excuse me. (exit)

Yano: (mockingly) Delicacy! Subtlety! Nuance!

Takahashi (grumbling) I’m not playing Sonya.

Yano: Theater, Takahashi, theater! Leave reality behind! Ha ha! (Enter Smirnitsky and Kondo, conversing, to the boys’ surprise, in Russian.)

Smir: Boys, this is Dr. Kondo. I have known him many years, his wife is Russian, he is the best veterinarian in all Otaru. Pushkin! Come, we will go into the study and have Dr. Kondo examine you — though really, doctor, I’m afraid I have troubled you for nothing. Excuse me, boys, for just a few minutes. Start reading among yourselves. I will be with you presently. (exit)

Tagawa: I want to play Professor Serebryakov. He’s old and ill . . .

Yano: And you’re young and ill.

Inoue: That’d make you Takahashi’s papa. (re-enter Smirnitsky, flurried, with papers)

Smir: Here, I forgot . . . (distributes papers) Start reading, start reading! (exits hurriedly)

Takahashi: I’m not playing Sonya. Let Ono play her. He has the face of a girl.

Yano: He has delicacy, but he lacks subtlety and nuance. Whereas you . . .

Ono: Shut up, Yano!

Yano: Oh dear, oh dear! Ono-kun is angry! Help! He is going to strike me with his handkerchief! (Ono abruptly snatches his coat and makes as if to leave.)

Inoue: Wait! (holds him by the arm) Come, Ono’s right. Enough fooling. Let’s get down to work. Takahashi, you’re being stupid. Since there are only boys enrolled in Smir-sensei’s Russian course, we might have expected that some of us would have to play women.

Tagawa: Didn’t he say that some of his Russian friends would join us? I thought . . .

Inoue: I’d be happy to play a woman. It’ll be fun. I’ll volunteer for Marina, the old servant. Don’t kabuki actors play women? It’s a role, a performance, it’s nothing to . . . Ono, what . . . you’re crying!

Ono: (sobbing openly, wrenching his arm from Inoue’s grasp) Leave me alone! Do you think I enrolled in this course to . . . to . . . Do you think I . . . (sniffs, wipes his eyes, masters his emotion; quietly) I’ll tell you why I enrolled in this course. I am a Communist. A Marxist. I believe in the regeneration of mankind through socialism, and I long passionately to emigrate to the Soviet Union. (The others gaze at him in utter stupefaction. Ono resumes, defiantly, after a short silence.) Go ahead, call the police, have me arrested! You all think I’m weak, but even if they torture me to death I will never renounce my beliefs. (Silence)

Tagawa: (whispering incredulously) You want to emigrate to the Soviet Union?

Takahashi: To live under Stalin?

Inoue: After what Sensei said?

Takahashi: Starvation, mass killings . . .

Ono: (grumbling) Don’t believe everything Sensei says.

Tagawa: He ought to know, he . . .

Ono: (flaring up) Sensei is an aristocrat, an enemy of the people! For hundreds of years he and his kind fattened off the toil of the working class. Now at last . . .

Tagawa: Sensei an enemy of the people?

Yano: Sensei fat?

Takahashi: Is this Ono speaking? Or is it some imposter pretending to be Ono?

Inoue: It sure isn’t the Ono we know.

Ono: You mean the Ono you think you know. No, it isn’t. In secret I have read, studied, thought. And you? You see only the surface, which means you see nothing. You do not understand the revolution’s great goal, which is to . . . to regenerate mankind! To regenerate the soul! To root out egoism and selfishness and build in its place . . . a collective personality! A personality that . . . (A door is heard opening.) Shh!

(Smirnitsky enters, looking grim, followed by Kondo.)

Smir: Boys, my deepest, deepest apologies. I have received news, I must leave you. We will resume our rehearsal . . . today is Sunday . . . Wednesday, after class. Truly, I am sorry. There is still, fortunately, plenty of time.

Inoue: Is it Pushkin?

Smir: (brightening slightly) Oh no! No, Pushkin is quite well, thanks be to God! He will be fine. Dr. Kondo! (He shakes his hand vigorously.) I thank you again and again, for everything.

Kondo: I will see you, then, at Otaru Station at 8 o’clock sharp.

Smir: (seeing him out) Yes, yes, 8 o’clock sharp.

Takahashi: Sensei?

Smir: Yes, Takahashi-kun.

Takahashi: Sensei, I’ve thought it over. I was being childish. I beg your pardon. I will play Sonya if you want me to, if you think . . .

Smir: (brightening still more) Excellent! I am so pleased. But for now, (somber) I’m afraid I must say goodbye. I was hoping to begin rehearsals today, and then (indicating the clutter on the table) to cook you all a genuine Russian dinner. Well, Wednesday after class! We have plenty of time. Inoue, I have you in mind for the part of Dr. Astrov. Think it over. Goodbye, goodbye. Tagawa, give my regards to your father . . . Ono-kun, would you remain behind for just a few minutes? I would like a word with you. Come into the study.

Scene 2:

The study is almost as large as the kitchen, but so heavily furnished, so cluttered, as to seem confining. It is conspicuously un-Japanese. A heavy curtain along one wall gives a sense of total, almost cavelike enclosure.

The floor is covered by a thick Persian carpet. A stove blazes; like the kitchen, it is very hot. In the center of the room is a remarkably large wooden desk, strewn with papers and books. Along two of the walls are bookcases brimming with books. Along another is a thick leather sofa. On top of the bookcases and here and there on the floor are fish tanks and other receptacles holding snakes, turtles, lizards. . . . Hanging on one wall is a reproduction of Perov’s famous portrait of Dostoevsky. Long-bearded, wrapped in an overcoat, the writer sits with one leg folded over the other, his hands clasped on his knee — the very image of tense self-consciousness.

Beside the portrait is a large, old-fashioned grandfather clock, which ticks loudly in the silence of the room. The dim lighting comes from a floor lamp behind the desk.

Smirnitsky and Ono are seated opposite each other on two heavy armchairs. Unconsciously, Ono sits in much the same attitude as Dostoevsky, and looks no less ill at ease; the contrast this poses between youth and age is almost comical. Pushkin, still a little under the weather, reclines on the sofa. Tolstoy, restless, chatters and makes a nuisance of himself. Rabbits, cats and dogs come and go unregarded.

Smir: Am I keeping you from anything, Ono-kun?

Ono: (looking about as though for a means of escape) No . . . that is . . .

Smir: Sit with me for a few minutes. I won’t keep you long. (pause) I feel somehow drawn to you. You remind me of my son. You don’t know, Ono, and I hope you never learn, how — what is the word I am looking for? Lonely, of course, but . . . something more. The loneliness of exile . . . I hope you never know it — is like no other loneliness. But these times are like no other times. One cannot be sure of anything.

Ono: Your son?

Smir: You are surprised. I have never spoken of my family. I have three children — two boys and a girl.

Ono: Where are they?

Smir: In Russia. St. Petersburg — Leningrad, they call it now. It is my younger son you remind me of. He is just about your age. Tolstoy, be quiet! My wife, when I fled Russia in 1919, refused to leave. She was a true revolutionary, a true believer. Had the occasion arisen, she would without hesitation have informed on me as a counter- revolutionary — without hesitation; and it’s not that she did not love me! Oh no, she did. I daresay she loves me still. And would inform on me still. (dreamily) Tell me, Ono-kun: do you believe in God?

Ono: (confused) In God? The Christian God?

Smir: In God. Not in this God or that God . . . I myself didn’t believe, Ono, and I mocked the fools who did.

But here’s what I now know: Man without God is monstrous. Man must believe in God. It’s not a question of, does the idea appeal to you, does it make sense logically, is it consistent with the precepts of science. We must believe. Because without God . . . Lenin becomes God, Stalin becomes God. Yes, strange as it may seem, it is Lenin and Stalin who made me believe in God. (strained silence)

You are wondering why I am telling you this, why I single you out from the others to tell you this. Well, first, as I said, you remind me, for some mysterious reason, of my son, who I last saw when he was 5 years old. So there is something in me that yearns to tell you all the things I would tell him, all the things I have learned about life.

But there is something else. (pause) Something else . . . I myself hardly know what. It is as if . . . I seem to see you, as though in a dream. I see you on the edge of a precipice, and I have an impulse to reach out a hand to you, to steady you, to pull you back . . .

Speak to me, Ono-kun. You know how fond I am of you.

Ono: (agitated) I . . . I too . . . I mean . . .

Smir: Your heart is troubled. Is it not?

Ono: I . . .

Smir: Tell me.

Ono: I . . . (breaks off)

Smir: (after a pause) I must go to Hakodate tonight. Dr. Kondo has asked me to accompany him. Some men, Russians, came ashore in a fishing boat. They seek asylum. Alas, Japan no longer grants asylum to Russians fleeing Stalin’s earthly paradise. Tokyo officially recognized the Soviet Union in 1925. The men will no doubt be forcibly repatriated. That is what is done nowadays. It is a death sentence — they will be shot as soon as they arrive. Or sent to a labor camp, which is worse.

The Hokkaido Russian Immigrant Society, in which Dr. Kondo and his wife are very active, and I too, in a small way . . . the society has offered to raise money to ship the prisoners to Shanghai, or some other neutral port. The Japanese have refused. They say it would harm relations with the Soviet Union. Dr. Kondo thinks perhaps I can persuade them.

It is useless, hopeless. Who am I? What can I say? Still, I must do what I can. (pause) Ono . . . What happened in Russia in 1917, 1918, 1919 — what is happening there still — the chaos, the madness, the . . . the evil . . . it is not possible to describe such things to someone who has known only settled times. Engulfed by chaos, engulfed by evil, I failed — failed my own children. I failed them. I would like not to fail you. (pause)

Won’t you tell me? Shall I guess, then? You have been seduced by the illusion of an earthly paradise, you have been seduced by Stalin; he is your god, your sun . . .

Ono: (passionately) Yes! Yes! I will go to the Soviet Union and help build the earthly paradise that you — like all aristocrats who despise the people — revile! It is my dream! Long live Stalin! And death to . . . to . . .

Smir: (calmly) To his enemies? To me? (He rises to his feet, goes to his desk, and from a drawer withdraws a revolver, which he hands to Ono.) Take it. It is loaded. I am a Russian officer who knows how to face death, and I trust in God to send it at the right time. (resumes his seat; pause) That is not how you aim a gun — here, let me show you. Good heavens! You’re trembling! You’re pale . . . Well, here, give it back to me then. Let us put it back where it came from (he does so) and forget that it exists.

Your heart is good, Ono. I knew that it was. Had I doubted it, I would not have thrown away my life so lightly. I love life, you see, though it mocks my love and sends sorrow upon sorrow. We will talk further of this another time. Come, Ono, you mustn’t . . . (Ono is sobbing helplessly.) Come. It is getting late. I must prepare food for my menagerie. I will return Tuesday morning. On Wednesday we will begin rehearsing in earnest.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “Birnbaum: A Novel of Inner Space” (Printed Matter Press, 2008). His Web site is at www.michaelhoffman. squarespace.com