Wednesday, 15 July 1998

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: Candle in the Wind (1969)

Translation: Keith Armes, 1973
Edition: Penguin, 1976
Review number: 85

This play, whose original title translates as the New Testament quote The Light Which is in Thee, was written about the same time as the novel First Circle, in the early sixties. (As the Bible verse is quoted in the play, it seems rather perverse to re-title it.) It is set, unusually for Solzhenitsyn, in a fantastic world, a scientific dystopia rather like George Orwell's 1984 or Zamyatin's We.

The plot is concerned with the morality of institutionalised brainwashing. Alex, who's past is based closely on that of Solzhenitsyn himself, has returned home; he had been wrongly imprisoned for a murder he did not commit, and was released when the truth was finally discovered. He meets his cousin Alda on his return, and gets involved in the academic life of the town. This is polarised as far as he is concerned between the music of his uncle Maurice (who seems to represent the disappearing past) and the psychological research of Radagise. He is developing a method to ensure the stability of the personality, which he tries out on Alda at Alex's suggestion. The problem is that this stabilisation amounts to brainwashing; she is no longer the same personality.

A visiting general sees the potential this has to serve the state: a race of docile subjects can be created, ready to do whatever their rulers require of them. Alda is eventually shocked out of her bland mind-state by the death of her father. The really shocking thing, though, is that she wants to return to the stabilised condition; life is so much easier without worrying emotions and responsibilities. The horror this gives Alex is, I think, a large part of the point of the play.

Thus the theme of the play is the battle between individualism and the kind of corporate identity required in the modern totalitarian state, just as it is in the more famous dystopias already mentioned. I'm not sure that Candle in the Wind would work terribly well on stage, and on paper it's shortness means that it can't compete with a novel for examination of the issues in any depth. But it's well worth a read, for characterising the kind of person - whom I suspect to be in the majority - who would rather give up their personal freedom of choice to live an easy life.

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