The Jewel in the Manuscript

Review of a Stage Play by Joey Madia

Fyodor Dostoevsky is recognized by many as one of history’s greatest novelists (myself included). Crime and Punishment is ubiquitous in high school and college literature classes, and Notes From Underground, the Brothers Karamasov, and The Idiot beg numerous readings over the course of one’s life.

His novels dig deeply into the human psyche, tackle complex moral issues, and are rich in both characterization and imagery.

That said, I knew little about the personal life of the man whose novels were part of the reason why I became a writer. And so it was, with no hesitation and great interest, that I accepted the request to read and review this play, which, as the playwright tells us, “was inspired by events in Dostoevsky’s life.” “Inspired by” is a phrase I much prefer in place of “based on a true story.” It gives the writer ample room for interpretation, as “inspiration” indicates the writer’s role clearer than “based on.” Because of “inspired by,” I did not fact check the play beyond the playwright’s own notes to the reader at the end of the script.

The play is set in St. Petersburg over the course of a month. The year is 1866. The action takes place in Dostoevsky’s study and in the home of a recently graduated stenographer, Anna, who is hired by a friend of the author’s to write down in shorthand and then type Dostoevsky’s latest work. The stakes are high—he has thirty days to supply a new novel (his incomplete and serialized Crime and Punishment is a sensation) to a creditor (he has a love of gambling) or he will lose all his future royalties because this creditor will own all of his work.

As Dostoevsky enters the parlor of his home, he is surprised the stenography school has sent a woman. He has also forgotten anyone was coming at all because he is stressed and obviously struggling. He worries about the subject matter of his stories (“I write about thieves, murderers, whores!”) and the sensibilities—and deficiencies—of a woman, but Anna is persistent and proves her abilities with a few quick demos.

As their initially awkward and problematic relationship progresses, we gain insight into the two leads through three other characters.

First, Dostoevsky’s stepson, Pasha, with whom he has a contentious relationship. Although Dostoevsky is clearly difficult, as most passionate novelists are (especially those whose ideas are revolutionary), we learn early on that Pasha has a sizable chip on his shoulder. There is also persistent intimation that he blames his stepfather for the demise of his mother.

Second is Anna’s mother, with whom she lives. We see far different aspects of Anna during these scenes—cuing just how thoroughly she is capable of changing her personality and suppressing her will when she is with Dostoevsky, so great is her desire to prove herself as an independent woman and to a writer she admires.

The third is the friend who hired Anna. He is Dostoevsky’s champion and functions to show us that it not just an impressionable young woman’s fascination with a celebrity that allows her to continue to working for the moody and opinionated author. He also subtly enlightens Dostoevsky as to how his growing relationship with Anna is making changes to the trajectories of the characters and concerns of his novels.

It’s a wonderful device that we are able to witness and hear Dostoevsky’s writing process. It’s value-added to see how the familiar passages from Crime and Punishment (which he returns to later in the play) take shape and how the end was ultimately informed by these new circumstances. We also see where Anna begins to inspire him and even at times to drive the direction of the narrative. Writers often base their characters on those with whom they interact, especially while a project is in process. They are energetically working almost constantly, pulling bits and pieces of environment, dialogue, interaction, and circumstances, often on a sub- or semiconscious level.

As the play progresses we learn more about Dostoevsky’s radicalism and near demise at the hands of a firing squad. His personal history, social activism, and character flaws compete for dominance in his psyche and yet, the further he lets Anna in, the more we see the seamless dance in which they engage to produce his later works. The facets of his sociopolitical and religious views are illuminated in the course of their growing relationship, both inside the task at hand and outside of it. His thoughts on the major powers of Europe are also refreshing, as much Russian literature is rather insular. This device also allows the lines between their professional and personal relationships to blur on an additional level than is the case with most Boy Meets Girl narratives.

As the stakes lessen for the completion of the novel within the 30 days, other stakes increase, including reveals of why Pasha is so angry with his stepfather. These reveals are also crucial for the Boy Meets Girl primary theme and lead to the thorny third act obstacles.

For more information or to obtain production rights, contact the playwright at Rzibart@earthlink.net

TITLE: The Jewel in the Manuscript
AUTHOR: Rosemary Ziebart
PRODUCER: Z Productions, Santa Fe, NM
GENRE: Stage Play