Leonid Andreyev (1871-1919) as a literary figure was born in the gloomy atmosphere of depression of the 1890s. He thus appeared upon the literary stage at a period when the old and splendid generation of Turgenev and Dostoyevsky had already passed away and when Chekhov had begun to demonstrate before the reader the gloom and colorlessness of Russian life.
This was a period when the social forces of Russia were half destroyed by the reaction under Alexander III, and when the young generation was trying to rest and to get away from the strain of social hopes and despair. This period, briefly speaking, was a period of melancholy, of commonplace, everyday preoccupations, and of dull terre à terre philosophy.
It must be borne in mind that literature was the only outlet for the moral and intellectual forces of Russia. Political reaction, censorship, complete absence of civil liberties, and the cult of popular ignorance upon which Czardom based its power, all these made the written artistic word almost the sole expression of Russian social longings and idealistic expectations.
It is therefore only natural that Russian literature in its general development was closely interwoven with the political and social conditions of Russia at that given moment. The 1890s were a period of depression. After the assassination of Alexander II (1881) and the subsequent tightening of the chain of reaction, combined with a general débâcle in progressive and radical circles, the Russian intellectual fell into a state of pessimism. His faith in an early liberation was shattered, his hope of recovery was broken. Chekhov is the most characteristic representative of that period; he himself called his heroes "the dull-grey people."
Maxim Gorky and Leonid Andreyev appeared almost simultaneously at that time. The former brought the message of a rebel spirit which forecast a new moral upheaval, a new social protest; the latter appeared clad in the gloom of his time, which he strangely combined with a spirit of almost anarchistic revolt. From the point of view of historical completeness Leonid Andreyev is more representative of the epoch, demonstrating at once two contradictory elements of the Russia of the 1890s: lack or even absence of faith interwoven with protest and mutiny.
Andreyev is symbolic and romantic. Her Majesty Fate and His Excellency Accident, these are the two dark, unknown, at times brutal forces which dwelt ever before the mind's eye. His symbols are full of horror and at times unbending atrocity. Beginning with his short stories, In Fog, The Life of Basil of Thebes, through his dramas, The Life of Man, and Anathema, until his last writings, he saw human beings in the form of ghosts and ghosts in the form of human beings dominating every step, every breath of life. Still his gruesome symbolism, despite his genius for rendering his images in a clear-cut, almost crystalline manner, did not appeal to many of his contemporaries because the dark shroud in which Andreyev enveloped life was impenetrable and at times it was impossible to discern in that gloom the few values which Andreyev still found in life. Leo Tolstoy said once: "Leonid Andreyev tries to frighten me, but I am not afraid."
Even in his splendid realistic dramas it is difficult for Andreyev to rid himself of the habit of symbolizing and dimming the few rays of light which try to filter through.
There was nevertheless a little corner in Andreyev's artistic heart where there appeared some indefinite hope which never acquired a specific artistic form, but which was alluded to many times in his writings. In his short story, Thought, he makes fragmentary allusions to his half-hope, half-idea: "If the lot of the Man be to become a God, his throne will be the Book," says the hero.
But the red laugh of the Russo-Japanese war, the abortive revolution of 1905, the general ignorance and darkness of the masses, the strain of the last war, the depreciation of human life as a value in itself, brought Leonid Andreyev to the last step of the pessimistic ladder which he was ever descending into the abyss of hopelessness. This state of mind is best illustrated by his last dramatic work, He Who Gets Slapped.
Here we see a man of high education, of great intellectual achievement, who leaves life, willingly in appearance, but forcibly in fact. The relations of man to man, of group to group, according to Andreyev are such that the Man is forced to efface himself. Even Thought, or the Book, could not help the Man to become a God. He becomes a clown. He performs stunts, he gets slaps; the public laughs, being unaware that this laughter is a mockery at itself, at its culture, at its thought, at its achievement.
The characters of this play are depicted with a bitter sarcasm and unfriendliness, for Andreyev seems to have lost his last faith in the Man. The good, the innocent and clean heart is bound to suffer and die. His Consuelo, Zinida, Bezano are only stray rays of light out of place in the world and even in the world-circus which is full of spiders, champagne, and human outcasts. Andreyev does not blame these outcasts. On the contrary, he feels sympathy, if for anybody, for just these clowns, jugglers, and bareback riders; but life, this strange combination of fate, accident, and cowardly slander, is stronger, and they collapse under the burden of this combination.
He Who Gets Slapped is the best work of Andreyev, at any rate his best dramatic work. It is more adapted to stage conditions than his previous plays and is not overcrowded with symbolic ghosts. Furthermore, the play is a remarkable summary of Andreyev's philosophy.