The Masquerade  – ★★★★1/2
The Masquerade is Lermontov’s four act-play written in verse and set in the 1830s St. Petersburg. This very Shakespearean drama centres on Yevgeny Arbenin, once an immoral gambler and womaniser without scruples, but now it seems a decent man respected by society, especially since his marriage to a kind and beautiful young woman Nina. One day, however, Arbenin’s desire to rescue a man from financial disaster at a gambling table, malicious rumours, as well as his wife losing a bracelet during a masquerade ball set in motion a series of events that culminate in an unthinkable tragedy, as Arbenin’s jealous predisposition and his propensity to seek revenge overpower common sense, love and basic human considerations.
The title of the novel – the masquerade in the story – also carries a symbolic meaning. This will be a tale of appearances deceiving, and this theme runs throughout the story. Arbenin “wears a mask”(i.e. he is not what he seems to be), but so does almost every other character at least at some point in this story. In Act 1, Arbenin also starts to judge a new gambling companion Sprich by his appearance, and Kazarin is forced to defend Sprich, saying to Arbenin that it is not only by appearances we should judge people, and though Sprich “looks like a devil”, he is a “useful man”, after all.
Lermontov focuses on a number of themes in his story, among which are individual vs. society, and the individual self-interest triumphing over the concern for others. Arbenin cannot break his ties with his immoral past. His friends want him back in their gambling circle and Kazarin, in particular, desires to turn the developing situation concerning Nina to his advantage. Arbenin remains a villain at heart, but his gambling circle, the danger it poses and the people’s malicious tongues can worsen the situation considerably, and Arbenin’s hidden nature soon resurfaces to tragic consequences. But, it is not only Arbenin who egoistically seeks his “justice” – everyone sees the unfolding situation concerning Nina and her possible infidelity only from the perspective of their own precious selves, without any regard as to how their actions may impact others, including the Baroness and Prince Zvezdich. It is the cowardice and apathy of others, as well the lack of both communication and desire to double-check “facts” that lead to the snowballing of one already precarious familial situation between Arbenin and Nina. The evil does not exist in a vacuum, and the conditions are slowly “set” for Arbenin’s horrific action. In the end, “the innocence is slaughtered”, and the culpable society hides away, being more concern with appearances than human lives.
The Masquerade can naturally be compared to Shakespeare’s Othello, but the theme of miscommunication (or communication gone astray) leading to a fatality present in Romeo & Juliet is also very much prominent in The Masquerade, and “To Be, or Not to Be” (Hamlet) speeches are also given by both Arbenin (“You are right, what is a life? A life is an empty thing”, starts Arbenin) and the Baroness (“Just think: Why do we live?”, starts the Baroness) in the play. Arbenin is a much more evil and brutal personality than the simply indifferent, even if egoistic Eugene Onegin in Pushkin’s narrative poem of the same name, but the main characters’ redemption through their meeting of one kind-hearted lady and then not knowing the true value of something or someone until they lost it are still the themes that unite both (with Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin being published only two years before Lermontov’s play).
Mikhail Lermontov was a great poet, so the original rhyme is brilliant, but, unfortunately, I cannot vouch for any English translation. It is also interesting to note that The Masquerade was never actually staged during Lermontov’s lifetime because the play did not pass the censors’ control for a number of reasons, including the depiction of the House of Engelhardt, even when Lermontov made substantial changes to the text.
The Masquerade is an ambitious, even if slightly forced, tragedy by Lermontov, who made his tale of passion, pride, jealousy and evil even more unforgettable through the characters’ thought-provoking monologues.