Part 20, Chapter 1 : Leonid Andreyev, King-Hunger
Part 20, Chapter 1
LEONID ANDREYEV is the youngest and at the present time the most powerful dramatist of Russia. Like Tchekhof and Gorki, he is very versatile: his sketches and stories possess as fine a literary quality and stirring social appeal as his plays.
No one who has read his terrible picture of war, "The Red Laugh," or his unsurpassed arraignment of capital punishment, "The Seven Who Were Hanged," can erase from memory the effect of Leonid Andreyev's forceful pen.
The drama "King-Hunger" deals with the most powerful king on earth,--King-Hunger. In the presence of Time and Death he pleads with Time to ring the alarm, to call the people to rebellion, because the earth is replete with- suffering: cities, shops, mines, factories and fields resound with the moans and groans of the people. Their agony is unbearable.
King-Hunger. Strike the bell, old man; rend to the cars its copper mouth. Let no one slumber!
But Time has no faith in King-Hunger. He knows that Hunger had deceived the people on many occasions: " You will deceive again, KingHunger. You have many a time deluded your children and me." Yet Time is weary with waiting. He consents to strike the bell.
King-Hunger calls upon the workingmen to re. bel. The scene is in a machine shop; the place is filled with deafening noises as of men's groans. Every machine, every tool, every screw, holds its human forms fettered to it and all keep pace with the maddening speed of their tormentors. And through the thunder and clatter of iron there rises 'the terrible plaint of the toilers.
We are starving.
--- We are crushed by machines.
--- Their weight smothers us.
--- The iron crushes.
--- The steel oppresses.
--- Oh, what a furious weight! As a mountain upon me!
--- The whole earth is upon me.
--- The iron hammer flattens me. It crushes the blood out of my veins, it fractures my bones, it makes me flat as sheet iron.
--- Through the rollers my body is pressed and drawn thin as wire. Where is my body? Where is my blood? Where is my soul?
--- The wheel is twirling me.
--- Day and night screaks the saw cutting steel.
Day and night in my ears the screeching of the saw cutting steel. All the dreams that I see, all the sounds and songs that I hear, is the screeching of the saw cutting steel. What is the earth? It is the screeching of the saw. What is the sky? It is the screeching of the saw cutting steel. Day and night.
--- Day and night.
--- We are crushed by the machines.
--- We ourselves are parts of the machines.
--- Brothers! We forge our own chains!
The crushed call upon King-Hunger to help them, to save them from the horror of their life. Is he not the most powerful king on earth?
King-Hunger comes and exhorts them to rebel. All follow his call except three. One of these is ,huge of body, of Herculean built, large of muscle but with small, flat head upon his massive shoulders. The second workingman is young, but with the mark of death already upon his brow. He is constantly coughing and the hectic flush on his cheeks betrays the wasting disease of his class. The third workingman is a worn-out old man. Everything about him, even his voice, is deathlike, colorless, as if in his person a thousand lives had been robbed of their bloom.
First Workingman. I am as old as the earth. I have performed all the twelve labors, cleansed stables, cut off the hydra's heads, dug and vexed the earth, built cities, and have so altered its face, that the Creator himself would not readily recognize her. But I can't say why I did all this. Whose will did I shape? To what end did I aspire? My head is dull. I am dead tired. My strength oppresses me. Explain it to me, 0 King! Or I'll clutch this hammer and crack the earth as a hollow nut.
King-Hunger. Patience, my son! Save your powers for the last great revolt. Then you'll know all.
First Workingman. I shall wait.
Second Workingman. He cannot comprehend it, 0 King. He thinks that we must crack, the earth. It is a gross falsehood, 0 King! The earth is fair as the garden of God. We must guard and caress her. as a, little girl. Many that stand there in the darkness say, there is no sky, no sun, as if eternal night is upon the earth. Just think: eternal night!
King-Hunger. Why, coughing blood, do you smile and gaze to heaven?
Second Workingman. Because flowers will blossom on my blood, and I see them now. On the breast. of a beautiful rich lady I saw a red rose she didn't know it was my blood.
King-Hunger. You are a poet, my son. I suppose you write verses, as they do.
Second Workingman. King, 0 King, sneer not at me. In darkness I learned to worship fire. Dying I understood that life is enchanting. Oh, how' enchanting! King, it shall become a great garden, and there shall walk in peace, unmolested, men and animals. Dare not ruffle the animals! Wrong not any 'man! Let them play, embrace, caress one another -- let them! But where is the path? Where is the path? Explain, King-Hunger.
Second Workingman. Through violence to freedom? Through blood to love and kisses?
King-Hunger. There is no other way.
Third Workingman. You lie, King-Hunger. Then you have killed my father and grandfather and greatgrandfather, and would'st thou kill us? Where do you lead us, unarmed? Don't you see how ignorant we are, how blind and impotent. You are a traitor. Only here you are a king, but there you lackey upon their tables. Only here you wear a crown, but there you walk about with a napkin.
King-Hunger will not listen to their protest. He gives them the alternative of rebellion or starvation for themselves and their children. They decide to rebel, for King-Hunger is the most powerful king on earth.
The subjects of King-Hunger, the people of the underworld, gather to devise ways and means of rebellion. A gruesome assembly this, held in the cellar. Above is the palace ringing with music. and laughter, the fine ladies in gorgeous splendor, bedecked with flowers and costly jewels, the tables laden with rich food and delicious wines. Everything is most exquisite there, joyous and happy. And underneath, in the cellar, the underworld is gathered, all the dregs of society: the robber and the murderer, the thief and the prostitute, the gambler and the drunkard. They have come to consult with each other how poverty is to rebel, how to throw off the yoke, and what to do with the rich.
Various suggestions are made. One advises poisoning---thesupply of water. But this is condemned on the ground that the people, also have to drink from the same source.'
Another suggests that all books should be burned for they teach the rich how to oppress'. ."But the motion fails. What is the use of burning the books? The wealthy have money; they will buy writers, poets and scientists to make new books.
A third proposes that the, children of the rich be killed. From the darkest,, most dismal corner of the cellar comes the protest of an old woman:
Oh, not the children. Don't touch the children. I have buried many of them myself. I know the pain of the mother. Besides, the children are not to blame for the crimes of their parents. Don't touch the children! The child is pure and sacred. Don't hurt the child!
A little girl rises, a child of twelve with the face of the aged. She announces that for the last four years she has given her body for money. She had been sold by her mother because they needed bread for the smaller children. During the four years of her terrible life, she has consorted with all kinds of men, influential men, rich men, pious men. They infected her. Therefore she proposes that the rich should be infected.
The underworld plans and plots, and the grue. some meeting is closed with a frenzied dance between King-Hunger and Death, to the music of the dance above.
King-Hunger is at the trial of the Starving. He is the most powerful king on earth: he is at home everywhere, but nowhere more so than at the trial of the Starving. On high chairs sit the judges, in all their bloated importance. The courtroom is filled with curiosity seekers, idle ladies dressed as if for a ball; college professors and students looking for object lessons in criminal depravity; rich young girls are there, to satisfy a perverted craving for excitement.
The first starveling is brought in muzzled.
King-Hunger. What is your offense, starveling?
Old Man. I stole a five-pound loaf, but it was wrested from me. I had only time to bite a small piece of it. Forgive me, I will never again--
He is condemned in the name of the Law and King-Hunger, the most powerful king on earth.
Another starveling is brought before the bar of justice. It is a woman, young and beautiful, but pale and sad. She is charged with killing her child.
Young Woman. One night my baby and I crossed the long bridge over the river. And since I had long before decided, so then approaching the middle, where the river is deep and swift, I said: "Look, baby dear, how the water is a-roaring below." She said, I can't reach, mama, the railing is so high." I said, Come, let me lift you, baby. dear." And when she was gazing down into the black deep, I threw her over. That's all.
The Law and King-Hunger condemn the woman to "blackest hell," there to be "tormented and burned in everlasting, slackless fires."
The heavy responsibility of meting out justice .has fatigued the judges. The, excitement of the trial has sharpened the appetite of the spectators. King-Hunger, at home 'With all people, proposes that the court adjourn for luncheon.
The scene in the restaurant, represents Hunger devouring like a wild beast the produce of toil, ravenous, famished, the victim of his own gluttonous greed.
The monster fed, his hunger and thirst appeased he now returns to sit in self-satisfied judgment over the Starving. The judges are more bloated than before, the ladies more eager to bask in the misery of their fellows. The college professors and students, mentally heavy with food, are still anxious to add data to the study of human. criminality.
A lean boy is brought in, muzzled; he is followed by a ragged woman.
Woman. Have mercy! He stole an apple for me, your Honor. I was sick, thought he. "Let me bring her a. little apple." Pity him! Tell them that you won't any more. Well! Speak!
Starveling. I won't any more.
Woman. I've already punished him myself. Pity his youth, cut not at the root his bright little days!
Voices. Indeed, pity one and then the next. Cut the evil at its roots.
--- One needs courage to be ruthless.
---It is better for them.
--- Now he is only a boy, but when he grows up--
King-Hunger. Starveling, you are condemned.
A starveling, heavily muzzled, is dragged in. He is big and strong. He protests to the court: he has always been a faithful slave. But King-Hunger announces that the man is dangerous, because the faithful slave, being strong and honest, is "obnoxious to people of refined culture and less brawny." The slave is faithful to-day, King-Hunger warns the judges, but "who can trust the to-morrow? Then in his strength and integrity we will encounter a violent and dangerous enemy."
In the name of justice the faithful slave is condemned. Finally the last starveling appears. He looks half human, half beast.
King-Hunger. Who are you, starveling? Answer. Do you understand human speech?
Starveling. We are the peasants.
King-Hunger. What's your offense?
Starveling. We killed the devil.
King- Hunger. It was a man whom you burnt.
Starveling. No, it was the devil. The priest told us so, and then we burnt him.
The peasant is condemned The session of the Court closes with a brief speech by King-Hunger:
KIng-Hunger. To-day you witnessed a highly instructive spectacle. Divine, eternal justice has found in us, as judges and your retainers, its brilliant reflection on earth. Subject only to the laws of immortal equity, unknown to culpable compassion, indifferent to cursing and entreating prayers, obeying the voice of our conscience alone---we illumed this earth with the light of human wisdom and sublime, sacred truth. Not for a single moment forgetting that justice is the foundation of life, we have crucified the Christ in days gone by, and since, to this very day, we cease not to grace Golgotha with new crosses. But, certainly, only ruffians, only ruffians are hanged. We showed, no mercy to God himself, in the name of the laws of immortal justice---would, we be now, disconcerted by the howling of this impotent, starving rabble, by their cursing and raging? Let them curse! Life herself blesses us, the great sacred truth will screen us with her veil, and the very decree of history will not be more just than our own. What, have they gained by cursing? What? They are there, we're here. They are in dungeons, in galleys, on crosses, but we will go to the theater. They perish, but we will devour them--devour--devour.
The court has fulfilled its mission. King-Hunger is the most powerful king on earth.
The starvelings break out in revolt. The bells peal with deafening thunder; all is confusion and chaos. The city is immersed in the blackness of despair, and all is dark. Now and then gusts of fire sweep the sky illuminating the scene of battle. The air is filled with cries and groans; there is the thud of falling bodies, and still the fight goes on.
In a secluded part of the town stands the castle. In its most magnificent ballroom the rich and their lackeys--scientists, teachers and artists--are gathered. They tremble with fear at the ominous sounds outside. To silence the loud beat of their terror they command the musicians to strike up the liveliest tunes, and the guests whirl about in a mad dance.
From time to time the door is forced open and someone drops exhausted to the floor. An artist rushes in, crying out that the art gallery is in flames.
"Murillo is burning! Velasquez is burning! Giorgione is burning!"
He is not in the least concerned with living values; he dwells in the past and he wildly bewails the dead weight of the past.
One after another men rush in to report the burning of libraries, the breaking of statues, and the destruction of monuments. No one among the wealthy mob regrets the slaughter of human life.
Panic-stricken the, mighty fall from their thrones. The Starving, infuriated and vengeful, are marching on the masters! They must not see the craven fear of the huddled figures in the mansions,- the lights are turned off. But darkness is even more terrible to the frightened palace mob. In the madness of terror they begin to accuse and denounce each other. They feel as helpless as children before the approaching avalanche of vengeance.
At this critical moment a man appears. He is small, dirty, and unwashed; he smells of cheap whiskey and bad tobacco; he blows his nose with a red handkerchief and his manners are disgusting. He is the engineer. He looks calmly about him, presses a button, and the place is flooded with light. He brings the comforting.. news that, the revolt is crushed.
Engineer. On Sunny Hill we planted a line of immense machine guns of enormous power ... A few projectiles of a specially destructive power ... A public square filled with people . . . Enough one or two such shells. . . . And should the revolt still continue, we'll shower the city.
The revolt is over. All is quiet -- the peace of death. The ground is strewn with bodies, the streets are soaked with blood. Fine ladies flit about. They lift their children and bid them kiss the mouth of the cannon, for the cannon have saved the rich from destruction. Prayers and hymns are offered up to the cannon, for they have saved the masters and punished the starvelings. And all is quiet, with the stillness of the graveyard where sleep the dead.
King-Hunger, with hollow cheeks and sunken eyes, makes a desperate last appeal to his children.
King-Hunger. Oh, my son, my son! You clamored so loud -- why are you mute? Oh, my daughter, my daughter, you hated so profoundly, so intensely, you most miserable on earth -arise. Arise from the dust! Rend the shadowy bonds of death! Arise! I conjure you in the name of Life!--You're silent?
For a brief moment all remains silent and immovable. Suddenly a sound is heard, distant at first, then nearer and nearer, till a thousand-throated roar breaks forth like thunder:
--- We shall yet come!
--- We shall yet come!
--- Woe unto the victorious!
The Victors pale at the ghostly cry. Seized with terror, they run, wildly howling..
--- The dead arise!
--- The dead arise!
We shall yet come" cry the dead. For they who died for an ideal never die in vain. They must come back, they shall come back. And then--woe be to the victorious! King-Hunger is indeed the most terrible king on earth, but only for those who are driven by blind forces alon.
But they who can turn on the light, know the power of the things they have created. They will come, and take possession,--no longer the wretched scum, but the masters of the world.
A message revolutionary, deeply social in its scope, illumining with glorious hope the dismal horizon of the disinherited of the earth.
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