Art and Scientific Thought: Historical Studies Towards a Modern Revision of Their Antagonism

By Martin Johnson | Go to book overview

Chapter 8
After seeing the Russian ballet 'Petrouchka'

Petrouchka is a fantasy expressing a certain tragic situation which arises from time to time in the history of most individuals. There are few modern people who do not occasionally suffer acutely from the disease which Petrouchka symbolises, the disease of possessing an over-sensitive consciousness of ugliness and deficiency without the strength or the wit necessary for escape. A subtle combination of musical, dramatic, and pictorial arts, woven into that formal pattern which makes up a Ballet, is able to expound this tragedy very simply and very completely. Its simplicity penetrates more deeply than any literary representation tied by the inadequacy of words, and its emotional expression in orchestration, dancing, gesture, and colour has the intensity found only in Russian art.

Ballet being an art without words, it is not forced to obscure the universal application of this tragedy by insisting upon the accidental circumstances of any one human being. It thus is enabled to exploit to the full the advantages of an art which can surrender itself to the fantastic. In fact Petrouchka is an outstanding example of the symbolic nature of the creatures represented in a genuine Ballet. They are themselves the types, not mere individuals, and appropriately in Petrouchka the chief characters are puppets, of whom the most vivid and significant can thus symbolise the momentary or occasional experiences of any person. Both sides of a common aesthetic paradox are thereby fulfilled, a work of fantasy and imagination being also a work of a brutal realism. As in other classic examples of this peculiar art, the humans in the story are only minor characters forming a background or a comic relief, and against that background an animated doll suffers at the hands of his fellows and of the magician master who is his devil.

According to this plan the tragedy of the too-sensitive automaton has to play itself out in the midst of a cheerful comedy of the simple-minded Russia of 1830. The scene is a fair in old St. Petersburg, with street performers of every kind competing in their attempts to entertain a crowd. The movement of every group

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