A week ago went to War and Peace at the Met, the grandest show in New York, spectacular work in a spectacular production with a spectacular cast – decidedly a tough work to grasp on first encounter (this was my fourth such encounter, and now I get it), a wonderful night at the opera – and the theater – and the ballet – and the orchestra.
Today I listened to the live broadcast – twice, due to the magic of modern webcasting. When I was in the house, everyone was discussing whether or not we'd ever read the novel (I had, but thirty years ago), and its influence. Today, listening to the score and its four hours of easily missed exquisite detail, I found myself thinking about the book's plot, the bickering among several noble families until everyone faces national crisis, and comes through that, and lives are lost and the crisis is faced and the nation re-born and marriages transpire, happy ending.
What comes to mind very strongly is The Birth of a Nation. It seems to me plain as the nose on my face (though in fact I have a very handsome one, not as grand as Jonathan Cake's the other night in Cymbeline, but handsome) that Griffith's model was, must have been, War and Peace, point by point, even to the slaves mimicking the resigned wisdom of the serfs. I had never heard this spoke of before, am curious to see if it is a commonplace of Griffith criticism or my own discovery. (My money's on the former assumption.)
I began to think of Tolstoy's masterful construction: the two or three aristocratic families (Bolkonskys, Rostovs, Kuragins-and-Bezukhovs), the pettiness of their romantic and other involvements when the great tidal wave of national disaster rolls over them, the way the characters show their mettle in meeting it, the way their personal destinies work themselves out in a more peaceable aftermath -- and the resemblance to another work in an entirely different medium occurred to me.
Like Tolstoy, Griffith examines a couple of aristocratic families, their loyal underlings, their intertwining romances, and then hits them in the head with a shattering cataclysm that kills quite a few of them and transforms the lives and social circumstances of the rest. His very neutrality on the Civil War (and his determination to see blacks who attempt to break out of their class as contrary to the "natural") seem to grow also from Tolstoy's belief in the Russian-ness that links the class system of pre-Revolutionary Russia to a proper devotion to the Russian earth. (His racism could almost be a dreadful parody of Tolstoy's religion.) Even to the happy endings tacked on in both works after the upheavals, the story told in the American work seems to be an attempt to create the effect -- in a transAtlantic milieu -- of national epic in the manner and on the level of Tolstoy's.
For the fledgling film industry, it was an important attempt, and he chose (I believe) a significant model. But Griffith's own blindness to the evils of racism and the reality of American culture (not that Tolstoy was seeing Russia 20/20) make us uncomfortable with this relationship.