‘Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812’
by Lauren Boname
‘Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812’ (known as ‘Great Comet’) is a theatre adaptation of Volume II, Part V of Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ told predominantly through song. The adaptation was written and composed in 2012 by Dave Malloy, who has described ‘Great Comet’ as an “electropop opera”. The show focuses on the relationship between the lead characters, Natasha Rostova and Pierre Bezukhov, and their different (yet interlinked) social circles. The play also contains some key historical moments: namely, the reaction of the Russian elite to Russia’s wars against France, and this group’s reactions to the titular comet.
Pierre is an alcoholic who is disillusioned with life and love due to his failing marriage. However, he idolizes his friend Andrei Bolkonsky for fighting against Napoleon on the front. At one point, Pierre claims that Napoleon Bonaparte is ‘The Beast’ mentioned in the Book of Revelations and believes that the French military leader will kill the Russian Emperor. However, no one else foresees the French invasion of Russia, nor is it referenced in the play. Indeed, the chorus sings in the first song (‘Prologue’) “chandeliers and caviar – the war can’t touch us here!” This highlights how no Russian characters in the show (almost uniformly the elite) believe they will be affected by the war. In the book, the Battle of Moscow is a significant event during which two primary characters are killed while others flee. Napoleon’s invasion looms over many of the characters, especially Andrei, who is captured at the Battle of Austerlitz and briefly becomes the French Emperor’s prisoner, forming an acquaintance with him. However, this is not mentioned in the show.
Another war that plays a small part in ‘Great Comet’ is the lesser known Russo-Persian war, which lasted from 1804-1813. This war is used to introduce a minor character to the audience: “Dolokhov was in the Caucasus and he killed the Shah’s brother… Dolokhov the assassin!” There is no evidence that the Shah’s brother was killed in such dramatic fashion or that Dolokhov was involved. His purported antics in the Caucasus are only hearsay, in both the book and play. The significance of the aforementioned line is to show Dolokhov as a fierce warrior, but also that the Russians underestimated Napoleon, fighting two wars simultaneously – the French Emperor was not deemed a serious threat.
The titular comet appeared over Russia in 1811, not 1812. This has little impact on the play, beyond the omen of the comet coinciding with Napoleon’s invasion. It was visible to the naked eye for 260 days, starting from 11 March 1811. The comet was thought to have had an exceptionally large coma to be visible for so long. From the non-astrological point of view, the comet was considered a bad omen for Napoleon’s opponents. This is given a passing mention in the play: “…for there’s fire in the sky, and ice on the ground. Either way, my soul will die.” Pierre even says in the closing song, “the comet was said to portend untold horrors and the end of the world.”
Most of the historical context of ‘Great Comet’ remains background detail to the human drama at the centre of the musical. Napoleon’s menacing presence is dramatized as is Dolokhov’s purported bravery, but this is only to help establish the lead characters’ hopes, anxieties, and motivations. ‘Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812’ is therefore a semi-historical musical. The historical setting has been used to create an interesting story that will appeal to modern audiences and draws heavily on the original source material of Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’.