If I were living in the world of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the first book I would seek to protect from the flames would be War and Peace, Tolstoy’s doorstop-sized epic set during the Napoleonic wars in the early nineteenth century—and I do mean epic. My paperback edition of the 2007 translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is over 1,200 pages, with 48 lines per page. So imagine my delight, tempered by some skepticism, when I learned that the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge was staging a musical based on a seventy-page slice of the novel, in a techno-pop fashion, no less. I can only imagine that Tolstoy, who late in his life ditched all things bourgeois for the lifestyle of a very wise (and very famous) peasant, would have regarded the play’s pulsing lights and blaring music as abominations.
Paula and I loved it, as did, apparently, the vast majority of the audience. There were a number of postmodern touches—one notable song began, “In nineteenth-century Russia/people wrote letters/they put down their thoughts/in words.” And for all the high energy and commotion, the play was reasonably faithful to the section of the novel it was based on: a soirée at which the young Natasha Rostova, a central figure in the book, is seduced by the rakish Anatole Vassilievich Kuragin.
Because we have to watch our spending, there was no chance that we would have paid the $190 cost for our pair of tickets for the musical, whose title is Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. But thanks to the Alzheimer’s Association, we paid nothing at all for seats that put us so close to the action that we were advised not to stretch out our legs, lest we risk tripping up the singers who occasionally passed in front of us. (The stage was circular, with some audience members inserted shoulder-to-shoulder with performers. We were glad that we were not among them.)
This kind of Alzheimer’s Association-sponsored event is a regular part of the organization’s “Power and Purpose” program. This past fall, there were two outings: a tour of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, and a nature walk in the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary. And a forthcoming A.R.T. production is based on George Orwell’s 1984—the only book I read in high school that left an impression on me. A maple sugaring activity is scheduled in early March.
These events aren’t just diversions. They are designed to help keep people engaged, socially and mentally, for many years to come. And since my diagnosis, I have often reflected on Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The final stanza:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep.