Obliterating a close friend is so incomprehensible that there has been next to no critical reflection on it: neither philosophy nor art know how to handle it.
People use various ways to kill their dearest friends: they hate them, they stop talking to them, they erase them from their lives, they drive them to (self-)destruction, they murder them. Those watching such a thing happen are mystified and horrified: “How is this possible? Can a true friend do this to another? Those two were inseparable for years…” When an average friendship runs its course and is exhausted, nobody is surprised or disappointed. But when a great friendship is destroyed, this is unfathomable and shocking to all, starting with the friends themselves.
The loss of a great friendship affects not just the present of the friends but their future too since such friendships invest not only in the day-to-day reality but in a lifetime together. Friendship entails a commitment to a shared future. “Our friendship promises – and continues to promise, as long as it lasts – a better future” (Alexander Nehamas, On Friendship, 2016, 135). This is because friends grow together. “We love our friends not just for what they already are – some of which we know, some not – but also for what they can be, at least partly as a result of our relationship” (137-8). Thus when the eponymous protagonist in Tchaikovsky’s “lyrical scenes” Yevgeny Onegin (1879) kills Vladimir Lensky, his “other self,” he kills his own future as well. His life ends with his friend’s death. Nothing else happens in it again, and it becomes emptier than ever. At 26, after years of aimless wanderings, Onegin will return home in the last act, haunted by his missing friend and doomed to star alone in the melodrama of his remaining years.
The story of Pushkin’s verse novel (1833) takes place during 1819-25. Onegin (baritone), a Byronic world-weary dandy, is skeptical and cynical while Lensky (tenor), an earnest Romantic poet, is idealistic and enthusiastic. They attend a ball in the country where Onegin is irritated by locals gossiping about his character, and gets back at Lensky for having taken him there by flirting and dancing with his fiancé, which she encourages. Wounded and offended, Lensky publicly renounces their friendship and demands satisfaction. Next morning at dawn they meet for a formal duel on a riverbank. In a shattering duet, Vragi-vragi/Enemies-enemies, they first sing the same words to themselves, reflecting on the situation: They used to share everything and now they get ready to destroy each other. They then sing in unison to each other the last question, and answer it with four increasingly hopeless niet/no.* They don’t want to go through this ordeal yet they do not know how to take things back.
This is one of the most unbearable moments in all opera: its gloom is unforgiving. Lensky’s death is so much beyond reason and belief that many recent productions refuse to accept it, and provide alternative endings to the duel. If traditional productions showed a devastated Onegin shooting and then fleeing the scene in horror, new ones deny that a friend may kill and portray Lensky’s death as an accident. The list is long and totally fascinating but here are just six representative examples of revisionary approaches to the scene.
1. In the 2013 Mikhailovsky Theatre production, the two friends do not even get ready to fight. However, the townsfolk have gathered to watch the duel, and are repeatedly urging them and physically pushing them to proceed. In a scuffle, either Onegin or somebody else accidentally pushes Lensky down to his death [1st clip starting at 11:00]
2. In the 2008 Bolshoi production, the encounter again takes place in front of local people, and as the two friends refuse to fight and struggle over a rifle, Lensky is shot accidentally.
3. In a 2009 production, this time in front of a distant or disengaged audience, the two friends who refuse to kill each other play Russian roulette with one gun: Lensky tries first, Onegin second, and then Lensky tries three times till he shoots himself.
4. In the 2013 Latvian National Opera production, the friends point their guns to one another, realize that it’s silly to fight, lower their guns and, as they embrace, Lensky accidentally shoots himself.
5. In the 2015 Bayerisches Staatsoper production, described as “Eugene Onegin meets Brokeback Mountain in Munich,” the action has been moved to the 1970s, and the two friends are in bed with one gun between them on the pillow. They both refuse to take it and, after the gay Onegin panics into killing Lensky, he is stopped the last minute from committing suicide.
6. In the 2013 Metropolitan Opera production, as the two duelists formally shake hands, embrace spontaneously, yet they cannot stop, and proceed. After killing Lensky, Onegin kneels by his friend’s body, raises it, and holds it in a pieta-like position as the curtain falls.
Great friendships never die. Nothing can extinguish them since friends always carry within themselves their “other self” as Nietzsche carried Wagner, and Philip Guston carried Morton Feldman. When a friend kills another in whatever way, their friendship is suspended yet it lives on. In their minds and in the minds of those who know them the two friends have been indissolubly associated and mutually implicated. Much more than what they feel, their friendship is the work they do on each other and through each other, as well as on themselves, as long as they live and even after. This is also the case with my “other self,” Pantelis Polychronidis, and me.
March 20, 2014
* Conclusion of Act II, scene 2
(The two seconds withdraw to one side to discuss the conditions of the duel.
Lensky and Onegin stand with their backs to each other, waiting.)
Enemies! Is it long since the thirst
for blood drove us apart?
Is it so long since we shared everything,
our meals, our thoughts, our leisure,
as friends together? Now in anger,
like hereditary enemies,
we silently and coldbloodedly
prepare to destroy each other.
Oh, should we not burst out laughing
before we stain our hands with blood,
and should we not part friends?
No! No! No! No!
(The seconds have loaded the pistols and in measured the distance.
Zaretsky separates the principals and hands them their pistols.
Everything is done in silence. Guillot, in embarrassment, hides behind a tree.)
(He claps his hands three times. The adversaries take four steps forward. Onegin raises his pistol.
As he does so, Lensky begins to take aim. Onegin fires. Lensky falls.
Zaretsky and Onegin rush towards him. Zaretsky examines him intently.)