On the 23rd of July 2014, Barack Obama spoke at a $32,400 per plate fundraiser. Meanwhile, Vladimir Yakunin, a Russian businessman whose assets are being frozen and his visas blocked, updated his Facebook page with pictures of his family sailing in the Caribbean.
These factoids are especially crucial to us, analysts of Pushkin’s ‘A Feast During the Plague’ because they bring up ideas that resonate with much of what’s going on in the text. The satirical street-art on the left tells the story. Thankfully there isn’t a plague epidemic going around at the moment but the references to Pushkin in both articles are appropriate. For starters, many Americans believe that Obama giving yet another talk at a Silicon Valley fundraiser means that he is ignoring more pressing domestic and international concerns and instead feasting (literally). Yakunin’s Facebook posts show that he’s clearly escaping his personal issues (again, literally).
The characters in the play make a choice in how they react to the literal or figurative plagues that they respectively survive. We are given to understand that Yakunin and Obama are making a conscious decision too. But if we’ve escaped a plague, or something similarly nasty, do we have to behave in a certain way or do we have no such obligation? Would Yakunin be behaving in a more “sensitive” way if he locked himself inside his home in St. Petersburg and never saw anyone again? What’s wrong with taking your family on a cruise of the Caribbean when you can?
In the play and in the two articles, there is a kind of social removal. But the major difference between the articles and the play is what side of society the audience gets to see. In the play, we see the people who have escaped society and the plague, whereas the articles and the street-art reflect the thoughts of the larger society that the characters escape. His role as the President dictates that Obama has an obligation towards the people who face the problems he doesn’t immediately deal with, but do the characters in the plague have a similar responsibility towards society? Pushkin introduces the priest who raises this question. He tries to make the chairman feel guilty in the same way as the street-art tries to do. We don’t know what Obama or Yakunin feel, but we are given a glimpse of this survivor’s guilt towards the end of the play.
The moral debate continues.