Since we’re coming up on the 20th anniversary of the musical Chess, I would like to take a couple IBDs to discuss the lead characters in this musical.
First off, I want to discuss how criminally underrated this musical is. I think, because it was released in the 1980s during the end of the Cold War, the story of a Russian chess player falling in love with an American during a world chess match that pitted the U.S.S.R against the U.S.A just got slammed. Nowadays, Chess is mostly known for the song “One Night in Bangkok.” But there is so much more to this musical. Spoilers after the jump.
The “hero” of the musical is Anatoly Sergievsky, known in the original West End production as “The Russian.” Sergievsky is the Soviet Union’s chess champion, and he’s pitted against U.S. champion Freddie Trumper in a chess match. The match is supposed to be diplomatic, but political fighting and dislike between Trumper and Sergievsky, along with the discovery that the Soviet partners surrounding Sergievsky were using him as a political pawn, drive “The Russian” to defect to the west.
There are multiple problems that come with defecting, both logistically and psychologically. Not only is it difficult to seek asylum in the modern political sphere, but the psychological strain of leaving your homeland during turmoil would be hell.
Leaving your wife and child behind, as Sergievsky is forced to do, doesn’t help either.
In addition, Sergievsky falls in love with Trumper’s second (think training partner) and girlfriend, the Budapest-born but British-raised Florence Vassy. The Sergievsky-Vassy relationship is used by the U.S.A and U.S.S.R., in a united front, to get Sergievsky to throw a chess match and return to Russia in exchange for the release of Florence’s father, a captured prisoner from Budapest. Anatoly must choose to sacrifice both his career as a world champion and his new life in the west in order to give the woman he loves her father back. That’s pretty heavy.
It’s a lot of exposition, but necessary to understand that Sergievsky, despite being the hero of the musical, is a bad person. He abandons his wife and child to run away with another woman.
At the same time, that’s why he’s so relatable. The choice he makes to flee Russia wears on him throughout the second act. His choice to be with Florence instead of his wife drives him to spend the entire second act snapping at other characters, acting angry and volatile.
In an article written by Psychology Today, Dr. Douglas LeBier names the six different types of affairs. Sergievsky’s affair with Florence is defined as a “Mind-Body” affair. It feels so right, how can it be wrong?
From the article:
“Of all the different affairs, I’ve found that this kind most frequently leads to divorce and remarriage. The upside is that the new relationship often proves to be the right match for the couple. Nevertheless, it generates all the mixed consequences that all affairs produce, especially when children are involved.”
For Sergievsky, the addition of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. forcing him to throw his match pulls him. Does he love his wife? A little, but he loves Florence more. So, he chooses to throw the match and return to his marriage and to Russia in exchange for Florence’s father.
All of these factors create a troubled character that the audience relates to. The character must find a balance between doing what is right for himself and what is right for the woman he loves. In the end, he shakes off the stress of the situation and returns to Russia.
Why is this considered a disorder to me? In my experience, part of shock involves losing the ability to know who you are from time to time. Shock is one of those side effects from traumatic events that can’t constantly be explained. For such a structured person like Anatoly, an event like defecting to the Western world would lead you to question everything about your choices up to that point.
For Anatoly, being a chess champion is all the consistency he has. Losing a woman he loves in order to get her father back would be a heavy weight to bear.
I do wish the musical would have let us know how things worked out. Did Sergievsky ever get out of the Soviet Union? Did he ever play chess again or did he become a recluse? I’ll never know. It bothers me.
Sergievsky, despite being a troubled character, is the least troubled of the love triangle. Next time, I’ll discuss Florence Vassy, and why she might have suffered a lot more than Sergievsky.