History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/Russian Realist
The dominant playwright of the Russian realist school is Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), whose main play of the 19th century is "Дядя Ваня" (Uncle Vanya, 1899), characterized like the rest of his mature plays by tragicomic characters ridden with anguish and purposelessness, some of whom with great hopes that their life, contrary to what seems, has not spent in vain, but serves as a harbinger of humankind's future happiness. In the view of Bakshy (1916), "the Russian intelligentsia of the time of Chekhov presented, in its greatest part at least, a class of weak-willed individuals, handicapped in applying their gifts to the solution of practical problems by the peculiar social and political conditions prevalent at the time, and for this reason mostly given to introspection and dreaming, that helped to relieve the soul. Despair and pessimism born of aimless life, and the pursuit of dreamy idealism in the hope of finding refuge from a depressing environment, concealed innumerable elements of personal tragedy which, in the irresistible and unalterable flow of events, approached even the ancient tragedy of fate" (p 41).
On Chekhov's plays in general, Williams (1965) commented that "there is no modern dramatist whose characters are more consistently concerned with explicit self-revelation. All his plays might be described as plays of confession" (p 132). Thompson (1942) further related that "nobody in a Chekhov play seems to forward the action, such as it is. On the contrary, each character spends his time in egotistical self-absorption or hopeless yearning. Characteristically the dialogue is not about something to be done or faced, but is rather a series of self-revelatory monologues cut up in alternate speeches. One's interlocutor interrupts momentarily but scarcely disturbs one's train of introspection or reminiscence. These people do not listen; they merely think aloud. As their thoughts flitter from one thing to another, they change the subject without warning. At times they fall silent (a most revolutionary thing for the stage of Chekhov's time). Just as their minds wander on and off the subject, so their bodies wander on and off the stage without apparent dramatic occasion. They seem to be living their inconsequent and will-less lives before us" (p 337). Gruber (1977) took issue with the notion that Chekhov's plays are plotless. "Chekhov structures the action of his plays to create an illusion of inaction. In the plays of Chekhov, as in real life, the future is only vaguely felt. Chekhovian drama...presents the fate that we expect to issue from dramatic action is repeatedly denied, even as each separate act is 'undramatic' not because he portrays his characters' inner lives, nor because his plays are unified by emotion and not plot...Chekhov is undramatic because he does not cultivate in his plays the sense of impending destiny we normally expect of the dramatic illusion" (p 512). In Chekhov’s dramaturgy, there is no big scene “no obligatory or great denouements...used to reveal through action the truth about the play’s central characters...We see...the drama and the complexity of the seemingly trivial...Almost all his dramatic devices were ironical...best seen in the disparity between what the characters say and what they do...Chekhov characters are addicted at making speeches...[by which we see how the character views himself rather than how others view him]...Chekhov’s symbol are...always concrete...effective because they grow out of the action...e.g. Moscow [as] the symbol of the three sisters’ dream of happiness...[There is also] the tendency on the part of his characters to aestheticize life...the most obvious is the tendency...to identify with great artists of the past” (Corrigan, 1965 pp 86-93).
Agate (1944) was overly negative about the dramatic characters in "Uncle Vanya". “Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is an embroidery upon the theme of apprenticeship to sorrow...Vanya, the sentimentalist, unpacks his heart with words, nags at the fate he will not unbend his idealistic soul to conquer. Astrov, the man of action, gives his life to drunkenness and the cultivation of trees. Serebryakov, the invalid, is pure humbug. His wife, Elena, loving Astrov, lacks the courage of adultery; she is in no sense moral. Sonia, his daughter, loving Astrov, is a sick lily” (pp 99-100). Other critics have been more generous-minded: life in "Uncle Vanya" "simply rusts away. And, what is truly important, these lives did not deserve to rust away, because they are rich with sensitivity and with the capacity for service. Vanya, who might have gone out into the world and advanced himself, fixed his life to the false star of a pedantic brother-in-law from whom he expected great things. Unhappily, he is too gentle and too isolated in the provinces to start a new life once he realizes that he was not serving humanity by relieving the professor of economic burdens. He is left with nothing except his fierce longing: 'If only one could live the remnant of one's life in some new way'. He knows only that 'we must make haste and work, make haste and do something' if life is not to become unbearable...And Vanya’s dream is expressed even more strongly by the district doctor, Astrov, who is in despair because in the whole district there are only two decent, well-educated people, himself and Uncle Vanya, both of whom have been swamped by 'the common round of trivial life...with its putrid vapors'. Astrov cannot even do justice to his profession, fighting as he does alone and without adequate means and preparation against a typhus epidemic. 'Those who will live a hundred or two hundred years after us, for whom we are struggling now to beat out a road,' he wonders, 'will they remember and say a good word for us?' The play is thus both a personal tragedy (or tragi-comedy perhaps) and the drama of a shipwrecked generation" (Gassner, 1954a pp 516-517). Vanya must be seen as gifted and his resentment towards the professor justified; otherwise he is “merely a shallow kvetch occupying the stage for long periods with nothing more than cryptic and surly behavior. The play becomes little more than a sterile exercise devoid of compassion” (Krasner, 2012 p 125). “When Chekhov found it justifiable to expose the professor-egotist who had been subsisting ungratefully on the devotion and labor of Vanya, he produced a vivid and scathing portrait of a pedant who expects everyone to cater to him...[the] hard glitter of an educated parasite” (Gassner, 1960 p 190). Vanya, Sonya, and Astrov discover that “our ordinary existence has a genuine horror in it...Sebryakov has all the...obtuseness, vainglory, and ignorance that are the curse of the academic profession” (Bloom, 2005 pp 181-182).
In "Uncle Vanya", "Chekhov follows in the steps of Turgenev. His favourite theme is disillusionment, and as for the kind of beauty he creates, beneath it also might be written ‘desolation is a delicate thing’. He is fond of the same kind of setting for his stories as Turgenev: summer woods, an old country-house full of cultivated people, who talk and talk. There you will find the idealist who melts over the futility of his own idealism, the girl who keeps a faster clutch upon daily duties in order to forget that youth is sliding away under her feet, the slightly stronger, clever man turned maudlin-cynical after his failure to find a purpose which can hold him- to think, so he feels, he, too, should be wasted- the old woman who only wants things to go on peaceably on old humdrum lines. The current of days is slow here; the air they breathe is sultry with undischarged energy, and broken only by unrefreshing nerve-storms; it is an atmosphere of sighs and yawns and self-reproaches, vodka, endless tea, and endless discussion. These people are like those loosely agglutinated sticks and straws which revolve together slowly in some sluggish eddy. They long to be detached and ride down the rushing stream, which they imagine somewhere near sparkles for ever past them. Where it is rushing they do not know. Some day- two hundred, five hundred years hence- perhaps life will be life...Elena...has already played her stake. In the professor she thought- heaven help her!- she had found a great mind, one it would be good and thrilling always to be near. Now, she has found her mistake. She is like a ship aground on a mudbank, and the only breezes which come to shake her sails are the passions she rouses in men, but she does not believe that they will blow her to any port where she would be. Like the others she has no sense of direction, no destination. Vanya’s helpless passion merely pesters her, and what between that and the exactions and pomposities of her eminent husband, who, now he has retired, only wants to watch his diseases and jaw to admirers, she is almost beside herself. The doctor, Astrov, through knowing better than the others what he wants and despising them, does move her a little. She nearly [succumbs to him]. . .but she is afraid. This man throws a fascination over poor, plain, dutiful Sonya,too. He has that attraction for women which the idealist a little damaged often exercises. Astrov, to Sonya, is so fine in himself; his slackness and coarseness are to her but wounds he got beneath the devil-defended walls of his peculiar virtues. He is a person to be saved (there is joy, too, in that) and comforted as well as loved; then he is handsome, and his voice is beautiful, and she is most affectionate. Lastly, the old professor, he is an industrious and magniloquent fraud. We know his prototypes and regret that so large a public should read again with so much admiration what has often been written before. For years Uncle Vanya and Sonya have slaved on the estate to provide tribute for the loquacious monster, the former at first with the conviction he was watering the roots of genius. On retirement the professor came to live there, bringing his beautiful, unhappy, baleful wife. That was event number one in the play; event number two, they departed. In between arrival and departure: nerve-storms (one of them homicidal), exasperations, and draggle-tailed disorder. Astrov seeking to renew his capacity to feel by keeping near Elena’s charms, forgets his work, Sonya is tortured by his continual presence, the long-retarded tide of youth is loosed together with a flood of bitterness in Uncle Vanya, and upstairs the tyrannic old invalid gasses and scribbles and groans among his medicine bottles" (MacCarthy, 1940 pp 124-128).
"The attitude of the various characters in the play towards work provides the underlying unity of theme in Uncle Vanya. Elena alone has no theories about it, but her devotion to her husband is itself a kind of work. Her husband, the professor, is extremely rigid in his demands on the people who surround him. He has lectured on art for twenty-five years; theoretically he believes in the importance of work, although his own work has always been of an impractical and selfish sort. Vanya, who has worked hard all his hfe, has become completely demoralized by the appearance of Yelena. At the end of the play, when he realizes that his love for her is doomed to disappointment, he takes up his work again as a help to him in enduring his mental anguish. Sonya is a thorough idealist. She keeps on doggedly at her work, sustained by her hope of a reward after death. She realizes that there is very little happiness in store for her in this world. She is not beautiful or attractive, and there is no hope that her love for Astrov will ever be returned. The views of Astrov, the doctor loved by Sonya and drawn to Elena, give 'Uncle Vanya' much of its distinctive tonal coloring. He is a curious combination of idealism and disillusionment. He is the antithesis of Uncle Vanya in that Vanya takes to drink during his temporary loss of ideals; Astrov drinks vodka regularly, and only under its influence can he recapture the dreams of his youth" (Sanderson, 1939 p 347).
"Chekhov’s dualistic vision of reality is reflected in Astrov’s alternation between moods of hope and despair. Just as the terminally sick Dr Chekhov knew that, from his individual short-term view, there was little he could do to improve humanity’s lot during his brief lifetime, so Dr Astrov, in his darker moods, is depressed by the fact that his own puny efforts seem pointless and will even fail to be noticed. At the beginning of the play the overworked doctor is in just such a depressed mood. He has just lost a patient and this reminds him of the limitations of his profession and his own inability to significantly improve the lot of the peasants. Astrov, in this mood, loses the scientific objectivity that is vital for survival in the profession of medicine where the inevitability of death is a given. He recounts how his personal emotions became involved when his patient died. This leads him to voice his current feeling that perhaps his work, and life in general, are futile...Despite Astrov’s awareness that from his personal individual viewpoint there is no hope, he nevertheless continues to behave in a manner that takes into account future generations...Nothing could be more ludicrous than Vanya’s perfect comic entrance bearing autumn roses for Helen and finding her in the arms of Astrov. It is Vanya who, having wasted his own life, blames the professor for his own lack of vision and then makes the comically ludicrous claim, which even he realises is silly, that, but for the professor, he would have been a man of genius...Sonya’s long speech of faith at the end of the play is undercut by the fact that she is preaching to the unconverted" (Borny, 2006a pp 178-181).
Time: 1890s. Place: Russia.
Astrov, a country doctor, attends to a retired professor, Alexander Serebryakov, master of an estate, mainly under the management of Vanya, the brother of his deceased wife, and Sonya, his daughter by this previous marriage. Vanya complains that the order of the household is disrupted by the arrival of the professor. He virulently criticizes himself for misjudging the intellectual quality of his former brother-in-law in front of Astrov, having wasted twenty-five years at the service of a charlatan, to which Vanya’s mother mildly objects. In contrast, Vanya only has praises for the professor's present wife, Elena. After noting that Alexander has no physical ailment as such, Astrov criticizes the idleness and indifference of country life, particularly the mismanagement of the environment. Vanya declares his love for Elena, but she rejects him. Late that night, Alexander complains to his wife of breathing problems and old age. Because of her father's complaints, Sonya sends for Astrov again, but the professor, suddenly feeling better, nonchalantly leaves without seeing him. Elena is distraught by discords in the house, Vanya by lost hopes. In his view, he met Elena too late, and the professor is not the genius he first thought he was in his youth, having accomplished nothing of worth. Concerned with their own woes, Astrov and Vanya drink heavily. Sonya scolds Vanya for it, convinced that the only way out of their doldrums is by working. Sonya also laments Astrov's heavy drinking in a tone suggesting love and concern of him, to which he appears unaware. Sonya meets Elena to resolve their past differences, but both are fixated on their own problems. Elena is unhappy about her marriage, Sonya hoping to marry Astrov. The following day, Alexander calls for a family meeting. Aside with Elena, Vanya urges her to break free from her husband, but once again she rejects him. Noticing Sonya's love for Astrov, Elena proposes to sound him on his feelings towards her. When she does so, Astrov reveals he has no amorous passion for Sonya whatsoever, laughingly concluding that this question is meant to sound his eligibility for her own passion towards him. Astrov kisses Elena as Vanya pathetically enters with a bunch of roses. More distraught than ever, Elena begs Vanya to use his influence on her husband so that the married couple may leave the house immediately. As the retired professor enters, Elena briefly signals to Sonya Astrov's negative response. Alexander proposes to sell the estate, at which, Vanya, crushed, asks him where does he propose he and Sonya should live. Vanya casts in his former mentor's teeth his ingratitude, for it is he and Sonya who have managed his estate. Angry words are exchanged and Vanya quickly leaves the room. Alexander follows to placate him, but a pistol shot is heard whereby Alexander returns, chased by Vanya, who fires again, misses, laughs at himself, and sinks into a chair. Later, Astrov demands that Vanya give him back a vial of morphine, enough to kill a man, which he relunctantly does after Sonya's intervention. Agreed to leave the estate, Alexander and Elena bid everyone farewell. As so many times in the past, Sonya and Vanya are left to take care of house accounts. She believes that personal salvation comes through work and that eventually they will "find rest".
An important precursor of Chekhov's plays is "Месяц в деревне" (A month in the country, 1855) by Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883). In particular, A Month in the Country anticipates Chekhov in its attention to psychological detail and also in the way the story returns full circle to its starting-point” (Lamm, 1952 p 181).
"A month in the country" "is as well made as though it concerned nothing in particular. The subtlety throughout is extraordinary, and Turgenev pays our minds a compliment by leaving the most important things unsaid. Natalia’s anguish in declining self-respect, Viera’s transition from the child to the woman who knows that her life will never be lived- these things have no words, yet they move us deeply. Ultimately both the languid lover and the tutor go away, leaving Viera to a loveless marriage and Natalia to the house which the presence of her well-meaning husband makes all the emptier. There is no climax, but then why should there be? A gentle melancholy suffuses this piece, and like Shelley’s wave, gives an ‘intenser day’ to all that it envelops” (Agate, 1944 p 94). "The substance of A Month in the Country is the manner in which the restless Natalia tries to keep the devotion of each of several men but succeeds only in losing all of them except her docile and patient husband. She is one of those types never quite ready to relinquish her hold upon anyone, no matter what the cost in misery to the captive. As the play ends, the house will soon be quite empty. Natalia has reaped the harvest of her egotism" (Skinner, 1931 p 257).
"A month in the country" "ends without having reached a very decisive conclusion. Natalya, her husband, her husband’s mother, her son, and her son’s German tutor will continue living on the estate. Life will go on in much the same way as it has done heretofore, and Natalya will no doubt continue to be restless and dissatisfied. She and Belyayev seem to be badly coordinated people by comparison with Rakitin and Vera, both of whom have secured emotional tranquillity at the cost of immediate happiness. None of the four principal characters in this play has an agreeable prospect for the future. Only Natalya’s stupid husband thinks that everything has come out in the best possible way for himself and all the others...All of the people in A Month in the Country have more or less violent passions, but no one of them is able to satisfy his impulses. There is some inhibiting force within them, all which makes it impossible for them to express themselves as they would like to do. The practical circumstances of their lives have too much influence over them. They lack the strength of character that they should have if they are to be the masters of their own fates" (Sanderson, 1939 p 331). In the final scene, "as he bids them all farewell, Belyaev suddenly understands that he himself has been the cause of all this tangled web of misdirected affections, and in a rush of remorse such as only a Russian can comprehend, he, too, departs, and life on the estate resumes its monotonous course above the wreckage of unfulfilled passions" (Sayler, 1921 p 396).
"A month in the country"
Time: 1850s. Place: Russia.
A wealthy landowner and bachelor friend of the family, Mihail Rakitin, spends much time in the company of Arkady Islayev's wife, Natalia. When Mihail questions Alexey Belyaev, the recently hired tutor to their son, about his past life, the latter mentions once translating a French novel without even knowing any French at all. A neighbor of theirs, Afanasy Bolshintsov, owner of over three hundred serfs, requests the advice of their family doctor, Ignaty Shpigelsky, concerning a possible marriage between himself and Vera, orphaned ward of the Islayevs. Should this be accomplished, Afanasy will give him three horses. Ignaty introduces the subject to Mihail, who, in turn, does so to Natalia, who dislikes the idea, considering the man a "stupid creature". Of greater importance to himself, in view of his love of her, Mihail notices Natalia's infatuation for Alexey. When Natalia questions Vera about her feelings for Afanasy, she miserably answers: "I'm in your power, Natalia Petrovna." Natalia assures her that she will be free to choose her choice of a husband. Then she learns that Vera loves the man she herself loves, Alexey, her son's tutor. Suspecting he may lose Natalia, a worried Mihail selfishly advises her to dismiss Alexey. Instead, Natalia seeks to find out whether Alexey loves Vera. He does not seem to. Meanwhile, Ignaty courts Lizaveta, another family friend, and seems to make some headway there. Vera discovers that Alexey does not love her and also that Natalia loves him and perhaps plans to marry her off to Afanasy after all. To Alexey's astonishment, Natalia declares her love to him, but she hesitates on whether he should leave the house, finally deciding she cannot have him go. Meanwhile, Arkady notices Mihail's attachment towards his wife. A sad witness to Natalia's love of another, Mihail decides to leave the house. Also unable to live any longer with Natalia, Vera questions the doctor about Afanasy, who assures her he is most kind-hearted and "like dough". To Natalia's grief, Alexey, uncomfortable with his position as the recipient of his mistress' love, decides to leave the house as well. Mihail grits his teeth while Arkady expresses his gratitude for this sacrifice to their friendship. Lizaveta is also free to go, having agreed to marry Ignaty, most glad at obtaining the horses.
Of further interest in Russian realistic drama is a gritty peasant play: "Власть тьмы" (The power of darkness, 1886) by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910).
"I am much disposed...to recognise in The Power of Darkness one of the most perfect masterpieces which ever graced any literature, and to perceive that Tolstoi seems to have imported in it a new form of popular drama, and one capable of universal application. The idea that a fault may be atoned for by voluntary confession and expiation is certainly not a new one. But none of Tolstoi's predecessors has succeeded, so far as my knowledge goes, in ex- pressing it in so dramatic a fashion, nor with so much true and simple grandeur. He gives us Nature herself, as she lives and moves, taken from the rustic life, without the smallest affectation, or the slightest touch of rhetoric. Figures and surroundings, methods of speech and ways of feeling, have all been observed, noted even to their most delicate shades, and rendered in a fashion that is miraculous. Though Nikita, the guilty peasant, speaks the ordinary language of the populace, he uses some phrases and expressions which reveal his knowledge of circles other than those of his own village. You realise that a railway must have been made through the place, and that the foam of city civilisation has thus been cast, by way of the tavern, on to the threshold of the peasant's hut" (Waliszewski, 1900 pp 391-392).
"Act 1 introduces a problem in terms long familiar to the comic theatre. Peter...is the typical cuckold. He has taken as his second wife some ten years junior in years...Anisya is correct in her complaint to her husband that his plans are based on desires for his own comfort and a disinterest in hers...It is typical of the comedy of cuckolding, too, that the wife should take a younger man as her lover...The other characters, too, are presented in this first act in comic terms. Matrena, Nikita's mother, is the old bawd- crafty, vulgar, hypocritical...In Act 2 greed becomes the controlling motive...[it] opens with the problem of the lovers' ridding themselves of Peter, finding his money, and concealing the crime, and almost every speech in this act is concerned with this problem...There is [in act 3] not merely the grimness that we expect from the naturalistic view, but there is also the hopelessness...Nikita offers his father money, his father refuses. He orders Anisya from the house, but she does not leave, Akim speaks of the 'ruin' that is coming, but, in truth, the ruin is already there. Only the half-witted Akulina finds any pleasure at all...Act 4 [is] a scene of horror, a drama of the grotesque...more closely akin to Webster's 'The duchess of Malfi'...than to anything in modern drama...[This play] is the only modern drama that systematically uses dramatic points of view, not for the purpose of arriving at a relativist conclusion about the impossibility of truth, but to demonstate the supremacy of the moral-religious view" (Nolan, 1965, pp 3-9).
“Matriona...is a bustling old woman, quite unscrupulous in her desire to make her son’s fortune, and perfectly ready to serve as procuress or a blender of poisons...Her husband Akim...seems half crazy; he is a shy stammering man...and every good action is the result of some impulse of his...Akulina, an ugly over-grown child, is at first completely under her mother’s thumb, but later on, with the help of Nikita and after her father's death, she learns to browbeat her in her turn...Everything, even scenes of horror, seems to happen and be discussed as if it were quite natural, with the result that the audience is doubly moved...Nikita...is always musing about his crimes, partly because his conscience is uneasy but partly also because they have served no purpose” (Lamm, 1952 pp 183-185). Nikita "drifts through life along the line of least resistance. He is not deliberately vicious; yet he is impelled from crime to crime by influences that are stronger than himself. The germs of sin are fructified within his soul by the power of darkness" (Hamilton, 1920 p 152). Matryona is "a memorable character, repulsive, hypocritical and callous, yet in a queer, perverted fashion devoted to her son" (Wilson, 1927 p 191).
Gassner (1954a) concluded that "if the play derives its strength from the marvelous naturalistic portrayal of the culprits, it is the totality of effect that is important. The play is a tragedy of sin and expiation, and it takes the Russian drama beyond Ostrovsky in one important respect: it adds the dimension of humanitarianism to the stark photography of life" (p 506). Goldman (1914) described the social impact of the play as "a terrible picture of poverty, ignorance and superstition. To write such a work it is not sufficient to be a creative artist: it requires a deeply sympathetic human soul. Tolstoy possessed both. He understood that the tragedy of the peasants' life is due not to any inherent viciousness but to the power of darkness which permeates their existence from the cradle to the grave. Something heavy is oppressing them- in the words of Anisya- weighing them down, something that saps all humanity out of them and drives them into the depths. 'The power of darkness' is a social picture at once appalling and gripping" (p 282).
"The power of darkness"
Time: 1880s. Place: Rural Russia.
Nikita, a laborer on Peter Ignatitch's estate, is forced by his father to marry Marina. Anisya, Peter's wife but Nikita's lover, weeps at these news and feels betrayed. "My old man will die one of these fine days, I'm thinking; then we could cover our sin, make it all right and lawful, and then you'll be master here," she says, consoling herself. Matryona, Nikita's mother, observing their embraces, is content merely to say: "What I saw I didn't perceive, what I heard, I didn't hearken to. Playing with the lass, eh? Well,- even a calf will play. Why shouldn't one have some fun when one's young?" She is against the marriage, preferring Nikita to keep his well-paid position, and so she buys poison so that Anisya may use it on her husband, at which the latter pays her back. Matryona's husband, Akim, finds a job in town cleaning cesspools and prefers to have his son stay at home, all the more so because otherwise he will wrong Marina if he does not marry her, but Matryona calls her a common slut and her son suggests in a roundabout way the same. Marina accuses Nikita of deceit, knows he does not love her any more, and knows whom he loves at the moment, at which he brutally sends her on her way. As Peter is being slowly poisoned over the course of several months, Anisya's anxieties grow because she does not yet know where her husband hides his money. He may give it to his sister, Martha. While tea is prepared, Matryona assures the suffering Peter he will obtain a fine burial service. As Matryona helps him into the house, she feels the money on his person, so that Anisya succeeds in retrieving it and gives it to Nikita to bury. She then re-enters the house and comes out screaming. Matryona rolls up her sleeves to lay out the body. As Anisya wished, Nikita becomes the new master, but he quickly becomes enamored of Anisya's step-daughter, Akoulina, and squanders on her the money his wife killed for. He puts on airs with Akoulina and throws money at Akim, who finds such doings filthy, but nevertheless keeps the money. Akoulina quarrels with Anisya and accuses her of murdering Peter. To settle the quarrel, Nikita pushes Anisya out of the house, but after a while calls her back and gives her a present. Even more disgusted at such doings and considering he is heading for ruin, Akim gives back the money to his son. Several months later, Akolina is about to give birth as Matryona tries to arrange a marriage for her. Since she is unmarried, Anisya and Matryona plot to get rid of the baby, asking Nikita to dig a hole in the cellar, which he reluctantly does. Anisya retrieves the newborn wrapped in rags and throws it for Nikita to take care of, who is surprised to see it still alive. "Be quick and smother it, and then it won't be alive." she says. "It's your doing and you must finish it." Nikita comes out of the cellar trembling and upset: "How the little bones crunched under me!" he exclaims. He imagines he hears it whimpering still. In mortal conflict, he chases Anisya about with the spade. "How can it whimper?" asks his mother. "Why, you've flattened it into a pancake. The whole head is smashed to bits." During Akolina's wedding ceremony with another man, Nikita feels unable to give the blessing. Instead, he ties a rope around his neck. Matryona removes it. Anisya invites him back to the party. As they go, he picks up the rope again, but one of his laborers hangs on to it laughingly and drunkenly till he gives up. On entering the room with the guests, he falls drunkenly and declares: "Christian Commune, I have sinned and I wish to confess." Very much alarmed at the beginning of this speech, Matryona says her son must be taken away. Despite her intervention, he confesses to Akim's joy to the murder of Peter and the baby, which Akoulina confirms to have borne. He says he did everything alone.
Another dramatist of interest is Alexander Ostrovsky (1823–1886), who wrote 48 plays from 1847 to 1884, including three major ones: "Гроза" (The thunderstorm, 1859), "Лес" (The forest, 1871), and “На всякого мудреца довольно простоты” (No fool like a wise fool, 1868, also known as Enough stupidity in every wise man).
In "The thunderstorm", "the conflict is very strongly marked between the mysticism and hunger for beauty, which are the dominant characteristics of Katerina, and the narrow ignorance and tyranny, which are exemplified in the household of Kabanova...The next act stresses still further the cramped environment of Katerina, in showing the jealous tyranny of her mother-in-law and the weakness and selfishness of her husband, who, anxious to escape from Kabanova's domineering for a few weeks of dissipation, turns a deaf ear to his wife's premonitions of evil and refuses to spoil his holiday by taking her with him...Katerina's longing for some colour and beauty in life is too great for her to make any long resistance...The superstitions and rough despotism of the older generation are contrasted with the sentimentality of Varvara and her friend and the passionate tenderness of the newly-met lovers...The crisis comes with the fourth act, where the storm of the elements is re-echoed by the tempest in Katerina's heart and mind. After her husband's unexpected return, she realises her guilt and, in her suffering, feels that the storm, according to the beliefs of the townspeople, had come as punishment for her sin. Everything conspires to play on her overstrained nerves,- the storm, a sudden meeting with Boris, the denunciations of a religious maniac, who appears at intervals throughout the play, and an inscription about Gehenna and the Day of Judgment on the walls of the ruins, where they have taken shelter. These last two details, together with Katerina's fear of storms, have been suggested much earlier in the play and therefore fit in quite easily in obtaining the cumulative effect of strain, which breaks down her silence and makes her cry aloud her shame...She...eludes the careful watch, which is kept over her, and coming down to the river, half-dazed from the emotional struggle she has undergone, she meets Boris. This rather inadequate lover is completely dependent on his uncle and therefore, when sent to an appointment in Siberia, can think of no other course than to obey instructions. Family discipline was very strong among the merchants. He can only return tender words to Katerina's request for freedom and show her that it is impossible to take her with him. Life then holds no possibilities for her. Feeling herself completely accursed, she does not hesitate long. What does another sin matter? Better suicide than this half-death" (Beasley, 1928 pp 606-608). "Kabanova...declares that Katerina cannot love her husband, because otherwise, when he went away, she would have howled for an hour and a half and fallen down on the porch. That was the accepted method as Kabanova understands it, and she abuses Katerina for not doing it. She treats her son as badly as she does his wife. Her daughter has learned the method of acting under this regime. She obeys meekly and slips out the back door to her lover. Katerina is induced to try it but she takes that also too seriously and finally she drowns herself. Her husband who loves her dearly threatens to rebel against the harsh rule of his mother, but she merely sneers...We agree to the moral callousness of the old woman but she is the dominating character. Katerina with her charm is really weak. So is the son, and there will be a long way yet to go before they seriously threaten the rule of the old shrew...Thus, as we run through the plays of Ostrovsky, we find that they picture the newer life which was replacing that of the stern old patriarchs of the thirties and the forties" (Manning, 1930 pp 37-40). "Catherine is a romantic, with leanings towards mysticism. She sins,and curses her love and her lover even as she yields to them. Her husband is a brute, with coarse instincts and some good feeling. His mother is a domestic tyrant, brought up in the school of Pope Sylvester. When, at the moment of her indifferent husband's departure, Catherine, with a presentiment of her impending fate, casts herself on his breast, beseeching him to stay, or to take her with him, the old woman interferes...and so Catherine seeks in another man's arms the caress, the loving words, the tender clasp for which her soul- the soul of a modern woman- hungers" (Waliszewski, 1900 p 274).
"The forest" "shares with The Thunderstorm the honor of being regarded as his masterpiece. Less exclusively original, the comedy is extraordinarily rich in its character drawing. Of all Ostrovsky’s plays, it is the one in which the essential nobility of man is most triumphantly asserted. But it also contains the most unsweetened types of cynical and compla- cent meanness and selfishness in the whole of Russian literature" (Mirsky, 1949 p 239). The play "is a concentration of all the previous history of both west European and Russian theater. This effect is provided first of all (though not entirely) by the characters of two actors, the tragedian Gennady Neschastlivtsev (Unlucky) and the comedian Arkashka (Arkady) Schastlivtsev (Lucky). They both behave theatrically in real life, and their theatricality is the sum of all the roles they have ever played. For Neschastlivtsev, these include, first of all, Shakespeare (Hamlet), Schiller (Karl Moor), and Cervantes (the non-dramatic role of Don Quixote). Meanwhile, Schastlivtsev, who acts as Sganarelle, the role once played by Molière himself, with its roots in French théâtre de la foire (‘fair theater’) and Italian commedia dell’arte, impersonates the tradition of all the ‘comic unfortunates'" (Kuptsova, 2019 p 114).
"No fool like a wise fool" "emphasizes the fact that simple human beings like to be flattered, even when they know the painful truth about themselves, and also points out that some flaw is to be found in the armor of the most hardened hypocrite" (Sanderson, 1939 p 333).
"While Gogol, Griboyedov, and their contemporaries had confined themselves to a bitter exposure of the nobles and the bureaucrats, Ostrovsky went further, and showed up this unproductive section of society in direct contrast to the bourgeoisie, whose character and conduct he paints sympathetically, though not without some shrewd criticism. His comedies were the first to deal, on a large with the mentality of a class which no Russian dramatist as yet had thought it worthwhile to describe with such particularity. His method was to exclude any touch of romance or pathos, his sole concern being to represent men and matters as they actually are; his plays mark the beginning of realism on the Russian stage- that realism to which it was to owe its most important successes in the future" (Fülöp-Miller and Gregor, 1930 p 40).
Ostrovsky's "plays, as a rule, are neither comedies nor dramas. Dobrolioubov called them 'representations of life'. The audience is not given anything to laugh at, nor yet anything to cry over. The general setting of the piece is some social sphere which has little or no connection with the characters we see in it. These characters moving themselves are neutral in tint neither heroes nor malefactors. Not one of them rouses direct sympathy. They are all overwhelmed by a condition of things the weight of which they might shake off, the danger of which would vanish, if they showed some little energy. But of this they have not a spark. And the struggle is not between them, but between the facts, the fatal influence of which they undergo, for the most part, unconsciously. A sort of gloomy fatalism presides over this conception of mundane matters, an idea that anyman belonging to a particular moral type must act in a particular manner. The natural deduction from this theory is that actions are not good or bad in themselves. They are merely life. And so life itself is neither good nor evil. It is as it is, and has no account to give to anybody. Ostrovski's pieces have generally no denouement, or, if they have one, it is always of an uncertain nature. The dramatic action never really closes, it is broken off; the author cutting it short, not by an effective scene or phrase, but frequently, and deliberately, at the most commonplace point, or in the middle of a rejoinder. He seems to avoid effect just where it naturally would occur in the situation. Ostrovski's admirers hold this to be his manner of typifying real life, which, in nature, has neither beginning nor end. I have already made my reservations on this head; and I am glad indeed to affirm that no other Russian writer, save Tolstoi, has painted so great a number of types and circles corresponding with almost every group in Russian society. His language, full of power and fancy, constitutes, with that of Krylov, the richest treasure-house of picturesque and original expressions to be found in Russia. Pushkin had already declared that the way to learn Russian was by talking to the Moscow Prosvirnie (the women who make the sacred bread, prosford). They taught Ostrovski precious lessons" (Waliszewski, 1900 pp 276-277).
"Ostrovsky’s pictures of the sordid and disagreeable world into which he introduces us do not provide the relief of either noble suffering or hearty laughter. The flat realism which he presents is more inclusive than that of Gogol or Turgenev and therefore less selectively refined than that of the earlier writers. It is, however, a powerful description of the externals of a mediocre social group. It is, in addition, thoroughly representative of the aesthetic tendencies of the nineteenth century in Russia and elsewhere throughout Europe. The continuous rise of the middle class tended to stimulate a kind of art which does not make excessive demands upon the imagination. Ostrovsky offered his audiences plenty of variety in scenes drawn from observation and experience. In some of his plays the merchants are good; in others they are bad. In some, children get their way; in others, parents or guardians get theirs. Conditions are never the same in any two cases, and therefore, in his view, no general principles can be extracted from the welter of human society. The aim of a realistic artist like Ostrovsky is to present life as he sees it, vividly and accurately, with the utmost photographic exactness" (Sanderson, 1939 pp 334-335).
"The virtues and defects of Ostrovsky’s plays are, on the whole, the same which we find in Russian prose writers. He is, above all, simple and natural- so natural that he gives the impression of following the depicted events rather than organizing them. He neglects the plot and concentrates upon the characters and their dramatic conflicts. These arc taken straight from life with great tolerance and objectivity. This is why his plays have the logic of life itself and not that of literary inventions. His sober eye, as well as his strong sense of measure, avoids all tricks or effects for their own sake. His very irony seems to be the irony of life caught by the author quite by chance, as it were. Yet there is perhaps just one flaw in his figures they are those of a great observer rather than a great creator" (Lavrin, 1928 p 54).
Time: 1850s. Place: Kalinov, Russia.
Text at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/7991 https://archive.org/details/storm01ostrgoog https://archive.org/details/cu31924026730311 https://archive.org/details/cu31924026730329 https://archive.org/details/storm00ostr
Being an orphan, Boris is the recipient of his grandmother's will whereby his uncle, Dukoy, a merchant, is to pay him and his sister a fair share of her fortune provided he shows proper respect for his authority. But Dukoy takes advantage of the situation by pretending never to be satisfied and thereby keeps the money for himself. In the Kabanov household, Marfa is unhappy about the way her son, Tihon, handles his wife, Katerina, too softly in her view. Tihon does not understand why he should foster fear in his wife. "Why should she fear you!" she exclaims. "What do you mean? Why, you must be crazy. If she doesn't fear you, she's not likely to fear me." Katerina confesses to Varvara, Tihon' sister, that she is in love with another man. Varvara promises to help her. "No, no, that must not be," she says. "What are you saying! God forbid!" She fears a storm is brewing. "Don't talk of not being afraid," she says. "Everyone must be afraid. What is dreadful is not it's killing you, but that death may overtake you all of a sudden, just as you are, with all your sins, with all your erring thoughts. I have no fear of death, but when I think that I shall be brought all at once before the face of God just as I am here, with you, after this talk,- that's what is awful! What I had in my heart! What wickedness! Fearful to think of!" Varvara guesses correctly that Katerina loves Boris. As Tihon prepares to leave on a two-week journey, his mother mentions some specific recommendations. "Lay your commands on your wife, exhort her how she is to live in your absence," his mother insists, "and then when you come back, you can ask if she has performed everything exactly." Varvara steals the garden-key from her mother, so that Katerina can meet her lover in the summerhouse and delivers at the same time a message to Boris that he must be near. While waiting for her, he confides to a friend, Kudriash, that he loves a married woman. Kudriash guesses who it is. Katerina meets Boris, veiled. "Do you know that never by any prayer can I be free of this sin, never again?" she asks. "Like a stone it will lie on my soul, like a stone." But yet she is determined to go on. "If they lock me up, that will be my death. And if they don't lock me up, I will find some way to see you again," she adds. As they retire together, Kudriash meets Varvara. They kiss and yawn. When Tihon eventually returns from his journey, Marfa notes how unhappy Katerina appears. A storm is on its way and Katerina is afraid. Tihon says that being afraid of storms is a question of temperament, to which Marfa comments: "The heart of another is darkness." When Boris suddenly appears for a visit, Katerina shrieks. After he leaves, she reveals to her husband and his mother in the thunderstorm that from the first night and every night of his voyage, she went out with Boris. "Well, son! You see what freedom leads to," says Marfa triumphantly. "I told you so, but you wouldn't heed me. See what you've brought on yourself!" Tihon tells a friend it is not his fault, but his mother's. He still loves her, cannot hurt her, only giving her a few blows now and then at his mother's bidding. Meanwhile, Dukoy orders Boris away to Siberia. Varvara flees the house with Kudriash. Tihon then learns that Katerina has disappeared. By chance, Katerina finds Boris and asks to go with him, but he, being dependent on his uncle's will, says he cannot. Her condition is miserable, her husband's kindness being worse than his blows. They go their separate ways. A bystander notices a woman in the river. As a fearful Tihon heads in that direction, his mother holds him. When Katerina's corpse is carried in, Tihon blames his mother for her death, crying out to her ghost: "It is well with you, Katia, but why am I left to live and suffer!"
Time: 1870s. Place: Russia.
Text at ?
To reduce her expenses, a rich widow, Raissa Gourmyskaia, plans to marry off two of her dependants, Alexis and Axinia, to each other, although neither love the other. To augment her revenues, she intends to sell part of the forest surrouding her estate. A prospective buyer is found: Ivan Vosmibratof, who arrives to negotiate with her along with his son, Piotr, who secretly loves Axinia as much as she loves him. Raissa has already sold one part of the woods to Ivan for 1,500 roubles but cannot find the receipt. Before her properties are discussed, Ivan asks whether she agrees to a marriage between his son and Axinia. She immediately refuses, but agrees to let go another part of the woods for 1,500 roubles. Ivan's assent to this proposition is rather vague. After sounding out Axinia about the proposed marriage with Alexis, Raissa finds her unwilling and defiant. Unexpectedly, Raissa's long-lost nephew, Guennari, arrives, in dire straits as a failing actor, along with a fellow-actor, Arkadi, also fallen on hard times. She finds their visit to be a wearisome load on her finances and hopes to be rid of both. When Ivan returns, Raissa discovers she has lost her receipt again. Nevertheless, she gives him a certificate stating she has received the entire sum of 3,000 roubles. Ivan takes the certificate and to her dismay hands over only 1,800 roubles, the sum he pretends to have agreed to until Guennari arrives and intimidates him into yielding the correct sum. Piotr needs his father's consent to marry Axinia. Ivan agrees provided that they obtain 2,000 roubles as a dowry. Thinking he is rich, Axinia begs Guennari to give her the money. Instead, the actor proposes to turn her into an actress. One day, the housekeeper anounces to Raissa that Axinia has left the house. "Perfect!" she exclaims. With her gone, Raissa all the more boldly flirts with Alexis. But when he kisses her and takes her familiarly by the waist, she cries out: "Are you crazy?" Nevertheless, she makes him her steward. No longer wanted, Guennari prepares to leave the house. Raissa gives him 1,000 roubles, only part of the sum she owes him from long ago. As Axinia prepares to follow the actors, Piotr succeeds in reducing his father's demands down to 1,000 roubles, which Guennari yields to so, that he and Axinia can marry.
“No fool like a wise fool”
Time: 1860s. Place: Moscow, Russia.
Glafira Glumova points out to her son, Yegor, that Masha Turusina with her 200 hundred thousand rouble dowry, will be difficult to obtain in view of their poverty relative to the prospects of Vasilich Kurchayev, a hussar and nephew of a rich man, Nil Mamayev, also Yegor’s more distant uncle. Yegor sees his chance when Vasilich scribbles a drawing of Nil supplemented by a legend of the liberal satirist, Golutvin, which Yegor pockets up for future use. Another possible stroke of luck arises when Vasilich informs Yegor that Mamayev’s wife, Cleopatra Mamayeva, has taken a fancy to him with a mere glance at a theater. To his mother’s surprise, Yegor already has a trap set for Nil after having falsely advertised apartments to a man who likes to visit them. When Nil arrives as expected, Yegor shows him Vasilich’s satirical drawing, at which he is affronted. More plotting is in store when Yegor offers to pay Manefa, a fortune-teller, in his interest. Vasilich returns, suspecting Yegor as the cause of why his rich uncle now appears angry with him, at which Yegor pretends innocence. Nil’s friend, Krutitsky, is looking for a writer who will support conservative causes. Nil believes he knows the man for him: Yegor Glumov. Meanwhile, Glafira complains to Cleopatra Mamayeva that her son is liable to languish in obscurity, to which the latter says that women should enlist their husbands to help him out. When Glafira mentions how much he admires his uncle and aunt, Cleopatra is enthused. “Let us love him together,” she says. After his mother leaves, Yegor himself shows up, pretending to be shy as her aunt appears so young. She is intrigued and stipulates that a word from her should procure him a situation. To follow up his advantage, Yegor insinuates that he loves someone but is unable to declare who she is, at which his aunt is led to think it might be herself. She first asks an enterprising man, Gorodulin, whether a position may be obtained for this handsome young man. He answers positively and immediately requests him to write a speech for him. Equally impressed, Nil advises the apparently timid Yegor to flatter his wife more often, to which Yegor pretends to hesitate. Gorodulin returns to Cleopatra to say that in two weeks Yegor will have an appointment. Yegor is elated, Cleopatra anxious to know who his loved one is. “You,” he says falling on his knee. “I forgive you,” she responds while kissing his forehead. Masha Turusina is bored with her present life, requesting more freedom from her superstitious aunt, Sofia, inclined to be choosy as to her choice of husband. They receive the visit of Krutitsky, who speaks favorably of a man he has heard good things about: Yegor Glumov, followed by Gorodulin, also impressed by Yegor, and then Manefa, who, in the pay of Yegor, as if in an inspired trance, pronounces that a good choice of a husband might be ‘Yegor of a foreign shore’. To crown the piece, Nil introduces his nephew, Yegor himself, solemnly kissing Sofia’s hand. Still in pursuit of a conservative treatise, Krutitsky eagerly subscribes to Yegor’s ideas. After learning of Gorodulin’s promise of a post, Krutitsky promises him a better one. After Yegor leaves, Krutitsky informs Cleopatra of Yegor’s intention to marry Masha, which she finds impossible to believe, feeling ill at the thought. She rushes to Yegor’s house and, though he denies loving the heiress, she suspects the worst. She hides in the adjoining room as Golutvin shows up with evidence of some of Yegor’s tricks, requesting 25 roubles to keep quiet. But Yegor refuses. While ushering the tell-tale out, she discovers Yegor’s diary, containing a daily summary of his activities, and takes off with it. When Gorodulin learns of Yegor’s treatise on behalf of Krutitsky, he proposes to sign his name to Yegor’s attack against his own treatise. Meanwhile, Cleopatra encourages Vasilich to keep hoping in regard to Masha, with all the more reason when Sofia receives an envelope containing a satiric article against Yegor accompanied by his hand-written diary. She apologizes to her niece for trying to control her choice of a husband. “My choice has already been made, aunt,” Masha declares as Sofia turns to Vasilich.
In addition to Tolstoy’s peasant drama laden with crime, Alexsey Pisemski (1821-1881) contributed an earlier one fraught with similar intensity: "Горькая судьбина" (A bitter fate, 1859).
"A bitter fate" "is a genuine tragedy at supreme logical unity which is the great characteristic of the plays of Racine. The subject, like those of Racine, is simple, almost geometrical. A squire, a weakling of the Hamlet, idealist type, has seduced, in the absence of her husband, the wife of one of his serfs. The husband is a strong character of the type that occurs in Pisemsky’s and Leskov’s popular stories. Though a serf, he is a prosperous tradesman and has made money in Petersburg. He returns home (this is the initial situation) and by degrees discovers the guilt of his wife and reacts accordingly. The squire is the master of the husband, while the husband is the master of his wife- so it is a conflict between, on the one hand, the squire’s rights as a serf owner and the dignity of his serf; on the other, between the rights of free love (an essential point is that the squire and the serf’s wife do love each other) and the rights of the master of the house over his wife. The double conflict is unfolded with supreme mastery, and the spectator’s sympathy is held in balance between the rights of human dignity and the rights of free love. The tragedy ends in the husband’s killing the lovers’ child and then (a trait particularly praised by Russian critics but suggested to Pisemsky by the actor Martynov) delivering himself into the hand of the law" (Mirsky, 1949 pp 240-241).
“A bitter fate”
Time: 1850s. Place: Sokovina, Russia.
While Anany Yakovlich has been away as a merchant for business purposes to St Petersburg, his wife, Lizaveta, entered into an adulterous relation with their master, Squire Cheglov, and has borne him a baby. As Anany returns to his home along with an old laborer, Uncle Nikon, the two argue over technological discoveries and who is the most valuable, a merchant or a laborer, until the latter, angry at being contradicted, insinuates that his companion is a cuckold. When Anany confronts his wife with this rumor, she bends her head. “There is no reply I can make,” she says. ‘”You can do to me whatever you please.” But then she proffers some excuses. “I didn’t want to do it, but then they gave me all sorts of orders and commands and I couldn’t disobey,” she says. But Anany dismisses these. To avoid disgrace, he opts to pretend that nothing has happened and that the baby is his. On leaning of the cuckold’s return, Cheglov is tormented about what will happen to Lizaveta and his baby, leading him to drink excessive amounts of vodka. In contrast, his friend, Sergey Zolotilov, considers that there is little cause to worry, suggesting that he raise the baby in his house. “I am also convinced,” Sergey adds, “that this woman encourages you in this unfortunate weakness, because it is easier to fish in troubled waters.” The bailiff, Kalistrat, brings her over with the news that Anany behaves awfully. Indeed, she enters tentatively to announce that Anany stares at her like a wild beast, “as if he were trying to kill me with his look,” she adds. As she scampers off, the bailiff leads her husband in. Cheglov offers Anany money, but he refuses. He wants to bring his wife and baby to St Petersburg, but Cheglov refuses. Cheglov next proposes a duel, but Anany declines that solution as well. “Our blood is worthless next to a gentleman’s,” he declares. The squire can only command Kalistrat to watch over Lizaveta day and night. At Anany’s house, Kalistrat leads a group of peasants and a deputy to protect Lizaveta and to judge the husband, because is unable to control him. The peasants are bewildered, want to be left alone, and wish her to the devil. “My axe is very sharp,” Anany warns. “Bind him with ropes for me,” Kalistrat commands, “and set the wife free.” Anany further warns them that he will punish his wife before their very faces. “You’ve ruled over me long enough,” Lizaveta declares. “I was carried off in the bridal sledge almost bound. I’d rather have thrown away my innocence to a bandit in the forest than to him.” Admitting she is the squire’s mistress, she collects her clothes, aiming to be taken to him. “I won’t give you the baby,” Anany states. As she advances to take the baby away, Anany splits his skull and escapes as the peasants run after him. As a result, Kalistrat is interrogated by the district police chief and a lawyer. In an attempt to prevent the squire knowing about the escape, the bailiff bribes the two men with 150 roubles. They try to interrogate Lizaveta’s mother, Matrena, but soon let her go as she babbles in fright. The two men are joined by Shpringel, the government official, and interrogate Uncle Nikon, but he is drunkenly incoherent. They receive news that Anany has been captured. Sergey tries to prevent the legal procedures, but they urge Anany forward. However, he gives little information, keeping silent as to who cuckolded him as a throng of peasants enter, including the sobbing Lizaveta. Nikon avers that she committed adultery with the squire, but Anany keep silent despite Shpringel’s protest that he may receive a lighter sentence in that case. Shpringel rises to see the governor, convinced of the existence of collusion among both officials and peasants. Still seeking to protect Cheglov, Sergey intends to counteract this move. “You can’t give over a noblemen, bound hand and foot, to any young puppy,” he decrees.