History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/Russian Romantic

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Nikolai Gogol[edit]

Nikolai Gogol exposed corruption in the bureaucracy of a small town. Portrait of the author by Fyodor Antonovich Moller (1812–1874), 1840

The most celebrated comedy of 19th century Russia is Ревизор, "Revizor" (The inspector general, 1836) by the Ukrainian dramatist, Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852).

In "The inspector general", Ehre (1980) pointed out that “Khlestakov's exceptional vacuity has been the subject of much metaphysical and psychological speculation, but it has a dramatic function. Because he lacks character, the townspeople can project their own fears and fantasies upon him...What makes him so comic is the enormous discrepancy between his own inconsequentiality and the importance the terrified town places upon him...Where comic masquerades before Gogol divided neatly into deceivers and deceived, confidence men and their gulls, in The Government Inspector almost everyone is an impersonator, an actor...Though the play is unremitting in its comic vision, it gives us momentary glimpses of suffering underlying its comedy. Its pathos stems from this sense of loss of selfhood. Deprived of an end to action, the townspeople turn upon themselves...The action between the flash and the crash concludes in an image of social dissolution. The society of the play has pursued an illusion, and in the end its fabric is rent. The message of the gendarme, in Gogol's stage directions, 'strikes like a thunderbolt'. The frenzied whirlwind stops, and all freeze in terror in the dumb scene. The intervention of the central government to set straight a world out of joint provided a standard resolution of comedy before Gogol, but Gogol's inspector is much different from his predecessors. He has no presence in the life of the play" (pp 141-146).

Karlinsky (1969) emphasized the absurdist aspect of the play. "Gogol's use of alogism can be illustrated in its basic form by citing the remark made by the judge in the very first scene of the play. Defending one of his subordinates against the charge of smelling of alcohol, the judge explains that the man can’t help it: his nurse dropped him when he was a baby and since then he has emitted a slight odor of vodka. The explanation, accepted with equanimity by the mayor and other characters, is quintessentially surrealistic, with its deliberate juxtaposition of two prosaic, believable facts (the dropped baby and the smell of vodka) to support a patently absurd explanation...Literary historians have discovered other literatures which use a basic situation similar to the one in The Inspector General and which may have served Gogol as models or precedents. But in all of those plays the young man mistaken for a person of importance and authority is inevitably a clever swindler, a rogue or a picaro, who manipulates the misunderstanding to achieve personal gain and prestige...Cast in the traditional situation of a picaro, Khlestakov nevertheless plays a remarkably passive, almost somnambulistic role in the action of the comedy...The Inspector General can be read as a commentary on the absurdity of human endeavor and human existence, a commentary whose implications go far deeper than any exposure of bribery or corruption in the civil service which may have interested Gogol's contemporaries" (pp 148-149).

"The inspector general"[edit]

Anton Antonovich, played by Fyodor Paramonov, has many reasons to worry over a visit from the inspector general, Maly Theatre, Moscow, 1905

Time: 1830s. Place: A provincial town in Russia.

Text at http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Inspector-General http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3735 http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Inspector-General http://www.readbookonline.net/title/12075/ https://archive.org/details/revizrcomedy00gogorich https://archive.org/details/inspectorgeneral00gogorich https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.105455

Accustomed to running things their own way, the authorities of a provincial town have a major problem on their hands: the incognito visit of an inspector-general sent by the government. Anton Antonovich, the governor of the town, advises Artemi Philoppovich, the charity commissioner, to clean up the hospitals and to reduce the number of patients. "Otherwise," he worries, "it will at once be ascribed to bad supervision or unskilful doctoring." He also advises Ammos Fyodorovich, the judge, to improve the sloppy management of the court-buildings, as well as the director of schools, Luka Lukich, to take care that the teachers do not grimace at the inspector-general or behave too excitedly. Yet Anton is mostly anxious about his own self. He asks the postmaster a favor. "Look here, Ivan Kuzmich, don't you think you could just slightly open every letter which comes in and goes out of your office, and read it (for the public benefit, you know), to see if it contains any kind of information against me, or only ordinary correspondence?" The postmaster accepts. Ivan Alexandrovich Khlestakov, a copying clerk short of funds at an inn, is mistakenly taken for the inspector-general. In their first meeting, Anton and Ivan look at each other nervously, until the former lends him 400 roubles to settle his bill at the inn and invite him over to his house. As the inspector-general, Ivan is taken to the hospital, where Artemi boasts. "The patient no sooner gets into the sick-ward than he's well again." he says. "It's not so much done by the doctoring as by honesty and regularity." For his part, Anton boasts on the "multifarious matters that are referred to him". Ivan is led to boast as well, particularly about his writing for the papers and the opera, and about the power of his government position, so that all the local authorities are awed and become all the more frightened. As Ivan sleeps off a heavy dinner, the governor has the following warning for the police officers: "Just mind, if any one comes with a petition, or even without one, if he looks like a person who would present a petition against me- then you kick him out head-foremost- straight!" while exiting on tiptoe to prevent disturbing the supposed inspector-general's sleep. When Ivan awakes, Ammos introduces himself nervously, drops as if by chance some bank-notes, and is relieved when asked to lend them to him. He is followed by Ivan Kuzmich, who lends him some more, followed by Luka, propelled from behind as a result of his cowardice and nervously lending him even more, along with two landowners, Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, the latter requesting a favor concerning his bastard son: "And so, if you please, I wish him to be quite my- well, legitimate son now, sir, and to be called Dobchinsky, like me, sir," he says. "I most respectfully beg of you, when you return to Petersburg, to tell all the different grandees there- the senators and admirals- that here, your serenity- I mean, your excellency- in this very town lives Peter Ivanovich Bobchinsky, merely to say that: Peter Ivanovich Bobchinsky lives here," says the other, to which Ivan responds: "Certainly!" They are followed by Jewish merchants complaining about being "grievously and unjustly oppressed" by the governor, which Ivan promises to look into, not for a bribe but for a loan of some roubles. Two citizen's wives follow, also complaining of the governor's enormities. The governor's daughter, Marya Antonovna, next comes in, with whom he unhesitantly flirts, kissing her shoulder, dropping to his knees, till discovered by her mother, Anna Andreyevna. He assures her of not being in love with her daughter. "No, I'm in love with you," he swears instead. "My life hangs on a thread. If you will not crown my constant love, then I am unfit for earthly existence. With a flame at my heart, I ask for your hand." to which she responds: "But permit me to mention that I am, so to speak . . . well, I am married." When Marya discovers him on his knees again, she is browbeaten by her mother till Ivan asks for the daughter's hand, which astonishes both women, though both accept his proposal. After another 400 rouble loan to round out the previous 400 roubles, Ivan quietly departs the scene to visit a wealthy uncle. Anton summons back the merchants, revealing that the inspector-general is to be his son-in-law, at which point they become quite humble. While Anton and his wife brag about their son-in-law, the postmaster announces he has found out by opening his letter that the inspector-general is no inspector-general. When the real inspector-general is announced, the confounded authorities mutely stand still.

Alexander Griboyedov[edit]

Alexander Griboyedov showed how a being wit leads to unhappiness. Portrait by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi (1837–1887)

Also of major note among comic works: "Горе от ума" (The woes of wit, 1831) by Alexander Griboyedov (1790-1829), who describes the social dangers a man undergoes when he becomes too witty.

Little (1984) reported the opinions of 19th century Russian authors on "The woes of wit" and its protagonist. Pushkin described "Chatsky as a noble, ardent and kind person who had spent some time with a clever man, Griboyedov himself, and had absorbed from the latter ideas, witticisms, and sarcastic remarks. Everything he says is clever but on whom, Pushkin asks, does he waste his words: Famusov? Skalozub? Molchalin? old women? A first mark of a clever man, Pushkin observes, is to know with whom he is dealing...Gogol...complained that Chatsky expresses indignation at what is despicable and nasty in society but does not himself set an example to that society...Pushkin shared Vyazemsky's view that Skalozub and Famusov were superb characterisations, but differed from Vyazemsky on the subject of Sophie, considering her too vague...Both points of view may be reconciled in the light of Mirsky's statement, similar to Vyazemsky's, that Sophie is the only character in the play who is a person rather than a type. All the other characters, he gushes, are universal types 'stamped in the really common clay of humanity', but Sophie is 'a rare phenomenon in classical comedy: a heroine that is neither idealised nor caricatured'" (pp 20-21).

"The woes of wit"[edit]

Famusov, played by Alexander Yuzhin (1857-1927), banters with Sofia, played by Vera Pashennaya (1887-1962)

Time: 1820s. Place: Moscow.

Text at http://samlib.ru/a/alec_v/woehtm.shtml https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.105455

Early one morning, Famusov surprises his daughter, Sofia, talking with his secretary, Moltchalin, and suspects the worst, though the latter pretends to have just arrived. "This is what families gain when one reads from morning till night!" Famusov complains. "Always these stores, that cursed France, her muses, authors, elegances: executioners of pocket and heart! O, may the Creator spare us from hats, silken garments, hairstyles, hors-d'oeuvres, and literature." Moltchalin distracts him by mentioning some papers that must be signed, to which his superior replies: "I have my method, it is incontestable; a paper is shown me: read or unread, I sign, and that's that." After both leave together, Sofia is surprised by the arrival of Chatski, back after three years of traveling, but already criticizing Moscow-life. "Where can one live better?" asks Sofia. "Where we are not," replies Chatski. Alone with her father, he makes known his interest in Sofia, but is immediately rebuffed by complaints on the frivolities of modern youth. Piqued, Chatski responds by criticizing the style of the previous generation. "Those who bent themselves lowest had the greater glory," he declares. All his comments highly displease the conservative father. Their talk is interrupted by the arrival of a military man, Skalozob, whose conversation is more acceptable to the father. After bragging about Moscow's refinements, Famusov tells the colonel about how Chatski fritters away his talents, to which the latter retorts: "Everything makes me despair of you, even your compliments." Famusov soon leaves. Sofia suddenly enters and rushes to the window after having watched Moltchalin fall from his horse, then faints. While Chatski helps to revive her, Skalozob brings in Moltchalin with a bandaged arm. Sofia's servant comments that Skalozob will laugh with others at her fainting spell. Talking apart, Sofia reveals her feelings to Moltchalin. "I was ready to jump out to you from the window," she confesses. "What do I care for them, or of the entire world? Let them protest and laugh: I wish to know nothing." Later, Chatski confronts Sofia about her sentiments towards him, who replies that she is repulsed by his constant criticisms, in contrast to the "modest, calm, and tender" Moltchalin. Indeed, while speaking with Chatski, Moltchalin admits to being unapt to criticize. "I can barely express my own judgment of things," He says. Chatski cannot believe she can love such a fellow. At a ball, Chatski meets Plato, an old army friend, and is dismayed to discover how much he has changed under the influence of a domineering wife. A rumor circulates among the guests that Chatski is insane, approved by Famusov, who is only surprised to find the man still at large. Chatski enters launching into a tirade against a man from Bordeaux only to discover no one is listening. That night, he greets Repetilov, enthusiastic over his revolutionary or bohemian friends at the English Club. After listening without interest, Chatski disappears and becomes a witness of an unpleasant night-scene, in which Sofia discovers Moltchalin in the arms of her servant. Enraged, she threatens Moltchalin to divulge everything to her father unless leaves the traitor the house forever. He leaves submissively. Chatski leaps forward to seize his chance, but is interrupted by the father, angry to find Sofia in company of a man late at night and vowing to send her off in some remote area in the care of an aunt. A disgusted Chatski decides to leave Moscow.

Alexander Pushkin[edit]

Alexander Pushkin described Boris Godunov's fight for empire. Portrait of the author by Vasily Tropinin (1776-1857), 1827

One of the most famous Russian tragedies of the Romantic period includes "Бори́с Фёдорович Годуно́в" (Boris Godunov, 1830) by Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837). "The tragedy of the usurper Boris, who removed Ivan the Terrible’s heir, Dmitry or Demetrius, in order to make himself tsar of Russia, is permeated with anguish born of a sense of guilt. The portrait of the ambitious monk who pretends to be Demetrius is vividly executed, and powerful mob scenes bring the masses into the historical picture. 'Boris Godunov', for all its structural flaws, is a vivid evocation of seventeenth-century Russia and a well-realized study of criminal ambition" (Gassner, 1937, p 342).

"Pushkin drew most of the material for his drama from the tenth and eleventh volumes of Karamzin's History of the Russian State...The tsar's opening speech is an excellent example of the poet's ironies and ambiguities. The tone of this address, at the same time majestic and nostalgic, seems to imply a moral compensation, ridding the speaker of a personal feelingb of guilt...The tragic tone of Boris's second speech- now a soliloquy to suggest his growing alienation from the people- already indicates his gradual transformation from a powerful tsar into a guilt-ridden man, who feels himself punished not only as a king but also as a father...He is unable to stop the advance of the false Dimitri, and the people, living under the stress of severe critical turmoil, and sensing a possibility for a change in their lives, begin to challenge his authority. Feeling more and more insecure on his throne, Boris becomes unresponsive to the people, suppresses their civil rights, and puts the protesters in prison. As the storm approaches he becomes more and more an internal emigré of spirit, self-enclosed, lonely, and turns to magicians and fortune-tellers for support...At the end he reveals the mark of age and the ravages of time accelerated by a sense of guilt. His sudden physical sickness is a symbol of the spiritual malady that has overcome him. In his last speech he admits that he should have died in darkness like all the other subjects of the tsar and not as the possessor of the highest power. His death comes as a necessary act of purgation and retribution. Yet he still has enough strength left to try to save his son who is dearer to him than the salvation of his own soul, and gives young Feodor wise, statesmanlike advice born of many years of political experience. However, his thoughts keep returning to the 'wilful and hidden wrongs' he had done and he begs his son not to ask him how he 'attained the highest power'.
..Dimitri's real logic is his passion, energy, ambition and ingenuity. He acts on instinct and impulse and lets himself float on waves of the current, 'feels' rather than knows people and things, senses the turn of tides and events, and has a way of listening to, and catching the essence in this world of uncertainties. Except for a momentary lapse when confronted with Marina Mniszek, he shows an ability to find the right word for everybody in every situation, and reveals his competence to validate words with deeds. Pushkin stresses his capacity for leadership and responsiveness to new situations as they arise, perceiving the directions they are taking...In this world of treachery and betrayal, Shuysky, this true 'politician', knows that he must constantly wear a mask. Thus, openly he is loyal to Boris, although the Tsar suspects him, but secretly conspires to do everything to help Dimitri, whom he knows to be a false pretender, to unseat Boris...Basmanov's decision reflects the confused ethics and shifting allegiances in which no absolute loyalty is possible, and the decision is made, in analysis, not on moral, but on simple pragmatic grounds. It is not seen as stamp of approval but rather as the life-affirming power of recognizing the necessity for survival...Marina is the ‘femme fatale’ of the drama who almost ruins Dimitri's plans. The pretender remains steadfast in his role throughout the play, he almost loses his assumed identity during a stormy scene with Marina. Overcome by love for the beautiful Polish girl, Dimitri's manly pride is hurt when he understands that Marina does not love him, the human being, but only his 'mask', Tsarevich Dimitri, and attempts to disclose his true self in order to preserve his human dignity. However, the ambitious Marina haughtily rebuffs him, calling him a 'poor imposture' 'worthy of the shameful noose', and even threatens to expose 'his bold and insolent fraud to everyone’...'Boris Godunov' opens with the recollection of Tsarevich Dimitri's murder and ends with the murder of Boris's innocent wife and son" (Brody, 1977 pp 861-874).

"Boris Godunov"[edit]

Time: 1590s-1600s. Place: Russia, Lithuania, and Poland.

Text at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5089

Boris Godunov worries over the legitimacy of his authority. Mixed media figurine of the tsar produced by George S Stuart (1929-?) and photographed by Peter d'Aprix

Prince Shuisky explains to Prince Vorotynsky that he has reason to believe that Boris Godunov, a favorite of the previous czar, murdered his last son and heir, Dimitry, to obtain the crown, but, afraid to be disbelieved, as "the czar saw everything through the eyes of Godunov", kept silent. When the crown is offered him, Godunov pretends to refuse but at last accepts it. "My soul is bare before you all," he declares, "you, father patriarch, and you, boyars, you saw I accept the greatest power in fear and trepidation. How heavy is the obligation on me!" A few years later, a monk named Grigory escapes from a monastery after expressing seditious comments, including that he will one day become the czar. Officers-of-the law pursue him inside an inn near the Lithuanian border, but they do not recognize his face when they see him. When asked to read the characteristics of his person in the summons of his arrest, he describes one of his companions, but is found out. Nevertheless, he succeeds in escaping from them. A nobleman, Pushkin, tells Shuisky it is rumored that Dimitry is still alive, which the latter knows to be impossible, having seen the corpse. Nevertheless, the news is believed by many to be true. Soon Shuisky announces to the czar startling news. "An impostor has appeared in Cracow," he says, "and the king and nobles are behind him." Godunov begs Shuisky to assure him Dimitry was not substituted for another, which he does. The impostor is Grigory, who assembles an army composed of Poles, Lithuanians, and Russians, in mass revolt against the czar of Russia. In the midst of this turbulence, Grigory courts Marina to be his wife. He has doubts whether she loves him for his own self or for his power, and so divulges his identity to her. Though at first dismayed by this gigantic fraud, she is reconciled to him on witnessing the extent of his boldness and promises absolute secrecy. Although his forces outnumber the enemy's, Godunov worries over a patriarch's story of how a blind man recovered his sight over Dimitry's grave-site. Other sufferers have been saved, so that the patriarch recommends the transfer of the relics to the Kremlin palace. Instead, Godunov exhorts the people in the public square, but, struck by a sudden sickness, he can go no further and dies, his son becoming the new czar. Nevertheless, Grigory pursues his purpose with Pushkin on his side, who seeks to tempt one of the czar's worthiest boyars, Basmanov, into accepting a high position should he come over on their side. Though Basmanov refuses, the czar's forces are overcome, he and his mother committing suicide, to the people's silent horror.

Mikhail Lermontov[edit]

Mikhail Lermontov presented what happens when two brothers vie for the same woman. Portrait of the author by Pyotr Zabolotsky (1803-1866), 1837

Another poignant tragedy of the period, "ДВА Без перевода" (Two brothers, 1836), was written by Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841).

In the view of Hughes, Koster, and Taruskin (2013), "Two Brothers tells of the victimization of a woman by the three men in her life. They are the idealistic Yury, whom she once loved, Yury’s cynical and sadistic brother Aleksandr, who debauched her, and the dim-witted prince whom Aleksandr had forced her to marry. The heroine is Vera Ligovskaya, who was later to appear in somewhat altered form in Lermontov’s unfinished novel Princess Ligovskaya. She also appears as Vera in Hero of Our Time. Her fate in The Two Brothers is a prerequisite for understanding her character in those two later works of prose fiction. The evil Aleksandr and the sensitive Yury may well be derived from the similarly contrasted pair of brothers in Schiller’s The Robbers. But Aleksandr’s ruthless manipulation of Vera’s life and person is Lermontov’s own idea. Her prolonged torture is a form of spiritual rape, as are the tormenting of Emiliya by the Jesuit villain in The Spaniards and the slow, cruel poisoning of Nina in Masquerade. Echoing the violent physical rapes described with so much relish in the 'Cadet Poems', these scenes add up to a demonstration of Lermontov’s strongly sadistic attitude toward women" (pp 82-83).

"Two brothers"[edit]

Time: 1830s. Place: Moscow.

Text at ?

After a four-year absence, Yuri returns to find Vera, his old love, married to Prince Ligovski. "She cannot be happy," he mournfully comments to his brother, Alexander, and his father, Dimitri, convinced she cannot love her husband, which Alexander denies. As the prince enters with his wife, he expresses satisfaction about the lodgings Dimitri prepared for him. Alexander laughs over news that one of the prince's neighbors wept on hearing her daughter refuse an offer of marriage from a millionaire. Yuri finds the anecdote not in the least funny. "In her place, I would have fallen sick," Yuri wrily comments. "With a million, there is no need of a face or a mind, neither soul nor a name, a million suffices for all that." When the rest leave, Vera requests Alexander to tell his brother how hurt she was by his indirect comments on her husband's wealth. Alexander accepts. "To prove my love for you," he adds. In the presence of Ligovski and Vera, Yuri confesses he loves a married woman. Unaware of who he is talking about, the prince advises him to press his suit. Seeing Yuri bolder than before, Vera declares to Alexander she now hates him. Jealous of both the husband and his brother, Alexander tells his father that Yuri loves Vera and asks him to reveal this to the prince. Unsure of the wisdom of this move, he nevertheless does so. Stunned at these news and humiliated by Yuri's revelations and his own comments, the prince decides to leave Moscow. Dimitri tells Yuri what he has done. Yuri is incensed, assuring his father he will never forgive him. Desperate to see Vera one more time, Yuri first promises a great reward then threatens with death a servant should he fail in delivering a letter to her. Alexander overhears this conversation and bribes the messenger to show him the letter, in which his brother implores her to meet him at midnight. In the dark, mistaking Alexander for his brother, Vera confesses she still loves him, though they must separate. Alexander reveals himself. He takes her in his arms, then, seeing her grow limp, hides behind a post as Yuri enters and confesses his love of her. She rejects him weakly. As he advances closer, Alexander reveals himself a second time, enabling her to run away to her husband, who assures her she will no longer enjoy the freedom of a wife one may have confidence in. "You will be confined in a village in the steppe and there you will sigh while looking at the lake, the garden, and the fields," he commands angrily. The next day, with their father on his death-bed, Alexander tells Yuri that, in his absence, she became his lover. Yuri receives these news with anguish as his father dies.