Gogol in Amharic


( 1836)

Translated by John Laurence Seymour and George Rapall Noyes

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Inspector General

Gogol * Russian Theatre

Nikolai Gogol


Although Nikolai Vasilevich Gogol was Russia's first great novelist and short-story writer, he also occupies an honorable position in the theatre, chiefly on the strength of his broad satire The Inspector. He had predecessors as far back as the second half of the eighteenth century in Fonvizin, author of two satiric comedies, and in Kapnist, whose Chicane exposed the Russian law courts. He was also preceded by Alexander Griboyedov, whose Woe from Wit resembles Molière satire The Misanthrope with its scorn for society. But Gogol wrote realistic prose whereas his predecessors wrote verse, and it was in prose realism that the later Russian drama excelled. When in the eighteen-thirties he applied his special talent for realistic-grotesque fiction to the stage, he made an important contribution to playwriting.

To the historian of the drama, Gogol stands at the crossroads. His sense of the grotesque places him among the romanticists; his keen observation of social reality, among the realists. But his talent, a unique one that cannot be subsumed under any label, reflects a complex personality that never found a clear definition for itself. He was exuberant, yet also disenchanted; gay, yet often depressed. He had a large bump of irreverence in his nature and liked farce and burlesque; nevertheless, he also possessed a poet's sensitivity and fancy and a vein of mysticism not to be found in the plays. Perhaps the best description of Gogol's work as a whole was given by Prince D. S. Mirsky: "He has an abnormally sensitive eye for the details of real life, but he uses these realistic details to construct monsters as impossible as unicorns and griffins, which yet seem more alive than if they were real."

Gogol's dramatic writing appeared in the midst of his activity as a writer of fiction. He was born in a Ukrainian village of Cossack stock; his father was a man of standing who held an honorary post as regimental secretary of the Ukrainian army. After being tutored at home by a theological student, Gogol was sent to a school of the "Higher Sciences," but instead of studying science he first learned to draw and then became absorbed in literature. After completing his course, he went to St. Petersburg ( 1829) to become a government clerk. But he gave up his employment quickly, traveled in Europe, and tried to become an actor. Failing to realize his ambition, he became a teacher of Russian literature and later a professor of Russian history. But he never made a success of anything but literature, and even literature did not entirely satisfy his complex, unstable personality. After 1831, he attracted much attention with his humorous yet also pathetic stories, among which The Cloak, an account of the humiliations of a government clerk, became justly famous. Since it was the first notable piece of realistic fiction in Russia, it exerted a strong influence on later writers, as Dostoevsky was to remember, many decades later, when he declared that all Russian writers came out of Gogol's "cloak." He also won great popularity with the stirring prose epic of Cossack life Taras Bulba ( 1832). Finally, he turned to a large project, the writing of a novel of manners about provincial Russian society, Dead Souls, in which bitterness and despair mingle with grotesque humor. The first part of this work is, indeed, one of the masterpieces of modern fiction; the second is only a fragment. Overcome with a sense of guilt and despair, Gogol became a religious mystic and burned his manuscript. He died under a cloud of pathological melancholy.

Marriage, Gogol's first play, was begun in 1832 but completed ten years later. It is a riotous farce of no particular importance. He also began a trenchant play, The Gamblers, in 1836, which he finished in 1842. It is a short work but a remarkably observant picaresque comedy of scoundrels who outsmart one another. Caricature, satire, and sharp naturalistic detail are combined in this, one of the least known of his writings. Gogol also left a dramatic fragment, The Order of St. Vladimir, Third Class, which he decided not to finish after realizing that a satire on St. Petersburg government circles could not be produced in Russia.

Gogol's masterpiece, The Inspector (translated also under other titles--Revizor, The Inspector General, and The Government Inspector), was begun by him in 34 and produced on April 19, 1836, with the consent of Emperor Nicholas I, who attended the première but later regretted his tolerance. It proved to be a devastating satire on bureaucratic corruption in provincial Russia, and represented a great step in that country toward realistic social drama. Gogol was not actually a liberal or a democrat in any political sense, but there is no doubt that he was keenly aware of the frailties of the human species and the imperfections of the society he knew. "Do not blame the mirror," he wrote in adding a little motto to the published version, "when it is your face that is crooked." The Inspector has been kept alive, however, not merely by the relevance of the theme but by the liveliness of the writing. Its realism is not literal but imaginative and extravagant. Its broad and salty dialogue is realistic in the best sense; that is, it sounds authentic, even if it is not intended as a strict transcript of ordinary conversation, since the prime object is to ridicule the provincial bureaucracy. Gogol painted life as a realist but employed the brush-strokes of a caricaturist. The Inspector became one of the most frequently revived plays of the Russian theatre for the simplest of good reasons--it was unfailingly entertaining.

Although Gogol, who had difficulties with official censorship in Russia, could not have foreseen that he had opened up a new vein of realistic comedy, The Inspector foreshadowed the vogue of social and political satire in the second half of the nineteenth century and in the twentieth century. In 1851, Balzac Mercadet, a sharply satirical study of dishonest business dealings, was to be produced. In 1868, Ibsen was to write his first political comedy, The League of Youth, and in 1882, his famous satire on vested interests An Enemy of the People. From then on there was never to be any dearth of comic and satiric encounters between playwrights and the political life. American comedies such as State of the Union and Born Yesterday, produced at about the mid-point of our century, can also be said to have come out of Gogol's "cloak."

from "A Treasury of the Theatre Vol. 1" Book by John Gassner; Simon and Schuster, 1951 [598] TRANSLATED FROM THE RUSSIAN BY JOHN LAURENCE SEYMOUR AND GEORGE RAPALL NOYES

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