Alexander Ostrovsky 1823-1886
(Full name Alexander Nikolaevich Ostrovsky; also transliterated as Ostrovski, Ostrovskii, Ostrovskij, Ostrovsky) Russian dramatist, translator, and essayist.
Considered one of the most important Russian playwrights of the nineteenth century, Ostrovsky is credited with bringing dramatic realism to the Russian stage. In his best-known plays, he meticulously portrayed the Russian society of his time, focusing in particular on the morals and manners of the newly emerging merchant class. Extremely popular during his lifetime, Ostrovsky's works remain an integral part of the Russian repertoire and are esteemed for their skillful characterization and use of dialect.
Born in Moscow, Ostrovsky was the eldest of nine children of an ambitious lawyer who frequently represented members of the merchant class. Ostrovsky developed an interest in literature from reading in his father's library and frequently attended performances at the Maly Theater, where many of his own plays would later be produced. He was admitted to the University of Moscow in 1840, and although he preferred to study literature, he reluctantly complied with his father's wish that he enter law school. Unsuccessful in his law studies, Ostrovsky withdrew from the university in 1843 to work as a clerk in the Court of Conscience, which dealt with family disputes, and later in the Moscow Commercial Court, where he observed many cases arising from the unscrupulous business dealings that had become common among Russian merchants.
In 1847 Ostrovsky completed his first drama, Semeynaya kartina (A Domestic Picture), a one-act play about a Russian family of the mercantile class. Two years later he completed Svoi ljudi—sočhtemsya! (It's a Family Affair—We'll Settle It Ourselves), a four-act satirical comedy that exposed the use of fraudulent bankruptcies to hide assets from creditors. Objecting to Ostrovsky's negative portrayal of the powerful commercial class, government censors prohibited production of both plays. Ostrovsky appealed the decision, but the censors' judgment was upheld by Czar Nicholas I, who ordered police surveillance of the playwright. In 1851 Ostrovsky was dismissed from his position in the civil service. For the next two years he continued to write and often gave readings of his plays in private homes. In 1853 his play Ne ν svoi sani ne sadis! (Don't Get into Another's Sleigh!), a comedy considered inoffensive by the censors, was staged in an extremely popular production at the Maly Theater. Although he continued to have frequent disagreements with censors, throughout the next three decades Ostrovsky wrote a long series of successful plays. He also organized associations for actors and dramatists and wrote several essays on the rights of dramatists and effects of censorship. He was placed in charge of the Moscow Imperial Theaters and Drama School shortly before his death in 1886. He had written nearly fifty plays and translated some twenty plays into Russian, including several works by William Shakespeare.
With the exception of Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden, 1873), a fantasy based on Russian folklore, Ostrovsky's work is usually divided into two categories: social dramas and historical plays. Believed to have been influenced by Shakespeare's chronicle plays, Ostrovsky's six historical plays were written in blank verse and are noted for incorporating Russian legends and folklore, as well as for their use of dialects from the Volga region. These plays are generally considered inferior to his social and satirical dramas, which portray a world described by contemporary critic Nikolai Dobrolyubov as a "realm of darkness," an oppressive social environment dominated by samodurs, or "petty tyrants," whose demands for obedience and conformity terrorize family members and employees, stripping them of their will to think or feel for themselves. For example, in Ostrovsky's most famous drama, Groza (The Storm, staged in 1859), Marfa Kabanova's domineering abuse of her family eventually drives her daughter to suicide. Although Ostrovsky's plays frequently emphasize negative aspects of Russian life, some critics note that they also celebrate those elements of his culture that Ostrovsky admired, most notably the rugged endurance of the Russian peasantry. Others contend, however, that the "realm of darkness" dominates Ostrovsky's works.
Ostrovsky's frank depictions of the social problems resulting from the autocratic and patriarchal features of Russian culture provoked frequent censorship of his works. While he agreed with the government's position that drama should serve a moral purpose, he believed that the theater should expose rather than ignore immoral conduct in order to provoke public outrage. Some critics have suggested that early censorship of his plays affected Ostrovsky's style, noting that many of his plays were banned until he agreed to substantial alterations and that his later works usually contain at least one character evincing a readily recognizable virtue.
Ostrovsky is today considered a master of the realistic drama. He is praised in particular for his insight into the psychology of the Russian people, and many of his well-drawn characters are favorites among Russian actors and audiences. While international recognition of his talent has been limited by the difficulties of translating his heavily idiomatic dialogue, his contributions remain central to the development of modern Russian drama.
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