Griboedov, Aleksandr Sergeevich
Aleksandr Sergeevich Griboedov c. 1795-1829
Russian playwright, poet, and essayist.
One of Russia's most intelligent and highly educated aristocrats in the early nineteenth century, Griboedov was an accomplished playwright best known for Gore ot uma (1831; Woe from Wit), which many critics consider the greatest comedy in Russian literary history. The play quickly transcended critical favor and became part of the cultural fabric of the country. Fellow Russian writer Ivan Goncharov described the phenomenon: “Immediately grasping its beauty, and not finding any faults in it, the literate masses wore the manuscript down to tatters, to verses, to hemistiches; they distributed all its pith and wisdom into colloquial speech; they turned a million into kopecks.”
Although there is a great deal of contradictory information regarding the date of Griboedov's birth, many sources maintain that he was born on January 4, 1795—others place his birth as early as 1790. His father, Sergei Ivanovich Griboedov, lived apart from his family and had little contact with his son. Griboedov was raised by his mother, Nastas'ia Fedorovna Griboedova, who saw to it that her son received a first-rate education. Griboedov entered the Moscow University Preparatory School for Nobles in 1803, receiving a literature degree in 1808 and a law degree in 1810. He began writing poetry while still a student, and one of his poems was published in the Moscow journal Vestnik Evropy in 1809.
Griboedov enlisted in the Russian army in 1812 and served as a general's aide for the next four years. During this time he published pieces of war correspondence in Vestnik Evropy. After leaving the army Griboedov entered the diplomatic service in St. Petersburg. He began writing plays at this time, some in collaboration with other playwrights. As part of his work in the Office of Foreign Affairs, Griboedov was assigned to the Russian diplomatic mission in Persia in 1818. He studied the Persian language while living there and was decorated by the shah for his service. In November of 1821 he was sent to Tiflis to serve under General Aleksei Petrovich Ermolov, the minister of foreign affairs.
Griboedov apparently formulated the idea for his masterpiece Woe from Wit as early as 1816, but the play was not actually completed until 1823 at the earliest, and it was not performed in its entirety until 1831. The play's many references to contemporary Russian politics attracted the attention of the censors, who thwarted attempts to publish or stage the work for several years. Those who read the play, including Aleksandr Pushkin, widely praised the work and the increasing critical and popular success eventually forced the Russian government to remove the ban. Although the full extent of his involvement is unknown, Griboedov was associated with the leaders of the Decembrists' revolt of 1825, and some critics have linked the republican ideals of the revolutionaries with the social criticism in Woe from Wit. He was imprisoned for four months, but was eventually pardoned and released, receiving an annual salary and a promotion to court councillor in compensation for his internment. He returned to service in the Caucasus, his experience proving invaluable in negotiating a peaceful settlement of Russia's war with Persia. The treaty, written by Griboedov, was signed in April of 1828. Shortly thereafter he was assigned to lead the Russian mission to Persia as the new ambassador. Before assuming his post, he visited Tiflis and renewed his acquaintance with Nina Chavchavadze, the daughter of a poet; they were married in August of 1828, and he continued on to Teheran. In January of 1829, all the members of the Russian mission, including Griboedov, were killed by a Persian mob. He is buried on a mountaintop in Tiflis.
Griboedov's only famous work is Woe from Wit, which has often been compared to Molière's Le Misanthrope. The play's double plot involves, on one level, a classic love triangle between Chatsky, Sofia, and Molchalin, and on another level, a serious critique of Moscow society. The social criticism and the allusions to political figures and events resulted in heavy censorship and only portions of the play were published during Griboedov's lifetime; handwritten copies of the expurgated version, though, were widely circulated throughout Russia's literary community.
Although Griboedov wrote several plays, some in collaboration with other playwrights, as well as a number of poems and essays, the remainder of his work is virtually unknown today. Some of his manuscripts perished with him in the Persian massacre, others remain untranslated. Only Woe from Wit continues to attract critical and popular attention.
Griboedov's comedy Woe from Wit was a tremendous success during the playwright's lifetime, although it was more often read than viewed. Pushkin, who called Griboedov “one of the smartest people in Russia,” reportedly considered the play a great accomplishment. Much of the critical attention on the work has centered on the influence of Molière's highly intelligent protagonist in Le Misanthrope, Alceste, and the character's disgust with the hypocrisy of contemporary society. Yvette Louria suggests that Griboedov's debt to Molière is considerable and it is a debt often unacknowledged by Russian scholars. She concedes, however, that both Soviet critics and Russian critics of an earlier era may have been concentrating more intensely on the work's political message, which is specific to Moscow's social and political scene and which in no way resembles Molière's play.
William Edward Brown praises Woe from Wit for its innovative portrayal of characters who are complex and “psychologically alive.” According to Brown: “Griboedov's people are all of a piece; they are intuited as complete psychological entities, and their language, their gestures, their modes of thinking, are all inseparable parts of their personalities.” Alexander Gershkovich also discusses Griboedov's characterization, specifically of Chatsky, maintaining that he is not only the first, but the only “effective and consistent portrait of individualism in Russian literature on a European scale.” For Gershkovich, the fact that Chatsky is completely alone and “at war with everyone,” makes him more like a Western hero or anti-hero than a Russian one.
*Molodye suprugi: Komediia v odnom deistvii, v stikhakh [Young Wives] (play) 1815
†Svoia sem'ia, ili Zamuzhniaia nevesta [All in the Family, or the Married Fiancée] [with Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Shakhovskoi and Nikolai Ivanovich Khmel'nitsky] (play) 1818
Gore ot uma [Woe from Wit] (play) 1831
Polnoe sobranie sochinenii [Collected Works]. 3 vols. (plays, essays, poems, and letters) 1911-17
*The Russian title is sometimes translated as The Young Married Couple.
†The Russian title is sometimes translated as Pretended Infidelity.
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SOURCE: Louria, Yvette. “Molière and Griboiedov.” In Molière and the Commonwealth of Letters: Patrimony and Posterity, edited by Roger Johnson, Jr., Editha S. Neumann, and Guy T. Trail, pp. 379-82. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1975.
[In the following essay, Louria discusses the influence of Molière's The Misanthrope on Griboedov's Woe from Wit and the failure of many critics to acknowledge that influence.]
The year 1672 is generally considered the official beginning of the Russian theater. The first play to be performed was The Comedy of Artaxerxes by Johann Gottfried Gregorii, an Esther play written at the behest of Tsar Alexei, who had a theater built in Moscow especially for this performance. Subsequently, in addition to the original Russian plays, both German and Italian comedies and tragedies found their way to the Moscow stage. After a while its repertory included also several of Molière's plays: Amphitryon, Le Médecin malgré lui, and Les Précieuses ridicules. Somewhat later, in 1782, Fonvizin's famous comedy, The Minor (Nedorosl', 1781), in which Molière's influence is discernible, was presented.
It was at the beginning of the nineteenth century that Alexandr Sergeevich Griboiedov wrote what has been since considered the greatest Russian comedy of all times: Gore ot Uma (1823), translated into...
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SOURCE: Janecek, Gerald. “A Defense of Sof'ja in Woe from Wit.” Slavic and East European Journal 21, no. 3 (fall 1977): 318-31.
[In the following essay, Janecek asserts that many critics neither appreciate the complexity of Sofia's character nor how the ambiguity associated with her enhances Woe from Wit.]
“Sof'ja is unclearly drawn. …”
A. S. Puškin
Critiques of Woe from Wit (Gore ot uma) usually center on Čackij. Mirsky's attitude is, in this respect, typical: “Chatsky is the principal thing in the play. He is its imaginative and emotional focus, its yeast and its zest.” But Mirsky precedes this with a remark on Sof'ja which is not typical and which highlights a feature of the play that is peculiar, if not paradoxical:
Sophia is not a type, but she is a person. She is a rare phenomenon in classical comedy: a heroine that is neither idealized not caricatured. There is a strange, drily romantic flavor in her, with her fixity of purpose, her ready wit, and her deep, but reticent, passionateness. She is the principal active force in the play, and the plot is advanced mainly by her actions.1
With this brief but pointed statement, Mirsky is more generous to her than most other critics. Many critics, Soviet critics in...
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SOURCE: Giergielewicz, Mieczyslaw. “Structural Footnotes to Griboedov's Woe from Wit.” The Polish Review 24, no. 1 (1979): 3-21.
[In the following essay, Giergielewicz discusses the structure of Griboedov's play, maintaining that the playwright skillfully manipulated theatrical conventions to convey a double plot: one involving a personal domestic dispute and the other involving a larger conflict the hero faces with Moscow society collectively.]
Aleksandr S. Griboedov's masterpiece, the comedy Gore ot uma (Woe from Wit) has been translated into many languages, including English, French, German and Italian. It roused warm acclaim among the Poles. Fragments of the play in Polish rendition were printed in the Polish periodical Bałamut (The Philanderer), published in Petersburg (1831, Nos. 24-26). In 1857 two complete Polish translations of Gore ot uma were made available. In 1858 its first Polish theatrical performance took place in Lwów. Eight years later, in 1866, still another translation of the comedy appeared. In modern times the prominent poet Julian Tuwim, fascinated with Griboedov's play, did a Polish rendition in verse which was published and performed in 1951 in Warsaw.
Impressive literary criticism dedicated to Griboedov's dramatic masterpiece Woe from Wit pointed to certain unusual features of its...
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SOURCE: Brown, William Edward. “Alexander Griboedov and Woe from Wit.” In A History of Russian Literature of the Romantic Period, Vol. 1, pp. 105-15. Ann Arbor: Ardis Publishers, 1986.
[In the following excerpt, Brown claims that Woe from Wit marked a turning point in Russian drama in which many of the conventions of classical comedy were modified or overturned.]
As has been remarked several times in the course of our survey of the Russian comedy of the early nineteenth century, a decisive landmark, dividing the old from the new, is Griboedov's famous piece Gore ot uma. The translation of this title has been a stumbling-block from the beginning. Literally rendered, it would be “sorrow (or misfortune) out of intelligence.” Sir Bernard Pares in his verse translation dubbed it epigrammatically Woe from Wit; this has become the common translation and we shall use it here, although it is too stilted and literary to serve as a modern title for a really very modern piece. F. D. Reeve in his prose translation entitles it The Trouble with Reason. I would offer Grief from Brains as a tentative rendering. I realize that “brains” as a synonym of “intelligence” is colloquial and perhaps an Americanism; but “intelligence” is too long and too bookish, and “wit” in the meaning of “intelligence” is an archaism which would inevitably give a modern...
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SOURCE: Gershkovich, Alexander. “Russian Romantic Drama: The Case of Griboedov.”1 In Romantic Drama, edited by Gerald Gillespie, pp. 273-85. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1994.
[In the following essay, Gershkovich discusses Griboedov's position within the Russian Romantic tradition and claims that in the character of Chatsky, Griboedov created the first true individual in Russian literature.]
The fate of Romantic drama in Russia took shape in an unusual manner. Its highest achievements, Gore ot Uma (Woe from Wit) and Boris Godunov, inspired by the new Romantic poetics, were not classified as Romantic plays in Russian criticism even though Griboedov spoke of his comedy as a “stage poem,” and Pushkin of his Boris as a “true Romantic tragedy.”2 On the other hand, standard literary history, without any particular regret, assigned artistically weaker plays such as the pathetic tragedies of Ryleyev and Küchelbecker and the pseudo-patriotic melodramas of N. Kukolnik and N. Polevoy, to the Romantic School. Such a view has suited the purpose of “official” twentieth-century criticism to prove the immutable realistic nature of Russian art, its originality and separateness from the Western literary process.3 The impression was created that the ideas of Romanticism, having come from the West, were pathogenic for...
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SOURCE: Kalbouss, George. “Rhyming Patterns in Griboedov's Gore ot uma.” Slavic and East European Journal 39, no. 1 (spring 1995): 1-13.
[In the following essay, Kalbouss analyzes the rhyming patterns of Woe from Wit, claiming that Griboedov skillfully demonstrated the importance of rhyming as a form of entertainment in early nineteenth-century Moscow.]
1994 marked 200 years since the birth of Aleksandr Sergeevič Griboedov, the author known primarily for one significant work, Gore ot uma (Woe From Wit). The fame of this play has generated scores of studies, ranging from biographies of Griboedov's life to more formal analyses of the play's poetics. This study focuses on one formal aspect of this play—its rhyming patterns. In Griboedov's day, rhyming was a form of social entertainment. A person was considered only as clever as his rhymes. Since historians agree that in Woe From Wit Griboedov captures much of the essence of Muscovite culture of the 1820's, this study intends to show that Griboedov likewise captures the various practices of rhyming of that time in his play. Hopefully, the paper will show that the play's principle characters may be evaluated by the “quality” of their rhyme, especially Čatskij and Sofija. With regard to these two, can one determine who is the better rhymer? This study relies on the work done by Professor J. Thomas Shaw in his...
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SOURCE: Baehr, Stephen. “Is Moscow Burning? Fire in Griboedov's Woe from Wit.” In Russian Subjects: Empire, Nation, and the Culture of the Golden Age, edited by Monika Greenleaf and Stephen Moeller-Sally, pp. 229-42. Evanston, Ill. : Northwestern University Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Baehr explores the importance of fire imagery in the events and themes of Woe from Wit.]
And Moscow is burning up. The black smoke spreads and curls. And, behold, the brilliant head of Moscow Stops gleaming. Poor Moscow is ablaze, Moscow has been burning for 12 days …
—N. M. Shatrov, “The Fire of Moscow: To the Year 1812”
In A. S. Griboedov's comedy Woe from Wit (Gore ot uma, completed 1824),1 fire imagery plays a central structural role. Fire is polysemous in the play, summarizing many essential themes and conflicts, connecting and capsuling major events and themes, and serving as a “master image” for the play as a whole. Through frequent references to fire, flame, fumes, and smoke, the idea is implicit that both Moscow and its inhabitants are “burning” with several very different fires. In this essay I shall attempt to uncover the meanings of this essential (but largely unnoticed) fire imagery in Griboedov's play, which provides a fitting frame for the period portrayed, beginning with the 1812 burning of Moscow that saved the...
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SOURCE: Wanner, Adrian. “The Misanthrope as Revolutionary Hero: Revisiting Griboedov's Chatskii and Molière's Alceste.” Canadian Slavonic Papers 41, no. 2 (June 1999): 177-88.
[In the following essay, Wanner discusses the frequent comparisons between the main characters in Molière's The Misanthrope and Griboedov's Woe from Wit.]
It has been the fate of Chatskii, the hero of Griboedov's comedy Gore ot uma (Woe from Wit, 1825), to be eternally compared to Alceste, the hero of Molière's Le misanthrope (The Misanthrope, 1667). At least at first sight, Chatskii and Alceste indeed seem to have much in common. Both of them could be described as aggressively frank personalities who make no secret of the fact that they find their respective aristocratic milieu distasteful. Both have unrequited feelings of love for a woman from that society, and both, with deeply wounded self-esteem, escape to pursue a solitary existence far from the company which they despise. Perhaps not surprisingly in light of these parallels, the juxtaposition of the two characters has become a shopworn cliché in the critical literature devoted to Woe from Wit. The French comparatist Maurice Colin went so far as to claim that “one cannot talk about Griboedov without going back to Molière.”1
The goal of this article is not to review once again all the arguments...
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Harden, Evelyn Jasiulko. “Griboedov and the Willock Affair.” Slavic Review 30, no. 1 (March 1971): 74-92.
Discusses an unpublished Griboedov letter believed to be his final correspondence prior to the Persian massacre of the Russian mission in Tehran in February, 1829.
Clayton, J. Douglas. “'Tis Folly To Be Wise: The Semantics of um- in Griboedov's Gore ot uma.” In Text and Context: Essays to Honor Nils Åke Nilsson, edited by Peter Alberg Jensen, Barbara Lönnqvist, Fiona Björling, Lars Kleberg, and Anders Sjöberg, pp. 7-15. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1987.
Analyzes the semantics of um and the frequency of its use in Griboedov's play, suggesting that such an analysis provides insight into the hero's primary dilemma.
Hammerbeck, David. “Opposition and Transformation: Dialogism in Russian and Soviet Satire.” European Studies Journal 17-18, nos. 2-1 (fall-spring 2000-2001): 163-82.
Examines three Russian satirical plays—Griboedov's Woe from Wit, Sukhovo-Kobylin's The Death of Tarelkin, and Erdman's The Suicide—and the oppositional strategies employed in each as they attempted to reform the inequalities of Russian society.
Mirsky, Prince D. S. Introduction to...
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