Aleksandr Petrovich Sumarokov’s prominence in the literary world of his time was a product not only of his dramatic successes but also of two well-known “Epistles,” in which he established certain rules for Russian literature and for Russian as a literary language. Any in-depth analysis of Sumarokov’s dramaturgy must consider the rules that he first set down as the basis for his subsequent plays. Sumarokov’s “Epistle on Art” proposes a doctrine of genres, classifying each kind of poetry (or prose) and its appropriate style according to the subject matter treated. Accordingly, all elements that contradict the nature of any specific genre must be eliminated. The poet must be selective: A tragedy cannot be marred by elements contradictory to the simple tragic ideal; the pastoral must employ the most natural kind of poetry to depict the plight of a shepherdess, while the elegy ought to treat the torturous moments of love or the sorrow of the heart.
Sumarokov’s doctrine of genres is based on the notion that art must “mirror the universe” and depict the “simplicity of essential nature.” He strictly adheres to the classical conception of the poet’s duty to convey a certain order in the apparent chaos of the universe. This view of art typifies the belief of classical aestheticians, that at the core of the universe there exist certain essential principles that emanate from divine life. It is these principles that govern the hearts of human beings and must be conveyed by the poet.
Both Sumarokov’s theory of literature and his works in verse grew out of his love for the great French writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries— Voltaire, Pierre Corneille, Racine, Boileau—and for the principles derived from classical drama. Following the rules already established by French classicism, Sumarokov recognized tragedy as the most favored genre, for it had been handed down to the contemporary world by the great ancient Greek writers such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. In a tragedy, simplicity and unity must be maintained so that the tragic tone is not broken by the intrusion of comic effects. Above all, Sumarokov proposes the Corneillian conflict between reason and the passions as the pivotal point of the tragedy, with the obvious outcome of the triumph of reason and duty over feelings and personal gain. Hence, the play’s happy ending for most of the characters presumably serves as a moral lesson to the audience. While two of his tragedies, Khorev and Dimitri the Imposter, do result in the deaths of the principal characters, such a fate is the inevitable destiny for all those who give full reign to self-centered instincts, subjugating others to their every tyrannical whim. Sumarokov also adopted Aristotle’s “pity” and “fear” as the springs of tragic emotion.
Perhaps most important, Sumarokov took from his French models the notion of the three unities: of time, place, and action. According to this formula, time in any tragedy must be limited so that the critical moment being represented on the stage more nearly corresponds to the short span of time of the actual performance. In order not to confuse or deceive the audience, only one fairly limited place (usually a palace) should be chosen so that the viewer need not make unreasonable mental and visual leaps—for example, from Moscow to Rome or from court to countryside. Last, irrelevant episodes or secondary plot lines must not actually take place on stage inasmuch as they would obscure the principal inner conflict of the main character. Any external or secondary events, such as riots, military battles, and so forth, must be reported by a secondary character such as a confidant or messenger in a conversation with the hero of the play.
All Sumarokov’s tragedies testify to the classic concept of character: Certain fixed personal qualities lead to an inevitable fate. As in the Greek tragedies, these specific qualities are consistently and uniformly revealed in both the speech and the action of Sumarokov’s tragic hero. In regard to subject matter, however, Sumarokov broke with the classic canons by not selecting subjects from the legends of ancient Greek or Roman history. With the exception of Gamlet, set in Denmark, and Aristona, set in Persia, his tragedies are based on legends from Russian history. While the names of several characters, such as Kij from Khorev and Mstislav from the play of that title, actually stem from the Russian chronicles, many names are merely invented to create a sense of the Slavic world. In fact, Sumarokov strives to present not the particular in history but the universal: the enlightened, patriotic nobleman or woman who voluntarily subordinates personal private passions to reason and duty, putting the good of all the people as a whole ahead of individual gain. In order not to obscure this ideal, Sumarokov seldom includes any significant degree of local or national color in his tragedies.
Sumarokov’s tragedies enjoyed great success during his lifetime. As William Brown points out in A History of Eighteenth Century Russian Literature (1980), Sumarokov was revered by lesser, classical Russian dramatists such as Mikhail Matveyevich and Vasily Ivanovich Maikov, whose attempts to invade their “master’s theatrical realm” fell short of the mark. Although imitative in nature, Sumarokov’s tragedies still remain, as Brown writes, “the best examples of this classical genre.” Moreover, but for the success of these tragedies, the Russian theater would have been far slower in coming to the cultural forefront of eighteenth century Russian society.
In stark contrast to his tragedies in verse, the far less classical nature of Sumarokov’s comedies often became the object of criticism from both his contemporaries and subsequent literary critics. In spite of the fact that he set down fundamental laws for writing comedy as well as tragedy, his own productions in this area do not strictly adhere to these laws. In the “Second Epistle,” Sumarokov states that above all, one must avoid amusement for its own sake, yet the majority of his comedies appear to many critics to be no more than popular farces, the sole...
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