Alexander Griboyedov’s early comedies demonstrate in embryonic form the same facility with colloquial Russian, mastery of plot, and ability to create interesting characters that are a hallmark of his masterpiece, The Mischief of Being Clever. With the exception of the fragmentary tragedy Gruzinskaya noch (1859; Georgian night), his initial efforts generally involve love intrigues in which jealousy is used to arouse an insufficiently responsive spouse or suitor, as occurs in Molodye suprugi (young spouses) and Pritvornaya nevernost (feigned infidelity). These first plays are quite successful attempts to superimpose French works on a Russian setting: Molodye suprugi is an adaptation of Secret de ménage (1809; the secret of the household), by Creuze de Lesser. It is only with the appearance of The Mischief of Being Clever itself that Griboyedov can be considered to have written an entirely original play. The love conspiracies central to the earlier works are here employed primarily to illuminate character or to provide a means of criticizing society. Like Alexander Pushkin, Griboyedov managed to combine a ready understanding of human behavior with a witty, colloquial style to produce the sort of social analysis that would later be the hallmark of Russian literature.
The Mischief of Being Clever
Although completed in 1824, Griboyedov’s The Mischief of Being Clever was prohibited by the censor. It circulated in manuscript and was printed with large cuts in 1833. It was not published in full until 1861, the year in which the serfs were liberated.
In The Mischief of Being Clever, Griboyedov observes the classical unities of time, place, and action. The play takes place within a twenty-four-hour period, is set in the Famusovs’ house in Moscow, and revolves around Chatsky’s attempt to rekindle the love of Sofia, only to find that, in his absence, she has bestowed her affections on someone else. The curtain rises on the Famusov household early in the morning. Sofia Famusova has spent the night playing duets with her beloved, Alexey Molchalin (“Aleksis the Reticent”), her father’s secretary and a resident in the house. The anxious maid, Liza, is afraid that Sofia’s father, Pavel Afanasevich, a director of a government office, will be furious when he discovers that his seventeen-year-old daughter has spent the night, however chastely, with a man. When Sofia does not heed her warning calls, Liza makes the clock strike and is apprehended by the already suspicious father. He decides that what he had assumed to be music was actually the chimes of the striking clock, and he chides Liza for making so much noise while simultaneously fondling her. Pavel Famusov’s surreptitious displays of affection are discouraged only when Sofia summons Liza and finally appears with a candle in her hand, followed by Molchalin.
Scene 4 opens with Famusov and Molchalin colliding in a doorway, the sort of chance encounter that was a main component of the early comedies that Griboyedov produced. Molchalin’s servility before Famusov (underscored in Russian by the suffix s, an abbreviation of “your excellency”) stresses the awkwardness of their meeting. Famusov assumes that Sofia and Molchalin have met early that morning, never suspecting that they have spent the night together. Famusov bemoans the lot of the widowed father attempting to rear a young daughter alone, and the reader is reminded that the arrangement of an offspring’s suitable marriage was of cardinal importance for the Russian nobility. An employee and a flunky, Molchalin would not be considered a proper match for Sofia. Liza confides to Sofia when they are alone in the following scene that Famusov, like all Muscovites, wants a son-in-law with medals, rank, and money, such as Colonel Skalozub (“grinner”). Sofia’s scornful rejection of Skalozub prompts Liza to reminisce about the wit and charm of Alexander Sergeevich Chatsky, but Sofia, having fallen in love with Molchalin, is critical of Chatsky’s rapier-sharp wit, and she is apparently hurt by his having left three years earlier. With this introduction, Chatsky makes an appearance at the beginning of the next scene.
As in Griboyedov’s other comedic efforts, the arrival of Chatsky presages romantic complications, for he is Molchalin’s rival for Sofia’s affections. In The Mischief of Being Clever, however, the emphasis is on Chatsky’s critique of Moscow society, not on the love intrigue. Puzzled by the cool reception from his childhood friend Sofia yet dazzled by her beauty, Chatsky launches into a critique of the superficialities and failings of people they both know. His attack seems to be twofold: He is not only trying to elicit a response from her but also delivering a stinging commentary on the aristocracy. He sarcastically comments, “What new thing will Moscow show me? Yesterday there was a ball, tomorrow there will be two . . . the same verses in albums.” He mentions, in passing, Sofia’s own relative who was “an enemy of books” and was against education. When Chatsky criticizes Molchalin, Sofia makes a stinging reply, and he in turn is hurt by her treatment. He declares his love. Famusov reappears, happy to see Chatsky but shocked and frightened by Chatsky’s ridicule of the pretensions and inequities of contemporary Russia. Famusov considers him a carbonari (revolutionary) and calls him a “dangerous man.” Hearing of the imminent entrance of Skalozub, a possible suitor and a powerful careerist, Famusov cautions Chatsky to watch his tongue. Famusov and Skalozub preen themselves about the glories of modern Moscow, particularly the young women who love military men because of “patriotism.” After both have gloated over the new houses built since the fire of 1812, Chatsky’s acid rejoinder that the “homes are new, but the prejudices are old” emphasizes the inanity of the conversation. Thereupon Famusov introduces Chatsky to Skalozub, remarking on Chatsky’s inexplicable aversion to...
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