Alexander Nikolayevich Ostrovsky was born April 12, 1823, in that part of Moscow in which disreputable lawyers, shopkeepers, and matchmakers plied their trade. He had ample opportunity to chronicle the customs and ethics of such figures, for his father, a government clerk at civil court, performed legal services in the area. His first plays faithfully reproduce the vices observed on “the other side of the river,” and most of his later works reflect some phase of the merchant mentality. The elder Ostrovsky eventually achieved the rank of collegiate assessor, which gave him the privileges of petty nobility. After being widowed, he married a baroness with property. These benefits procured a good education for his son. After private tutoring by seminarians, Ostrovsky entered the Moscow Gymnasium in 1835; he was graduated five years later with honors. He then ceded to his father’s wishes and enrolled at Moscow University Law School, where he soon slighted the dry legal documents for literature. Forced to repeat his entire second year, he dropped out altogether in the third year. His disappointed father, still insisting on a juridical career for his son, placed Ostrovsky as clerk first in the court of conscience and later, in 1845, in the court of commerce in Moscow. Ostrovsky used these years primarily to gather material for his plays, chronicling the petty intrigues, deceits, and questionable transactions that were brought to light in the courts. He entered the literary world by contributing occasional critical articles to the journal Moskvityanin (the Moscovite).
In 1847, Ostrovsky’s first work, a comic one-act play, “Kartina semeinogo schastya” (a picture of family happiness), was read to teachers and students of Moscow University in a professor’s apartment. The lavish praise of this private audience led to its publication a month later in the liberal newspaper Moskovsky gorodskoy listok (Moscow city notes), which presented the piece in the form of a dramatized chronicle from “across the river.” When Ostrovsky asked for permission to stage it, the censors refused, dissatisfied with the devastatingly negative portrayal of Moscow merchants. By 1849, the budding author had completed his first full-length play, It’s a Family Affair, initially entitled “Bankrot” (bankrupt).
Here again, Ostrovsky presented the avaricious lifestyle of tradespeople. The play was first read in various literary circles and was widely discussed. The editor of Moskvityanin used his connections to gain printing approval, and the piece appeared in the journal early in 1850. Ostrovsky immediately received critical acclaim and began production preparations. The censors, however, once more denied permission, citing the outrage of merchants and conservatives at being depicted in such unflattering terms. Following a special appeal, Nicholas I himself viewed the work and fully supported his censors. Further discussion in print was prohibited, Ostrovsky was placed under surveillance, and shortly thereafter (1851), he was forced to resign his civil service post. Although this placed him in financial difficulties, he welcomed the chance to devote himself entirely to dramatic work.
His next few pieces were of questionable artistic merit, but in 1852 Ostrovsky recaptured public attention with The Poor Bride, which received staging approval after some delay and editing, and met with great success. For a short time, Ostrovsky, eager to get his work past the censors and before the viewing public, adopted a slightly less critical tone toward social vices, supplementing his plots with positive depictions of traditional songs, customs, and behavior. After the death of Nicholas I (1855), however, when the less repressive reign of Alexander II encouraged writers to be more daring, Ostrovsky returned to his earlier critical stance, especially after 1856, when he was no longer under police surveillance. Nevertheless, difficulties with censorship continued to delay productions. Dokhodnoe mesto (a profitable position) was briefly allowed staging in the provinces but was later denied all performance, even though Ostrovsky made changes. Similarly, A Protégé of the Mistress (also known as The Ward) failed to receive approval in 1859 and was staged three years later only after considerable haggling. The still prohibited It’s a Family Affair saw its first performance in 1861 after the playwright had completely changed the ending to satisfy the government’s ethical pretensions. Undaunted by these delays, Ostrovsky continued to turn out plays, producing at least one, often more than one, per year. As progressive voices became louder, access to the public became easier, and Ostrovsky in the end managed to bring all his works to the stage.
In 1862, Ostrovsky went abroad to Germany, Austria, Italy, France, and England. His impressions did not visibly influence his subsequent work, but he widened his range to include other Russian social classes, notably the petty gentry, government clerks, and actors. In 1874, he established the Dramatic Actor Society, and he served as its president until his death. He fought vigorously for social recognition and better remuneration for actors, especially in the provincial theaters, where their standing was low. Ostrovsky’s wife, Maria Vasileva, was a leading actress of the Maly Theater, which staged most of his plays. Although Ostrovsky never became rich, his successes permitted him to purchase a country estate in 1867, where he spent many of his summers. In January, 1886, he was appointed artistic director of the Moscow government theaters, finally receiving official recognition after decades of censorial strife with the regime. His health, however, had deteriorated by then, barely permitting him to complete the season. He left for his estate in Kostroma province late in May and died shortly after his arrival, June 14, 1886.