Alexander Ostrovsky dominated the nineteenth century Russian stage. He provided audiences with more plays than all previous Russian playwrights combined, and he closely supervised production of his work or directed the staging himself. All his writings satirize the shortcomings of certain social classes, prominent among them the still rather coarse merchant class, which lacked the graces and idealism of the educated elite.
Before Ostrovsky, Russian writers had largely ignored this rising commercial world. Ostrovsky’s portrayal of shopkeepers and petty manufacturers is without exception negative. As they appear in his plays, such characters are rapacious, dishonest, and devoid of any measure of goodwill. Still strangers to the city, they band together in ancient clannish patterns. Overwhelmingly preoccupied with enrichment by any means whatsoever, they frequently arrange marriages of offspring, especially daughters, to profit their business ventures. The unchallenged and dictatorially exercised authority of Ostrovsky’s patriarchs moves the vulnerable position of women into the foreground of the plays. The office of matchmaker, still powerful among the merchants, is presented as a particularly destructive institution, an unwelcome vestige of the past. Ostrovsky gradually expanded his subject matter to include hypocritical nobles and bribe-taking lawyers and government clerks, as well as unsympathetic matriarchs and well-meaning but weak-willed, ineffectual idealists.
This exposé of Russia’s misfits forced Ostrovsky occasionally to alter a character or theme in order to get his work staged. During the early 1850’s, as noted above, Ostrovsky modified his critical approach, producing plays in which tradition assumes a somewhat sentimentally idyllic shading: Ne v svoi sani ne sadis (do not sit in another’s sleigh), Poverty Is No Crime, and You Can’t Live Just as You Please. Similarly, in the 1860’s, Ostrovsky briefly turned his attention to noncontroversial historical subjects. The most notable plays of this group are Kozma Zakharich Minin, Sukhoruk; Voevoda, made into an unsuccessful opera by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky; and Dmitry Samozvanets i Vasily Shuysky. The bulk of Ostrovsky’s work, however, deals with topical, ethical problems. By presenting much of his criticism in comic form, he avoided didactic excesses, never losing sight of the necessity to entertain the public. Twenty-four of his plays carry the comedy label, despite the presence of dramatic conflicts. Another nineteen works are designated as scenes or pictures from life, and this designation best describes Ostrovsky’s drama, for most of his plays feature a mixture of dramatic, tragic, and comic elements.
Ostrovsky’s mode of presentation is strictly realistic. His plots are transparent, sometimes trivial, and he eschewed overdramatization. Although Ostrovsky’s realism often provoked criticism, the playwright insisted on reproducing his characters and conversations in as lifelike a manner as possible so that the audience would at once recognize and judge the topic. Ostrovsky was enough of a craftsperson to avoid a simple copying of reality, but his figures and conflicts do lack psychological complexity, making them less appealing to twentieth century Western audiences. The author’s skill in bringing the vernacular to the stage, however, continues to be appreciated by Russian viewers. Ostrovsky’s characters express themselves in a style peculiar to their social standing, so that a single drama may contain a blend of shopkeeper and servant lingo, government jargon, the nobility’s foreign-laced language, the traditional Church Slavonic of conservatives, and the poetic romanticism of young women, all generously sprinkled with proverbs and sayings. These features, added to the frequent wordplay and mispronunciations of uneducated social climbers, cannot be adequately translated and result in a dearth of foreign publications and stagings. Similarly, non-Russian audiences will miss the connotations of characters’ names, such as those of the tyrants in The Storm, Dikoy (Barbarian) and Kabanova (Hatchet). With the aid of such naming and other devices such as proverbial titles—for example, Stary drug luchshe novykh dvukh (an old friend is better than two new ones) and Sin and Sorrow Are Common to All—Ostrovsky imparted a folkloric dimension to his material, evoking a native atmosphere. He even produced a fantastic drama, Snegurochka (the snow maiden), set to music by Tchaikovsky and turned into an opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. These homespun touches served to make Ostrovsky’s revelations of injustice and corruption more palatable.
It’s a Family Affair
It’s a Family Affair, Ostrovsky’s first full-length work, demonstrates many of the concerns that preoccupied him throughout his career. In this play, for the first time, Moscow’s merchant world appeared on the stage. Dominating the action is a tyrannical patriarch, the rich tradesman Bolshov (Bigman), who decides to enrich himself by cheating his creditors through phony bankruptcy. He temporarily transfers his goods to a trusted clerk, Podkhalyuzin (Sneaky), to whom he also gives his daughter, so that the fortune will remain “in the family.” The clerk and daughter, possessed of the same moral failings, refuse to return the money and cause the merchant’s imprisonment. The play has no redeeming characters at all; it seeks to show that avarice destroys human relationships at every level. The dishonesty of the daughter and the employee emerges as the inevitable result of the older generation’s corruption. This condemnation is embedded in and somewhat tempered by the faithful reproduction of traditional mores and the shopkeeper milieu. Neither comic nor tragic angles are exaggerated, so that the overall image is an accurate one. The censors objected to the ending, which permits the cheating clerk to go unpunished. After eleven years of appeal for staging approval, Ostrovsky had to give in and alter the outcome. In the changed version, Podkhalyuzin is arrested. Since 1881, the play has been performed in its original version to record audiences. Its popularity suffered a decline in the post-World War II decades, but new productions are still periodically mounted in the Soviet Union.
The Poor Bride...
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