Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin Critical Essays


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The importance of Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin is twofold. His genius for blending disparate components of the well-made play with Gogolian characters and stylistic elements, puppet theater, and techniques of the French boulevard theaters enabled him to write plays unique not only for their time and place but also in European theater generally. They are modern even today. Second, Sukhovo-Kobylin, by coupling absurd plot and stylistic elements with the depiction of evil, causes the audience to see life as a nightmare in which chance plays a major role, a vision not so far, as Segel observes, from the haunting realm of Franz Kafka. In his depiction of the virtuous man victimized by the machinery of a corrupt state, and in his conception of corruption as essentially meaningless and absurd (as in The Death of Tarelkin), Sukhovo-Kobylin anticipates the banality and evil of twentieth century totalitarian systems. Thus, he was a philosophical forerunner as well as a theatrical one.

Krechinsky’s Wedding

Krechinsky’s Wedding, written in 1854 and first performed in 1855, is the first play of the trilogy that constitutes Sukhovo-Kobylin’s entire uvre. In this play, the author draws on the French comédies-vaudevilles (vaudeville comedies), with which he had become familiar in Paris, as well as on native Russian traditions. The impact of Gogol’s Revizor (pr., pb. 1836; The Inspector General, 1836), with its satire and buffoonery, is particularly marked. There is also a resemblance to Griboyedov’s Gore ot uma (wr. 1824, uncensored pr. 1831, censored pb. 1833, uncensored pb. 1861; The Mischief of Being Clever, 1857) in the plot structure and characters, with the major difference from this latter work being that the action centers on a negative rather than a positive character.

The plot, according to Brodiansky’s short study, was based on an anecdote the author had heard in Moscow, but the play acquired an intricate symbolism that went far beyond the original tale. Set in Moscow, Krechinsky’s Wedding has six major characters. The Muromsky family consists of Muromsky himself, a wealthy landowner who is unaffected and honest; his eligible daughter Lidochka, who has fallen in love with the society dandy Krechinsky; and Muromsky’s sister-in-law Atuyeva, who adores the mannerisms of the seemingly sophisticated Muscovites. The other characters are Vladimir Nelkin, the Muromskys’ unaffected country neighbor; Mikhail Krechinsky, a man-about-town; and Krechinsky’s cohort, the cardsharp Ivan Raspluev.

The plot revolves around the attempt of Krechinsky, a gambler constantly in debt, to obtain Lidochka’s hand in marriage and gain access to her estate. Atuyeva and Lidochka are taken in by Krechinsky’s cosmopolitan veneer and his ability to speak some French. Muromsky, on the other hand, is suspicious of Krechinsky, preferring the simple honesty of Nelkin. He is eventually won over by Lidochka’s choice, partly because Krechinsky presents him with a prize bullock, waxes eloquent about life in the country, and speaks of his fictitious estates.

Krechinsky suddenly discovers that he must pay his gambling debts at his club or be publicly disgraced. In an attempt to raise a large sum overnight, he sends Raspluev to ask Lidochka for the loan of her diamond pin, supposedly the object of a wager with a Prince Belsky. Krechinsky takes the pin to the pawnbroker Bek, but at the last minute, he substitutes a virtually identical pin with an imitation stone. He returns the authentic jewel to Lidochka that evening while she is visiting him with her family.

Nelkin, in love with Lidochka, is dubious about Krechinsky’s sincerity and financial worth, and he is amazed when the real pin is produced. The pawnbroker Bek, who has discovered Krechinsky’s substitution, comes in with the police after Nelkin has been thrown out and while the Muromskys are leaving. Just as Krechinsky is about to be arrested, Lidochka, in a effort to save him, runs to Bek with the real pin and says that the substitution was a mistake. The Muromskys now leave, but not before Lidochka herself has been implicated in the swindle. It is this last section that connects Krechinsky’s Wedding with the second play in the trilogy, The Case.

In her essay about Sukhovo-Kobylin, Brodiansky asserts that he maintains the unities of time and action, although not that of place. Such devices as the use of the bell, the presence of a bullock on the stage, Raspluev’s addressing the audience, and Krechinsky’s deft substitution of the pin with the paste jewel for the genuine article are all in the tradition of the boulevard theaters of Paris. The two principal characters, Krechinsky and Raspluev, are braggarts and scoundrels who bear a marked resemblance to Gogol’s characters in The Inspector General. Raspluev in particular seems to be the adherent of no special moral code, and he enjoys swindling other people simply to amuse himself. The fact that the Muromskys are accidentally ensnared in the trap of these two scoundrels underlines Sukhovo-Kobylin’s thesis that the innocent are the victims of the guilty.

The Case

The Case, originally entitled “Lidochka,” was published in a very limited edition in 1861; because of the disapproval of the censor, however, it was not staged until 1882, and then only in a cut, censored version, and only after Sukhovo-Kobylin had renamed it Otzhitoye vremya (bygone times) to remove all references to contemporary Russia. The Case attained great success when staged by Vsevolod Meyerhold in 1917, the original version being used in this uncensored production.

The Case...

(The entire section is 2368 words.)