Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin can be considered one of the greatest Russian dramatists of the nineteenth century and is generally ranked with such luminaries of the theater as Nikolai Gogol, Alexander Griboyedov, and Alexander Ostrovsky. His three plays, which treat related events, constitute the sum of his literary output. They are distinguished for their sharp delineation of character, their dynamic plots, and their witty, racy style. As with his predecessor Griboyedov, many lines from Sukhovo-Kobylin’s plays have become aphorisms in modern Russian.
Sukhovo-Kobylin was strongly influenced by Gogol, with whom he was in fact acquainted, and his buffoonery and the names of his characters, particularly in The Death of Tarelkin, are reminiscent of Gogol’s writing. The other great influence on his work was that of the French theater. He visited France frequently and was friends with a number of French actors and actresses, as well as with Alexandre Dumas, fils. Sukhovo-Kobylin was particularly drawn to the pièce bien faite (the “well-made play”), a style of comedy characterized by an intricate plot based on an intrigue, which was brought to perfection by such writers as the popular Eugène Scribe, the younger Dumas,Émile Augier, and Victorien Sardou. He also frequented the small boulevard theaters of Paris and was exposed to the rapid onstage character transformations of the great comics Marie Bouffe and Pierre Levassor. The impact of the boulevard theater is especially marked in The Death of Tarelkin.
In his introduction to the English translation of Sukhovo-Kobylin’s plays, The Trilogy of Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin, Harold B. Segel notes that the standard subjects for French comedies of manners during the period when Sukhovo-Kobylin was writing the first part of the trilogy were related to money. Gambling, swindling, speculation, and the impecunious nobleman who wanted to make a match with an heiress were the most common themes. Scribe’s literary heirs combined the structure of the well-made play with social comedy in plays that aptly described the situation prevailing in France at the time of the Second Empire. Like his French counterparts, Sukhovo-Kobylin united the well-made play with social comedy, satirizing the socially ambitious nouveaux riche from the provinces. His adroitness at blending the traditions of the French with the Absurd elements of Gogol and applying the result to contemporary social conditions is a mark of his mastery as a playwright.
Adrianow, Gennadij Y. Anthroponyms: Their Symbolism as a Literary Devise in the Trilogy of A. V. Sukhovo-Kobylin, “The Pictures of the Past.” Northfield, Vt.: Norwich University Press, 1979. The author examines the types of names given to characters in Sukhovo-Kobylin’s trilogy.
Borowitz, Albert. Eternal Suspect: The Tragedy of Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1990. This work, part of a true crime series, looks at Sukhovo-Kobylin’s role as murder suspect.
Fortune, Richard. Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin. Boston: Twayne, 1982. A basic treatment of the writer, examining his life and plays.
Segel, Harold B. Introduction to “The Death of Tarelkin” and Other Plays: The Trilogy of Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin. 2d ed. New York: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1995. The introduction provides a biography of Sukhovo-Kobylin as well as critical analysis of his works.