Alexsandr Petrovich Sumarokov Introduction

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(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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Alexsandr Petrovich Sumarokov 1717-1777

Russian poet, playwright, journalist, publisher, literary critic, and translator.

Sumarokov was the first professional writer in his country and is viewed as the creator of the first Russian tragedy, the first Russian comedy, the first Russian opera, the first Russian ballet, and the first Russian literary journal. Under the patronage of Empress Catherine the Great, Sumarokov produced a huge corpus of writings in which he championed the ideas of Russian classicism. His plays offered commentaries on Russian political life, his satirical essays and fables castigated the vices of Russian society, and his poetry often praised the political rulers of the day. Today Sumarokov is not regarded as a major figure in Russian letters, but he is studied by critics because of his promotion of a uniquely Russian literary culture, his insistence on the capability of the Russian language to express literary ideas, his commitment to the ideals of classicism, and the depiction of eighteenth-century Russian ideas and values.

Biographical Information

Sumarokov was born in 1717 to a noble family. Very little is known of Sumarokov's early life, but probably at the age of fourteen he entered the cadet corps, which prepared noblemen for military service and for participation in aristocratic court life. There he received a well-rounded education, which included instruction in history, geography, literature, law, Latin, German, French, and Italian. While at the corps he also began writing poetry and produced his first published work, an ode to Empress Anna. After he graduated in 1740, Sumarokov began a life at court under the new empress Elizabeth. He also wrote songs which became very popular in court circles. In 1744 he jointly published, with the poets Vasilii Trediakovsky and Mikhail Lomonosov, a three-verse paraphrase of Psalm 143—Sumarokov engaged in famous and bitter rivalries with the two eminent Russian writers over the course of his career. In 1746 Sumarokov married Johanna Khristiforovna Balk, a lady-in-waiting to the future Catherine the Great. In 1747, he began writing and publishing dramatic works, using the plays of Racine and Voltaire as his models. His tragedy Khorev (1747) was followed by Gamlet (1787), an adaptation of William Shakespeare's Hamlet. The publication that year of Dve epistoly (Two Epistles), a volume containing two essays, one on Russian language and the other on the art of poetry, established Sumarokov as a major literary figure in his country.

In 1756 Sumarokov was named director of the first national Russian theater, a post fraught with difficulties because of lack of funds and state bureaucracy. He was eventually forced out the job in 1761, although his contributions to the fledgling Russian theater were significant. In addition to writing a number of plays, he composed the librettos for the first Russian operas Tsefal i Prokris (1755; Cephalus and Procris) and Al'tsesta (1759; Alceste) and produced the first Russian ballet, Pribezhishche dobrodeteli (1759; Sanctuary for Virtue). In 1759 Sumarokov published the first private literary journal in Russia, Trudoliubivaia pchela (The Industrious Bee), which he dedicated to then-Princess Catherine. By this time Sumarokov had become a distinguished figure in Russian letters, and his influence was seen in a new generation of poets who were referred to as “the Sumarokov school.” In the 1750s Sumarokov was also engaged in a number of literary disputes with Trediakovsky and Lomonosov.

1762 was a turning-point in Sumarokov's life. On 28 June Catherine the Great staged a coup, ending her husband Peter III's reign. As a reward for Sumarokov's past loyalty, Catherine promoted him, annulled his debts, and announced that all his works thereafter would be printed at her cost. He was essentially freed from any duties and allowed to dedicate himself to his writing. Sumarokov, in turn, celebrated the empress in a series of laudatory odes. There was often a tension...

(The entire section is 1,605 words.)