Alexsandr Petrovich Sumarokov Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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 between Sumarokov's political beliefs—he was a staunch defender of monarchy based on law and a critic of despotism—and his loyalty to the empress. In March 1769 Sumarokov moved to Moscow and became involved in a move to establish a permanent theater in the capital. He also continued to write, producing his most famous work, the play Dimitrii Samozvanets (Dimitrii the Usurper) in 1771. Despite failing health and financial problems, he continued to write poetry, prose, and drama until 1775. However, in his last two years he lived in dire poverty and was ignored by the literary community and his previous associates at court. After his second wife died in 1771, Sumarokov married again, despite his mother's attempts to stop the marriage, but he died, destitute, just a few months later in October 1771. The only people in attendance at his funeral were the actors who carried his coffin.

Major Works

Although his works cover a range of ideas, Sumarokov was best known as a neoclassicist, and he sought in his works to forge a new, modern Russian national literature that stressed reason, common sense, simplicity, precision, clarity, and the existence of understandable impersonal laws to guide human thinking and behavior. His literary manifesto Dve epistoly, inspired by the French poet Despréaux Boileau's 1674 tract Art poétique, set out Sumarokov's classicist ideals and also stressed the beauty of the Russian language, insisting it was capable of producing great literature.

Sumarokov is likely best known as a playwright, and is responsible for establishing the tradition of theater in Russia. In this area Sumarokov also looked to French classical models, basing his works on the plays of Voltaire and Racine, using a classical structure, and observing the three unities of space, time, and action. Although the plays were popular in Sumarokov's day, few of them found an audience after the eighteenth century. Contemporary critics have shown some interest in Sumarokov's Gamlet, not only because it is an adaptation of Shakespeare's work but because it showcases the playwright's use of the Russian language for the stage. In addition, Gamlet serves as an example of Sumarokov's exploration of the theme of despotism that recurs in his work, and his rival Trediakovsky was critical of the play. Another play that has received critical attention since the eighteenth century is Dimitrii Samozvanets, the story of a despotic ruler, which has been described as a diatribe against the abuses of papal power. The work is considered important because it offers a covert commentary on Catherine the Great's tyranny, is an example of Sumarokov's defense of lawful monarchy and denunciation of despotism, and ushered in a tradition of political criticism in Russian literature. The plays Khorev and Opekun (1765; The Guardian) are also considered noteworthy as the first Russian political tragedy and comedy, respectively.

Sumarokov's work in other genres covers a wide range of styles and ideas, but again, most echo neoclassical literary values, use simple language, and emphasize the importance of Russian language and culture. Among Sumarokov's most popular works during his lifetime were his humorously satirical fables, which were often directed at his literary enemies. Unlike his other works, the fables were written in the language of ordinary people, and today they are considered some of his most original compositions. Sumarokov also wrote many satiric essays in which he criticized political figures, landowners, bureaucracy, and social ills in general. Sumarokov's poetry too reflected his ideas about politics and society, but he also wrote a great many odes (to Catherine as well as other prominent figures), eclogues, and love elegies. Some critics have remarked on the innovativeness of his lyric poetry, which experiments with a wide range of styles and genres and the unique rhythms of the Russian language, despite the author's insistence on the use of classical principles.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime Sumarokov went from attaining the status of one of Russia's literary giants and enjoying royal patronage to living in abject poverty. It is said that in the last years of his life he had alienated himself to such a degree that he was even denied free entrance into performances of his own plays, a privilege normally granted to Russian playwrights. Much of Sumarokov's misfortune during his life has been blamed on his personality and his inflated assessment of his own genius. However, shortly after his death a ten-volume collection of his works was published, a testament to the popularity of his work among eighteenth-century readers. His writing fell completely out of favor in the nineteenth century with the rise of Romanticism, when critics rejected as false the classical ideas he espoused. Since then his reputation has not fared particularly well, and while a number of critics have shown interest in and praised his work, there has been little effort to try to overturn previous criticism.

Most of the critical commentary on Sumarokov's work has centered around his place in the history of Russian literature, his rivalries with Trediakovsky and Lomonosov, his neoclassical ideas, his influence on Russian literature, his political beliefs, and his innovative use of the Russian language. By many accounts, Sumarokov is an interesting and important footnote in Russian literature because of his many contributions to theater, his promotion of the Russian language, and his interest in the literary culture of his day, but it is often stressed that his work is generally uninspired. The popularity of his plays in his own time has been attributed to the fact that they are full of plot and action and because they reflect so well the ideas of the eighteenth century. Sumarokov is remembered as having written the first Russian dramatic and operatic works, established the first Russian literary journal, and been the first professional Russian writer, but he is certainly not numbered among the great Russian authors. His greatness lies rather in his efforts to establish a Russian literature that was grounded in the classical European tradition but called upon its own cultural heritage to express universal ideas.