Denis Ivanovich Fonvizin was born in 1745 into a family of middle nobility. His father, having retired from military service as a major, had a modest civil position in Moscow; Fonvizin’s mother was from an older noble family. The Fonvizin family had entered Russia from Germany during the mid-sixteenth century and was thoroughly Russian by the time of Catherine, when Denis lived; he had to learn German in school. Unlike many Russian nobles, he learned French only as a young adult.
When he was ten, Fonvizin was one of the first admitted to the newly opened Moscow University, apparently at a preparatory level required to produce students ready for university education. His education gave him a taste for literature and equipped him for the government service he was to enter when he found a patron. An early trip to St. Petersburg (1760) took him to the imperial theater, where he saw a play by the Danish dramatist Ludvig Holberg. The experience triggered his enduring interest in drama; in 1761, he published a translation of a selection of moral fables by Holberg. The didactic element was in Fonvizin’s work from the start. The writer improved his Russian literary style and his command of French and German with a variety of translation projects for university journals.
At seventeen, a common age for the sons of the nobility to enter service, Fonvizin got his first job in the civil service of the newly crowned Empress Catherine as a translator in the foreign office. Catherine’s court was at the time briefly in Moscow, but when it returned to St. Petersburg in 1763, Fonvizin followed. Provided with personal servants for the first time, he read the work of the satirist Antiokh Kantemir, whose work, though written earlier, was published only in 1762. Under this influence, Fonvizin decided to write a humorous letter to his three servants. “Poslaniye k slugam moim Shumilovu, Vanke i Petrushka” (1763-1764; epistle to my servants Shumilov, Vanke, and Petrushka) was the result and circulated widely among freethinkers in St. Petersburg. It contained some of the first realistic and satiric observation of ordinary reality that appeared later in the playwright’s major plays.
In October, 1763, Fonvizin obtained a patron in Ivan Perfilevich Yelagin, a supporter of Catherine and a man with literary and theatrical interests. In Yelagin’s service, Fonvizin found himself in competition with Vladimir Lukin, a playwright of considerable talent. Lukin pressed for a thoroughly national drama; he put on stage some realistic Russian characters—a pawnbroker, for example—but he never achieved realistic speech for them. No love was lost between the two writers, and the young Fonvizin meanwhile cultivated friends among actors and actresses, especially the famous Ivan Dmitrevskii, who played in Aleksandr Sumarokov’s tragedies. Fonvizin’s duties with Yelagin allowed him, during the 1760’s, to experiment with poetry and with further literary translations. He tried a verse translation of Voltaire’s Alzire (pr., pb. 1736; English translation, 1763) but did not publish it, discovering that though he wished to write tragedy, his natural talent was for wit and satire.
The young man saw at this time productions of the neoclassical tragedies and comedies of Sumarokov, and he saw numerous productions of the lightweight French comedies translated by young noblemen of the capital. Fonvizin also translated such a play, Sidnei, by Jean-Baptiste Gresset; he called his Russian version Korion. Though moved to a Russian setting, the characters kept their French names. The play was staged in November, 1764, at the court theater, without much success. A brief scene between the valet Andrei and a peasant messenger had the breath of reality about it, but it was otherwise still in the Sumarokov style.
Fonvizin’s life in fashionable St. Petersburg at this time gave him a world of observation that eventually found its way into his plays. His own upbringing had made Fonvizin dislike pretense, and he disliked the French-speaking Petersburg fops, with their blind adulation of French language and fashion and their contempt for anything Russian. Fonvizin, on the contrary, found much to admire in Russian life—for example, the intellectuals Mikhail V. Lamonosov and V. N. Titishchev. His father’s influence gave him a strong sense of duty to his country. Encouraged by the theatrical interests of his superior, Yelagin, he decided to satirize these fops in a comedy. He would add figures that had not yet appeared on any Russian stage, the crude and petty nobility who lived in small towns and on their own estates, people of little education who had served mindlessly in the rigidly disciplined military until they retired with perhaps the rank of brigadier. Their wives were a match for them, barely literate, not knowing anything beyond household management. Fonvizin would add judicial bribe-takers to the satire, of whom he knew much from his father’s experience as an honest judge among the dishonest. The comedy The Brigadier was the result. Fonvizin read the play at Yelagin’s house, and then in June, 1769, at Peterhof for the empress, who enjoyed the play. The twenty-four-year-old Fonvizin...
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