Only The Brigadier and The Minor deserve systematic analysis here; Denis Ivanovich Fonvizin’s main work in life as a diplomatic secretary in Catherine II’s foreign office and the polemical writing emerging from that experience contributed to the content of the plays but limited his dramatic output. Some mention can be made of the unfinished third play, The Choice of a Tutor.
Fonvizin’s plays were the first to present native Russian customs and speech successfully, a process that began in the eighteenth century to transform the common dramatic fare of the time, mainly French neoclassical drama. The transformation continued for a century. Earlier Russian dramatists in both tragedy and comedy had modeled their plays on neoclassical principles, often retaining French names for the characters, even when they had changed the setting to Russia.
The didactic impulse of eighteenth century comedy in France was very much a part of audience expectation and dramatic practice when Fonvizin wrote his plays. The characters were types—young lovers, the domineering father, the buffoon—deriving from earlier French drama and from still earlier Italian and Latin plays. The convention of the raisonneur, a wise character who comments on the implication of the dramatic events and states explicitly the message of the author, operated in these plays, too. Elements of the emerging sentimentalism found their way into the plays as well.
The Brigadier, written when Fonvizin was twenty-four years old, manipulates a situation comedy for plot but breaks new ground in its conception of character and in the speech of its dramatis personae. The action and characters satirize the Francomania of the Russian petty nobility, the brutality of military life, the stupidity of people without any real education, and the shallowness of morality among the country gentry. The play begins in a conventional setting of the provincial nobility: The Brigadier and his wife have brought their son, Ivan, to visit the family of Sofya, the girl they have arranged for him to marry. They intend to set the date for the wedding, but the course of the action becomes clear in the second line, with Ivan’s response, in French, to this effort: “Hélas!” No wedding between the two will take place, but crudely hilarious love intrigues must run their course before that happy ending can occur.
The Brigadier pursues the Councilor’s wife, with whom he falls in love because she is so cultivated and intelligent compared with his own wife; and the Councilor pursues the Brigadier’s wife because he is so impressed by her household economy. Ivan, however, also pursues the Councilor’s wife rather than his intended fiancé, Sofya, because the Councilor’s wife speaks French—and rhapsodizes over anyone who has ever lived in Paris. (Ivan has just returned.) The Brigadier, caught in the act of pursuing the wife of his host, is shocked to discover that his son is his rival for the boy’s mother-in-law to be. In a roundly comic scene, the Councilor cannot make clear to the Brigadier’s wife his proposal to have an affair with her, partly because she is so thickheaded and partly because she is in fact virtuous and unable to imagine herself as an object of desire.
Unlikely as the emotions of these people are, they set in motion scenes that keep the laughter of the audience ringing. Meanwhile, the conventional love interest between the heroine Sofya and her goodhearted officer Dobrolyubov makes good progress when they interrupt a love scene between Ivan and the Councilor’s wife. Revelations all around resolve the dramatic problem; so many sins cancel each other out, and the visitors leave in shame—and disgust. Sofya’s match with Ivan is broken off and Dobrolyubov gets his girl, especially since the legal problems holding up his inheritance have been settled. The speed with which the play moves gives the audience no time to think about how unlikely the action is.
The revelation of character in this merry-go-round, however, transforms the comedy. These are no sophisticated French couples frivolously pursuing amours. In accounting for the appetites they raise in each other, Fonvizin cuts deep, satirizing their distinctively Russian failings.
The Brigadier has been brutalized by his military life. The Councilor says of him, “Sometimes he loves his horse more than his wife.” The rank of which he is so proud gives him control over his peasants, and his usual mode of communication is violent. He disciplines his wife with his fists, and that good lady recalls a Captain Gvozdilov’s wife beaten more often than she. Tenderhearted Sofya asks her to stop telling about the wife beating. She answers, “You don’t want to even hear about it, but what was it like for the Captain’s wife who had to bear it?” Dostoevski later used the name Gvozdilov to refer to this kind of brutality.
The Councilor, a retired bribe-taking judge, grieves for the good old days when children obeyed their parents, not so many people were literate, and cases could be settled according to how much the judge was paid. He is a man willing to sacrifice his daughter’s happiness for the property he expects to get from the marriage agreement. He loves the Brigadier’s wife because she is as stingy with the peasants they own as he is with his. When he discovers that his wife is untrue, he swears not that he will beat Ivan for tempting her but that he will sue him for his last kopek.
The Councilor’s idle, vacuous wife gets perhaps the worst of Fonvizin’s scorn for the Frenchified Russian. When her Ivanushka tells her his only unhappiness is that she is Russian, she agrees, “That, my angel, is pure perdition for me!” Fonvizin’s love of country underlies the contempt he pours on her. Ivan, as empty as she, is in fact a suitable mate for her; their pleasure in imitating the superficialities of French life is absurd to those, like Fonvizin, who have come to hate the Frenchified dandies of St. Petersburg who waste the proceeds of Russian labor on imported luxuries that are sent from France.
The force of the play lies especially in the language. First is the satire of the Russian use of French. Ivan and the Councilor’s wife speak an amusing pastiche of Russian and French; they know only the small coin of the language. Second is the mispronunciation and failure to understand French by the Brigadier, and the total rejection of it by the Brigadier’s wife. What the earliest audience of the play enjoyed most, however, was the richness of the Russian colloquial speech, tailored to the speaker, that the truly Russian characters speak. Russian proverbs abound; set phrases and pet turns of phrase mark the speaker. The Brigadier’s wife’s sympathetic, practical-minded innocence is caught perfectly in her language, for example. Fonvizin begins here the task of making natural Russian a dramatic language, a task...
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