Denis Ivanovich Fonvizin 1744-1792
Russian playwright, translator, poet, and essayist.
Fonvizin is considered to be the most distinguished Russian playwright of the eighteenth century, largely on the strength of his satirical comedy Nedorosl' (1782; The Minor) and to a lesser degree on his play Brigadir (1792; The Brigadier). Both works are written in the neo-classical style, with a marked didactic purpose, as they satirize contemporary mores and urge virtuous behavior. Fonvizin's plays were admired by many of his contemporaries, including Catherine the Great, despite the works' often unsubtle criticism of the monarchy. Fonvizin was greatly interested in politics, and in many of his essays he explores the question of how society might best be organized. His letters to his friends reflecting on Russian and European culture are also considered to be works of considerable literary merit. Fonvizin's reputation has fluctuated widely, and in the early twenty-first century he is not widely read outside Russia. Indeed, even in his homeland, much of the interest in Fonvizin's work has been due to his critical stance toward the Russian monarchy. However, critics writing in English, while acknowledging the unevenness of his writings, have begun to pay more attention to their various aspects—including their undermining of ostensible Enlightenment ideals, borrowings from French philosophy, bold characterization, and the particularly Russian flavor of their dialogue and situations.
Fonvizin was born in Moscow on April 3, 1745, to a landowning family. He attended the Moscow University Gymnasium from 1755 to 1760, where he mastered Latin and German. In 1760 he entered Moscow University, where he became interested in theater and took part in amateur theatrical productions. He also learned French and began to publish translations from German and French. His first significant translation, which he undertook in 1761, was of the Danish writer Ludvig Holberg's Basni nravouchitel'nye s iz (Moral Fables with Explanation). In 1762, after finishing his university studies, Fonvizin moved to St. Petersburg and entered the civil service as secretary to Ivan Yelagin in the Foreign Ministry. While working for Yelagin, Fonvizin was sent on numerous diplomatic missions to Europe. At home, he was known in his circle as a man of considerable wit and style who entertained his friends with amusing stories and comic impersonations.
While he worked for the civil service, Fonvizin continued to publish translations and made acquaintances with people associated with the theater. In 1764 he staged his translation of Jean Louis Gresset's drama Sidney, which he called Korion. The play was successful among audiences but assailed by critics. In the 1760s Fonvizin also wrote a number of satirical poems, most notably Poslanie k slugam moim Shumilovu, Van'ke i Petrushke (1766; Epistle to My Servants Shumilov, Van'ka and Petrushka). In 1768 he took a leave of absence from his job and returned to Moscow. The following year he completed his play The Brigadier, which he read to the Empress Catherine at her palace with great success. This led to Fonvizin's appointment as secretary to the statesman Count Nikita Ivanovich Panin, who had helped Catherine seize the throne in 1762. Fonvizin became Panin's trusted friend until the latter's death in 1783.
In 1773 Panin fell out of favor with Catherine, which made Fonvizin's situation precarious. However, through Panin's generosity Fonvizin received a large estate with some thousand serfs. The following year Fonvizin married Yekaterina Khlopova, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, which further strengthened his financial position. From 1777 to 1778 the couple traveled to Germany and France, the first of several trips they took together. Fonvizin continued to work for the civil service and to write and publish essays and letters. In 1781 Fonvizin was assigned to the postal service and a year later he retired from government service, which enabled him to finish his play The Minor. The play was staged in 1782 in Moscow and published the following year. Even Catherine approved of the drama, despite its criticism of despotism and hints at the need to restrict the power of the monarchy. Fonvizin made similar criticisms of the monarchy in his essays published during this time, and even engaged in an anonymous debate with the empress in a leading literary journal.
After retiring from government service, Fonvizin spent his time writing and engaging in his other favorite activities, which included attending concerts, selling fine art, trading books, and travelling abroad. In 1783, together with other writers, he founded the Russian academy. Two years later he suffered a minor stroke, but he continued to pursue his literary activities despite his illness. In 1788 Fonvizin attempted to publish his collected works, but the project never materialized during his lifetime. Although his health was deteriorating, he continued to write. In 1791 he began writing his memoirs, Chistoserdechnoe priznanie v delakh moikh i pomyshleniiakh (A Candid Confession of My Deeds and Thoughts), which he did not complete. Fonvizin died in St. Petersburg on 1 December 1792 while visiting the home of the poet Gavriil Derzhavin.
Fonvizin's literary reputation rests on his two plays, The Brigadier and The Minor, which have been seen by many critics as some of the first significant original plays written in Russian. The plot of The Brigadier reveals the lives of ignorant landowners. The main characters, including the Brigadier, his wife Brigadirsha, and their son Ivanushka, are portrayed as crude, empty-headed, bigoted, and corrupt. The play also satirizes “Gallomania,” the phenomenon in Russian society at the time in which all things French were fashionable and imitated. The Brigadier is a neatly constructed play that uses slapstick comedy and the most natural-sounding dialogue yet to be heard on the Russian stage, but it has been faulted by critics for its contrived situations and overt moralizing. The Minor, Fonvizin's acknowledged masterwork, is about a pair of virtuous lovers. The central targets of the play's satire are uneducated country landowners and their legions of servants and tutors. The “negative” characters in the play are comic creations who entertain audiences using lively, idiomatic language, while the “positive” characters are stiff representatives of the good and true. The clear didactic purpose of the play is to uphold the claims of social justice and virtuous behavior and to suggest that they may be achieved through proper education, with the state doing all it can to foster such attitudes among its citizens. Fonvizin's concern with the function of the state was also explored in his unfinished play, Vybor guvernra (published 1830; The Selection of a Tutor), which suggests that personal concerns must be sacrificed for the greater good.
Although he is less well known today for his translations, essays, letters, and poems, during his lifetime Fonvizin was praised for the clarity and purity of style of these works. His numerous essays on political subjects were published in the leading journals of the day. The theme of most of these pieces is the role of the state and the moral and political ideals it should live up to, and many were highly critical of the monarchy's power. In the early 1780s some of Fonvizin's essays were temporarily banned for their political content. The essays are rarely read today except by scholars, but they do offer an interesting perspective on the events of the time. So too do Fonvizin's letters, particularly those written about his travels. These letters chronicle the contrast between Russia and Europe in the eighteenth century and also reveal a writer of great wit and style who was often critical of both European and Russian culture but who showed enormous faith in his country and its people.
Although he was a civil servant by profession for most of his life, Fonvizin was also respected as an accomplished translator, prose writer, poet, and playwright. With the production and publication of his play The Minor, Fonvizin's reputation as one of the most important figures of eighteenth-century Russian literature was secured. Grigorii Potemkin, one of Catherine the Great's powerful associates, is said to have told Fonvizin after reading the work, “Denis, either die or stop writing! This one play alone has immortalized your name.” The great nineteenth-century Russian poet Alexander Pushkin called Fonvizin “the scourge and terror of ignoramuses,” viewing him as a man who was frustrated by the stupidity of society. Pushkin admired Fonvizin's work, and there are echoes of Fonvizin in Pushkin's letters, essays, and poetry. There has also been some suggestion that the particularly Russian flavor of Fonvizin's writing influenced other nineteenth-century literary figures such as Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and that The Minor singlehandedly created the classical Russian theater of the nineteenth century.
Although Fonvizin's plays continued to be read in Russia in the twentieth century, many of his biographers offered less than flattering appraisals of the man and his works. Because of their critical attitude toward the monarchy, Fonvizin's plays continued to be produced in the Soviet Union, even when works by other authors were banned. The scholarship on his writings, although favorable, was quite limited, and tended to concentrate on Fonvizin's anti-imperial stance. There was virtually no Western scholarship on Fonvizin's writings until the 1970s, when an important French study by Alexis Stycek was published. Marvin Kantor was the first critic to offer any critical commentary in English, first with an article on The Brigadier and then a general study of his life and writings. Since then, a few other English-speaking critics have written about his works, focusing mainly on The Minor and The Brigadier. These modern scholars have discussed Fonvizin's indebtedness to other writers and thinkers, including Ludvig Holberg and Jean Jacques Rousseau, commented on the themes and structure of his plays, and considered the moral and political ideals he espoused. A few commentators have also written about Fonvizin's essays and travel letters, noting their witty style and the insights they provide into eighteenth-century life and political attitudes. In general, in their commentaries critics have tended to point out the shortcomings of Fonvizin's plays, including their artificial situations and overt moralizing, but note the writer's importance as an innovator and original voice in eighteenth-century Russian theater.