Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1776
There are a number of cultural and historical references pertaining to biblical literature and history, as well as ancient Greek mythology and history, in The Government Inspector, which may not be familiar to the reader. These references include: King Solomon from biblical history; Alexander the Great from ancient Greek history; the Elysian Fields from Greek mythology; the ancient Greek politician and speech writer Cicero; and the Tower of Babel from biblical literature. An explanation of some of these references in terms of the central themes found in The Government Inspector will facilitate a greater appreciation of Gogol's play.
In act 1, as the governor and other local government officials discuss how to cover up the extent of their corruption, the judge asserts that he is not concerned about the government inspector, because the legal system is too confusing for anyone to comprehend anyway. The Judge states,
Well, I'm not worried. A person from Petersburg won't be interested in a mere district court. And if he does glance at some legal document, he won't understand it. Solomon himself couldn't understand our documents. I've been on the bench fifteen years, but, as for legal papers, I take one look and throw them in the wastebasket.
The Judge here refers to King Solomon, who is considered the greatest king of biblical Israel. King Solomon, the son of King David and of Bathsheba, is known today by information about him in the Bible. He is renowned for his military strength, his supposed skills as a great lover, his reputedly extensive harem of women (including 700 wives and 300 concubines), his construction of the famous Temple of Jerusalem, and his deep wisdom. The most famous example of his wisdom is described in a story in which two women held a dispute over who is the rightful mother to an infant; Solomon proposed cutting the baby in half, and then, based on each woman's reaction to the suggestion, determined who was the real mother.
In Gogol's play, the reference to Solomon is used to ridicule the Russian legal system. The judge states that even a man as wise as Solomon could not make sense of a single legal document in the Russian court. This comment contributes to Gogol's central theme in this play, which satirizes the Russian government bureaucracy as not only corrupt but also strangled with red tape.
In act 1, the governor calls together the leading town officials to discuss strategies for covering up the extent of corruption, incompetence, and inadequacy in the town's public institutions from the eyes of the government inspector—who is expected to arrive any day. The governor explains to the superintendent of schools that the history teacher will be a problem if observed by the inspector. At one point in the play, the governor alludes to Alexander the Great during a conversation with the superintendent of schools:
And your history teacher. Clever fellow. I don't deny that. But the man lets his feelings run away with him. I heard one of his lectures. As long as he stayed with the Assyrians and Babylonians, it wasn't so bad, but when he came to Alexander the Great, I thought the house was on fire. He jumped up, took a chair, and smashed it on the floor.… Now I know Alexander was a very great hero, but why smash the furniture? The government had to buy a new chair.
Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), a Greek, was King of Macedonia from 336 to 323 BC. A military genius, he lead the invasion of Asia, conquering much of Asia Minor, and overthrowing the Persian Empire. Alexander greatly expanded the boundaries of his empire in the twelve years of his reign. He founded over seventy new cities and spread Greek thought and culture throughout much of Asia. After his death, at the age of thirty-three, lacking the force of his determination and charisma, the empire soon broke up into separate kingdoms.
In Gogol's play, reference to Alexander the Great demonstrates the incompetence and ineffectiveness of the Russian educational system. While most of the local government officials in the play suffer from not taking their jobs seriously enough, the history teacher demonstrates that he takes his job too seriously. The superintendent of schools says of the history teacher that he is prepared to give his life ‘‘in the cause of education,’’ as if it were a revolutionary effort. The idea that the history teacher gets so excited over historical matters that he is inspired to smash a chair against the floor indicates his loose grasp on contemporary reality.
In act 1, while the governor and his fellow town officials are deliberating about how to prepare for the arrival of the government inspector, the postmaster enters. The governor instructs him to unseal and read every letter, to catch any ‘‘tattle tales,’’ who may be writing to Saint Petersburg to complain of the town government. The postmaster assures him that he already opens and reads the letters, but ‘‘not as a security measure’’; he explains that he does this because ‘‘I'm curious. I like to know what goes on. It's fun, too. I even learn a lot. More than in the Moscow News.’’ When the governor asks if he's read anything about the ‘‘Person from Saint Petersburg,’’ meaning the government inspector, the postmaster responds: ‘‘Nothing about Petersburg.… You'd love some of the letters.… There was a lieutenant the other day, describing a ball. He compared it to Elysium: girls, bands playing, banners flying.…’’ Elysium, also called ‘‘the Elysian fields,’’ or ‘‘the Elysian Plain,’’ is, in Greek mythology, akin to the Christian heaven, a paradise to which heroes and those favored by the gods are sent after death.
The reference to Elysium in Gogol's play is significant in that it alludes to the play's motif of fantasy locations. Once Hlestakov figures out that he is being mistaken for an important person from Saint Petersburg, he weaves an elaborate web of fantasy describing the splendor and prestige of his life in the city. The inhabitants of the town are easily taken in by Hlestakov because of their own eagerness to imagine the far-away city as a sort of paradise, in comparison to their own provincial surroundings. In act 5, after Hlestakov has (insincerely) proposed to the governor's daughter, the governor fantasizes about his future life as the father-in-law of a high-level government official in Saint Petersburg; again, Saint Petersburg resembles a sort of paradise, or Elysium, in the fantasies of a provincial townsman. The postmaster's response to the governor also demonstrates his own simple-mindedness, frivolousness, and ignorance of the severity of his corrupt abuse of a government office. While the other town officials are concerned with every detail that may be observed by the government inspector, the postmaster blithely engages in a frivolous description of a ball, completely unconcerned with the fact that he has illegally opened and kept for himself, a letter intended for someone else.
In act 4, the governor and his local government officials debate over who is to go first in approaching Hlestakov, whom they believe to be the government inspector, with the offer of a bribe. The director of charities volunteers the judge to approach Hlestakov first. The judge replies that the director of charities himself should approach the government inspector first, upon which the director of charities replies that the superintendent of schools should go first because he ‘‘represents education—enlightenment.’’ The superintendent of schools, however, insists that he becomes completely tongue-tied in the presence of authority. The director of charities responds that, in that case, it should be the judge, after all, who approaches Hlestakov first, because ‘‘When you open your mouth, Cicero speaks.’’
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-3 BC) was a Roman politician, lawyer, and writer, who became renowned for his powerful speeches and convincing argumentation. Reference to Cicero in Gogol's play is intended to exaggerate the judge's incompetence by means of contrast. The judge, a small-town, provincial government bureaucrat who knows more about hunting dogs than about the law, is compared to one of the greatest public speakers and masters of legal rhetoric in the history of Western culture. This reference builds upon a central theme of Gogol's play, which satirizes the general incompetence among Russian government officials and the general ineffectiveness of the Russian legal system.
In act 4, during a discussion in which the governor and his fellow local officials debate who is to go first in presenting the government inspector with an offer of bribery, the judge is targeted as the most likely candidate. After comparing the judge to Cicero, they continue to praise his speaking powers by insisting that ‘‘You can hold forth on the Tower of Babel!’’
The Tower of Babel, according to the book of Genesis in the Old Testament, was built in Babylon after the flood. The story of the Tower of Babel is that the people of Babylon wanted to build a tower that would reach as high as the heavens. To defy this effort, God was said to have created a confusion of languages among the workers building the tower, so that they could not effectively communicate with one another and therefore had to abandon the construction of the tower. The dispersing of these people throughout the world is said to explain the diversity of languages among human cultures.
References to the Tower of Babel usually imply a nonsensical confusion of words. The Tower of Babel in Gogol's play echoes his central theme of the general ineffectiveness of the Russian bureaucracy. The implication is that the extensive web of bureaucracy, which made up the administrative arm of the Russian government, was so confusing and nonsensical that it was a virtual Tower of Babel—a mass of legal documents and verbiage that was ultimately meaningless and ineffective. Furthermore, the local government officials demonstrate their own confusion and ignorance over the meaning of words when they suggest that the Judge is such a skilled speaker that he can ‘‘hold forth,’’ or present a powerful speech in a meaningless mass of words. As a mouthpiece for the Tower of Babel, which constituted the Russian bureaucracy, the judge is skilled at generating amass of nonsensical verbiage upon a meaningless mass of legal documentation.
References to ancient Biblical and Greek history and culture in The Government Inspector function to elaborate upon a central theme of corruption, ineffectiveness, and incomprehensibility in the Russian bureaucracy under the reign of Tsar Nicholas I.
Source: Liz Brent, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Brent has a Ph.D. in American Culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6069
On December 9, 1926, after nearly two years of extensive research and rehearsals, Vsevolod Meyerhold premiered his Inspector General (Revizor). Though the production provoked a tempest in the Soviet press and was much discussed by the critics of both liberal and Communist bent, foreign—mostly American—witnesses had no doubt about its artistic value from the very beginning. Meyerhold had created a magnificent and somber spectacle which reflected his pre-revolutionary symbolist past, his tragic world view linked to the philosophy of Russian symbolism, and what appeared to be his apocalyptic warning concerning the future of humanity.
An analysis of newly available archive materials—rehearsal notes recorded by the director's assistants being the most important among them—reveals that the production was a synthesis of the director's aesthetic discoveries made in the pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary periods. Nevertheless, when placing Revizor in the context of Meyerhold's career, critics and historians usually pay scant attention to the essential qualities of the production—the mystical, the tragic and the phantasmagoric. Having dutifully noted them, most scholars then mysteriously leave them unexplained. For Louis Lozowick in 1930, Revizor, along with Meyerhold's productions of The Death of Tarelkin (1922) and The Forest (1924), represented the director's ongoing effort to revamp and reinterpret Russian classics. In 1965, Marjorie Hoover wrote that the production transformed Gogol's comedy of manners into a satire, though one with universally symbolic overtones. Konstantin Rudnitsky in 1969 emphasized ‘‘the aggressive power of the past’’ (i.e., the epoch of Tsar Nicholas II) as essential to the meaning of the production. He also mentioned strange ‘‘riddles’’ allegedly implicit in or suggested by the historical events of the middle 1920s— riddles that Meyerhold ‘‘heard’’ and attempted to reply to in his production. What stands behind this metaphor? What kind of riddles did Rudnitsky have in mind? Throughout his book, he never answers this question, probably because he could not answer it in print. Censorship and self-censorship were still a matter of necessity in the late 60s when Rudnitsky's groundbreaking volume was published in the USSR. By the time of Edward Braun's study in 1995, Revizor had become a synthesis of ‘‘realism, hyperbole and fantasy.’’ However they characterize it, existing accounts of the production are descriptions rather than interpretations; most of them list Revizor under the neutral label of ‘‘revived classic.’’
This label derived from critics' convenient and uncomplicated linking of Meyerhold's aesthetics with Bolshevik cultural policies has some historical explanation. At the end of 1922 Lunacharsky, the People's Commissar for Enlightenment, concerned with the growth of purely formal experiments in Soviet art, publicly proclaimed the return to psychological literature with the slogan ‘‘Back to Ostrovsky!’’ Later, he explained what he meant:
We, modern playwrights, must observe the life around us sensitively, like Ostrovsky, and, unifying profound theatrical effect with precise, penetrating realism, we must present a constructive and explanatory mirror-image of our times.
The quote reveals Lunacharsky's moderately positivistic aesthetics as well as the ideological imperatives of the time. The top party official in charge of Soviet culture was advocating a radical return to the Russian classics. Not yet an order, but a recommendation, this call has been interpreted by Meyerhold scholars as an obvious reason for Meyerhold's staging of Ostrovsky's A Profitable Post (1923) and The Forest (1924), Gogol's Revizor (1926) and Griboedov's Woe From Wit (1928). Yet, in the case of Revizor this historical coincidence appears to be the simplest part of the truth. A more complete—and complex—reading of the production would take stock of the internal logic of the director's development, viewed as a continuous trajectory from his first directorial efforts in 1903 to his Revizor in 1926, and would analyze both the external and internal influences exerting themselves on Meyerhold's artistic consciousness at the time.
Meyerhold and his assistants persistently claimed that Revizor was conceived as a condemnation of ‘‘not merely peculation in some miserable little town … but the entire Nicholayan era together with the way of life of its nobility and its officials.’’ Even in the ‘‘conversations with the actors,’’ he repeatedly announced ‘‘his firm clinging’’ to the realistic theater and reiterated his point that ‘‘the grotesque ruins Revizor.’’ As if casting a spell, he tried to convince everybody, including himself, that by embracing the ultimate good of realism, he would abandon the obvious evil of grotesque. Statements from his theater stressed the production's satirical spirit, directed against the Russian Imperial past, a satire in tune with the Bolshevik's cultural enlightenment program for the masses. Lee Strasberg's observation that ‘‘Meyerhold uncovers the social content of [any] play’’ accords with this interpretation only too well. Persuaded by Meyerhold's own declarations, Western scholars frequently forget that Soviet historical documents should not be taken at face value, even if they come from the recently opened post-Communist archives. Meyerhold was keen to manipulate the appropriate Communist vocabulary in the struggles on the ‘‘theater front.’’ Most of his conceptual statements concerning the content, ideas, or genre of a production—whether as official speeches or rehearsal notes—must be thoroughly checked against his theater practice.
Interpreted as satire, or a mixture of realism and fantasy, or a revived classic, Revizor is rather carefully described but unsatisfactorily interpreted, even in the most trustworthy scholarly writings. But the problem of Revizor is contained within the larger problem of the position of Meyerhold vis-a-vis the 1917 October Revolution, which can only be approached with a full understanding of how Meyerhold's previous aesthetic discoveries coalesced in Revizor.
Rudnitsky, Braun and Leach, whose books represent the most influential approaches in contemporary Meyerhold scholarship, take it for granted that the director's creative life can be clearly divided into two periods: That of the prerevolutionary, ‘‘decadent,’’ modernist Meyerhold, and that of the ardent Bolshevik who, inspired by the Revolution, served it with all his theatrical genius. Indeed, formal historical evidence speaks for this obvious division: Meyerhold joined the party in 1918 and soon came into prominence with the Bolshevik regime, receiving the top artistic title, People's Artist, as early as 1923. Both Russian and foreign witnesses had no doubts about the nature of his post-revolutionary theater practice, with ‘‘its roots deep in our heroic, proletarian struggle.’’
With this evidence, and influenced by Rudnitsky, who was the first to bring the director's name back from Stalinist eclipse, most scholarship essentially reiterates the same argument: Meyerhold enthusiastically accepted the Great October, which gave him unprecedented aesthetic ideas together with fresh possibilities for their realization. Meyerhold's theatrical version of constructivism is considered purely a post-revolutionary achievement. Together with Malevich, Mayakovsky, and other avant-garde artists, Meyerhold devoted his genius to the propaganda of the Revolution and followed its cause ‘‘to the very limit.’’ Typical of this prevailing view is Camilla Grey's description of these artists, who
joyfully plunged into the experiment, blissfully regardless of the physical and practical sacrifices involved.… It is difficult to believe that they were almost literally starving— … living conditions were reduced to the most primitive. They rode lightheaded on the surge of release and the sense of a new-born purpose to their existence; an intoxication drove them to the most heroic feats: all was forgotten and dismissed but the great challenge which they saw before them of changing the world in which they lived.
A seasoned artist in his mid 40s, Meyerhold hardly rode lightheaded. The most turbulent in his turbulent life, his relationship with the Revolution came out of numerous artistic and personal reasons, but not of a pure political intention to change the world. Both in the December 1905 Revolution, and the February 1917 Revolution, he remained politically unengaged, initiating his involvement with the Bolsheviks only when they came to power after the October uprising. Oliver Sayler, who spoke to Meyerhold in the winter of 1917/18, remembered that the director was reticent in their conversation about politics to the point that Sayler was unable to figure out where his political sympathies lay.
However, the image of a Communist artist changing the world for a just social order attracted scholars, especially Western ones, seeking to explain why some members of the left intelligentsia chose to collaborate with the Bolsheviks. The director' s later troubles and his downfall at the end of the 30s were attributed to Stalin's embracing of totalitarianism and oppression. Thus, Meyerhold's creative biography offered a deceptively simple picture: until the late 20s, the ‘‘good Revolution’’ bestowed on its faithful artist creative freedom and practical benefits, but when it turned ‘‘bad,’’ the artist fell as its martyr, shot down in the cells of the NKVD (a predecessor of the KGB). Taken to its logical conclusion, this claim led eventually to the still commonly held belief that Stalin and the degenerated Revolution together are to blame for the death of this great theater genius. Interpreted in this way, Meyerhold's tragic fate may too easily be used to illustrate the maxim about the Revolution that devours its own children.
Until the late 80s, for obvious political reasons, this was the only permissible way of viewing Meyerhold for Rudnistsky and other Soviet scholars. From the time of the thaw through Perestroika, they necessarily had to present him as an ally of Communism whose work met the crude standards of ideology—although only up to a certain point. For Western liberals it was—and still is—a chance to see the whole Revolution, or, at least, its first ‘‘righteous’’ decade, as an unparalleled explosion of new proletarian art and mass creativity. The speculations of the Communist leaders responsible for ‘‘cultural construction’’ (Lunacharsky, Bogdanov, and Kerzhentsev), official theater documents, Meyerhold's own political statements—all evidence that should be taken at the very least with a grain of salt—has kept Westerners enchanted with the myth of Revolution. This myth helps them to disregard such Bolshevik initiatives as The Red Terror, officially announced in 1918; the revival of the medieval practice of taking hostages; Dzerzhinsky's proclamation of ‘‘the infallibility’’ of Tcheka, which accompanied a mass liquidation of gentry, clergy, merchants, and members of the intelligentsia; and finally the grand opening of the first concentration camp in 1922. It was Trotsky, after all, who held that ‘‘terror is a most powerful political instrument,’’ and that ‘‘the question of the form or degree of repression, is, of course, by no means one of ‘principle.’ It's a matter of expediency.’’ And the ‘‘new freedom’’ celebrated in this kind of scholarship has nothing to do with the actual measures taken by the Bolsheviks, including the closing of newspapers and cabaret theaters ‘‘in view of their intolerable character’’ immediately after the October coup, and the expatriation of hundreds of the most prominent Russian scholars and philosophers in 1922. Aimed at erasing individuality, the real Revolution was destructive for Russian culture and Russian society from the very beginning.
The blooming proletarian art of the 20s was mainly created by non-proletarian groups and most certainly did not start from scratch right after October 1917. Moreover the theory which divides Russian art into two disconnected prerevolutionary and post-revolutionary epochs is lazy. Most artists were continuing to explore ideas found and formulated before 1917, during the so-called Silver Age of Russian culture. Tairov founded his Kamerny theater in 1914; at this time, Evgeny Vahtangov and Mikhail Chekhov were enjoying their first success under the auspices of the MAT First Studio, founded in 1913; Fyodor Komissarzhevsky staged his famous Faust in 1912; Nikolai Evreinov published his ideas on theatricalization of life between 1908 and 1913 (An Apologia for Theatricality in 1908, and a collection of essays, Theater as Such, in 1913); finally, the Futurists, Cubists, and Suprematists made their appearance with The Victory Over the Sun in 1915.
As for Meyerhold, his ‘‘new’’ and ‘‘revolutionary’’ constructivism emerged from his pre-revolutionary work in general and the experiments in his studio on Borodinskaya (1914-1917) in particular. The molding of his own theatrical methodology led to a liberation of the actor's art through the liberation of the actor's body from the structures of a weary psychological realism, which paradoxically corresponded to the general aesthetics of constructivism and the ideological thesis of shaping ‘‘a new man in a new world.’’ A former student of Meyerhold's from the Borodinskaya Studio recalled that, during the production of The Magnanimous Cuckold (1922!), she thought she was seeing ‘‘something familiar’’—namely, the visual realization of ideas the director was formulating during the last years of the Studio.
The scholarly fixation on Meyerhold the Bolshevik essentially renders him as nothing more than an artist who, after 1917, became a political director with a constructivist, or expressionist, or some other form of expression. This attitude regards the textual content of his work, i.e., the story, as ‘‘dressed up’’ in avant-garde garb, and thus fails to perceive the aesthetic integrity of the director's best productions. It separates the spoken text from the theatrical one, with its visual, audio, and plastic elements, and obscures a full understanding of Meyerhold's legacy. Suggesting that Meyerhold's principle achievement was in reflecting the burning problems of the day, this view sees his works as formed by external, objective causes that differed from one production to another. In fact, although Meyerhold did reflect his time, he did it more subtly, in a way which was modulated by his own cultivated past and his temperament. If Meyerhold accepted the Great October, it was out of the hope of having his own theater, founded with the blessing and unlimited financial support of the new power. ‘‘I don't give a damn about this or that political trend,’’ he used to say before the revolution. ‘‘All I want to do is to save the theater.’’ An artist first and foremost, he valued but one thing—to create freely; and he accepted the power that might seem to provide him with the desirable freedom. In the chaotic, hysterical days of the Revolution and the Civil War, he strove to find a niche where he could develop his artistic ideas and train his actors.
Under contract with the Imperial Theatres before 1917, he was unable to fully realize his theatrical ambitions. An influential group of august, veteran actors and top theater patrons were hostile to him and his innovations, and as a result, he never exercised unfettered artistic power on the Alexandrine stage. Sensation and scandal largely characterized his theatrical reputation. ‘‘A celebrity in the modern sense,’’ as Paul Schmidt writes, Meyerhold provoked radical opinions, but the ‘‘patrician’’ critics—Kugel and Benois in particular—violently attacked his aesthetic principles. The ultra-right New Time did not hesitate to remind its readers of his supposedly Jewish origin. Masquerade became a target of a particular critical viciousness. Prepared for more than six years, it was presented on the eve of the February revolution. Its allegedly ‘‘mindlessly absurd luxury’’ and ‘‘arrogant wastefulness’’ outraged Kugel who envisioned ‘‘the hungering crowds,’’ ‘‘shouting for bread … practically next door’’ to the theater. This temperamental description virtually defined a full range of accusations against Meyerhold as a reactionary and even ‘‘a Rasputin in theater.’’
Critics aside, he also did not acquire a loyal public. In regard to Meyerhold's relations with pre-revolutionary spectators, a respectful Soviet critic of the 30s, Boris Alpers, was quite right when he wrote:
For a working class spectator, his art did not exist at all, as it was hidden behind the walls of inaccessible Imperial theaters. And by its very nature, it just couldn't be close to this spectator.… For the petty bourgeois intelligentsia, his works were too cold and too rational.… Gloomy sarcophaguses that Meyerhold constructed on the stage of Imperial Theaters caused … bewilderment and protests among the top Russian aristocracy. That cold, aesthetic pathos with which Meyerhold showed its masks and rituals … caused in it unnecessary anxiety.
Always intolerant of an artistic opinion different from his own, he became increasingly defensive and arrogant. The actors, he thought, failed his Masquerade—he detested the actors trained in the realistic tradition of the Russian theater. To exercise a new art, he felt he vitally needed new actors trained in his own artistic methods, as well as a theater of his own. Little by little, the idea of his mission—that is, the revolution in the theater—became intermixed with the idea of a revolution in the society. Any change was better for him than no change at all. Considering his conflicts with the old theater to be unresolvable, he longed for a storm that would smash the barriers to his own potential artistic benefits. As a fervent opponent of the old theater system, he came to the Bolsheviks within days of the October Revolution. As if having Meyerhold's case in mind, Kugel wrote in December of 1917 that ‘‘we traded Russia for a ticket to a theater gallery.… To reject reality for the sake of phantom theater of one's own imagination—that's the fundamental sickness of Russian mentality.’’
After 1917, political, personal, and aesthetic factors became so intertwined in the director's life that it is extremely hard to tease them apart. Even decisions about his personal life were frequently made according to artistic considerations. Establishing theater, not changing the world or enlightening the multitudes, was Meyerhold's ultimate goal. An artist-innovator, Meyerhold never saw the theater as a tool for something else; art of theater had for him its own meaning and value. In his book On Theatre, published in 1913, Meyerhold argues that an artistic revolution can come only from an artistic of genius, who is oblivious to the tastes and desires of the masses: ‘‘Some Wagner will overcome the sluggishness of popular mind for Bayreuth to emerge.’’
Clearly, then, this sophisticated, essentially apolitical director was not converted in an instant to the mission of producing art according to the needs, or tastes, of the masses. These tastes differed too much from his own. Somebody named Polosikhin, a proletarian correspondent, expressed a common proletarian opinion when he said: ‘‘[I] gave tickets [to one of Meyerhold's productions] to some of our broads [at the factory], and had to hide for a couple of days after that—they wanted to beat me up.’’ Unlike Stanislavsky who was fascinated with the similarity between theater and life, Meyerhold sought to discover distinctions between the two, and specifically explore what is immanent to theatrical recreations of reality. For Stanislavsky, life was the first reality, truer than theater; for Meyerhold, theater came first, universalizing life and making it larger.
It is sometimes suggested that Meyerhold exploited the Revolution to propagate his own theatrical reforms. But the issue appears to be more complicated now: He didn't calculate, but he did operate in a revolutionary atmosphere, changing his appearance and vocabulary as actors change their costumes. It is meaningless to accuse him of hypocrisy on these grounds—after all, he didn't change his essential morals and attitudes. Rather, he was a theater person from top to toe to such a degree that nothing but theater had any substantial meaning for him. In September, 1920, Meyerhold arrived in Moscow dressed a la Bolshevik in a soldier's gray coat, but a few years later this coat gave way to a fashionable suit from an expensive tailor.
For Meyerhold the artist, the circumstantial changes of everyday life comprised an external domain—whether it was the proletarian dictatorship, the Civil War chaos, or the society that later ended in fear and hatred. In 1917, the old life collapsed, a new one was born—for better or worse—and he used the cultural form's of this new life, with its new symbols, themes, myths, and vocabulary, to mold the artistic reality of his productions. What changed so drastically in 1917 was the raw material of life—its formulas—but Meyerhold's aesthetics were developing smoothly and consistently.
In his ‘‘political’’ productions in the early '20s, he would insert bulletins on the Civil War (as in The Dawn, 1920), or bring onto the stage Red Army detachments together with purely utilitarian objects such as real trucks and motorcycles (as in Earth Rampant, 1923). The latter Meyerhold dedicated ‘‘to the primary Red Soldier of RSFSR, Lev Trotsky.’’ And yet one should not be misled by these deceptive details: Political statements masked aesthetic ideas; the social was an external form for the aesthetic. Moreover, the aesthetic task Meyerhold attempted to fulfill in these productions had nothing in common with propagandistic zeal.
Thus, the material became revolutionary on the surface—and the transformation of the material was interpreted as a shift in the artist himself. Meanwhile, the artist continued to develop the stage principles he discovered in the first years of Russian modernism. These principles were solely based on the concepts of ‘‘teatral’nost’’ and ‘‘uslovnost’’— two terms frequently used in Russian theoretical writings from the Silver Age onwards—where ‘‘teatral’nost translates as ‘‘theatricality’’ and ‘‘uslovnost’’ is usually rendered as ‘‘conditionally,’’ ‘‘stylization,’’ or even ‘‘conventionality.’’ As Katerina Clark summarizes, uslovnost entails a recognition of the impossibility of mimesis, of representing or recreating reality in the theater and of the consequent necessity for conventions, forms unique to the theater and understood as such by audiences. Of major significance in understanding the nature of the theater, uslovnost is rooted in a clever observation of Alexander Pushkin made almost a century earlier:
Verisimilitude is still presumed to be the primary condition and basis of dramatic art. What if it were demonstrated that the very essence of dramatic art distinctly precludes verisimilitude? Where is the verisimilitude in an auditorium divided in two parts, one half of which is full of spectators?
Discovered in its new sense in The Fairground Booth (1906), theatricality—a miraculous self-revelation of stage and its essential quality which moves beyond style or spectacle—was the foundation of Meyerhold's methodology and an obsessive interest which defined his creative path over the thirty-six years of his career. Through symbolism, ‘‘conventionality,’’ commedia dell’arte, traditionalism, constructivism, and the synthetic theater of the grotesque Meyerhold strove always to uncover the nucleus of theatricality. Unlike Stanislavsky, Meyerhold understood it not as a means for revitalizing a dull spectacle but as a specific theatrical language. The grammar of this language—stage time, space, and action—obeyed rules different from those in real life; and a person on stage acted differently from a person in reality. Action in the Meyerhold system was built around an interplay between the actors and the spectators, which emphasized the playful nature of the theater itself through the demonstration of theatrical conventions. The goal of Meyerhold's method, this interaction was never intended to include the direct physical participation of the audience, but it relied on the audience's alert and liberated imagination. Thus, the audience, along with the author, the actor, and the director was considered an equal creator of any theatrical event; the principle of co-activity defined, in turn, notions of space and acting.
Hence the importance of the proscenium, an essential spot of Meyerhold's stage space, to which all the interrelated production elements were linked up. Already in 1913, in the introduction to his collection of articles entitled On Theater, Meyerhold wrote:
I, who got into directing in 1902, only by the end of the decade was fortunate enough to touch upon the mysteries of the Theater that are concealed in such primary elements as the proscenium and the mask.
More than merely a frame around the action, the proscenium was understood as a catalyst for the desired spiritual contact between actors and audience. As such, it required the absence of the curtain, which was indeed banned from certain productions of the Fellowship of the New Drama as early as 1906. In 1910 Moliere's Don Juan was almost entirely performed on a wide apron jutting out into the auditorium of the Alexandrine Theater. To emphasize the importance of this apron Meyerhold even introduced little blackamoors—the famous proscenium servants—to open the action and to place and remove accessories on the stage between acts.
However, much work was left to be done on the part of the actors. ‘‘Doing’’ instead of ‘‘being’’ became the major principle of Meyerhold's acting technique. The 19th-century focus on the actor who experienced something on stage was now abandoned. The actor was no longer expected ‘‘to emanate’’ feelings; instead, Meyerhold invented for each moment a specific bit of business for the actor based on movement and related to the whole as tile fragments within a mosaic, and it took the audience's creative imagination to perceive all the parts in the artistic totality. With allusions, cross-references, and reflections of all sorts, Meyerhold guided the imagination of his audience to keep the act of perception from being purely subjective.
Bodily movement was considered the core of the actors' ‘‘doing’’ in particular, and the essence of the actors' creative process in general. Convinced that movement is development and, therefore, the visual, stage analog of the dramatic action of the play, Meyerhold prioritized it early in his career. As he took his understanding of movement even further, he considered stage emotions and speech as a part of movement and attempted to organize their development in audio-visual ways as well. After the Revolution, when he finally got his own actors, the possibility of the old form of ill-conceived, irregular, movement on stage was completely excluded; the constructivist ‘‘apparatuses for playing’’ (used, for instance, in The Magnificent Cuckold and The Death of Tarelkin) revealed immediately any sloppy, or cliched gesture, thus celebrating the beauty of functional and expedient movement.
Having formulated this treatment of space and action before 1917, Meyerhold never betrayed it throughout his career. In April of 1917, at a debate entitled ‘‘Revolution, Art, War,’’ castigating ‘‘the salient, passionless parterre where people come for a rest,’’ Meyerhold asked rhetorically: ‘‘Why don't the soldiers come to the theater and liberate it from the parterre public?’’ In his book, Braun misinterprets this statements as proof of Meyerhold's political radicalism. However, the director was merely voicing once again his desperate desire to establish an interaction between the actors and the audience. He needed an audience different from what he had before, and one better unacquainted with all types of formal innovations than one contaminated with naturalistic preconceptions. Soldiers, nurses, or nuns, Meyerhold did not really care. Essentially, he remained the same artist who proclaimed as early as in 1913:
A theater that presents plays saturated in ‘psychologism’ with the motivation of every single event underlined, or which forces the spectators to rack his brains over the solution of all manner of social and philosophical problems [italics added]—such a theater destroys its own theatricality.… The stage is a world of marvels and enchantment, it is breathless joy and strange magic.
The inner logic of Meyerhold's creative development happened to coincide for a brief moment with the grandiose myth of Revolution. This coincidence was the director's existential tragedy that ended with his physical extermination 23 years later. Back in 1917, however, the myth of Revolution legitimized those means that Meyerhold had already conceived on his own. At the same time, it served as an independent source of new imagery and models that Meyerhold could use for his explorations of theatricality. One of these models, in vogue during the first revolutionary years, was the mass spectacle, such as Storming the Winter Palace, staged in 1918 by Nikolai Evreinov. The participants in this repeated storming were supposed to be the same soldiers and workers who did it in 1917, but the Palace Square was decorated with gigantic painted backdrops that introduced a theatrical aspect to the spectacle—an aspect which had evolved directly from Evreinov's pre-revolutionary ideas about the theatricalization of life. Having nothing to do with theater as an aesthetic phenomenon, Evreinov's ideas of recreation of events and emotions had more in common with a theater therapy that would purge people of their passions, whether individual or historical (those of an entire nation).
Yet the theatricalization of life and theatricality may be considered as counter-currents in the theater history of the 20th century—the former responsible for the extension of theatrical laws into real life, the latter revealing the heart of the theater event, though staying within the boundaries of traditional theater. Theatricality was, of course, Meyerhold's great fascination. Even in Earth Rampant, where Meyerhold put on stage real military detachments equipped with field telephones, motorcycles, and automobiles, he did not attempt to bring the mass spectacle into the proscenium theater. Emmanuil Beskin, who greeted with excitement ‘‘the destruction of theater’’ in this production, was quite wrong. In fact, Meyerhold was exploring how real objects would ‘‘behave’’ on stage when plunged into the magnetic field of total theater. Instead of using them merely as realistic props or decorative elements—as prescribed by the realistic tradition—he used them functionally in montage collisions with each other and in an interplay with a live actor—the method he later applied in Revizor.
The core of this method lies in the idea that, when placed in a complex stage context, even a simple object such as a chair acquires additional meanings—meanings which may not easily be expressed in words but which exist in relation to the principal meaning of the object, and to each other, most frequently in reciprocal tension. Adrian Piotrovsky referred to this phenomenon as an objectified metaphor, where ‘‘metaphor’’ stands for the system of meanings carried by a physical object, and, therefore, objectified. This tension plays into the theatrical system as an extra source of dramatic energy.
As argued above, the specific logic of theater action constituted the basis of Meyerhold's conception of theatricality. This playful, non-veristic logic might solely be expressed through rhythm and the pristine physical movements of the actor's body, accompanied by light, color, and sound. As it is by no means the logic of life-like sequences, this new logic calls for the paradoxical and unexpected. But the unfamiliar works on stage only when juxtaposed with the familiar, that is, when the director takes into consideration the audience's common expectations.
From this double-layered structure, in which the unfamiliar paradoxically estranges the familiar, Meyerhold's idea of the grotesque emerged. In effect the director held a special prism up to the eyes of his spectators; this prism contorts shapes and angles, mixes up polarities creating unexpected contradictions, and doesn't distinguish between low and high orders. The sacred and the profane, the beautiful and the ugly, the material and the spiritual—all categories are exploded. Quite early in his career, Meyerhold established the grotesque as a major component of his directorial method. Already in 1912, in the article Balagan (The Fairground Booth), where he formulated an aesthetic platform for his early period of traditionalism, Meyerhold defined the grotesque as ‘‘something familiarly alien,’’ ‘‘demonic in its deepest irony,’’ seeking its realization in ‘‘mysterious hints, substitutions and metamorphoses.’’ No doubt, this understanding of the grotesque is a modernized version of romantic irony seen in the works of Ludwig Tieck and E. T. A. Hoffman, which should be of no surprise to anyone who remembers that the symbolist movement in Russia, in which Meyerhold participated in his early days, adopted and rejuvenated many romantic concepts. On the other hand, Meyerhold's perspective on the grotesque is also predictive of contemporary aesthetics:
Grotesque does not know the low and the high … it mixes opposites, consciously creating sharp contradictions and playing with its own peculiarity.… The most important feature of grotesque is a constant intention of the artist to take spectators out of one plane that they had just comprehended to another, which they did not expect.
That the grotesque synthesizes the opposites seems to be the most advanced aspect of Meyerhold's understanding.
Gradually, Meyerhold became convinced that the grotesque is intrinsic to the nature of theater art, that it is theatricality incarnate. In his brochure, Amplua aktera (The Set Roles of the Actor's Art), written in 1922 together with V. Bebutov and I. Aksyonov, Meyerhold asserted:
[T]he theater, which is an unnatural combination of natural, temporal, spatial, and numerical phenomena, as such necessarily contradicts our daily experience and is by its very essence an example of the grotesque. Arising from the grotesquerie of the masquerade, it is unavoidably destroyed by any attempt to remove the grotesque from it and to base it on reality.
Analyzed microscopically, the grotesque provides essentially the same unresolved reciprocal tension of different meanings, whether this tension occurs between live bodies in space and props or between elements of stage design, between speaking voices and sound or light, or among all of them altogether. In fact, tension through interaction is a formula for Meyerhold's version of the grotesque, though it does not describe the particular emotional coloring of his vision.
That coloring was dark and lurid. Mixing the satirical and the tragic, Meyerhold's productions frequently abandoned harmony, optimism, and joy in favor of restlessness and anxiety. A ‘‘dark genius,’’ as Yuri Elagin named him, Meyerhold generally created his works out of twisted forms and shadows, suggesting the presence of an ineffable menace, treading the invisible line between the material world and some other. Although all of these elements represent the basic philosophical concepts of Russian symbolism, the grotesque was innate in Meyerhold's own temperament as well.
Describing the director's temperament, Kugel observed after his encounter with the young Meyerhold:
his face is not cheerful. He doesn't have enough complacency to laugh, enough peace of mind to be humorous, enough tranquillity and modesty to rejoice. His face is unquiet and uneasy, as if he is startled by life and its enigma.
Emerging, perhaps, from a sensation that a demonic presence is surely concealed beneath the familiar surfaces of common things and events, this anxiety, along with an eagerness to overcome it, haunted Meyerhold throughout his life.
It is now agreed among most contemporary recent Russian scholars that except for seven out of 36 creative years, Meyerhold's art did not reveal its essentially dark nature. This short seven year period extends through the years of Red Terror and War Communism (roughly, 1918-1922) and ends in 1925 with the staging of Teacher Bubus. With Bubus, critics contemporary to Meyerhold, started to speak about the return of the artist who had staged The Fairground Booth and Masquerade:
The tempo of stage action was slowing, anxiety began to fill the space, and the sense of the downfall of high culture … recurred as an inner theme in his productions.… [Critics] found the chorus in the tragicomedy The Warrant ‘‘frightening,’’ and envisioned apocalyptic shadows in Revizor. In Woe to Wit (1928), the piano music played by the man of culture set him apart from the devouring herd of victors. Commandarm 2 (1931) seemed to be a requiem to those who perished in the legendary times [times of the Civil War]. The Introduction (1933) depicted the collapsing, soulless state and the helplessness of a creative individual within it; it was ostensibly set in Germany, but why then did the despair seem so vivid? Krechinsky's Wedding dramatized a prevalent horror.… The Lady of Camellias (1934) took the impossibility of living according to human feelings, or of living in general, to its ultimate, tragic end.
In the end, the grim aspect of the grotesque worked its way back up to the surface of Meyerhold's productions. Ironically, his natural predilection towards such a world view was not dissipated by the reality of the Bolshevik state; rather, it was strongly supported by it. After all, this was a state in which the phenomenon of people disappearing in broad daylight was accepted by the general populace as a matter of course. Described by Mikhail Bulgakov in Master and Margarita (although with a lighter and more humorous touch) this reality ceased to be defined in terms of causality and linearity. The logic of common sense helped neither to understand nor to survive it; only the absurd and the eerie grotesque could adequately express it. Life was becoming merely its own empty shell; invisible forces had reduced human beings to the condition of interchangeable mannequins. Having passed through an explosion of hysterical activity from 1917 to 1920, the country was slipping into the lethargy of horror.
These were the very ‘‘riddles’’ of the time that Meyerhold heard and expressed theatrically in his 1926 Revizor, and that Rudnitsky was unable to explore fully in his book. The absurdity of modern existence, together with a universal and inevitable doom, pervaded the dark space of Revizor and froze the mask-like faces of its characters. It manifested itself in inexplicable doppelgangers and shadows shuddering in the candlelight. The production narrated a story about the living dead, with their empty eyes and cold, distilled eroticism; passions of the flesh were still alive but the needs of soul were long dead. The image of ‘‘swinishness in graceful guise’’—ugliness and beauty synthesized—became the visual formula of this production, which absorbed naturalistic trends, symbolic motives, grotesque acting based on biomechanical training, and constructivist conceptions, into a sweeping theatrical whole.
Source: Daria Krizhanskaya, ‘‘Meyerhold-Revisor-Revolution,’’ in Theatre History Studies, Vol. 20, 2000, pp. 157-70.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7407
The subject of gastronomy—as it touches upon the significance of what, how, and why man eats—has begun to receive increasing attention in recent years, during which time quite a number of books on the history of food and drink have appeared. Scholars, moreover, have demonstrated a heightened interest lately in the anthropological aspects of this topic. Since eating is a human activity that by its very nature encompasses a social, a psychological, as well as a biological dimension, the depiction of fictional meals in literature allows this ritualistic event to be transformed into a narrative sign with vast semiotic possibilities—not only within the world of the literary work itself (intratextually) but also within a broader cultural context (extratextually). It is not surprising, therefore, that some literary critics have begun to focus their attention quite scrupulously upon the culinary and gastronomical aspects of prose fiction. These so-called ‘‘gastrocritics’’ have examined the various roles played by food and fictional meals in the works of such diverse authors as François Rabelais, Jean-Baptiste Molière, Alain-René Lesage, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Marquis de Sade, Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre Gustave Flaubert Anton Chekhov and Lev Tolstoi.
It is perhaps only natural and appropriate that these studies should gravitate toward French literature, since the French have traditionally regarded Paris as the culinary capital of the universe and considered themselves to be inherently fine judges of good taste. Well beyond the borders of France however, there lived in the nineteenth century a writer from the Ukraine whose obsession with food—both in his own personal life and in his verbal art—is nearly without historical parallel. That writer is, of course, Nikolai Gogol` (1809-1852), perhaps the most famous gourmet and gourmand in all of Russian literature, a man whose preoccupation with the taste of the food he ate and the quantity of the meals he consumed was legendary even in his own day. From his own correspondence as well as from the testimony of acquaintances, we discover that Gogol` was a ‘‘true gastronome,’’ who possessed, in addition to a passion for sweets and desserts, a fondness for Italian macaroni, an item which he insisted on serving up in large, generous portions for his Russian friends. These culinary interests were so serious, in fact, that Sergei Aksakov was led to exclaim that ‘‘if fate had not made Gogol` a great poet, then he would most certainly have become an artist-chef.’’ Indeed, the correspondence of Gogol` is replete with lengthy enumerations of his dining experiences in Europe, especially in Rome, where he first discovered the joys of pasta. Gogol` wrote at great length in his letters not only about the culinary aspects of eating, however, but also about the alimentary aspects as well, giving detailed descriptions of the various digestive ailments that plagued him throughout his later life, especially the hemorrhoidal condition that (so he claimed) eventually affected even his stomach. In fact, Gogol` began to complain so frequently about his stomach, the organ which he once referred to as the ‘‘most noble’’ in the human body, that his friends complained that they themselves were ‘‘living in his stomach.’’ There is indeed a cruel irony implicit in the fact that this notorious gourmand quite possibly died from inflammation of the stomach and intestines due to inanition (gastroenteritis ex inanitione). ‘‘In the months preceding his death,’’ explains Vladimir Nabokov ‘‘he had starved himself so thoroughly that he had destroyed the prodigious capacity his stomach had once been blessed with.’’
The widespread presence of food and drink in the prose of Gogol` was surely a result, at least in part, of the author's own personal gastronomical obsessions and was noted with obvious disapproval by contemporary critics. They repeatedly complained of the ‘‘Flemish’’ quality that such scenes of eating and drinking imparted to the works of Gogol` and several other prose writers from the Ukraine. If nineteenth century Russian critics were apt to assail this use of food and drink in prose fiction as a rather crude and improper violation of artistic decorum, modern critics have preferred to examine the many interesting uses to which an inventive writer, such as Gogol`, put gastronomy in his works—whether it be as a way to create a bucolic image of his native Ukraine, to provide local color, to reflect social and religious customs, to reveal the personality of characters, or simply to provide comic effect. Indeed, an entire book has been written on the subject of food and drink in Gogol's works, Alexander Obolensky's Food-Notes on Gogol (1972), and Natalia Kolb-Seletski has contributed an article on ‘‘Gastronomy, Gogol, and His Fiction.’’ Both these critics roam so broadly across the wide range of the writer's oeuvre in their examination of his use of gastronomical motifs, however, that neither explores at any great depth the semiotics of food and eating within individual works by Gogol`.
It is my intention in this article to restrict my inquiry to The Inspector General (1836), a text I have chosen primarily because the gastronomical motifs within it are so prominent. Jan Kott, in a brilliant review of the play, observed that ‘‘in no other of the great comedies is there so much talk about eating.’’ My aim is to focus specifically on how the act of eating in this play progresses from a somewhat narrowly ‘‘mimetic’’ to a more broadly ‘‘symbolic’’ function once the actual physical hunger of the play's main character is satisfied. From the moment Khlestakov is fed, eating begins to operate according to one of the two different semiotic codes that Ronald Tobin, in an illuminating study of Moliére's L'Ecole des femmes, has delineated as an opposition between manger, or eating as power and violence, and goûter, or eating as pleasure. The Mayor, who has mistaken Khlestakov for a powerful inspector general, simply projects the wrong semiotic code (manger) upon him and thus ‘‘feeds’’ the hero out of a fear of being ‘‘eaten’’ himself. The Mayor, in other words, subscribes to Norman Brown's dictum that to live, psychoanalytically considered, is ‘‘to eat or be eaten.’’ The hedonistic Khlestakov, on the other hand, subscribes to the semiotic code of goûter, for he indulges an appetite for food—just as he indulges a commensurate ‘‘taste’’ for women, cigars, boasting, and even writing—mostly for the pleasure it brings him. ‘‘Khlestakov's philosophy,’’ as Vasilii Gippius bluntly puts it, ‘‘is that of vulgar epicureanism.’’ In The Inspector General, as we shall see, the act of eating ultimately becomes identified with the act of writing, since both activities come to reflect the two main semiotic codes operative within the play. The fear that literature (as lecture) inspires in the Mayor at play's end and the pleasure that Khlestakov derives from literature (as écriture) mirror the gastronomical opposition between manger and goûter that underlies the structure of this text.
We can find various purposes for the plethora of gastronomical motifs in the play. At the rudimentary level of story line, food and eating fulfill what we might call a ‘‘structural’’ role in The Inspector General, generating the initial occurrences of mistaken identity in acts 1 and 2 and thus advancing what meager plot there is in the play. Critics, such as Kott and Obolensky, have already documented quite thoroughly this basic structural role of food and eating in The Inspector General, but it might prove helpful to review it briefly here. It begins in act 1 when Bobchinskii, who wishes to tell Dobchinskii the news that an inspector general is expected in town at any time, meets his friend ‘‘near the stall where hot cakes are sold.’’ Dobchinskii, however, has already heard this disturbing piece of news from Avdotiia, the Mayor's housekeeper, when she was fetching ‘‘a small keg of brandy’’ from Pochechuev. Bobchinskii and Dobchinskii set off together for Pochechuev's house, but en route Dobchinskii's stomach starts to make a ruckus. ‘‘I have not eaten a thing since morning,’’ he complains, ‘‘and my stomach is grumbling like an earthquake.’’ They decide to stop at the hotel restaurant since Dobchinskii has heard that a shipment of fresh salmon has just recently been delivered there. It is at this same hotel, while they are in the midst of eating the fresh salmon, that Bobchinskii and Dobchinskii first see Khlestakov, mistaking him for an inspector general because, among other things, he runs up a large restaurant bill at the hotel (which he does not pay) and he looks so observantly at their food—staring right into their plates of salmon as they sit there dining. Only an inspector general, they assume, would inspect the local food so carefully, a sentiment echoed a short while later by another townsperson, the director of charities, who voices concern that the bad smell given off by the food at his hospital might ruin an inspection. ‘‘Throughout all the corridors,’’ he tells the Mayor, ‘‘the smell of cabbage is so bad that you have to hold your nose.’’
The causal connection between food and the mistaken identity foisted upon Khlestakov by the townspeople continues in act 2, scene 8, where we witness the hilarious initial confrontation between the hero and the Mayor. Khlestakov, who assumes that the Mayor has come to arrest him for his failure to pay the restaurant bill he has run up, blames the innkeeper for serving him such terrible food and for trying to starve him to death by refusing him service: ‘‘The beef he gave me is as tough as a log, and the soup—God knows what he threw in there, I should have thrown it out the window. He tried to starve me to death for days on end.… The tea tastes strange: It smells like fish rather than tea.’’ The Mayor, who fears that Khlestakov is indeed the inspector general, finds his worst suspicions confirmed by these words. Who else but an inspector general, after all, would complain so vociferously about the food and the service at the local hotel restaurant? The scene closes with the Mayor, who is now thoroughly convinced that this mysterious visitor is indeed the inspector general, setting off together with Khlestakov for dinner at the hospital. There they will consume a delicious meal of fish (labardan) and wine, a repast that will not only satisfy Khlestakov's hunger but also loosen his tongue and whet his appetite for other pleasures. Just before leaving for the hospital, however, the Mayor, who wishes to warn his wife beforehand that the inspector general will soon be coming to visit their home, hastily scribbles off a note to her on the only available piece of paper: Khlestakov's unpaid restaurant tab. The resulting letter-bill is a bizarre document which has often been cited as proof of the absurdist and alogical features at work in the play. ‘‘I hasten to inform you, my dear,’’ the Mayor's letter reads, ‘‘that my situation was highly lamentable, but, trusting on God's mercy, for two pickles and half a portion of caviar a ruble and twenty-five kopecks.’’ This letter-bill with its mélange of fear and power as well as food and money, Kott argues, exposes the latent structure of the play. ‘‘In this pretended incongruity there is a whole topography and sociology of this country town,’’ he writes. ‘‘There are almost hidden links and connections between the mercy of God, fear and power, between pickles in a restaurant and labardan in a hospital, between wine on the Mayor's table and in a merchant's cellar.’’ This mimetic role of gastronomy in The Inspector General, where it serves as an indicator of social status, psychological reality, and personal well-being, is perhaps best demonstrated in the case of the town's two mysterious visitors, Khlestakov and Osip.
Food begins to fulfill this more strictly mimetic function in act 2 of the play, where Gogol` uses it to characterize not only the social status but also the personality of both the master (Khlestakov) and his servant (Osip). In the opening scene of this act, we listen to a long monologue by Osip, who delivers a poor man's soliloquy that both begins and ends with an impassioned, lyrical entreaty for food. He begins the monologue exclaiming, ‘‘The devil take it, how I'd like to eat! My stomach is grumbling as if an entire regiment were sounding its trumpets’’ and concludes it by saying, ‘‘Oh if only I could have some cabbage soup! I could eat the entire world.’’ The audience thus learns right away that the desire for food, as far as Osip is concerned, is almost strictly a matter of survival. As had been the case with Lazarillo, Guzmán, Pablos, and other heroes from the Spanish picaresque tradition (as well as with the servants in the stage comedies of Lesage, Moliére, and Pierre-Augustin Caron Beaumarchais), hunger here signals the bitter deprivation such a character as Osip must endure as a result of his lowly social position. Like the traditional Spanish picaro, whose fate it is, as a servant of many masters, to suffer a number of sudden and severe reversals in life, Osip complains here of the numerous vicissitudes of his job: ‘‘One day you eat swell but the next you all but pass away from hunger—like now, for instance.’’ Osip's precarious position in life, as emblematized by his hunger, recalls the plight of Lazarillo who—whether he is tricking the blind man for a morsel of sausage and a sip of wine or pilfering crusts of bread at night from the coffers of the stingy priest from Maqueda—is likewise engaged in a constant struggle for physical survival, a battle that forces him continually to fend off starvation. Indeed, Osip's complaints about his impecunious master's compulsion to show off (ordering the best rooms and the finest meals even though he is flat broke) bring to mind Lazarillo's service under the impoverished but honorable squire from Castille, who was likewise greatly obsessed with maintaining appearances at all costs. In any event, the starving Osip exists, like Lazarillo, at a level that gastrocritics would call the degré zéro alimentaire: Both these characters clearly eat to live, rather than live to eat.
Osip's master, as we learn from his monologues in scenes 3 and 5 of act 2, exists at the same degré zéro alimentaire as does his servant. Like the traditional picaro, he too is starving because of the vicissitudes of fate. Khlestakov's impoverishment has been brought about largely through his own fault, however; it is losses at cards that have reduced him to his present situation. We discover later, in the letter Khlestakov writes to his friend Triapichkin, that this is by no means the first time that the hero has found himself in a situation where he is unable to pay for food as a basic subsistence item. ‘‘Remember how, when you and I were broke, we used to sponge our dinners?’’ Khlestakov writes. ‘‘Remember how once a baker was going to toss me out on my ear on account of the pies I'd eaten and charged to the King of England?’’ What distinguishes Khlestakov's hunger from Osip's, however, is that the master, unlike his servant, would rather starve to death than pawn the Petersburg clothing he values so dearly. His dandified appearance, in other words, seems more important to Khlestakov than life itself. The waiter is finally convinced to bring Khlestakov a meager serving of rather bland soup and meat in scene 6, a humorous scene that provides the audience with a telling revelation of the hero's true personality. Although Khlestakov at first absolutely refuses to accept this modest fare and complains throughout the scene about its quality, he nonetheless proceeds to devour greedily the unappetizing food offered him:
What kind of soup do you call this? You've simply poured water into a cup: It has no taste at all; it simply reeks. I don't want this soup, bring me another.… My God, what soup! I don't think anyone on earth has ever had to eat such soup. Feathers of some sort are floating around in it instead of fat. Ay, ay, ay. What chicken! Give me the meat!… What kind of meat is this? This isn't meat.… The devil only knows what it is, but it isn't meat. It's an ax that's been cooked rather than meat.
Khlestakov, whose particular ‘‘fervor’’ is to maintain appearances at all costs, thus feels compelled to criticize this meal as unsuitable for a person of his station, yet he nevertheless eats it.
When the waiter, in reply to the hero's complaints about the food, tells him that this is all that is available, Khlestakov objects strenuously, pointing out that he himself saw two men eating some delicious salmon at the hotel restaurant earlier that day. The waiter explains that decent food—such as salmon, fish, and cutlets—is available only to decent people, to those who are a bit ‘‘more respectable’’ (pochishche, literally, ‘‘cleaner’’); such food, he adds, is reserved for those who ‘‘pay cash.’’ This scene reveals not only the character of Khlestakov, but also the sociology of the world in which he lives. In this society those who are well off are fed salmon, while those who are not well off either do not eat at all or else are reduced to eating watered-down soup and meat that is as hard as wood. It could thus be argued that Gogol` uses gastronomy here in a highly mimetic way, endeavoring to illustrate the socioe-conomic disparities existent within contemporary Russian society. This was a traditional way to use food motifs during this period. As James Brown has amply demonstrated in his study of fictional meals in French novels of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, contemporary writers such as Honoré de Balzac, George Sand, Eugène Sue, and Victor Hugo repeatedly exploited the metonymic possibilities of gastronomy in their fiction. By identifying hunger with poverty and culinary extravagance with wealth, these authors used food and eating as a way to criticize the social and economic inequities of contemporary bourgeois life. What makes the scene between Khlestakov and the waiter so distinctively Gogolian, however, is both the comedy involved in the starving hero's protests about the quality of the food and the irony inherent in the fact that those two supposedly decent respectable members of society (who are allowed to eat salmon while Khlestakov is not) are none other than the buffoons Bobchinskii and Dobchinskii.
The sociology of food in The Inspector General is likewise reflected in the fact that while Khlestakov, the master, is led off to a sumptuous banquet at the hospital, his poor servant Osip is left behind to fend for himself. Moreover, when Osip is offered pies, cabbage soup, and oatmeal at the Mayor's house in act 3, he does not turn up his nose and shun such ‘‘simple fare’’ as his master had done earlier at the hotel; instead, he accepts it immediately and gratefully. ‘‘Give them here!’’ he shouts without a moment's hesitation when Mishka, somewhat embarrassed, tells him that such unappetizing items are all that is available at the Mayor's house. Throughout the play, therefore, hunger remains for Osip a very basic physiological appetite that must be satisfied. For his master, however, such is not the case. Once Khlestakov's primitive hunger for food has been satisfied by the feast prepared in his honor at the hospital, a new, more voracious, and more insatiable appetite suddenly begins to manifest itself; a desire for other ‘‘pleasures’’ now begins to make itself felt. With the appearance of this desire for pleasures in Khlestakov, the act of eating in The Inspector General likewise shifts from a mimetic function, as an indicator of social and psychological reality, to a broader, more symbolic role as a paradigm of human desire. As Khlestakov moves from what Roland Barthes calls the ‘‘realm of necessity’’ (l’ordre de besoin ) to the ‘‘realm of desire’’ (l'ordre de désir), a corresponding shift occurs within his psyche; l’appétit naturel, in Barthes's terms, is here superseded by l’appétit de luxe. Khlestakov, in other words, moves out of the domain of survival, where food indicates deprivation, into the domain of pleasure, where food indicates indulgence. His behavior, accordingly, now begins to follow the semiotic code of goûter, where eating signifies a pleasure that one must ‘‘taste.’’
Upon his return to the stage early in act 3, following his brief absence to attend the banquet held in his honor at the hospital, Khlestakov signals very clearly to the audience that his physical hunger has indeed been satisfied. ‘‘The meal was very good,’’ he announces. ‘‘I have truly eaten my fill.’’ At the same time, however, he signals that an accompanying shift has taken place within him, a shift from the realm of necessity to the realm of pleasure. ‘‘I love to eat a good meal,’’ he says. ‘‘After all, that is why one lives—to pluck the petals of pleasure. What was the name of that fish we had?’’ From this point on, Khlestakov begins to manifest a behavior animated almost entirely by the pleasure-seeking principle. Among the many pleasures—all of them decidedly ‘‘oral’’—which the hero now begins to indulge in The Inspector General, none is more memorable than his outrageous boasting. Notice, however, how Khlestakov's bragging, in that celebrated scene (act 3, scene 6) where he tries to impress the two women present—Anna Andreevna and Mariia Antonovna—with outrageous lies about his life in St. Petersburg, both begins and ends with references to food and meals:
Oh, Petersburg! What a life it is there! You probably think that I am a mere copying clerk. Not at all, I am on friendly footing with the section head. He'll come up and slap me on the shoulder and say, ‘‘Come on, old chap, let's go have dinner together.’’
Excuse me, I'm ready to take a little nap. That lunch we had, gentlemen, was excellent.… I am satisfied, I am satisfied.… Labardan! labardan!
It is safe to assume that Khlestakov's ‘‘satisfaction’’ here derives at least as much from his recent bout of boasting as from his earlier feast at the hospital, both of which have to do, of course, with his mouth. Some of the boasting itself, moreover, directly concerns gastronomical matters. Describing the lavish parties he claims to have hosted in St. Petersburg, for instance, Khlestakov asserts that ‘‘on the table they serve watermelon—each one costing 700 rubles. Soup is brought in tureens by steamer straight from Paris: They open the lid and steam escapes, steam such as you could never find in nature.’’ In boasting about his life in the capital, Khlestakov thus attempts to create an image of St. Petersburg as a gastronomical paradise of pleasure.
It seems clear enough to what end Khlestakov does all of this boasting: He wishes to impress the local provincials around him, especially the two women present. Like his own creator, Khlestakov seems to be an obsessive liar, who wishes to win the approval and adulation of others. ‘‘Both Gogol and Khlestakov,’’ Henry Popkin observes, ‘‘lie instinctively, imaginatively, elaborately, and often unnecessarily.’’ What is not so clear, however, is why Khlestakov insists on lying so brazenly and, as Popkin put it, so ‘‘unnecessarily.’’ After all, Khlestakov's lying, as Vasilii Gippius has pointed out, does not serve here as the ‘‘extrication’’ device that we find so often in traditional Russian comedies, such as those written by Ivan Krylov, Aleksandr Shakhovskoi, and Gregorii Kvitka-Osnov’janenko. Khlestakov does not need to lie in order to extricate himself from an unfortunate situation, since the contradictions in his outlandish statements, Gippius notes,‘‘do not disconcert any of the other characters and are obvious only to the audience.’’ Why then does Khlestakov persist in telling such bold-faced lies? Quite simply, he seems to derive enormous pleasure from telling lies. Like the wine at the feast at the hospital, the lies he tells at the Mayor's house seem to make Khlestakov literally ‘‘drunk’’ with pleasure. Iurii Lotman has suggested that Khlestakov tells lies because of a deep-seated feeling of self-contempt; the act of lying makes him so drunk that he ceases to be himself (that is, an insignificant copying clerk of whom he is ashamed). When Khlestakov mocks the copying clerk, Lotman argues, he is inviting others to laugh at the ‘‘real’’ Khlestakov.
Khlestakov, however, may well be attracted to lying not so much by a desire to escape from himself, as by an urge to escape to something outside of himself: that is, to flee from his loneliness and solitude to the pleasure provided by the company of other people. Khlestakov, in short, may simply be an extremely lonely individual who is merely seeking the warmth provided by human companionship. After all, he has been essentially holed up in his hotel room for the past two weeks, unable to leave town because of his dire financial situation. Suddenly, a fortuitous case of mistaken identity makes him an instant celebrity, surrounded by an entourage of extremely friendly, attentive, and solicitous people. ‘‘I love hospitality, and I must admit that I prefer it when people treat me well out of the kindness of their hearts, and not out of self-interest,’’ Khlestakov says early in act 4. ‘‘I love pleasant company a lot.… I love such people.’’ In addition to gaining him the attention of others, lying provides Khlestakov with many of the same psychological benefits that eating does, since both activities induce a condition that Brown refers to as the ‘‘serenity’’ syndrome: They bring about a state of relaxation and amicability. In psychological terms, Brown explains, ‘‘appetite’’ signals social dislocation, while ‘‘eating’’ signals social rapprochement. In the play a hungry, starving Khlestakov must initially suffer his physical privations and psychological alienation by himself, in solitude and in silence. As the play progresses, however, Khlestakov is able to engage in direct and intimate forms of communication with others through eating and speaking, two essentially oral pleasures. Language and gastronomy are closely related fields, in the sense that the two activities most closely associated with them—eating and speaking—allow man to establish close contact with the world outside himself. ‘‘Eating and speaking share the same motivational structure,’’ Brown argues, ‘‘language is nothing more than the praxis of eating transformed to the semiosis of speaking: both are fundamentally communicative acts by which man appropriates and incorporates the world.’’ In this respect Khlestakov may be said to be attempting to eat and talk his way into the hearts of those around him, seeking to overcome in the process the existential space that separates his self from the rest of the world. In The Inspector General the act of eating, like the act of speaking, may truly be said to constitute the ‘‘archetype of intercourse.’’
Another form of intercourse to which Khlestakov seems drawn, at least ostensibly, is sexual. Eating arouses in him not only the desire to speak—to lie, to boast—but also the desire for sex. His taste for food, he seems to imply, is matched only by his taste for women. Food and sex have, of course, traditionally been located close to each other, both in western culture and in European literature. Indeed, the gastronomical and the sexual are appetites that, contemporary anthropologists assert, are closely associated biologically as well as socially. From a psychoanalytical point of view as well, the table and the bed are never very far apart, since in dreams, as Freud has noted, ‘‘a table is very often found to represent a bed.’’ With Gogol`, however, characters are seldom allowed to satisfy both their gastronomical and sexual appetites; instead they are usually presented with a choice—either a meal or a woman. In psychoanalytical terms, such a choice reflects an opposition between ‘‘genital’’ and ‘‘oral’’ modes of libidinal satisfaction. The characters, as one might guess, are invariably encouraged to opt for oral satisfaction; indeed, attempts to derive sexual satisfaction in this fictional world are usually rewarded only with pain and death. Like Gogol`, these characters are forced to regress to pregenital (oral) libidinal outlets and thus to embark upon what Hugh McLean has characterized as a ‘‘retreat from love.’’
In The Inspector General, Khlestakov first associates gastronomical with sexual pleasures in act 4, scene 2. While commenting on the magnificent feast he enjoyed at the hospital, the hero suddenly switches the topic of his monologue to women, noting to himself that ‘‘the Mayor's daughter is not bad.’’ Later in the same act, when he suddenly shifts his romantic attentions from the Mayor's daughter to his wife, Khlestakov refers to her in terms that make the ‘‘woman-as-food’’ motif quite clear. ‘‘She is also very nice,’’ he observes, ‘‘quite appetizing [appetichna].’’ Similarly, gastronomical and sexual motifs are linked together in Khlestakov's letter to Triapichkin, a letter that, as Kolb-Seletski correctly observes, jumps from mention of the hero's two present paramours to the earlier incident with the baker and his pies in St. Petersburg. In light of the pattern of retreat from love and sex that we discern in the fiction of Gogol`—the regression from genital to anal and oral modes of libidinal satisfaction exhibited by his characters—it comes as no surprise that Khlestakov not only jumps from mention of food to mention of sex (and vice versa), but also digresses easily from talk of women and food to talk of the pleasures provided by a good cigar. This classic Gogolian progression—from food to women to cigars—is illustrated quite nicely by the development of Khlestakov's appetites in The Inspector General: First he eats at the hospital (act 2), then he tries to impress the women at the Mayor's house (act 3), and finally he lights up a cigar (act 4). In fine Gogolian fashion, however, this progression from food to women to cigars is no sooner completed, then it is immediately reversed. Once Khlestakov begins to sing the praises of cigars in act IV, he reverts back right away to the pleasures of women and food:
I see that you are not a cigar fancier. I must admit that cigars are my weakness. I cannot be indifferent to the female sex either.
How about you? Which do you prefer—blonde or brunette?… I would really like to know what your taste is.
You fed me well at lunch. I admit that it is my weakness—I love good cuisine.
Of course, Khlestakov cannot talk about cigars or food or women without exaggerating, so he must interject here that, although the cigar he has been given is indeed a ‘‘decent’’ one (poriadochnaia), it is not anywhere near as pleasurable as the 25-ruble cigars he is accustomed to smoking in St. Petersburg.
To the list of pleasures that Khlestakov enjoys in The Inspector General—eating, boasting, women, cigars—there must be added one final item: literature. To the hedonistic hero of the play, such oral pleasures merely whet his appetite for the aesthetic satisfactions that come from the consumption of literature. Food and eating have often been used in western literature as metaphors for art, especially for reading and writing. Gogol' himself, in his correspondence as well as in one of his essays, links gastronomy with aesthetics by using alimentary metaphors to describe literature. It is not surprising, therefore, to find in his play that the act of eating— both as manger and as goûter—becomes paradigmatic of the act of writing literature. Khlestakov's own statements about what he ‘‘loves’’ signal to the audience throughout the play that for the hero food and literature serve as paradigms of human desires:
I love to eat.
I love to philosophize through prose or verse.
I love good cuisine.
I love to read something entertaining.
Moreover, when Khlestakov engages in his outrageous boasting in act 3, scene 6, he brags not only about the food served at his mythical parties, but also about his literary talents and connections. In much the same way that he had earlier boasted of his close personal relationship with his superior at work, Khlestakov brags that he is on a ‘‘friendly footing’’ (na druzheskoi noge) with Russia's greatest writer of the time—if not of all time—Aleksandr Pushkin. He proceeds to claim authorship of such foreign works as Le Marriage de Figaro, Robert-Diable, and Norma, as well as the works of such popular writers in contemporary Russia as Mikhail Zagoskin, Aleksandr Bestuzhev-Marlinskii, Nikolai Polevoi, Osip Senkovskii, and even the notorious Faddei Bulgarin. Carried away by his own literary braggadocio, Khlestakov goes so far as to assert that he exists, not by means of food, but by means of literature (4:49). Indeed, in the letter read to the townspeople assembled at the Mayor's house in the play's climactic finale, Khlestakov writes that he desires to become a writer since he hungers so for ‘‘spiritual’’ food. ‘‘Following your example,’’ he writes to Triapichkin, ‘‘I myself would like to take up literature. It is boring, old man, to live this way; one wants at last some food for the soul [pishcha dlia dushi]. As I see it, exactly what I need is to take up something elevated.’’ The connection between literature and gastronomy in The Inspector General is made clear not only through Khlestakov's words, but also through his gestures. By means of the stage directions provided for the hero in acts 2 and 4, the playwright further encourages the audience to make this connection between eating and writing. In act 2, scene 6, when Khlestakov reluctantly accepts the unappetizing meal brought him by the waiter at his hotel room, the stage direction ‘‘he eats’’ (est) is repeated several times, just as later, in act 4, scene 9, when the hero is composing his letter to Triapichkin, the stage direction ‘‘he writes’’ (pishet) is likewise several times repeated.
It is literature, curiously enough, that will ultimately bridge the gap of misunderstanding that separates Khlestakov from the Mayor in this play. For Khlestakov, who wishes he had the soul of a writer, literature, like food, serves as a source of pleasure (goûter). For the Mayor, on the other hand, both eating and literature signal instead the threat of power and violence (manger). If we were to invoke Horace's classic dictum for literature—that it brings pleasure as well as profit (dulce et utile)—then we could say that Khlestakov enjoys literature's capacity to entertain, while the Mayor fears its ability to instruct. It is, after all, fear of the potential for violence and aggression that could possibly be unleashed by an inspector general that leads the Mayor and his fellow townspeople to project an identity of power onto the hapless Khlestakov in the first place. They then seek to appease this imagined hunger by ‘‘feeding’’ him whatever pleasures he might like and thus avoiding the terrible agression gastronomique they anticipate with so much dread and apprehension. Throughout most of the play, therefore, the Mayor is concerned to fend off being ‘‘devoured’’ by the inspector general; he does so by attempting to appease what he perceives to be that official's formidable appetite for dominance. He tries to ‘‘bribe’’ both Khlestakov and his servant, offering them not only money, but also, significantly enough, food. Thus, the banquet that is arranged at the hospital as well as the wine ordered for the Mayor's table are both obvious attempts to placate the imagined inspector general by satisfying his ‘‘appetite.’’ Likewise, the Mayor gives Osip money at first as a tip (na chai, literally, ‘‘for tea’’) and then later for sustenance on the road (na baranki, ‘‘for a bun’’). Osip, who realizes very quickly that an instance of mistaken identity has occurred, cleverly exploits the Mayor's fear of being ‘‘eaten’’ to his own self-advantage. ‘‘My master is most pleased when other people feed me well,’’ he informs the Mayor in act 3, scene 10. Osip further exploits this feeling of fear (which is harbored by the Mayor and townspeople) during the scene in act 4 when a crowd of angry merchants approaches Khlestakov in hopes that he will listen to their complaints about the Mayor. Khlestakov, who has come to realize at last that he has been mistaken for a person of consequence, refuses at first their offering of bread and salt—the ceremonial food items symbolic of hospitality in Russian culture—mistaking them as attempts to bribe him. ‘‘I do not accept any bribes,’’ he tells them, ‘‘but if you were, for example, to loan me about three hundred rubles—well, then it would be a different matter entirely. I can accept loans.’’ The clever and pragmatic Osip, on the other hand, does not hesitate for a moment to accept these culinary tokens of hospitality. ‘‘Your excellency! Why don't you accept them?’’ he asks Khlestakov. ‘‘Take them! On the road everything turns out handy. Hand over those loaves and baskets! Hand it all over! It will all come in handy. What's that over there? A bit of rope? Hand that over as well—the rope might come in handy on the road too.’’ The most obvious attempts to bribe Khlestakov occurred earlier in act 4 when the local officials paraded up to this imagined inspector general, one after another, clumsily and nervously offering him various sums of money. Curiously enough, the verb used to describe these bribe attempts (podsunut’, ‘‘to slip’’) is the same one Khlestakov uses to characterize the food and drink served him the day before at breakfast: ‘‘yesterday they slipped [podsunuli] me something at breakfast.’’ In any event, it is clear that the bribes, like the food, are attempts to satisfy the prodigious appetite for power and dominance of he inspector general—attempts to ‘‘feed’’ this monster before he devours the Mayor and his fellow town officials.
Once the Mayor is convinced that the inspector general's appetite has finally been satisfied, however, he then begins to exhibit quite openly his own carnivorism: that is, once he feels that Khlestakov has been sufficiently fed and bribed, the Mayor reveals his own propensity for violence and aggression toward others less powerful than himself. At the end of act 4, the newly engaged Khlestakov drives away (supposedly to visit his uncle), promising to return later to marry the Mayor's daughter. In act 5, therefore, the Mayor need no longer worry about satisfying the prodigious appetite of the inspector general. Instead, he can now indulge his own appetite for power and dominance over his subordinates, an appetite that manifests itself, once again, in gastronomical terms. When he threatens violent retribution upon those merchants who complained about him to Khlestakov, the Mayor claims that he will ‘‘feed’’ them sufficiently: ‘‘Before I fed you only up to your mustaches, but now I'll feed you [nakormliu] up to your beards.’’ Indeed, he even refers to these merchants in gastronomical terms, calling them ‘‘fat-bellies’’ (tolstobriukhi): that is, tax farmers who have become rich (‘‘fat’’) by controlling state monopolies on liquor. In threatening to settle scores with his constituents, the Mayor thus resorts to the same agression gastronomique that he had feared so much from the inspector general. Yet when he switches his thoughts from how he will reprimand those beneath him to how he will enjoy his newly acquired prestige and power in St. Petersburg (as father-in-law to a high-ranking inspector general), the Mayor dreams of glory, just as Khlestakov had earlier, largely in gastronomical terms. ‘‘To dream about power,’’ Kott observes with regard to this play, ‘‘is to dream about food.’’ Indeed, the Mayor's fantasies about what life will be like as a general in the capital seem to duplicate the picture of St. Petersburg as a gastronomical paradise that Khlestakov had helped to paint earlier when boasting about his life there in act 3. ‘‘Yes, they say that there are two kinds of fish there,’’ the Mayor muses, ‘‘eels and smelts, both of which are so succulent that your mouth waters as soon as you begin to eat.’’
In the denouement of the play, when the postmaster and others read aloud Khlestakov's satiric letter to Triapichkin, the Mayor reverts back to his earlier fear of being ‘‘eaten’’ and ‘‘devoured.’’ His fear, however, now expresses itself in literary rather than gastronomical terms; he is mostly afraid that such a writer as Triapichkin will hold him up to public ridicule:
He will spread my story across the whole world. What is even worse than having fallen into ridicule is the fact that some scribbler, some hack will put me into a comedy. That's what is so insulting!… I'd fix all of these hacks! Oo! the scribblers, the damned liberals! devil's seed!
What frightens the Mayor most about literature is the way that its practitioners—the so-called ‘‘hacks’’ and ‘‘scribblers’’—can devour him, a local government servant, by holding him up to public ridicule. Conversely, what attracts Khlestakov to the literary calling and makes him envy his journalist friend Triapichkin is the amusement and pleasure he can derive from ridiculing others. ‘‘I can just picture how Triapichkin will die laughing,’’ Khlestakov notes while writing to his friend the letter in which he satirizes the various inhabitants of this provincial town. The desire for ‘‘spiritual food’’ which Khlestakov reveals in this letter—the desire to occupy oneself with something more elevated—has arisen in Khlestakov, however, just as have his other desires, only after his hunger for physical food has been satisfied. Thus, while Khlestakov, in act 2, scene 8, complains about the food he has been served at the hotel restaurant, he adds that the poor lighting in his room prevents him from reading a bit at night after dinner and from ‘‘composing something’’ when the inspiration strikes him.
Eating and writing are pleasures linked together not only for the hedonistic hero of The Inspector General, but also for his creator. Gogol`, for his part, has been characterized as a ‘‘verbal glutton’’—as a writer whose voracious appetite for words manifests itself in a highly exuberant prose style. Indeed, Gogol` himself employs gastronomy as a metaphor for literature when he writes to a friend for a critique of Dead Souls, phrasing his request in the following manner:
Imagine that I am an innkeeper in some European hotel and I have a table for everyone or a table d' hôte. There are twenty dishes on my table and perhaps more. Naturally, not all these dishes are identically good or, at least, it goes without saying that everyone will choose for himself and eat only the dishes he likes.… So I am only asking you to say this: ‘‘This is what is more to my taste in your work, these places here.’’
During the last ten years of his life, when he was being pressed by his acquaintances about the status of the eagerly awaited part 2 of Dead Souls, Gogol` made use of the metaphor of ‘‘author-as-chef’’ several times, complaining in one instance that his masterpiece was not like bliny, ‘‘which can be prepared in an instant.’’
The ultimate irony, of course, is that whereas Khlestakov, the fictional alter ego of Gogol`, capitalizes upon his situation in The Inspector General to his own gastronomical and literary advantage, his creator eventually fell under the deleterious influence of Father Matvei Konstantinovskii, who nurtured a growing religious fanaticism in Gogol`, one that led him ultimately to forsake entirely both eating and writing. Gogol` would be encouraged by him not only to practice extreme abstinence, but also to renounce his literary mentor, the sinful, paganistic Pushkin. In his later years, Russia's most famous comic writer would produce only the preachy, moralizing, and distinctly unartistic Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends (1847) and would eventually burn the troublesome second part of his greatest literary masterpiece, the epic poem Dead Souls. This enigmatic gourmand and gourmet, who once referred to meals as ‘‘sacrifices,’’ restaurants as ‘‘cathedrals,’’ and restaurateurs as ‘‘pagan priests,’’ would also come more and more to fast rather than feast and to associate gourmandizing with sin. He would finally be driven to starve himself to death at the relatively tender age of forty-two, apparently in a case of what Rudolph Bell might now call ‘‘holy’’ anorexia. In this respect, the life of Gogol` may have unwittingly imitated his art, for the author of The Inspector General not only came to lose all ‘‘pleasure’’ in eating and writing but, as he became progressively devoured by religious fanaticism, he also came to fear with much dread the satanic ‘‘power’’ that could be wielded over him by both food and literature.
Source: Ronald D. LeBlanc, ‘‘Satisfying Khlestakov's Appetite: The Semiotics of Eating in The Inspector General,’’ in Slavic Review, Vol. 47, No. 2, Fall 1988, pp. 483-98.
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