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*Provincial Russia. At the heart of Gogol’s satire is the inefficiency and corruption in Russia’s rural provinces, due in large part to the central government’s inability to maintain control from a distance. Setting the play in an unnamed rural village allows Gogol to illustrate this point by providing an intimate portrait of these two opposing forces, the central bureaucracy and its minor rural officials.
Antonovich’s house. With the exception of act 2, the play is set entirely in one room of Anton Antonovich’s house. Gogol’s notes direct the play’s actors to “pay particular attention to the last scene. The last speech should produce upon all a sudden electric shock.” The frantic meetings held in this room, culminate in act 5 with the explosive news that the real inspector has arrived.
Inn. The second act is set in a small room in the town’s inn, where Hlestakov and his servant Osip quarrel with the proprietor, trying to get him to extend them further credit. The small, untidy room provides a catalyst for the sustained confusion of identities at the center of the plot. Hlestakov’s impoverished circumstances should indicate that he is little more than a petty con man. In his paranoia, however, Antonovich sees only a cleverly conceived disguise. The more ridiculous Hlestakov’s behavior, set against the squalor of the room, the more convinced Antonovich becomes that he is the inspector.
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Under the reign of Tsar Nicholas I, Russian writers suffered extremely strict censorship of all written material. In 1826, a statute on censorship, according to Beresford, ‘‘prohibited the publication of any matter that was deemed to disparage the monarchy or the church or which criticized, even indirectly, the existing order of society.’’ The years 1848-1855, particularly, were referred to as ‘‘the age of terror by censorship.’’ Brown describes the crushing power of these censorship practices on Russian society: ‘‘Penalties included warnings, rebukes, fines, confiscations of offending books or magazines, police supervision or detention in the guardroom of local military garrisons.’’ Brown concludes that ‘‘it was a wonder that anything got into print at all.’’ Braun states that ‘‘Genuine Russian masterpieces’’ of dramatic writing ‘‘were suppressed by a pathologically suspicious censor and were destined to wait over thirty years for their first public performances.’’ Literary historians agree that had it not been brought to the special attention of the tsar himself, who whimsically approved it, The Government Inspector would certainly have been censored from any theatrical production until many years later.
Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature
Despite, or perhaps in spite of, strict censorship under the reign of Tsar Nicholas I, Russian literature flourished in the nineteenth century. Unofficial manuscripts of literary and other written works could be obtained and dispersed among friends and acquaintances without knowledge of the censors. Beresford points out that
despite the shackles of censorship, literature flourished under Nicholas I. Indeed by a curious paradox of history his reign, which was one of reaction and stagnation in most spheres of life, produced a great ferment of ideas and a remarkable burgeoning of literary talent.
Among such talents were Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoyevsky. Before Gogol, Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837) was the leading Russian writer of the early nineteenth century. Pushkin's masterpiece is the novel Yevgeny Onegin (1833), a realistic portrait of Russian life, at all social levels, in both the major cities and the provinces. Pushkin befriended the young Gogol in Saint Petersburg and is said to have suggested the topic for The Inspector General based on his own experience of being mistaken for a high-ranking government official while staying at an inn in a remote town. Pushkin died from a fatal wound incurred during a duel to save his wife's ‘‘honor.’’ Gogol, while crushed by the loss of his friend's life, immediately inherited the mantle of leading Russian writer. Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), who is among Russia's greatest writers, was greatly influenced by Gogol. Critics often recount the now legendary comment attributed to Dostoyevsky that, as Amy Singleton Adams in the Dictionary of Literary Biography offers, all Russian realist writers had emerged ‘‘out from under Gogol's Overcoat.’’ Dostoyevsky's greatest works include the novella, Notes from the Underground (1864), and four novels: Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868-9), The Possessed (1872), and The Brothers Karamazov (1879-80). Subsequent leading Russian writers of the nineteenth century include Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov.
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Russian Realism and Dramatic Comedy
Gogol has often been dubbed the ‘‘father of Russian realism.’’ The Government Inspector introduced the principles of dramatic realism to the Russian stage. Lindstrom in his book Nikolay Gogol notes that ‘‘the need for greater realism in the theater’’ was ‘‘one of Gogol's most pressing concerns.’’ Gogol consciously desired to counter the burlesque and sentimentality of popular Russian drama with a play that revealed everyday people in everyday life. Edward Braun, in an introduction to Nikolai Gogol: The Government Inspector, notes that Gogol believed modern drama ‘‘must reflect the problems of modern society,’’ and therefore, ‘‘sought with his comedy to bring out the significance of everyday happenings.’’ Gogol was thus dissatisfied with the initial production of The Government Inspector because the actors had failed to embody the principals of dramatic realism for which the play had been intended. Lindstrom explains that the actors of the day ‘‘did not know how to interpret this new kind of comic realism and gave an appallingly bad performance.’’ In the long run, however, according to Campbell, The Government Inspector ‘‘contributed a great deal to the evolution of the peculiar Russian realism in acting.’’ Gogol's impact on dramatic realism is also a measure of the use of realistic dialogue in his plays. His lasting influence on Russian literature is in part due to the innovative use of colloquial Russian speech in his literary works. Brown observes that Gogol's plays were innovative in replacing the formal speech of written Russian with dialogue that is ‘‘alive with the quality of actual speech.’’ Beresford likewise asserts that Gogol, in The Government Inspector, ‘‘incorporates … all features of everyday speech’’ in ‘‘dialogue such as had never been heard on the Russian stage before and has seldom been equaled since.’’
The Epigraph and Direct Audience Address
The play's epigraph, taken from a Russian proverb, reads: ‘‘If your face is lopsided, don't blame the mirror.’’ This saying is echoed by a line toward the end of the play, whereupon the governor, having learned of his foolish mistake in believing Hlestakov to be the government inspector, turns directly to the audience, demanding: ‘‘What are you laughing at? You are laughing at yourselves.’’ As a theatrical technique, this is called ‘‘direct address’’ because the actor breaks through the imaginary ‘‘fourth wall’’ of the stage to engage the audience directly in the world of the play. To a Russian audience of the 1830s, when the play was first performed, this line would have constituted a direct confrontation. Most audience members would have belonged to any one of fourteen official levels within the extensive Russian bureaucracy at the time. Because the play ridicules the incompetence and corruption of government officials, many critics and theatregoers were openly offended by it. Gogol's epigraph anticipates this response, warning the spectator that, if the play, like a mirror, reflects a ‘‘lopsided’’ view of Russian society, it is not the play, but the society, that is to blame.
The Tableau Vivant
Gogol placed special emphasis on the ‘‘tableau vivant’’ that ends the play. A ‘‘tableau vivant’’ is equivalent to what in cinema would be a ‘‘freeze frame’’; the characters freeze for ‘‘almost a minute and a half’’ in a posture that reveals their response to the news that the real government inspector has just arrived. In the stage directions, Gogol specifies the exact posture and facial expression of each character on stage at this point. The governor stands ‘‘like a post, arms outstretched, head flung back’’; the postmaster ‘‘has become a question mark addressed to the audience’’; the superintendent of schools is ‘‘in a state of innocent bewilderment’’; while those characters not specified stand ‘‘just like posts.’’ In the notes that precede the printed play, Gogol, asserting that"the actors must pay special attention to the last scene,’’ elaborates upon the mood and effect of the ‘‘tableau vivant’’: ‘‘The last word ought to give an electric shock to all present at once. The whole group ought to change its position instantly. A cry of astonishment ought to spring from all the women as though from one bosom.’’ Gogol insisted that ‘‘Disregard of these instructions may ruin the whole effect.’’ Victor Erlich comments in his book Gogol that this tableau vivant is a ‘‘moment of truth,’’ in which, ‘‘The lightning which strikes dumb the cast … illuminates, in retrospect, the real nature and drift of the proceedings.’’ Richard Peace notes that, in this final moment, ‘‘the characters await their fate like the motionless figures of a run-down clock, whose time has suddenly run out.’’
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1825-1855: The reign of Tsar Nicholas I (1796-1855) as Emperor of Russia is characterized by extreme repression and extensive censorship of all printed materials.
1917-1991: The Russian Revolution of 1917 results in the end of the era of imperial Russia and the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.)
1985-1991: The ascendance of Mikhail Gorbachev as president of the U.S.S.R. results in the policies of Glasnost (verbal openness) and Perestroika (policy of economic and governmental reform), which usher in an era of unprecedented openness as well as the relaxation of censorship and repressive measures. These measures lead to the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.
1712-1917: St. Petersburg, located about four hundred miles northwest of Moscow, and founded by order of the Tsar Peter I the Great in 1703, is made the new capital of Russia in 1912. In the eighteenth century, St. Petersburg becomes a center of intellect and the arts. The population of St. Petersburg increases from over 220,000 to one-and-a-half million between 1800 and 1900. In response to anti-German sentiment, the city is renamed Petrograd in 1914.
1924: Upon the death of Lenin, Petrograd is renamed Leningrad.
1991: A failed coup attempt waged against president Mikhail Gorbachev, at the seat of Soviet government in Moscow, results in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The allowance of local elections initiates a series of reforms at the municipal level, including policies to introduce elements of free-market economy. In 1991, voters choose to change the name of the city of Leningrad back to St. Petersburg.
Nineteenth Century: Russian literature in the nineteenth century includes many of the greatest works of prose fiction in world literature to date; authors such as Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, and Tolstoy produce some of the most outstanding masterpieces of world literature.
1917-1980s: During this period, state-sponsored censorship allows only for literature that promotes the government propaganda of the U.S.S.R. By and large, Russian citizens have no access to Western literature, and they have little access to works of Russian literature produced prior to the Revolution of 1917. In 1934, under the rule of Stalin, ‘‘socialist realism’’ is declared the only admissible style of literature.
1985-Present: The beginning of the end of the Soviet era is dated to 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev became the president of the U.S.S.R. The policies of Glasnost and Perestroika began effecting a lifting of censorship. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 marks the end of the era of Soviet Russian literature.
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The Government Inspector was adapted to the screen in a 1949 American film entitled The Inspector General. It starred Danny Kaye as the character of Hlestakov and was directed by Henry Foster.
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Adams, Amy Singleton. Dictionary of Literary Biography Volume 198: Russian Literature in the Age of Pushkin and Gogol: Prose, edited by Cristine A. Rydel. The Gale Group, 1999, pp. 137-166.
Beresford, M. ‘‘Introduction.’’ In The Government Inspector: A Comedy in Five Acts, by N. V. Gogol. Edwin Mellen Press, 1996, pp. V, 1-94.
Braun, Edward. ‘‘Introduction.’’ In Nikolai Gogol: The Government Inspector, edited by Edward O. Marsh and Jeremy Brooks. Methuen & Co., 1968, pp. 7-14.
Brown, Nigel. Notes on Nikolai Gogol's The Government Inspector. Heinemann, 1974, pp. 2, 4, 30, 36.
Campbell, D. J. ‘‘Forward.’’ In The Government Inspector, by Nikolai Gogol. Heinemann, 1947, pp. 15-22.
Erlich, Victor. Gogol. Yale University Press, 1969, pp. 100-101, 103, 105-109.
Lavrin, Janko. Gogol. Routledge, 1926, 13-15, 153-154, 156.
---. ‘‘Introduction.’’ In The Government Inspector, by Nikolai Gogol. Heinemann, 1947, pp. 8-14.
Lindstrom, Thais S. Nikolay Gogol. Twayne, 1974, pp. 1-7, 115-116, 119-121.
Peace, Richard. The Enigma of Gogol. Cambridge University Press, 1981, pp. 1, 181.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Notes from the Underground and the Gambler. Oxford University Press, 1991. Originally published in 1864, the novella Notes from the Underground is the best-known work by one of Russia's greatest writers.
Erofeyev, Victor, and Andrew Reynolds, eds. The Penguin Book of New Russian Writing. Penguin Books, 1995. This book is a collection of prose fiction by contemporary Russian authors.
Magocsi, Paul Robert. A History of the Ukraine. Washington University Press, 1996. This book includes a historical overview of the region of Russia in which Gogol grew up.
Maguire, Robert A. Exploring Gogol. Stanford University Press, 1994. This book includes criticism and interpretation of Gogol's major literary works.
Pushkin, Aleksandr. Eugene Onegin. Penguin, 1979. Originally published in 1833, this novel, by Gogol's friend and Russia's leading writer of the early nineteenth century, is a masterpiece. It provides a broad-based depiction of Russian life and culture.
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Brown, Nigel. Notes on Nikolai Gogol’s “The Government Inspector.” Nairobi, Kenya: Heinemann Educational Books, 1974. The only book devoted entirely to a discussion of The Inspector General. Provides a broad overview of previous criticism and offers detailed consideration of characters, with particular attention devoted to Khlestakov.
Fanger, Donald. The Creation of Nikolai Gogol. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979. Considers the relationship between Gogol and his audience. Evaluates Gogol’s comic theory and his efforts at staging and self-interpretation.
Gippius, V. V. Gogol. Translated by Robert Maguire. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1989. Classic treatment of Gogol’s life and works. The chapter on The Inspector General analyzes the play’s structure and presents Gogol’s play as the beginning of social comedy with a serious purpose in Russia.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Nikolai Gogol. New York: New Directions, 1944. The clever tone of Nabokov’s book mirrors that of Gogol’s prose. The stylistic analysis is brilliant. Focuses on the theme of banality, with Khlestakov as one of its primary representatives. Points out Gogol’s genius in his attention to the absurd in everyday life.
Peace, Richard. The Enigma of Gogol: An Examination of the Writings of N. V. Gogol and Their Place in the Russian Literary Tradition. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1981. Evaluates the plot, characters, and structure of the play within the larger framework of the Russian tradition. Develops the theme of individual and social identity.