ALEXANDER OSTROVSKY (1823-1886)
OSTROVSKY is the great Russian dramatist of the central decades
of the nineteenth century, of the years when the realistic school
was all-powerful in Russian literature, of the period when Turgenev,
Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy created a literature of prose fiction
that has had no superior in the world's history. His work in
the drama takes its place beside theirs in the novel. Obviously
inferior as it is in certain ways, it yet sheds light on an important
side of Russian life that they left practically untouched. Turgenev
and Tolstoy were gentlemen by birth, and wrote of the fortunes
of the Russian nobility or of the peasants whose villages bordered
on the nobles' estates. Dostoyevsky, though not of this landed-proprietor
school, still dealt with the nobility, albeit with its waifs
and strays. None of these masters more than touched the Russian
merchants, that homespun moneyed class, crude and coarse, grasping
and mean, without the idealism of their educated neighbors in
the cities or the homely charm of the peasants from whom they
themselves sprang, yet gifted with a rough force and determination
not often found among the cultivated aristocracy. This was the
field that Ostrovsky made peculiarly his own.
With this merchant class Ostrovsky was
familiar from his childhood. Born in 1823, he was the son of
a lawyer doing business among the Moscow tradesmen. After finishing
his course at the gymnasium and spending three years at the University
of Moscow, he entered the civil service in 1843 as an employee
of the Court of Conscience in Moscow, from which he transferred
two years later to the Court of Commerce, where he continued
until he was discharged from the service in 1851. Hence both
by his home life and by his professional training he was brought
into contact with types such as Bolshov and Rizpolozhensky in
"It's a Family Affair--We'll Settle It Ourselves."
As a boy of seventeen Ostrovsky had already
developed a passion for the theatre. His literary career began
in the year 1847, when he read to a group of Moscow men of letters
his first experiments in dramatic composition. In this same year
he printed one scene of "A Family Affair," which appeared
in complete form three years later, in 1850, and established
its author's reputation as a dramatist of undoubted talent. Unfortunately,
by its mordant but true picture of commercial morals, it aroused
against him the most bitter feelings among the Moscow merchants.
Discussion of the play in the press was prohibited, and representation
of it on the stage was out of the question. It was reprinted
only in 1859, and then, at the instance of the censorship, in
an altered form, in which a police officer appears at the end
of the play as a deus ex machina, arrests Podkhalyuzin,
and annouces that he will be sent to Siberia. In this mangled
version the play was acted in 1861; in its original text it did
not appear on the stage until 1881. Besides all this, the drama
was the cause of the dismissal of Ostrovsky from the civil service,
in 1851. The whole episode illustrates the difficulties under
which the great writers of Russia labored under a despotic government.
Beginning with 1852 Ostrovsky gave his
whole strength to literary work. He is exceptional among Russian
authors in devoting himself almost exclusively to the theatre.
The plays of Ostrovsky are of varied character, including dramatic
chronicles based on early Russian history, and a fairy drama,
"Little Snowdrop." His real strength lay, however,
in the drama of manners, giving realistic pictures of Russian
life among the Russian city classes and the minor nobility. Here
he was recognized, from the time of the appearance on the stage
of his first pieces, in 1853 and the following years, as without
a rival among Russian authors for the theatre.
The tone of "Poverty Is No Crime"
(1854), written only four years after "A Family Affair,"
is in sharp contrast with that of its predecessor. In the earlier
play Ostrovsky had adopted a satiric tone that proved him a worthy
disciple of Gogol, the great founder of Russian realism. Not
one lovable character appears in the gloomy picture of merchant
life in Moscow; even the old mother repels us by her stupidity
more than she attracts us by her kindliness. No ray of light
penetrates the "realm of darkness"--to borrow a famous
phrase from a Russian critic--conjured up before us by the young
dramatist. In "Poverty Is No Crime" we see the other
side of the medal. Ostrovsky had now been affected by the Slavophile
school of writers and thinkers, who found in the traditions of
Russian society treasures of kindliness and love that they contrasted
with the superficial glitter of Western civilization. Life in
Russia is varied as elsewhere, and Ostrovsky could change his
tone without doing violence to realistic truth. The tradesmen
had not wholly lost the patriarchal charm of their peasant fathers.
A poor apprentice is the hero of "Poverty Is No Crime,"
and a wealthy manufacturer the villain of the piece. Good-heartedness
is the touchstone by which Ostrovsky tries character, and this
may be hidden beneath even a drunken and degraded exterior. The
scapegrace, Lyubim Tortsov, has a sound Russian soul, and at
the end of the play rouses his hard, grasping brother, who has
been infatuated by a passion for aping foreign fashions, to his
native Russian worth.
Just as "Poverty Is No Crime"
shows the influence of the Slavophile movement, "A Protégée
of the Mistress" (1859) was inspired by the great liberal
movement that bore fruit in the emancipation of the serfs in
1861. Ostrovsky here departed from town to a typical country
manor, and produced a work kindred in spirit to Turgenev's "Sportsman's
Sketches," or "Mumu." In a short play, instinct
with simple poetry, he shows the suffering brought about by serfdom:
the petty tyranny of the landed proprietor, which is the more
galling because it is practiced with a full conviction of virtue
on the part of the tyrant; and the crushed natures of the human
cattle under its charge.
Despite the unvarying success of his dramas
on the stage, Ostrovsky for a long time derived little financial
benefit from them. Discouragement and overwork wrecked his health,
and were undoubtedly responsible for the gloomy tone of a series
of plays written in the years following 1860, of which "Sin
and Sorrow Are Common to All" (1863) is a typical example.
Here the dramatist sketches a tragic incident arising from the
conflict of two social classes, the petty tradesmen and the nobility.
From the coarse environment of the first emerge honest, upright
natures like Krasnov; from the superficial, dawdling culture
of the second come weak-willed triflers like Babayev. The sordid
plot sweeps on to its inevitable conclusion with true tragic
Towards the end of his life Ostrovsky gained
the material prosperity that was his due. There was not theatre
in Russia in which his plays were not acted, and from 1874 to
his death he was the president of the Society of Russian Dramatic
Authors. In 1885 he received the important post of artistic director
of the Moscow government theatres; the harassing duties of the
position proved too severe for his weak constitution, and he
passed away in the next year.
As a dramatist, Ostrovsky is above all
else a realist; no more thoroughly natural dramas than his were
ever composed. Yet as a master of realistic technique he must
not be compared with Ibsen,
or even with many less noted men among modern dramatists. His
plays have not the neat, concise construction that we prize today.
Pages of dialogue sometimes serve no purpose except to make a
trifle clearer the character of the actors, or perhaps slightly
heighten the impression of commonplace reality. Even in "Sin
and Sorrow" and "A Protégée" whole
passages merely illustrate the background against which the plot
is set rather than help forward the action itself. Many plays,
such as "A Family Affair," end with relatively unimportant
pieces of dialogue. Of others we are left to guess even the conclusion
of the main action: will Nadya in "A Protégée"
submit to her degrading fate, or will she seek refuge in the
Ostrovsky rarely uses the drama to treat
of great moral or social problems. He is not a revolutionary
thinker or an opponent of existing society; his ideal, like that
of his predecessor Gogol, is of honesty, kindliness, generosity,
and loyalty in a broad, general way to the traditions of the
past. He attacks serfdom not as an isolated leader of a forlorn
hope, but as an adherent of a great party of moderate reformers.
Thus Ostrovsky's strength lies in a sedate,
rather commonplace realism. One of the most national of authors,
he loses much in translation. His style is racy, smacking of
the street or the counting-house; he is one of the greatest masters
of the Russian vernacular. To translate his Moscow slang into
the equivalent dialect of New York would be merely to transfer
Broadway associations to the Ilyinka. A translator can only strive
to be colloquial and familiar, giving up the effort to render
the varying atmosphere of the different plays. And Ostrovsky's
characters are as natural as his language. Pig-headed merchants;
apprentices, knavish or honest as the case may be; young girls
with a touch of poetry in their natures, who sober down into
kindly housewives; tyrannical serf-owners and weak-willed sons
of noble families: such is the material of which he builds his
entertaining, wholesome, mildly thoughtful dramas. Men and women
live and love, trade and cheat in Ostrovsky as they do in the
world around us. Now and then a murder or a suicide appears in
its pages as it does in those of the daily papers, but hardly
more frequently. In him we can study the life of Russia as he
knew it, crude and coarse and at times cruel, yet full of homely
virtue and aspiration.
This article was originally
published in Plays of Alexander Ostrovsky. Ed. George
Rapall Noyes. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1917. pp. 3-8.