The Forest (1870)
by Aleksander Ostrovsky
Ostrovsky was apparently the only professional Russian playwright in the 19th Century. All the others were poets, novelists, etc., but Ostrovsky dedicated himself to writing for the theatre. Beloved in Russia, he is apparently still produced there. His work doesn’t translate so well, as his characters seem more Russian types. Their Russianness makes them seem slightly unintelligible as type characters, and yet their flatness as character-types keeps us from learning much of anything universal about them. (I’m wondering who the modern American equivalent of Ostrovsky would be.)
This judgment is based on what I’ve read about him and from reading twice-through one of his plays: The Forest. It is a late play and not considered his masterwork. The Storm (or The Thunderstorm) holds that distinction. The writing feels like a mish-mash of genres, similar to 19th or early 20th Century American plays. It’s got comedy, melodrama, tragic sentiment, but through it all a kind of folk humor and local charm that I’m sure was the key to his success. [I chose to read The Forest because of its ostensible similarity in plot to Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, in order to learn contrast and compare.]
A rich, landowning widow sells portions of ‘the forest’ on her estate to an ambitious merchant. She has a female ward and a younger male houseguest. Her nephew is a bit of a ne’er-do-well actor who appears and asserts a dignified front that his lifestyle and wallet don’t justify. The merchant is sneaky, and his son adores the lovely, yet fatalistic young ward. The widow has her eye on the much younger man, and he is responsive and reptilian. The nephew-actor turns out to have a good heart as he sacrifices his portion of the widow’s wealth for the young ward, who is a relative, to provide her the dowry to ensure her happy marriage to the merchant’s son. This nephew is the most interesting character in the play but a little hard to place, at least for a modern American sensibility.
The widow and merchant have none of the charm of Ranyevskaya and Lopakhin, and the stakes for the estate are not particularly high. The widow just seems to be accruing cash to lavishly spend on her boy-toy. The Five Act play does have the virtue of scenes outdoors, and, as with The Cherry Orchard, the 2nd Act is played on the edge of the forest. (A Month in the Country also has an outdoor 2nd Act.)
To be honest, I had to read this play twice to really make sense of it. Its plodding and opaque plot doesn’t really get going until midway through.
Some connections between The Forest and The Cherry Orchard:
- Both are set in a manor house and a road on the way to the house.
- You have different classes mixing, with love interests stretching across generations.
- Plotting is not the focus in the Forest, and it feels secondary in The Cherry Orchard.
- The Forest has clowning, some buffoons and some metatheatricality.
- The Forest also includes scenes of melodrama and sentimental tragedy.