The Government Inspector
(aka, The Inspector General and The Inspector)
by Nikolai Gogol (1836)
A brilliant and timeless comedy. Apparently, this play would not have passed the censor, except that it was shown to the Tsar Nicholas I, who insisted on it being produced. It is classical in form but still quite Russian in substance.
The head of a provincial town learns an inspector general is coming to town to investigate. The town leaders are all corrupt, taking bribes and failing to improve the situations of their people despite desperate pleas. Hlestakov is a low ranking civil servant of no account – figuratively and literally destitute – is mistaken for this imperial figure. The Mayor, his family and all the leaders kowtow and tremble and bribe this ne’er-do-well, whom they build up in their minds. He ends up taking them for much of what they’re worth, and we see this revealed as a letter he wrote is read aloud once he’s split town. They fume and bluster, but just then the real Inspector is announced.
This is a funny play and still very playable. The theme of corruption in provincial officials is relentless. Not a single character stands out for their ethics. In that regard it seems both Roman and Brechtian. It is French in form, but the class-level is lowered to include middle class and small timers, merchants and ambitious civil servants. This was apparently Gogol’s first real success. He suffered much later in life and seemed to follow religion into madness, and he may have starved himself to death at 42 or 43. His life followed the tragic path of so many comic playwrights.
There is a lovely moment of metatheatre / 4th wall-breaking at the end of the play. The Mayor addresses the audience when they’re laughing, as if they the very ones who have been humiliated and found out:
"He’ll tell everybody in Russia about it! It’s not enough that I shall be a laughing stock. Some jackanapes will write a play about it! Some half-starved scurrilous scribbler! Oh he’ll lay it on! My rank! My experience! My grey hairs! No mercy! The idiots will grin, and clap! ... What are you laughing at? You are laughing at yourselves! …" (Trans. D.J. Campbell)
The original idea for the story was given to Gogol by the famous poet Alexander Pushkin, who was himself mistaken for just such an official.