A Brief History of Russian Drama (Before 1900)
[Much of the information in this article is taken from George R. Noyes’ Masterpieces of Russian Drama (1933)]
Drama in many cultures emerges from two perennial, yet contradictory sources. The one is the sublime stories and sacred rituals of religion and the other the studied mockery and profane embellishments of everyday human folly. When enacted, the grandeur of the former is magnified by our solemn, collective attention, while the satirical whip of the latter is urged on by laughter and, frequently, intoxication. Both of these impulses in more medieval times remained as amateur performance, and they continued as such for centuries. In some cultures, however, the theatrical impulses eventually evolved into a professional endeavor, and the resulting literature – that is, the written play – could gain a refinement that justified its being passed down the generations.
Russian Literature before the 1917 Revolution can be divided into four periods, according to G. R. Noyes. The first lasted from 1760 to 1820, roughly speaking, when significant progress was made towards a Russian literature, albeit one that was highly imitative of French Classical Models. The second category is Russian Romanticism, which went from about 1820 to 1840. The third and most fruitful period lasted from around 1840 to 1890 and witnessed the high watermark of Russian Realism. The fourth period lasts from about 1890 to the 1917 Revolution and built on the Realist tradition but with the intrusion, in Noyes' thinking, of Modernist trends such as Symbolism and Futurism.
The famed Tsar Peter the Great (R. 1682 – 1725) formed what became known as the Russian Empire and encouraged the spread of education and the Europeanization of Russia from its medieval, agrarian practices. A couple of generations later, Catherine the Great (R. 1762-1796) ruled as the Russian Empire was entering the beginnings of a golden age. Still with a strong French influence, Russia was gaining an educated and cultivated upper class.
1. French-Classical Influence: 1760-1820
If we look at drama in the 1700s, the French Tragedy (a la Jean Racine) was strong and Russian comedy would develop first along French guidelines. Noyes offers this insightful description:
“All over the world comedy in the 18th Century was in general of the type which has been brought to perfection in France by Moliere, and which went back through him to Terence and Menander… The plot must center about a love story… This plot was, however, usually subordinated to a picture of society drawn in a satiric vein. Satire opened the door to didacticism; the comic writers prided themselves on being teachers of social good sense, a sort of practical morality… Here was a dramatic formula that could be adapted to any country and to any period.” [Masterpieces, pp. 2-3]
The first significant Russian comic playwright was Denis Ivanov Fonvizin (1744-1792), who wrote The Young Hopeful (1782), a Russianized French comedy featuring great satiric portraits of “backward country squires.” The next significant Russian comic playwright was young enough to be Fonvizin’s grandson: Alexander Sergeyevich Griboyedov (1795-1829) wrote Wit Works Woe (1823), a comedy of manners that may be compared with Moliere's The Misanthrope, but the characters are Russian aristocracy in the city. The play was censored, however, and never staged in his lifetime. The first full staging was in 1869.
2. Russian Romanticism: 1820-1840
The 19th Century would come to be known as the Golden Age of Russian Literature, basically consisting of the Romantic and Realist periods. The Russian Romantic period featured Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), considered the “greatest of all Russian poets.” Turning away from the French Classical models, he was influenced more by Lord Byron and Shakespeare. His Boris Godunov (1825) was a closet drama, the story of a Russian historical figure. The drama was a series of dramatic scenes, but lacking in cohesion. It lives on today mainly in Mussorgsky’s opera of the same name (1874) based on Pushkin’s play. The second greatest Romantic poet of this age was Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841), who did not write plays.
3. Russian Realism: 1840-1890
Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) was an artist of “sentiment, satire, caricature,” and whom Noyes compares to Charles Dickens. He was the first great Russian writer to focus on everyday people, the “indistinguished, vulgar sort” (Masterpieces, 5). His play, The Government Inspector (Revizor, 1836) is a satiric comedy about graft among provincial officials. While it still follows French form, it is fully Russian in substance. It was a favorite of Tsar Nicholas I and only passed the censor because of his intervention.
Russia’s first professional playwright was Alexander Ostrovsky (1823-1886) and perhaps the only one of the 19th century, since most who wrote plays mainly wrote in other forms. As Noyes said,
“The drama has been one of the great glories of Russian literature, but it has never been the most important type of that literature… Aside from [Ostrovsky], the most significant Russian plays have been written by novelists and poets.” [Masterpieces, 1]
Ostrovsky wrote 41 prose plays and dealt with the middle and lower classes. He was beloved for scenes that depicted everyday Russian reality. His plays include The Poor Bride (1852) and The Thunderstorm (1860), which is considered his masterpiece. The Forest (1870) is his play that most resembles Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in subject matter.
Russia’s three most famous authors of the Realist period are Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and Tolstoy. Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) wrote no plays, but Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev (1818-1883) did—for a while, anyway. Turgenev was among the best educated Russians of his time, definitively upper class. His A Month in the Country (1850) was based on Honoré de Balzac’s melodrama The Stepmother, but he turned it into what Noyes calls a “domestic comedy” with Russian details. The author considered it a closet drama, and it was not acted until 1872. Turgenev’s novels include Rudin (1856), Virgin Soil (1876), and Fathers and Children (1862). His “Sportsman’s Sketches” were short stories that brought him fame (1847 – 1851). He was much loved and appreciated in his time, but later on seemed to fall from favor.
Alexey Pisemsky (1820-1881) wrote the play A Bitter Fate (1859), which was similar to the work of French Naturalist author and playwright Emile Zola.
Russia’s greatest writer of all time is arguably Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). Tolstoy was of the highest Russian nobility, but also had extremely broad experiences in his life. His major novels War and Peace (1863-1869) and Anna Karenina (1873-1877) were written before he had his religious conversion in 1879. In the year 1886, Tolstoy wrote both the superb short story The Death of Ivan Ilyitch (1886) and the play The Power of Darkness, which is arguably the greatest of Russian tragedies.
Count Alexey Tolstoy (1817-1875) was a distant cousin of Leo Tolstoy’s. He is famous as a playwright for his historical trilogy including The Death of Ivan the Terrible (1864), Tsar Feodor Ivanovich (1868), and Tsar Boris (1870). Tsar Feodor Ivanovich was famously the first play produced by the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898.
The years 1880 to 1890 are described by Noyes as “relatively sterile” and “the opening of a new period in Russian letters.” (Masterpieces, 15) In that decade, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Ostrovsky all died, and Tolstoy changed. The eighties were a time of larger changes in society, of political crackdown and suppression, and of significant growth in the spread of Capitalism.
In 1887, a young writer of short stories, Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), would premiere the play Ivanov, of which he uncharacteristically boasted “The plot is unprecedented.” Ivanov was an ambitious, if imperfect, first foray into what would become known as Chekhovian Drama--to be fully realized in the plays The Seagull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1897), Three Sisters (1900) and The Cherry Orchard (1903).
Noyes, George Rapall. Masterpieces of Russian Drama, Vol. 1 and 2. Dover Publications: New York, 1960.