Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Aleksandr Ostrovsky: Founding Father of Russian Theatre

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Aleksandr Ostrovsky: Founding Father of Russian Theatre

Article excerpt

Aleksandr Ostrovsky

Founding father of Russian theatre

SOMETIME in the autumn of 1849, inthe famous Moscow literary salon of Countess Rostopchin, an elegant, fair-haired man of twenty-six read his play Bankrot ("The Bankrupt') to an audience of distinguished literary figures including the great Nikolai Gogol. More readings of this work, which had opened the doors of Moscow's salons to its author, were soon delighting the eventing patrons of the city's cafes and taverns, but the imperial theatres remained immune to the enthusiasm felt by the new playwright's first admirers. Tsar Nicolas I banned the play and had its author, Aleksandr Nicolaevich Ostrovsky (1823-1886) watched by the police. His sixth play was the first to be staged and all its successors had problems with the censor.

The author of some fifty plays, Ostrovskyis the creator of the Russian "comedy of manners' and the founder of the repertory of the Russian theatre. He was born and grew up in the Zamoskvorechye commercial district of Moscow, away from the city's major thoroughfares. Destined by his father for a career in commerce, the young Ostrovsky's first employment was with the Moscow civil court. His youthful observations of different types of merchants and the setting in which they lived were to provide him with material for most of his plays.

In face of obstinate, ignorant, despoticmoney-grubbers respectful of the established order, conformists such as Podkhaliuzin, Bolshov and Kabanikha, he sets figures on a par with such great characters of the European drama as Hamlet, Karl Moor or Laurencia, the creations of Shakespeare, Schiller and Lope de Vega.

In Dokhodnoe Mesto (1857, "A ProfitablePost'), Zhadov champions those who go "against social customs and conditions . . . The struggle is arduous and often fatal, but the glory for those who win through and the gratitude of later generations is all the greater . . .. Without them lies and evil would have proliferated to hide the sun's light from men'. In Les (1871; The Forest, 1926), the tragedian Neschaslivtsev proclaims that "honour is boundless', and Parasha, in Gorzhacheiya serdce (1869, "A Yearning Heart'), asserts for all to hear, "You can take away all I have but I shall never give up my freedom. . . . For my freedom I would go to the scaffold.'

The tragic end of Ostrovsky's finest charactersalways springs from their rectitude, their purity, their nobility of spirit, their moral integrity and their conviction that love is the ultimate meaning of life. In this respect Ostrovsky echoes the preoccupations of Dostoyevsky, for whom beauty will save the world, or the law of love and the vocation of goodness dear to Tolstoy.

Ostrovsky wished "to put the people onthe right path without harming them'. Because of the logic of the plot, people who make their mark in life through hypocrisy and duplicity often triumph in his plays. But the real victors are losers like Katerina, who is incapable of living dishonestly and throws herself into the Volga, or Larissa, the girl without a dowry whose fine talent has been brought to nothing by the vulgarity of life and who murmurs "Thank you' to Karandychev, her murderer and saviour, before she dies. Ostrovsky wants a person who rebels against oppression and arbitrariness, a free spirit, to become the "law of life'.

It should thus come as no surprise thatcircles close to the court of the Tsar, suspicious of culture and the theatre and apprehensive of new ideas, stopped at nothing to prevent Ostrovsky's heroes from being portrayed in the theatre, even though they might admit that Ostrovsky himself was not without talent. It was said contemptuously of his plays that they "stank of sheepskin'.

Nevertheless, under the pressure of publicopinion, Ostrovsky was elected a Corresponding Member of the Academy of Sciences in 1863. Shortly before, on the new ceiling of St. Petersburg's Maryinsky theatre, his portrait had been added to those of the classics of Russian satire, Fonvizin, Griboyedov and Gogol. …

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