A Half-Century of Greatness: The Creative Imagination of Europe, 1848-1884

By Frederic Ewen; Jeffrey Wollock | Go to book overview

Chapter One
The Dark Laughter of Nikolay Gogol

Russia! Oh Russia! From an enchanted far-off haven I
see you now … Boundless as you are, are you not the
land destined to bring forth geniuses boundless as your-
self? Are you not the land fated to breed heroes, you who
can offer them scope and terrain in which to realize their
powers? … Oh Russia! land of glittering and sublime
horizons, of which the world is utterly ignorant! …

—Gogol, Dead Souls

Strange are the anomalies that at times occur in what appears to be a predictable universe. Such, for example, as happened when Tsar Nicholas I of Russia extended his imperial permission for the production and performance of a comedy, The Inspector General, composed by Nikolay Gogol. The play opened at the Aleksandrinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on May 1,1836, in the presence of the Tsar and his august entourage.

Certainly, we may guess that scarcely one person in the audience could have suspected he was present at a major theatrical event—that the play before him was not only to inaugurate a new era in the Russian theatre, but would also stir up passions and controversy for years to come. In extending his permission, the present Tsar was acting more kindly than his father, Alexander I. The latter's censors had been keeping a strict eye on the theatre, wary of anything that might smack of pointed satire or criticism of the authorities—even the slightest. Thus the dramatist Aleksandr Griboedov, the most brilliant playwright of that era, had been subjected to irreparable harassment, and his most notable comedy, Wit Works Woe—a mild, if provocative, satire of contemporary gentry society—was banned from production during the author's lifetime.

But here, before an audience including the highest of the land, Gogol was presenting a side of Russian life scarcely anyone had dared exhibit before. The audience was stunned, baffled, intrigued, amused, or outraged—and it would take years before they would fully assimilate the import of The Inspector General.

The plot of the comedy is simple. The mayor of a provincial Russian town, also in fact a kind of prefect of the police, is informed through a friend's letter that an Inspector General is about to arrive incognito with a view to investigating conditions. Appalled at the prospect, he calls a meeting of the other officials to consider a suitable “strategy.” The district judge, the welfare commissioner, the superintendent of schools, the postmaster, the hospital's German doctor—all arrive and begin to share

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