When Nikolai Gogol wrote The Government Inspector in 1836, there was no such thing as a Russian drama. Tsar Nicholas I adored going to the theatre and as a result all St. Petersburg theatres were regulated by Nicholas’ petty officials, “government inspectors” who dictated costume designs, roles for actors and even the official repertory. As a result, from the turn of the century until well into the 1850s, the Russian theatre was dominated by European imports: ballets and operas, alongside the neoclassical plays of Molière and the romantic plays of Schiller and Goethe. More than a hundred years after Peter the Great had ordered his courtiers to shave their facial hair, Russian drama had yet to grow the beard.
If a Russian play dared to end unhappily, or to suggest that all was not well in St. Petersburg, it was kept offstage by Nicholas’ zealous censors. The most prominent plays from the period by Russian authors, such as Alexander Griboyedov’s Wit Works Woe (1822), Alexander Pushkin’s Boris Gudonov (1825), and Mikhail Lermontov’s Masquerade (1835) were all banned. None of them would appear on a Russian stage until the 1860s. In fact, Pushkin’s Boris Gudonov would not appear in a fully unexpurgated text until the year 2007, when it was produced in English translation at Princeton University. Perhaps most damningly, in 1835, the year before The Government Inspector’s premiere, not a single new Russian comedy was performed in the capital.
Into this situation stepped Nikolai Gogol, a well-regarded author of short stories, a provincial outsider and a profound eccentric. Gogol had already revolutionized Russian prose and he set out now to create a national Russian drama. Rather than imitate French or German writers, Gogol wanted to put Russian life onstage. All of it. In Gogol’s “St. Petersburg Notes of 1836,” a scathing review of 1830s theatre practices, he sounds the alarm:
“For heaven’s sake, give us Russian characters, give us ourselves! … We have become so accustomed to tame French plays that we are timid about seeing ourselves.”
The Government Inspector would do precisely that. Gogol got the idea for the play when he wrote to his friend Pushkin. He had quit his job – he had been lecturing on medieval history at St. Petersburg University – and he needed money. “Send me some subject,” he wrote to Pushkin:
“an authentically Russian anecdote. My hand is itching to write a comedy… Give me a subject and I’ll knock off a comedy in five acts – I promise, funnier than hell. For God’s sake, do it. My mind and stomach are both famished.”
Pushkin, who came from the aristocracy, had been mistaken for a government inspector as a young man when travelling in the provinces, and in his collected works there is an outline for a story in which a young man arrives, is taken by the governor (described as “an honest fool”) for a government spy, and proceeds to escape, but not before flirting with the governor’s wife and wooing his daughter.
In Gogol’s hands, this anecdote would become a sweeping indictment of Russian society, in which an entire town’s government is shown to be fundamentally corrupt. Provincial in their attitudes and criminally self-serving in their behaviors, the townspeople in The Government Inspector comprise an unflattering glimpse of Russian fear, superstition and mendacity. Hlestakov, the petty bureaucrat from St. Petersburg, is a charming though childlike fool, a character drawn from a picaresque novel. He is interested exclusively in food, sex and comfortable travel. Hearing the horrific complaints of the townspeople and receiving the unfathomable bribes of the local government, Hlestakov sits, in search of nothing more than adventure and a good tale. Like the Mayor, who finds justification from God for his criminal offences, or the middle-class Merchants in the play, who believe that the Mayor is possessed by the Devil, Hlestakov has an almost medieval attitude toward modern life.
But the characters in The Government Inspector also resemble modern souls stuck in a medieval society. For example, take Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, the foolish townspeople who set the plot in motion with their noses for gossip. At first glance, they appear to be obvious comic types. But at second glance, it becomes apparent that they are Gogol’s portrait of the Russian everyman. Pyotr Ivanovich Dobchinsky and Pyotr Ivanovich Bobchinsky are the only two characters in the play who come from the minor landed gentry, Russia’s mammoth and anonymous middle class. Their class, which renders them effectively doppelgangers, explains their ceaseless competition with Shpekin, the town’s Postmaster. Information is power, power is identity, and an identity is something that both men manifestly do not have.
Halfway through the play, Gogol pauses the action so Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky can interview Hlestakov. Each makes an absurd request, yet they are ones that register the characters’ lack of identity with a painful clarity of emotion. Dobchinsky asks Hlestakov to allow his bastard son to bear his name. Bobchinsky, meanwhile, wants Hlestakov, when he returns to St. Petersburg, to simply speak his name. “It doesn’t have to be the whole name,” Bobchinsky pleads. “It doesn’t even have to be in your home, it could be in an alley late at night when no one’s around.” While the twinned identities of Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky is a running joke in the play, it is also Gogol’s symbol of the profound lack of identity felt by the Russian landed class. Dobchinsky’s son doesn’t have his name, and thus doesn’t exist in a legal sense, whereas Bobchinsky isn’t even sure that he exists at all. Both are examples of what Gogol would term, in his great novel from 1842, “dead souls”: the anonymous lives, seemingly infinite, being lived by the Russian people, far away from the watchful eye of the capital.
This great theme, perhaps, is the reason that The Government Inspector, one of the funniest plays in the classical repertory, has also frequently courted political controversy. This was the play that was being performed when Stalin shut down theatres in the late 1930s. It has been revived in Putin’s Russia, resonating with audiences as if it were written yesterday. (And for those of you who pay attention to the news, you know that political performance in Russia remains a dangerous line of work.) We’ll never know what Gogol would make of the play’s legacy, but he can rest easy knowing that he fulfilled his own command: by staging such vivid images of Russian life, he gave Russians themselves. The drama would never be the same.