Written in the Fall of 2012 for a reading of Ostrovsky’s Crazy Money, a truly unique play that combines a Restoration, shrew-taming farce plot with a critique of incipient capitalism. -DL
In the half-century between Gogol and Chekhov, Alexander Ostrovsky (1823-1886) was the most prolific force in the Russian theatre. From 1846 to 1886, he composed 47 original plays and co-authored or translated dozens more, creating single-handedly a repertory for the Russian stage. As a director of his own works, unionizer of playwrights, and acting teacher, Ostrovsky also devoted his life to making Russian theatre a practical reality, free from the censorship of the imperial court. In 1897, when Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko founded the Moscow Art Theatre, the theatre’s mission was largely the realization of Ostrovsky’s lifelong dream.
Ostrovsky’s works, however, remain largely unknown to English-speaking audiences. Only a handful of his plays have been translated into English, and many critics say that his colloquial dialogue and his fiercely Russian worldview are a bridge too far for transatlantic understanding. This is nonsense, of course. They said much the same about Chekhov before the proliferation of Stanislavskian approaches to acting and text garnered his plays their reputation as “universal” classics.
A crude analogy can explain Ostrovsky’s appeal: Gogol is Russia’s Shakespeare, a linguistic genius who created a new way of looking at the world (and the country) onstage. Chekhov is Russia’s Ibsen, a writer of realistic surfaces that partially obscure profoundly poetic and symbolic depths. Ostrovsky, conversely, is Russia’s equivalent to Balzac or Molière, a prolific author whose plays add up to a sprawling comédie humaine of Russian life. His gift is not for the ensemble-based tragicomedy of Chekhov or the metaphysical vaudeville of Gogol, but for portraying a broad and comic panorama of society, always told vividly and humanely. All told, Ostrovsky created over 500 distinctive characters in his plays. All of them embody the fears and anxieties of Russian life during pivotal decades in its history.
Ostrovsky’s plays can be divided into two rough categories. In his early plays from the 1850s, he focuses on the merchant classes, previously unseen on Russian stages. These plays, such as 1850’s It’s a Family Affair (imagine a nastier, working-class, 19th-century Tartuffe), depict a brutish and brutishly funny world of corrupt businessmen, domineering patriarchs, and corrupt civil servants. But Ostrovsky wrote the bulk of his plays, including 1870’s Crazy Money, after the 1861 emancipation of the serfs. In these plays, Russia is a changed and changing world, one rendered vertiginously unstable by the sudden introduction of capitalism. In play after play, the pursuit of money comes into conflict with forbidden love, and a generation of emancipated women clash with patriarchal figures dead set on retaining their power. These late works now appear eerily prophetic of our own world. A decade after Ostrovsky’s death, Chekhov would write four masterpieces about the end of Russia’s long, doomed 19th century. But Ostrovsky, with his acute powers of observation, saw it coming.