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Written for a March 3, 2014 ReDiscovery Reading at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. – DL

As the story goes, Alexander Ostrovsky wrote A Family Affair, his first play, in 1850, when he was working as a government clerk in Moscow. The play was banned and Ostrovsky lost his job. It wouldn’t be performed until 1861, under a censored ending, in which all of the characters are rounded up and sent off to Siberia. As the government censor wrote in his 1850 report, “All the characters are first class villains, the dialogue is filthy, the entire play is an insult to the Russian merchant class.” Tsar Nicholas I wrote on his copy: “Printed in vain. Acting is forbidden.”

It’s easy to see why the play caused so much consternation at the time. To Ostrovsky, everyone in the merchant class is a criminal. Bolshov the family patriarch drinks, abuses his wife and daughter and seems to regard everyone as beneath contempt. Worse, he tries to evade his creditors through a criminal conspiracy: he transfers the deeds to his business to his clerk, Lazar and pretends to be bankrupt. Bolshov’s wife, Agrafena, is almost unbelievably stupid, sentimental and small-minded. The matchmaker Ustinya is greedy, untrustworthy and easily bribable, as is the lawyer Rispolozhensky, who is also a degenerate alcoholic. The next generation, so often a ray of light in a comedy, is even worse, as the play’s shocking second half reveals. There are few other comedies that offer such a stinging and universal condemnation of society in their final acts. In many ways, the play is Russia’s merchant-class answer to Moliere’s classic study of hypocrisy, Tartuffe.

This translation and adaptation by Nick Dear was commissioned for Declan Donnellan’s Cheek by Jowl Theatre in 1986. Dear has had great success recently with his adaptation of Frankenstein at the National Theatre. Here, he skillfully replicates much of Ostrovsky’s “filthy” dialogue, with a number of pungent peasant sayings and some swear words to boot. The characters sometimes seem like they are slipping into cockney slang, but it is a relief to hear a translation of a Russian play with few traces of Constance Garnett or Chekhov, in which the characters do not speak as if they have emerged from a Henry James novel. At times, one can almost picture the drunken spittle forming on Bolshov’s beard in his monologues, and it is a beautiful thing.

Dear’s solution to the ending breaks the fourth wall and points the finger directly at the audience. Although there is a clear music hall influence – Moscow by way of South London – the ending is Ostrovsky’s. It may strike some audience members as overdetermined, even didactic, but like the similar moment at the end of Gogol’s The Government Inspector, theatre was one of the few avenues open for citizens to critique imperialist Russian society. Throughout his career, Ostrovsky would return obsessively to studies of Tsarist Russia’s bankrupt lifestyle – a nation of former serfs and petty officials all living on credit, making opulent shows of wealth they don’t possess. But he would never again portray so vividly his own merchant milieu, in all of its rustic immediacy. At the onset of his career, he kept it in the family.