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ALEXANDER OSTROVSKY is the great Russian dramatist of the central decades of the nineteenth century, of the years when the realistic school was all-powerful in Russian literature, of the period when Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy created a literature of prose fiction that has had no superior in the world's history. His work in the drama takes its place beside theirs in the novel. Obviously inferior as it is in certain ways, it yet sheds light on an important side of Russian life that they left practically untouched. Turgenev and Tolstoy were gentlemen by birth, and wrote of the fortunes of the Russian nobility or of the peasants whose villages bordered on the nobles' estates. Dostoyevsky, though not of this landed-proprietor school, still dealt with the nobility, albeit with its waifs and strays. None of these masters more than touched the Russian merchants, that homespun moneyed class, crude and coarse, grasping and mean, without the idealism of their educated neighbors in the cities or the homely charm of the peasants from whom they themselves sprang, yet gifted with a rough force and determination not often found among the cultivated aristocracy. This was the field that Ostrovsky made peculiarly his own.

With this merchant class Ostrovsky was familiar from his childhood. Born in 1823, he was the son of a lawyer doing business among the Moscow tradesmen. After finishing his course at the gymnasium and spending three years at the University of Moscow, he entered the civil service in 1843 as an employee of the Court of Conscience in Moscow, from which he transferred two years later to the Court of Commerce, where he continued until he was discharged from the service in 1851. Hence both by his home life and by his professional training he was brought into contact with types such as Bolshov and Rizpolozhensky in "It's a Family Affair--We'll Settle It Ourselves."

As a boy of seventeen Ostrovsky had already developed a passion for the theatre. His literary career began in the year 1847, when he read to a group of Moscow men of letters his first experiments in dramatic composition. In this same year he printed one scene of "A Family Affair," which appeared in complete form three years later, in 1850, and established its author's reputation as a dramatist of undoubted talent. Unfortunately, by its mordant but true picture of commercial morals, it aroused against him the most bitter feelings among the Moscow merchants. Discussion of the play in the press was prohibited, and representation of it on the stage was out of the question. It was reprinted only in 1859, and then, at the instance of the censorship, in an altered form, in which a police officer appears at the end of the play as a deus ex machina, arrests Podkhalyuzin, and annouces that he will be sent to Siberia. In this mangled version the play was acted in 1861; in its original text it did not appear on the stage until 1881. Besides all this, the drama was the cause of the dismissal of Ostrovsky from the civil service, in 1851. The whole episode illustrates the difficulties under which the great writers of Russia labored under a despotic government.

Beginning with 1852 Ostrovsky gave his whole strength to literary work. He is exceptional among Russian authors in devoting himself almost exclusively to the theatre. The plays of Ostrovsky are of varied character, including dramatic chronicles based on early Russian history, and a fairy drama, "Little Snowdrop." His real strength lay, however, in the drama of manners, giving realistic pictures of Russian life among the Russian city classes and the minor nobility. Here he was recognized, from the time of the appearance on the stage of his first pieces, in 1853 and the following years, as without a rival among Russian authors for the theatre.

The tone of "Poverty Is No Crime" (1854), written only four years after "A Family Affair," is in sharp contrast with that of its predecessor. In the earlier play Ostrovsky had adopted a satiric tone that proved him a worthy disciple of Gogol, the great founder of Russian realism. Not one lovable character appears in the gloomy picture of merchant life in Moscow; even the old mother repels us by her stupidity more than she attracts us by her kindliness. No ray of light penetrates the "realm of darkness"--to borrow a famous phrase from a Russian critic--conjured up before us by the young dramatist. In "Poverty Is No Crime" we see the other side of the medal. Ostrovsky had now been affected by the Slavophile school of writers and thinkers, who found in the traditions of Russian society treasures of kindliness and love that they contrasted with the superficial glitter of Western civilization. Life in Russia is varied as elsewhere, and Ostrovsky could change his tone without doing violence to realistic truth. The tradesmen had not wholly lost the patriarchal charm of their peasant fathers. A poor apprentice is the hero of "Poverty Is No Crime," and a wealthy manufacturer the villain of the piece. Good-heartedness is the touchstone by which Ostrovsky tries character, and this may be hidden beneath even a drunken and degraded exterior. The scapegrace, Lyubim Tortsov, has a sound Russian soul, and at the end of the play rouses his hard, grasping brother, who has been infatuated by a passion for aping foreign fashions, to his native Russian worth.

Just as "Poverty Is No Crime" shows the influence of the Slavophile movement, "A Protégée of the Mistress" (1859) was inspired by the great liberal movement that bore fruit in the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. Ostrovsky here departed from town to a typical country manor, and produced a work kindred in spirit to Turgenev's "Sportsman's Sketches," or "Mumu." In a short play, instinct with simple poetry, he shows the suffering brought about by serfdom: the petty tyranny of the landed proprietor, which is the more galling because it is practiced with a full conviction of virtue on the part of the tyrant; and the crushed natures of the human cattle under its charge.

Despite the unvarying success of his dramas on the stage, Ostrovsky for a long time derived little financial benefit from them. Discouragement and overwork wrecked his health, and were undoubtedly responsible for the gloomy tone of a series of plays written in the years following 1860, of which "Sin and Sorrow Are Common to All" (1863) is a typical example. Here the dramatist sketches a tragic incident arising from the conflict of two social classes, the petty tradesmen and the nobility. From the coarse environment of the first emerge honest, upright natures like Krasnov; from the superficial, dawdling culture of the second come weak-willed triflers like Babayev. The sordid plot sweeps on to its inevitable conclusion with true tragic force.

Towards the end of his life Ostrovsky gained the material prosperity that was his due. There was not theatre in Russia in which his plays were not acted, and from 1874 to his death he was the president of the Society of Russian Dramatic Authors. In 1885 he received the important post of artistic director of the Moscow government theatres; the harassing duties of the position proved too severe for his weak constitution, and he passed away in the next year.

As a dramatist, Ostrovsky is above all else a realist; no more thoroughly natural dramas than his were ever composed. Yet as a master of realistic technique he must not be compared with Ibsen, or even with many less noted men among modern dramatists. His plays have not the neat, concise construction that we prize today. Pages of dialogue sometimes serve no purpose except to make a trifle clearer the character of the actors, or perhaps slightly heighten the impression of commonplace reality. Even in "Sin and Sorrow" and "A Protégée" whole passages merely illustrate the background against which the plot is set rather than help forward the action itself. Many plays, such as "A Family Affair," end with relatively unimportant pieces of dialogue. Of others we are left to guess even the conclusion of the main action: will Nadya in "A Protégée" submit to her degrading fate, or will she seek refuge in the pond?

Ostrovsky rarely uses the drama to treat of great moral or social problems. He is not a revolutionary thinker or an opponent of existing society; his ideal, like that of his predecessor Gogol, is of honesty, kindliness, generosity, and loyalty in a broad, general way to the traditions of the past. He attacks serfdom not as an isolated leader of a forlorn hope, but as an adherent of a great party of moderate reformers.

Thus Ostrovsky's strength lies in a sedate, rather commonplace realism. One of the most national of authors, he loses much in translation. His style is racy, smacking of the street or the counting-house; he is one of the greatest masters of the Russian vernacular. To translate his Moscow slang into the equivalent dialect of New York would be merely to transfer Broadway associations to the Ilyinka. A translator can only strive to be colloquial and familiar, giving up the effort to render the varying atmosphere of the different plays. And Ostrovsky's characters are as natural as his language. Pig-headed merchants; apprentices, knavish or honest as the case may be; young girls with a touch of poetry in their natures, who sober down into kindly housewives; tyrannical serf-owners and weak-willed sons of noble families: such is the material of which he builds his entertaining, wholesome, mildly thoughtful dramas. Men and women live and love, trade and cheat in Ostrovsky as they do in the world around us. Now and then a murder or a suicide appears in its pages as it does in those of the daily papers, but hardly more frequently. In him we can study the life of Russia as he knew it, crude and coarse and at times cruel, yet full of homely virtue and aspiration.

This article was originally published in Plays of Alexander Ostrovsky. Ed. George Rapall Noyes. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1917. pp. 3-8.


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