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An analysis of the play by Nikolai Gogol

The following essay is reprinted from Russian Literature. Petr Alekseevic Kropotkin. London: Duckworth & Co., 1905.

Nikolai Gogol's prose comedy, The Inspector-General (Revizór) has become a starting point for the Russian drama--a model which every dramatic writer after Gogol has always kept before his eyes. "Revizór," in Russian, means some important functionary who has been sent by the ministry to some provincial town to inquire into the conditions of the local administration--an Inspector-General; and the comedy takes place in a small town, from which "you may gallop for three years and yet arrive nowhere." The little spot--we learn it at the rising of the curtain--is going to be visited by an Inspector-General. The local head of the Police (in those times the head of the Police was also the head of the town)--the Gorodnichiy or Governor--has convoked the chief functionaries of the place to communicate to them an important news. He has had a bad dream; two rats came in, sniffed and then went away; there must be something in that dream, and so there is; he has just got this morning a letter from a friend at St. Petersburg, announcing that an inspector-general is coming, and--what is still worse--is coming incognito! Now, the honourable Governor advises the functionaries to put some order in their respective offices. The patients in the hospital walk about in linen so dirty that you might take them for chimney sweeps. The chief magistrate, who is a passionate lover of sport, has his hunting apparel hanging about in the Court, and his attendants have made a poultry-yard of the entrance hall. In short, everything has to be put in order. The Governor feels very uncomfortable. Up to the present day he has freely levied tribute upon the merchants, pocketed the money destined for building a church, and within a fortnight he has flogged the wife of a non-commissioned officer, which he had no right to do; and now, there's the Inspector-General coming! He asks the postmaster "just to open a little" the letters which may be addressed from this town to St. Petersburg and, if he finds in them some reports about town matters, to keep them. The postmaster--a great student of human character--has always indulged, even without getting this advice, in the interesting pastime of reading the letters, and he falls in with the Governor's proposal.

At that very moment enter Petr Iványch Dóbchinsky and Petr Iványch Bóbchinsky. Everyone knows them, you know them very well: they play the part of the town Gazette. They go about the town all day long, and as soon as they have learnt something interesting they both hurry to spread the news, interrupting each other in telling it, and hurrying immediately to some other place to be the first to communicate the news to someone else. They have been at the only inn of the town, and there they saw a very suspicious person: a young man, "who has something, you know, extraordinary about his face." He is living there for a fortnight, never paying a penny, and does not journey any further. "What is his object in staying so long in town like ours?" And then, when they were taking their lunch he passed them by and looked so inquisitively in their plates--who may he be? Evidently, the Governor and all present conclude, he must be the Inspector-General who stays there incognito.... A general confusion results from the suspicion. The Governor starts immediately for the inn, to make the necessary enquiries. The womenfolk are in a tremendous excitement.

The stranger is simply a young man who is travelling to rejoin his father. On some post-station he met with a certain captain--a great master at cards--and lost all he had in his pocket. Now he cannot proceed any farther, and he cannot pay the landlord, who refuses to credit him with any more meals. The young man feels awfully hungry--no wonder he looked so inquisitively into the plates of the two gentlemen--and resorts to all sorts of tricks to induce the landlord to send him something for his dinner. Just as he is finishing some fossil-like cutlet enters the Gorodnichiy; and a most comic scene follows, the young man thinking that the Governor came to arrest him, and the Governor thinking that he is speaking to the Inspector-General who is trying to conceal his identity. The Governor offers to remove the young man to some more comfortable place. "No, thank you, I have no intent to go to a jail," sharply retorts the young man.... But it is to his own house that the Governor takes the supposed Inspector, and now an easy life begins for the adventurer. All the functionaries appear in turn to introduce themselves, and everyone is only too happy to give him a bribe of a hundred roubles or so. The merchants come to ask his protection from the Governor; the widow who was flogged comes to lodge a complaint.... In the meantime the young man enters into a flirtation with both the wife and the daughter of the Governor; and, finally, being caught at a very pathetic moment when he is kneeling at the feet of the daughter, without further thought he makes a proposition of marriage. But, having gone so far, the young man, well-provided now with money, hastens to leave the town on the pretext of going to see an uncle; he will be back in a couple of days....

The delight of the Governor can easily be imagined. His Excellency, the Inspector-General, going to marry the Governor's daughter! He and his wife are already making all sorts of plans. They will remove to St. Petersburg, the Gorodnichiy will soon be a general, and you will see how he will keep the other Gorodnichies at his door!... The happy news spreads about the town, and all the functionaries and the society of the town hasten to offer their congratulations to the old man. There is a great gathering at his house--when the postmaster comes in. He has followed the advice of the Governor, and has opened a letter which the supposed Inspector-General had addressed to somebody at St. Petersburg. He now brings the letter. The young man is no inspector at all, and here is what he writes to a Bohemian friend of his about his adventures in the provincial town:

"I hasten to inform you, my dear friend, of the wonderful things which have happened to me. On my way hither an infantry captain had cleared me out completely, so that the innkeeper here intended to send me to jail, when, all of a sudden, thanks to my St. Petersburg appearance and costume, all the town took me for a Governor-General. Now I am staying at the Gorodnichiy's! I have a splendid time, and flirt awfully with both his wife and his daughter.... Do you remember how hard up we were, taking our meals where we could get them, without paying for them, and how one day, in a tea-shop, the pastry-cook collared me for having eaten his pastry to the account of the king of England? It is quite different now. They all lend me money, as much as I care for. They are an awful set of originals: you would split with laughter. I know you write sometimes for the papers--put them into your literature. To begin with, the Governor is as stupid as an old horse...."

In short, the letter produces a great sensation. The friends of the Governor are delighted to see him and his family in such straits, all accuse each other, and finally fall upon the two gentlemen, when a police soldier enters the room and announces in a loud voice: "A functionary from St. Petersburg, with Imperial orders, wants to see you all immediately. He stays at the hotel." Thereupon the curtain drops over a living picture of which Gogol himself had made a most striking sketch in pencil, and which is usually reproduced in his works; it shows how admirably well, with what a fine artistic sense, he represented to himself his characters.

The Inspector-General marked a new era in the development of dramatic art in Russia. All the comedies and dramas which were being played in Russia at the time (with the exception, of course, of Misfortune from Intelligence, which, however, was not allowed to appear on the stage) hardly deserved the name of dramatic literature: so imperfect and puerile they were. The Inspector-General, on the contrary, would have marked at the time of its appearance (1835) an epoch in any language. Its stage qualities, which will be appreciated by every good actor; its sound and hearty humour; the natural character of the comical scenes, which result from the very characters of those who appear in this comedy; the sense of measure which pervades it--all these make it one of the best comedies in existence.

The Inspector-General provoked such a storm of hostile criticism on the part of all reactionary Russia, that it was hopeless to expect that the comedy which Gogol began next, concerning the life of the St. Petersburg functionaries (The Vladimir Cross), could ever be admitted on the stage, and Gogol never finished it, only publishing a few striking scenes from it: The Morning of a Busy Man, The Law Suit, etc... Another comedy, Marriage, in which he represented the hesitation and terror through which an inveterate bachelor goes before a marriage, which he finally eludes by jumping out of a window a few moments before the beginning of the ceremony, has not lost its interest even now. It is so full of comical situations, which fine actors cannot but highly appreciate, that it is still a part of the current répertoire of the Russian stage.

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