The Inspector-General/Introduction

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The Inspector-General by Nikolai Gogol
Introduction

"Don't blame the looking-glass when your own face is at fault." This Russian proverb was appropriately chosen by Gogol as a motto for his famous comedy. The Inspector-General is a faithful reflex of the seamy side of provincial life in Russia, and a typical set of droll but dubious characters live again in its pages. The play is indeed a mirror, and a not too flattering one, to the more shady section of Muscovite society. Apart, however, from the general tone of satire, which would be more keenly appreciated by its victims, there is in the Revizór so much rough-and-ready wit, and such a series of humorous situations, that the comedy appeals also to non-Russian readers. As to plot, there is scarcely any. The central incident of the piece is the arrival of a supposed "revizór" in a country town somewhere in the south of Russia. This functionary has no exact English analogue, but he may be defined as an inspector commissioned by the Government, with unlimited powers to inquire into the abuses of provincial administration. It is needless to say that such a petty autocrat would be about the last person desired as a visitor by the local chinovniks whom Gogol depicts. They are certainly a collection of black sheep, and the approach of this much-dreaded official does not add to their peace of mind. After years of undisturbed jobbery and plunder, they are rudely confronted with the prospect of administrative exile to Siberia. It appears that the Town-Governor has regularly blackmailed the merchants, who in their turn have recouped themselves out of Government contracts. The Judge is more distinguished as a Nimrod than as a Solomon; he has turned the court-house into a kennel, and done a roaring traffic in bribes. Artemi Philippovich, the Warden of the Hospital has left the patients to be cured by "nature " and the ministrations of an inarticulate foreigner, who is innocent of any knowledge of Russian. Of the others, Luka Lukich, Director of Educational Establishments, to give him his full style and title, is, if possible, more incapable than his subordinates. The Postmaster Shpyokin's weak point is his taste for opening and reading other people's letters; while the Police-Officers are generally too drunk to be employed on duty. Such is the model community, for which the imaginary inspector's escapades have a tragic result.

The comedy was first produced at St. Petersburg in April 1836, during the reign of the Tsar Nicholas. Russian literature at that date showed signs of a revival. Derzhavin, the court poet, and Karamzin, as a romance-writer, were now going out of fashion. It was felt that the mania for adaptation from the French had been rather overdone. Even as early as 1823 Griboyedov had raised a protest. He satirised the inordinate and slavish Francophilism of the age in a powerful play. Gore ot Uma (Wit comes to Grief). Krilov, the fabulist, also contributed to this reaction by producing some genuine Russian work, though on different lines. Sixty-eight years old in 1836, he was at the height of his popularity, and had not ceased issuing his immortal series of Fables[1]. Another prominent litterateur was Zhukovski, then aged fifty- three. He is best known to the outside world as the author of the national anthem, Bozhe Tsarya Khrani (God save the Tsar). Of Gogol's more immediate contemporaries, some half-dozen have achieved European fame. Pushkin, the poet, and Lermontov, the novelist, were thirty-seven and twenty-two years old respectively when the Revizor first came out. They were both destined for the same fate—to be killed in duels by Frenchmen, the former in 1837, and Lermontov four years later. Other well-known names, are those of Turgeniev (1818-1883) and Dostoyevski (1821-1881), the famous pair of novelists. More celebrated than all is, perhaps, Count Lyof Tolstoy (born in 1828), but he belongs rather to a subsequent generation. Gogol's own age at the date of the Inspector-General was twenty-seven, as he was born in the same year as Tennyson and Gladstone.

Nikoldi Vasilyevich Gogol[2] Yanovski came into the world at Sorochintsi, his father's estate, near Poltava, the scene of the famous battle, exactly a century before, between Charles XII of Sweden and Peter the Great. The date of his birth is variously given as March the 21st, or 31st, 1809. The poetic and historical surroundings of his birthplace in the Ukraine must have largely influenced his childhood and determined the bent of his future career He was educated at the "Gymnasium," or High School of Nyezhin, a town of about 40,000 inhabitants in the Chernfgov Government, near the sacred city of Kiev. Here he was a somewhat erratic and irregular pupil, but he distinguished himself by starting a manuscript magazine called the Star, to which he was the chief contributor. He also composed a tragedy, The Brigands. After leaving the academy of Nyezhin he proceeded, in 1829, to St. Petersburg full of high hopes, but with slender funds. His literary stock-in-trade consisted of one or two fugitive pieces, such as "Italy : a poem," and an idyl, " Hans Kuchel Garten," which he published under the pseudonym of V. Alof. These productions were so unmercifully ridiculed by the critics, that he hired a room in an inn and burnt all the copies obtainable. Discouraged by this failure, he thought of trying the stage, but found that his voice was too weak. Supporting himself in the meanwhile with a desultory clerkship, he scored his first success in 1830 with some delineations of Little Russian peasant life, entitled "Evenings at a Farm near Dikanka," by Rudy Panko. Shortly after this he was appointed Professor of History at the University of St. Petersburg. His first few lectures were brilliant, but he soon wearied of the work, and finally threw it up in 1835. During this period his pen was by no means idle. He wrote a number of stories and sketches, chiefly descriptive of Malo-Russian life, such as "The Quarrel of the two Ivans" and "Old-fashioned Landowners." His success was assured by the production of a romance called Taras Bulba, relating the career of a Zaporozhian[3] Cossack chieftain. He broke fresh ground in 1836 with the Revizor. This uncompromising satire on Russian bureaucracy procured him a host of enemies, who took care to retaliate upon him. The generosity of the Emperor Nicholas, however, provided him with the means of escaping from their attacks, and enabled him to dispel his melancholy tendencies by an extended tour on the Continent. During his stay in Italy he wrote the first part of his most celebrated work, Myorivuiya Dushi (Dead Souls). This singular title was applied to serfs who had died between the "revisions" or censuses, held at irregular intervals before the Emancipation of 1861. The book describes the adventures of the speculator Chichikov, who travels about Russia, engaged in a traffic in dead serfs in order to pawn them to the State. Dead Souls appeared in 1842, and soon achieved a marked popularity. By ridiculing the proprietors and depicting the wretchedness of the muzhiks, Gogol may be said to have helped in preparing Russia for the great Liberation which was accomplished twenty years after.

In his later years Gogol became a confirmed hypochondriac. He entertained mystical views on religious and social subjects, and abjured his former productions. A fit of depression impelled him to burn the manuscript of the second part of Dead Souls. As a result, the book only exists in an incomplete form, with considerable gaps filled up from a rough draft found after his death. In 1846 Gogol went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, the Mecca of the Orthodox. Eventually he returned to Moscow, and lived on the hospitality of his friends. He passed from house to house, with a bag full of newspaper extracts and criticisms in which his works were unfavourably reviewed. Outliving his literary productiveness by some years, he died at the early age of forty-three on March 3rd, 1852.

Those who personally knew Gogol in the forties describe him as an awkward and badly-dressed little man, with a sidelong gait, extremely shy and uncommunicative, except in the society of children and his intimate friends. A large nose and a huge lock of hair falling over his right eyebrow gave him a somewhat eccentric appearance. It is not recorded that he was ever in love, and he died unmarried.

The Inspector-General, like Dead Souls, is now firmly established as a Russian classic. An enthusiastic critic, Dudishkin, has gone so far as to lay down his opinion that "Russia possesses only one comedy—The Revizor—which quite fulfils the requirements of dramatic art." Representations of the play are given from time to time, especially at the Alexandrovski Theatre at St. Petersburg. Jubilee celebrations were held in 1886 in the two capitals. Matters were different, however, fifty years earlier. Difficulties were thrown in the way of its original production on the stage, as the chinovniks of the day considered it not sufficiently "well-intentioned" in tone. They would have succeeded in suppressing such an outspoken satire had not the Tsar Nicholas, as in the case of Krilóv, personally applauded the comedy, laughing heartily over the Town-Governor's embarrassments.

There have been several editions of Gogol's works, including a complete collection published at Moscow in 1856-57. Some of his novels have been translated, but I have not seen an English rendering of the Revizór. I do not think any translation has as yet been published in England or America. Sosnitski's edition, dated 1886, which introduces some slight changes in the text and punctuation, is followed in the present version. The original manuscript is in the possession of Professor TikhonraVof, of Moscow University.

Gogol has embodied some criticisms on his play, and views on comedy in general, in his Teatralni Razyezd, or Departure from the Theatre. In this piece the author, after being concealed in the foyer, soliloquises on the different and not always complimentary opinions passed on his play by the audience at the close of the performance. "I overheard more than I expected," he says. " So they complain that there is not a single honest character in the piece. Well, at any rate, honest ridicule is present throughout." The state of his feelings may also be gathered from some extracts which I translate freely from a letter of his to Pushkin, written shortly after the first representation—.

"... The Revizor has been played, but I am perplexed and distressed about it.... My creation seemed strange and foreign to me. The principal part was a failure, as I expected. Durr (the actor) had not the faintest conception of Khlestakov's personality. He gave us a farcical scapegrace borrowed from the Paris theatres—he was the hackneyed liar who has appeared on our stage in exactly the same costume for the last two centuries. Cannot the character of Khlestakov be divined from his part ? Have I in my self-conceit so lamentably failed to give indications for the actor's guidance? Yet I thought it was clear enough. Khlestakov is not an intentional impostor, or a liar by profession; he forgets that he is telling falsehoods, and almost believes what he is saying. His spirits rise, as he finds he is a success he becomes expansive, poetic, inspired. How much of that, pray, was expressed ? Why, not a bit of recognisable individuality did poor Khlestakov exhibit. . . . As a matter of fact, he is one of a set of not very distinguished young people, who sometimes behave well and talk sensibly. It is only in exceptional circumstances that his mean and insignificant nature is revealed. . . . In a word, he is a combination of many different Russian types. We all are, or have been, Khlestakovs only we don't care to admit it. We prefer to laugh at the failing in other people. The smart cavalry officer, the man of state, even the literary sinner, have all, for once in their lives at least, played the part. . . .

"On the opening night I felt uncomfortable from the very first as I sat in the theatre. Anxiety for the approval of the audience did not trouble me. There was only one critic in the house—myself—that I feared. I heard clamorous objections within me which drowned all else. However, the public, as a whole, was satisfied. Half of the audience praised the play, the other half condemned it, but not on artistic grounds. What they said I will tell you on our next meeting. Their criticisms were partly instructive and partly absurd. . . .

"When played, I noticed that the beginning of the fourth act was tame. It seemed that the action dragged, after developing with sufficient rapidity. So, on my return home, I at once reconstructed this act.[4] As it now stands, I think it has gained in force—or at any rate, in truth to nature.

"One word more, about the last scene. It was a hopeless failure. The curtain hung for an awful minute, and the play did not seem properly ended. It was not my fault. The final scene will never be a success until it is rendered simply as a tableau vivant. . . . But I was told that to do so would be to limit the actors' powers, that a ballet- master would be wanted, that their dignity would suffer, etc., etc. What these etceteras were I gathered from their looks, which were more unpleasantly expressive than their language. All the same, I stick to my opinion, and repeat it a hundred times over. The restrictions of a tableau vivant do not bar the exercise of histrionic talent any more than banks impede a river, which, on the contrary, gains in rapidity and volume by flowing between them. . . . There is a great variety of ways in which to express speechless amazement. The alarm of the different characters varies with their degree of guilt and the elasticity of their consciences. Each should carry out his role to a consistent end. They can remain great actors, though they may have to submit to the directions of a ballet-master.

"But I have not strength enough to fuss and wrangle further. I am tired out in body and mind. I swear, no one knows or can believe the sufferings I have undergone. I am sick of my play, and long to hurry off—God knows where! Only a steamer-voyage and a change of scene can cure me. Heaven only knows how I thirst for them I For God's sake, come and see me soon. I will not start without bidding you good-bye. There are still many things to discuss which I cannot tell you in a dull and tiresome letter. , . .

"St. Petersburg, May 25th, 1836."

With regard to the translation of the play, it remains to add that the contracted forms of rapid conversational English are employed throughout, in accordance with stage usage. Ungrammatical and slang renderings are occasionally given, to correspond with the uneducated jtyle of some of the characters. A free use of italics was also necessary, to indicate the proper emphasis, and to give the force of some of the untranslatable Russian particles. To avoid stiff- ness, the second person singular (ti) is replaced by the English you. Certain Russian phrases and terms are perhaps more effective than their English equivalents, and I have accordingly retained them, with due explanation. It is hoped that the present version, without being slavishly literal, has kept as close to the original as the difference of the two spoken idioms will permit. The notes at the end are on points in connection with the play which seem to call for extended comment. I have occasionally referred to well-known authorities, such as Kovalevski, Reiff, and Leroy-Beaulieu, and wish especially to acknowledge the assistance and information afforded me by Mr. A. F. Litvinoff. In conclusion, the frontispiece is a line-drawing taken from two sources—the 1841 portrait by F. Moller, and a rather more flattering likeness published by Wesenberg & Co., St. Petersburg.

notes[edit]

  1. His last fable, The Velmozha (Grandee), was published in 1843. It described a faineant magnate as being sent to Paradise on the ground that he would only have done mischief if he had concerned himself with the duties of government. This satire on the authorities was accordingly pigeon-holed by the censors. Krilov, however, found means of reading it to the Tsar Nicholas, who was greatly amused, and embraced him, with the words, "Write away, old man, write away! He died, however, the following year.
  2. The word gogol is the Russian name for the "golden-eye," a kind of wild duck (fuligula clangula) called in German die Schelle Ente from the bell-like sound of its flight.
  3. Literally, beyond tinthe porogi, the granite ledges or rapids of the Dniepr. The Zaporozhtst were so called to distinguish them from the Cossacks of the Don, and of the Yaik, or Ural. They formed originally a military republic, with their Syech (head-quarters), on an island at the confluence of the Dniepr and the Samara, below Yekaterinoslav. Disbanded in 1777, they emigrated to Turkey and the Caucasus. Gogol's father at one time held the honorary post of Military Secretary to the Zaporozhian Cossacks.
  4. Gogol excised two scenes from Act IV., one a dialogue between Anna and Marya, the other between Khlestakov and Rastakovski.