Now that we have reviewed the grisly death of Alexander Sergeevich Griboedov, it is time to turn to his major work. Griboedov’s short stage play, Горе от ума, which title usually translated into English as “Woe From Wit“, is one of the finest classics of Russian literature. (A more accurate translation might be something like: “Grief comes from being too smart”.)
Most English speakers are familiar with the old joke which goes something like, “Shakespeare’s plays are really good, except that he uses so many cliches.”
Just like Shakespeare, Griboedov invented so many “winged expressions” that Russians to this day speak like characters from his play. Along with Griboedov and Pushkin, only Ilf/Petrov in modern times have had as much influence on the way that people actually speak. Well, one should also mention Lev Natanovich Sharansky, another great modern Russian writer famous for his “winged expressions”. All of those mentioned did not so much change the Russian language, as just invent new, creative ways for people to express themselves in Russian.
Griboedov as a Mason
One of the first Masonic Lodges in St. Petersburg Russia was founded around 1750. Among the ideas promoted by Masonism were “Enlightenment”, liberalism, modernity, and European values (of the time). The Lodges were tolerated and flourished in Russia for a while, until they were partially banned by Empress Catherine. Catherine believed (perhaps correctly) that Masonic ideas had somehow led to the French Revolution, and to the notion that regicide was an okay way to solve one’s political problems. In 1796 Tsar Paul completely banned the Masons. But they started up again under Tsar Alexander I, who was probably a Mason himself. Russian Masons were not politically monolithic, but the more radical wing among them (including the radical wing of the Decembrists) believed that serfdom should be abolished. Some Decembrists supported the idea of a Constitutional Monarchy. Others wanted to do away with the monarchy altogether and establish a Republic, like in France, after the Revolution.
Griboedov figured among the outstanding members of the St. Petersburg Lodges. “During the Patriotic War of 1812, Petersburg masons took part in setting up hospitals and relief organisations for refugees. The majority of the masons supported the liberal opposition; practically all the members of secret societies were members of Masonic lodges (see Decembrists).” Every Russian schoolchild knows the story of Alexander Pushkin, his dodgy relations with the Decembrists, and how those ties almost got him hanged by Tsar Nikolai I. References to these secret societies abound in Griboedov’s play, such as the character Famusov’s famous rant against “carbonari”, i.e, Jacobins. I believe it is safe to assume that Griboedov’s hero, Alexander Chatsky, is a Mason of semi-Radical views.
Literary History and Stage Performances
I cite some stuff from here. Prior to composing his master work, Griboedov had written a few earlier plays, which were performed on the Petersburg stage. He started composing “Wit” as early as 1816, but didn’t finish it until around 1824. All this time he had a job as a full-time member of the Russian diplomatic corps. Much of the play was composed while he was stationed in Tbilisi, Georgia. While composing his masterpiece, Griboedov staged readings and received input and notes from several well-known playwrights and actors of the day. He was partly inspired by French playwright Molière’s “Le Misanthrope”. The French influence is very strong and can be seen in the “bedroom farce” aspects of “Woe”. For example, right in the beginning scene, you have the young girl playing bedroom games with her suitor, while the frisky maid attempts to divert the suspicious old father. All of these “types” come from French comedy.
However, Griboedov did not write his play in French, and his intention was to have his characters speak in completely colloquial and modern (at the time) Russian. Albeit that they speak in rhyming iambic verse – another feature that makes this work so brilliant …. and so impossible to translate into other languages! In summary, I believe it would be safe to call this play an example of a “Drawing Room Comedy” with political overtones.
In 1825, the year of the Decembrist uprising, Griboedov’s play went to the printing press, but with large bites taken out of it by the Royal Censor. The written version became an instant hit, especially among the pro-Decembrist and pro-Masonic intelligentsia.
In 1833, after the author’s death, the play was finally published almost in full. The complete version had to wait until 1861.
Stage performances of the play started as early as 1825. The Russian wiki entry I linked gives a full history of all known performances of this play, both in tsarist, Soviet, and Russian Federation times. If this list is up to date, then the latest known performance was in 2015, in the Pushkin Theater in Kursk. A couple of film versions were also made (1952, 1977, and the year 2000).
As usual, I begin with the backstory, the things that happened in the past before the curtain even opens on Act I.
Childhood sweethearts Alexander Chatsky and Sofia Famusova, both from noble families, grew up together in Moscow. Even as children, Chatsky always assumed that they would be married some day.
But then Chatsky abruptly left Moscow, went to travel around the world, and never even bothered to write to Sofia. Which, effectively, put an end to their relationship.
Three years go by. Sofia is 17 years old. She is a normal teenaged girl with normal emotions. If she had any distingishing trait, it would be a healthy practicality. Unlike other “romantic era” heroines who might kill themselves for an impossible love, Sofia more resembles the girls in Mozart’s opera Così fan tutte. (Mozart was a Mason too, by the way. And Masons of that time tended to be suspicious of women’s supposed fickleness!)
In other words, to girls like Sofia, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. She was ticked off that Chatsky left her so abruptly. But she doesn’t waste too much time pining for the lost love. Instead, she embarks on a new relationship: with her father’s clerk, Alexei Molchalin. Chatsky is gone — out of sight, out of mind –, but Molchalin is at hand: he even lives with the Famusov family, right there in their household, therefore Sofia has many opportunities to speak and interact with him. Does Molchalin love her back? Well, that’s for me to know, and you to find out!
Scene 1. When the curtain opens, it is dawn, and audiences are left to guess if Sofia has done something naughty with Molchanin. Probably not: there is the sound of piano and flute playing. Sofia and Molchalin have spent the entire night jamming together in her bedroom. Sofia’s personal serf Lizanka (Liza) has been keeping watch in the living room outside the bedroom door. When the music stops, Liza realizes that she has fallen asleep on her watch; she is worried that the “master”, Mr. Famusov, will arrive and find his daughter in this compromising situation.
Scene 2. And sure enough, Sofia’s father Famusov walks in and finds Liza trying to reset the hands on the clock, in order to force the chimes to play. (In case Famusov wonders why he heard music.) Famusov immediately proceeds to sexually harass the maid, trying to hug and kiss her. Liza resists him with plucky aplomb and winged words. And then has to try to keep him from catching his daughter with Molchalin. Liza spins some story about Sofia spending the entire night reading French novels, and only now has fallen asleep. While talking excessively loudly, in the hope that Sofia will hear her, and be warned. Sofia doesn’t get it, and calls out to her maid. In classic French bedroom-farce style, Famusov tiptoes away to hide and eavesdrop. The frisky Liza utters the famous winged couplets:
Ушёл… Ах! от господ подалей;
У них беды себе на всякий час готовь,
Минуй нас пуще всех печалей
И барский гнев, и барская любовь.
“He’s gone. Ah! Keep those masters far away from us.
They cause so many problems when they are around.
They are a source of endless grief.
I don’t know which is worse, the master’s wrath, or the master’s love.”
Scene 3. Unaware that her father is lurking about, Sofia comes out of her bedroom, holding hands with Molchalin. Sofia is apparently pleased with whatever she was doing in there with her beau, and laments the quickness with which the night flies by. Sofia’s winged phrase: Счастливые часов не наблюдают. (“Happy people don’t watch the clock.”) Liza scolds Sofia for her carelessness and forcing her to lie to the master. Which will all come down eventually on her (=Liza’s) head. Sofia parts with Molchalin, stating that she will have to endure another day of boredom before they can be together again. Molchalin starts to leave, but collides with Famusov.
Scene 4. Famusov greets Molchanin, but asks his daughter, suspiciously, what they were doing together. Sofia lies effortlessly, saying that he (=Molchanin) just happened by at that moment. Molchanin backs up her lie by saying he just returned from a morning walk. Famusov makes it pretty clear that he is not at all fooled by these tall tales. He proceeds to a famous rant, how reading French novels leads to the ruin of society’s mores, not to mention annoying fashion trends among young girls.
Sofia then employs Gambit #2: Going on the offensive, she accuses her father of scaring her with his sudden appearance. Famusov retorts with the touching story, how he, a widower, raised his daughter alone. Another rant (Famusov is famous for his rhyming rants), how in modern society noble girls are taught to sing and dance, as if preparing them for marriage to circus freaks. Then, turning to Molchanin: “I took you, a man without his own family, into my home, promoted you to the rank of Assessor and employed you as my personal secretary. I brought you to Moscow; if it weren’t for me, you would have been stuck in Tver. And look how you repayed me!”
Sofia then tries another lie: That Molchanin simply wandered into the wrong room. Famusov expresses his skepticism.
Whereupon Sofia embarks upon a rather interesting and subtle (almost Freudian) gambit against her father: She mentions that she heard her father speaking to Liza, that the tone of his voice frightened her (=Sofia), and she had to rush over to see what was going on. Continuing in this Freudian vein, Sofia makes up a story about a dream she was supposedly in the middle of, when awoken abruptly by her father’s voice. Famusov sits down to listen, as Sofia narrates her made-up, but highly symbolic dream: She was wandering through a flowery meadow, when suddenly she saw a young man, bright but timid, a man who was born into poverty….
Famusov knows immediately where this is going: “Spare me the blow. A poor man is not good husband material for you.”
Sofia continues with her fake dream: Everything vanished suddenly, the meadow, the sky. Now she is alone and back in her room. Suddenly the floor opens up, and her father appears as if from the depths: Pale and with hair standing on end. Other horrors pile on: half-people, half-animals appear, tormenting her “beloved” young man. Whom she regards as more precious than any treasure. She tries to rescue him — but he is dragged away, as the monsters wail demonically. Waking abruptly from this nightmare, she heard her father’s voice and came running to see what was going on.
Famusov then questions Molchalin, who affirms that he too, heard Famusov’s voice. Only, in Molchalin’s case, he thought it was time to bring him (=Famusov) some papers he was working on.
Mention of the papers that need his signature, seems to put Famusov on the right track. He dismisses his daughter and walks off with Molchalin.
Scene 5. Liza is left alone with Sofia, rebuking her mistress for putting all — including herself and Molchalin, at risk. Liza advises Sofia that her father will never permit her to marry a man of Molchalin’s humble background. Liza thinks that Famusov would prefer a man like Colonel Skalozub as his son-in-law. Sofia replies that she would rather drown herself than marry a fool like Skalozub.
Liza then brings up Sofia’s childhood sweetheart, Alexander Chatsky. Who is sensitive, as well as funny and witty. Sofia agrees that Chatsky is a jokester and is chatty, makes fun of everybody and everything. Liza recalls the day when Chatsky parted with them: “I remember how pale he looked, and how tearful, when he parted with you. And he said that he didn’t know what he would find when he returned. If he would have lost you….”
At this Sofia scolds her servant for taking too many liberties. And then goes on to explain, quite sanely and rationally, why she is truly “over with” Chatsky and no longer loves him:
“It is true that Chatsky and I grew up together. It was our custom to spend every day together, inseparable. We were bound by our childish friendship. But later he started visiting more rarely, it was like we bored him. And then he changed again, and seemed to be in love with me, his love made him jealous and irritable. He is a sharp-witted man, eloquent, easily makes friends, thinks highly of self, decided to travel and see the world. If he had really been in love with me, he would have stayed here and not decided to travel so far away.”
Liza feebly tries to defend Chatsky. She posits that Chatsky was ill, and needed to bathe in the mineral baths abroad.
Sofia reiterates that Chatsky just found them all boring, he is a selfish and self-indulgent cad. She claims that her new love, Molchalin, is different: He is honorable and steadfast. And behaved like a perfect gentleman: Even though they spent the entire night together, he did not attempt more than just to hold her hand and emit sighs.
Scene 6. And at that very moment, by coincidence, a servant pokes his head in to announce, that Alexander Chatsky has returned and wishes to see them!
Scene 7. Chatsky, who has finally decided to ask for Sofia’s hand in marriage, enters the living room, grasps Sofia’s hand, kisses it ardently, then launches into a speech how much he missed her, and how he rushed home to be reunited with her. Sofia greets him coolly. We, the readers, already know that Sofia does not love Chatsky any more and will not love him again. But he, poor fool, does not know that yet. Chatsky is all ablaze with memories, how he and Sofia as children, used to play hide and seek, and steal kisses under the table when her governess was not looking. He praises her beauty, now in full bloom, and asks her directly if she is seeing someone else. This is the moment when Sofia really should tell him that she is in love with Molchalin. But she doesn’t.
Chatsky then starts in on one of his favorite pasttimes: In a long and famous rant, he talks trash against the city of Moscow, and Muscovites, while also making fun of several people he used to know. This arouses Sofia’s ire: She is more patriotic about her home town, and clearly no longer appreciates Chatsky’s sarcasm. Especially when his “wit” turns to mocking the hapless Molchalin. “Is he still here?” Chatsky asks, “and still doesn’t have anything to say?”
Sofia utters under her breath: Не человек, змея! (“He’s not a person, he’s a snake!”) And then asks Chatsky a very pertinent question: “Do you ever have anything nice to say about anyone?”
Chatsky then laments her coldness towards him, while simultaneously declaring that he is in love with her. Once again: This would have been a good time for Sofia to break it off with him, decisively. But she doesn’t. Big mistake. Although, when Chatsky declares that he will march into the fire if she so orders, she replies succintly: “Then go ahead and burn.” [Hint to Chatsky: She’s really not into you any more.]
Scene 8. Famusov enters the scene. Sofia makes a sarcastic remark to her father, to the effect that her dream or nightmare is coming to pass. Presumably because of Chatsky’s appearance. Chatsky being one of the “beasts” or “monsters” who attempted to separate her from her beloved quiet man, in her fake dream. She then leaves Famusov alone with Chatsky and Liza.
Scene 9. Famusov greets Chatsky, remarking how the latter didn’t write a single letter in all the three years that he was away. Chatsky can only talk about Sofia, and how beautiful she has gotten. Chatsky then excuses himself to go back to his own home, saying he will check in with his own folks, then return within an hour.
Scene 10. Left alone, Famusov ponders which catastrophe would be worse: For his daughter to marry Molchalin or Chatsky? One being of humble origins; and the other a worthless dandy.
[to be continued]