Yesterday I took you through Act I of Griboedov’s masterpiece, Горе от ума. You may have noticed that the setting and plot are rather simple. This is not Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” nor that other “Scottish play” of his, with castles, ghosts, and complicated sword fights. “Woe” is just a simple drawing-room “comedy” which, in the end is not all that funny; but fortunately nobody dies.
So, “what’s the point?” you say. The point is in the brilliant dialogue and snarky couplets. Sort of like Oscar Wilde plays, I suppose. But with a political bent. Griboedov wrote this play mainly to entertain his Masonic/quasi-Jacobin friends. The dialogue abounds with in-jokes that we probably don’t get, unless we are Russian literature majors writing this up as our PhD thesis. Not to mention political sniping against the existing order: the imperial court, the army, civil service, the institution of serfdom. This from a man who served the Emperor as Ambassador to Persia! That’s just how “liberal” things were in those days.
In staging the play there is much room for interpretation. Full disclosure: I have never been fortunate enough to see a staged version of this play. I only know the written text. Therefore, some of my interpretations may not be correct. For example, I always felt that Sofia had completely gotten over her romance with Chatsky. She was only 14 at the time he left. He returns 3 years later and expects to pick up exactly where they left off. But she clearly doesn’t love, or even like, him any more. Their friendship is over.
I suppose, though, a Hollywood director could stage a “rom-com” (=”romantic comedy” — I learned this American slang neologism literally yesterday) version in which the two young people are reconciled at the end. Sofia realizes that she loved Alex all along, she was just upset that he took off without a word, but it turns out he had a good reason, the FBI were after him for his radical views, they mistook him for a terrorist, but everything was explained eventually, and the two lovers end up in each others arms….. Highly dubious. But anyhow, without further ado….
Scene 1. The pater familias starts right out of the box with some of my favorite lines. While scolding his house-serf Petrushka and almost sounding like a Hollywood director, Famusov orders Petrushka to read out his weekly calendar “with thought and feeling”:
Петрушка, вечно ты с обновкой,
С разодранным локтем. Достань-ка календарь;
Читай не так, как пономарь,
А с чувством, с толком, с расстановкой.
“Petrushka, you are always wearing something new,
And yet with a shirt torn at the elbow. Bring me my calendar.
Don’t read it out in such a drone, like a sexton.
With thought! With feeling! With correct pacing.”
When reading this, and other works, of that era of Russian history, one is always to keep in mind (and the Soviet editions of these works incessantly hammered this point, in the compulsory Intros), that this was a Serf Society. Something like 80% of the population of the Russian Empire were serfs, in other words, personal slaves. They had no more rights than did African-Americans of the same era. They could be bought, sold, punished, killed, with absolutely no repercussions. In a “modernized” American version of Griboedov’s play, the setting would have to be the Deep South of circa 1820, Sofia’s maid Liza would be Prissy from “Gone with the Wind”, and Petrushka would be maybe Bo Jangles from “The Little Colonel”. I can envisage such a play being staged in …. no, on second thought, this is a really BAD idea, so forget it.
Scene 2. As Famusov is reviewing his schedule for the week, Chatsky reappears. Petrushka is dismissed, and the two noblemen have a nice chat. It does not go well. Chatsky continues to ask obsessively about Sofia Pavlovna. This irks Famusov. When Chatsky asks, “What’s it to you?” Famusov reminds him sarcastically that he is Sofia’s father. Chatsky then comes straight out and says he wants to marry Sofia. Famusov recommends that he join the service, whereupon Chatsky retorts with the winged expression:
Служить бы рад, прислуживаться тошно.
(“I’d be happy to serve, just not to be a servant.”)
Famusov then embarks on his famous rant about the “good old days”, including a story about a courtier who was so subservient that he allowed himself to be made a mockery of, when he accidentally fell down at a court reception. All of this simply disgusts Chatsky. “That was a time of subservience and terror,” he retorts, “and all of it under the guise of serving the Tsar.”
“My God, he is a Carbonari!” Famusov exclaims in horror! This was the type of raw meat that Griboedov’s friends and co-thinkers would have gobbled up with glee when attending readings of this play.
The verbal dueling between Famusov and Chatsky continues in these magical rhymes, which, to the young Decembrists of that time, perfectly encapsulated the philosophical differences between younger and older generation:
Нет, нынче свет уж не таков.
(“No, it’s not like that any more.” — unlike the Carbonari times, he means)
(“You’re a dangerous man.”)
Вольнее всякий дышит
И не торопится вписаться в полк шутов.
(“Men breathe more freely now, they don’t rush to join the ranks of circus clowns.”)
Что говорит! и говорит, как пишет!
(“What is he saying? He speaks just like he writes.”)
У покровителей зевать на потолок,
Явиться помолчать, пошаркать, пообедать,
Подставить стул, поднять платок.
(“Nowadays we have servants who do no work for their benefactors, just show up for dinner.” — Chatsky probably referring to Molchalin)
Он вольность хочет проповедать!
(“He is trying to propagandize free-thinking!”)
Кто путешествует, в деревне кто живёт…
(“Some men travel, others live in the countryside.”)
Да он властей не признаёт!
(“He doesn’t recognize any authority!”)
Кто служит делу, а не лицам…
(“Some serve the job itself, and not the individuals.”)
Строжайше б запретил я этим господам
На выстрел подъезжать к столицам.
(“If it were up to me, I would strictly forbid these gentlemen to approach the capital, I would have them all shot.”)
Я наконец вам отдых дам…
(“Okay, I’ll finally leave you alone.”)
Терпенья, мочи нет, досадно.
(“I have no patience left!”)
Scene 3. Tortured to the extreme where he had to cover his ears and chant tongue-twisters to keep out Chatsky’s irrepressively evil words, Famusov finally gets relief when his servant returns, announcing the arrival of a new character: Colonel Skalozub.
Skalozub – the name in Russian means something like “bare your teeth” or “grin like an idiot”. The pompous bragging soldier has been a stock character in European comedy at least since the miles gloriosus character of the Roman plays of Plautus and Terence.
Famusov warns Chatsky to be on his best behavior. Colonel Skalozub, albeit young, has already advanced in rapid paces in his military career, and is expected to be promoted to General someday. More to the point, Famusov informs Chatsky that Skalozub has expressed an interest in marrying Sofia. Famusov then rushes off to greet his new guest, leaving Chatsky alone.
Scene 4. In his brief monologue, Chatsky muses on Sofia’s coldness towards him and wonders if indeed she has found a new love. He determines to figure out if Skalozub is this man. [Once again, I keep thinking that Sofia should have told Chatsky right off the bat that she was in love with Mochalin. To spare him all this guesswork. But in which case, we would have only a very short play.]
Scene 5. Famusov reappears, bringing his new guest, Skalozub. In his stage direction, Griboedov specifies that Skalozub speaks in a deep bass voice. He also specifies that the three men (Famusov, Skaluzub and Chatsky) all sit down on the sofa together, but Chatsky, typically, at a distance from the other two. Famusov and Skalozub chat about relatives and the army service. In his famous couplets, Skalozub brags about the medals he and his brother received for service in the Napoleonic war:
В тринадцатом году мы отличались с братом
В тридцатом егерском, а после в сорок пятом.
(“In 1813 my brother and I served together in the 30th Jaeger Regiment, and later in the 45th.”)
Да, счастье, у кого есть эдакий сынок!
Имеет, кажется, в петличке орденок?
(“Any parent would be proud to have such a son. Did you get a medal/pin in your buttonhole?”)
За третье августа; засели мы в траншею:
Ему дан с бантом, мне на шею.
(“Yes, for the 3rd of August events. We were in the trenches. He got one with a ribbon; mine was to pin on the neck.”)
Based on this description, Russian scholars believe that Skalozub’s brother received the “Order of St. Vladimir” of the Fourth Degree, with a ribbon; and Skalozub himself the “Order of St. Vladimir” of the Third Degree; or possibly the “Order of Saint Anne” of the Second Degree, both of which are placed on the neck.
Skalozub goes to brag about his successful military career; eventually he will be promoted to General. Famusov mentions that a General needs a wife (“Generalsha”), then engages in a long and famous rant about the capital Moscow, and its women. Skalozub utters the famous couplet:
По моему сужденью,
Пожар способствовал ей много к украшенью
(“In my opinion, the fire really helped to beautify Moscow.”)
It’s the standard joke about the burning of Moscow at the time of Napoleon’s retreat, and how the rebuilt Moscow was such an improvement on the old. Because the Russians had to rebuild all the houses and streets, and when they did, it was in a newer style.
Chatsky then utters his first words since sitting down on that big couch, and it is the famous couplet:
Дома новы, но предрассудки стары.
Порадуйтесь, не истребят
Ни годы их, ни моды, ни пожары.
(“The houses are new, but the prejudices are old.
Nothing can eradicate them,
Neither years, nor fashion, nor fires.”)
Famusov snaps at Chatsky and warns him to keep his mouth shut. But is then forced to introduce Chatsky to Skalozub. We learn now that Alexander Andreevich is the son of Famusov’s deceased friend and neighbor, Andrei Ilyich Chatsky. According to Famusov, this younger Chatsky is a bit of a loser, he doesn’t want to serve, he is a writer and translator, a waste of a sharp mind. Chatsky sarcsatically asks Famusov to desist from this faint praise. “It’s not just me,” Famusov retorts. “Everybody judges you this same way.”
Chatsky then gets to utter the winged phrase which Russians still say today, as a cliche, but which Griboedov invented:
А судьи кто?
(“And who are these judges?”)
Chatsky proceeds with a big rant about these supposed “judges” of the social order, and their fabled intolerance towards free-thinkers such as himself. As his temper heats up, Chatsky’s rhetoric gets hotter and more political. He cites some “hot cases” of bad conduct among the gentry: A landowner who unleashed vicious dogs against his cronies. Another landowner who took serf children away from their parents, in order to train them for his personal ballet corps; and then later sold them off like slaves, in order to pay his creditors.
To counterpose against these “judges” who approve of the current social order, with all its unfairness, Chatsky offers an example like himself: a man who seeks no title, and who devotes himself solely to intellectual and artistic pursuits. He then bitterly criticizes Russian noblewomen who throw themselves at any man wearing a uniform. The famous couplet:
Когда из гвардии, иные от двора
Сюда на время приезжали, —
Кричали женщины: ура!
И в воздух чепчики бросали!
(“Whenever they see anyone from the Guard, or the court,
They come running, the women shout Hurrah!
And toss their bonnets into the air.”)
Famusov can’t take it any more, and leaves the room.
Scene 6. Left alone with Chatsky, Skalozub makes a moronic remark indicating that he didn’t get what Chatsky was all about.
Scene 7. Sofia and her maid, Liza, enter the scene. Sofia dashes to the window, all in a horror. She sees something that makes her fall into a swoon. Concerned, Chatsky rushes to Sofia’s limp body. Liza reveals what has occurred: Molchalin had tried to mount a horse. Barely was his foot in the stirrup when the horse reared up, throwing the clerk to the ground. Watching out the window, Skalozub shows little sympathy for the clerk, commenting that he is a poor rider, who doesn’t know how to hold the reins. Nonethess, Skalozub leaves to see if he can help.
Scene 8. Chatsky’s only concern is for Sofia. On Liza’s instructions, he goes to pour her a glass of water. Rubs her temples with vinegar, flicks some water droplets on her face. “Look out the window,” he orders Liza. “Molchalin is already back on his feet. I don’t know why she is so upset about this trivial incident.” [earning Chatsky a “duh” point — he still hasn’t figured out, even now, that Molchalin’s is Sofia’s new love!]
Liza responds that “noble ladies” are so sensitive, they cannot bear to watch people take a dive onto the ground. Sofia comes to from her faint; her first words are to ask, how is Molchalin? Is he okay? Chatsky: “I could care less if he broke his neck – he almost did you in.”
Sofia: “Again with that murderous coldness of yours! I don’t want to look at you or see you!”
The ensuing dialogue gives some insight into why Sofia doesn’t like Chatsky any more. It isn’t just about Molchalin. Somehow, in the last three years, Sofia has done some thinking; has come around to the opinion that her former boyfriend is simply a selfish narcissist who cares about nobody else and only likes to make fun of other people.
Chatsky: “You expect me to torture myself over his misfortune?”
Sofia: “You could go out there and try to help him.”
Chatsky: “And leave you alone here, with nobody to help you?”
Sofia: “I don’t need you. Anything that doesn’t hurt you — is just an amusement to you. You could care less if your own papa dropped dead.” [This is just an aphorism; Chatsky’s father is already dead.]
At this point, Chatsky is starting to acquire a tiny clue, that maybe Sofia is fond of Molchalin. Why else would she faint at the sight of him falling off that horse? Meanwhile, people are still keeping watch at the wndow, they see that Molchalin is okay, just looks like he hurt one of his arms, Skalozub has already got Molchalin patched up and with his arm in a sling.
Scene 9. This is now turning into a Chekhov play. They all enter the scene, and Skalozub reports cheerfully that Molchalin slightly broke his arm. Everybody is curious why Sofia fainted. She has to cover up a bit and pretend. She doesn’t want anyone to know about her feelings for the clerk. While Chatsky is watching her like a hawk, she won’t make eye contact with Molchalin. Again lying effortlessly, she claims that she is squeamish about others’ pain, she cannot endure seeing harm come to any person, even somebody she is not particularly acquainted with. She cannot resist an extra poke at Chatsky, about his supposed compassion for others. Chatsky pokes back, saying he does not know for whom he resurrected Sofia, by splashing her with water and bringing her back from the dead. He leaves, in a huff.
Scene 10. Sofia invites Skalozub to a party that night at their house. Skalozub has to decline. He leaves.
Scene 11. Now it’s just Sofia, Liza, and Molchalin. Sofia finally opens up to Molchalin: How much she cares about him. How he scared her by falling off the horse. She had to restrain her feelings in front of the others. She would have thrown herself out the window to rescue him, if she could.
And here Molchalin finally starts to show a bit of his personality. He is cautious, he is not a brave man: He cautions Sofia to be more discrete. He is worried about what people will say. “Why?” Sofia asks him. “Are you worried that you will be called out on a duel?” Molchalin replies with the aphorism:
Ах! злые языки страшнее пистолета.
(“Ah! Evil tongues are more frightening than a pistol.”)
Liza advises Sofia to go join the rest of the crowd and make nice. She can easily win Chatsky’s confidence back by flirting with him. This whole incident will blow over. Sofia looks to Molchalin for advice, but as usual he has no opinion. He won’t go out on a limb for her. Almost in tears, Sofia states that it is very difficult for her to put on a face and pretend. She asks plaintively, “Why did Chatsky have to come back here?”
Scene 12. With Sofia gone, Molchalin is left alone with Liza. And now we get a more-than-clear idea about his personality. The clerk wastes no time at all: He instantly declares his “love” for the parlormaid. “What about the mistress?” Liza asks him tartly. “Oh, her… It’s just my duty to please her. But you…!” And he grabs her and sexually harasses her. (Bednaya Liza — it’s just her fate!)
With Liza resisting (in some productions; in others maybe acting more willing), while still making quips the whole time, Molchalin tries a different tack and resorts to bribery: He offers the maid a “toilet box” — and no, it doesn’t mean what you think. In those days a “toilet box” was a little box for ladies “toiletries” — like perfume, make-up, a little mirror, a sewing kit, that sort of thing.
Liza refuses the gift and asks Molchalin a very pertinent question: “Why are you so quiet and modest with the mistress, but such a scalliwag with the parlormaid?”
Molchalin tells her: “I’m still not feeling well, what with my broken arm and all… But come and dine with me later tonight. I’ll tell you all about myself then.” He slithers out through a side door.
Scene 13. Sofia returns to tell Liza her plans for the evening: She’ll pretend to be ill so that she doesn’t have to go to dinner. Meanwhile, Liza should tell Molchalin to visit her (=Sofia) [in her bedroom] later that evening.
Scene 14. Liza ends Act II by declaiming on the ridiculousness of the situation: Sofia loves Molchalin. Molchalin loves her (=Liza). And she herself (=Liza) is afraid to fall in love, but if she did fall for a guy, it would have to be the butler Petrushka.
[to be continued]