Yesterday I took you through Act II of Griboedov’s masterpiece, Горе от ума. And if you know your Russian drama (which for most Westerners means Chekhov), then you can probably sense already that things are leading to a big explosion. Remember Chekhov’s old saw about “showing the pistol in Act II”. Well, Griboedov, at the end of Act II showed his Molchalin, in all its true colors, when it tried to grab the maid, Liza’s, ass. How, you are thinking, could a clever and practical-minded girl like Sofia fall for such a creep? In a word: Seventeen.
But without further ado, let us continue to unravel this plot:
Scene 1. Chatsky is waiting to ambush Sofia. He is determined to force the truth out of her — who is her new beau? Skalozub? or Molchalin? [hint: the answer is Molchalin] Chatsky muses: “Molchalin used to be so stupid. Has he gotten smarter?” Chatsky still has so much respect for Sofia, that he cannot imagine her falling for a dumb guy.
Sofia walks in, Chatsky greets her in a friendly fashion, but once again she rebuffs him coldly, even rudely. Chatsky comes out and asks her directly: “Whom do you love?” And once again, Sofia deflects the question and will not answer him. Once again, Sofia could have put an end to this ordeal already back in Act I, just by telling Chatsky that it’s over and that she loves Molchalin. But she doesn’t. Why not? I don’t know the answer to that question, but it’s probably worth at least a Master’s thesis or two.
They continue to duel verbally, in witty couplets. Chatsky has a big monologue where, deliberately pretending to have become more tolerant, he concedes that Molchalin might have gotten smarter over the years; or maybe he (Chatsky) misjudged him (Molchalin) to begin with. But even supposing Molchalin is not stupid, does that mean he is filled with the right emotions of love and tenderness? Is he really capable of loving Sofia the way he (Chatsky) does.
Chatsky’s gambit is clever: He tries to instill doubts in Sofia’s head about Molchalin’s true feelings and character. “Even suppose that he has gotten smarter with every hour that goes by, does he still actually deserve you, that’s my single question.” And then, in a rare moment of maturity, Chatsky ends with an emotional appeal to Sofia to tell him the truth about her feelings: “If you can convince me that he is worthy of you, then I could bear the loss more equitably. Try to convince me, the person you grew up with, as a friend or brother. Then I could cope with this news and not go mad. Do that, and I’ll just leave, go away, cool my emotions, not think about love any more, just travel around the world, or something like that.”
Sofia responds to Chatsky’s appeal with her usual lies and evasions. Once again, she has an opportunity to put an end too all of this, simply by telling the truth. Instead, she uses the opportunity to just poke at Chatsky some more. About his narcissism, his lack of feelings towards others. “All you have is contempt for other people. Everything is just a joke to you!” She then praises Molchalin, again stirring Chatsky’s jealousy: “He (Molchalin) has been with us for three years now, and everybody in the household likes him. Father sometimes get angry without cause, but Molchalin has a way of calming him down. He takes Papa’s abuse in silence and forgives him afterwards. He has opportunities to go out and have fun, but he doesn’t. When we young people are laughing and having a good time, he (Molchalin) stays with the older people, he’ll spend a whole day with them just playing cards.”
Chatsky responds in wonder: “He spends the whole day playing cards? And is silent when people verbally abuse him!?”
And Chatsky then comes to an incorrect conclusion inside his own head. Instead of seeing the obvious, in an aside to himself, he notes: “She does not respect him.” This is a case of “different realities”: Sofia finds Molchalin’s timidness and willing to please others, as something appealing. This is one of the reasons why she loves him. But to Chatsky these characteristics are contemptible. He cannot even imagine how anyone can find them appealing.
Sofia then utters this rather perceptive bit, which gives a hint why she sees Molchalin, as opposed to Chatsky, as good husband material:
Конечно нет в нём этого ума,
Что гений для иных, а для иных чума,
Который скор, блестящ и скоро опротивит,
Который свет ругает наповал,
Чтоб свет об нём хоть что-нибудь сказал;
Да эдакий ли ум семейство осчастливит?
Of course he doesn’t have that type of sharp mind, which some consider to be genius, and others a plague. A mind which is quick, brilliant, and soon repulses. A mind which curses out the whole world. And which the world eventually might curse back, with the reproach: “Does such a mind lead to a happy family?”
To go all Freudian: Recall that Sofia has been raised by an irascible father who is a funny old doddard, but still has his dark side. A windbag who curses out the staff and sexually harasses the servant girls. Chatsky is actually nothing like him, but there is still a slight commonality: Both love to dish it out to others. Sofia is looking for a man who is completely different from that mold. One who is quiet, not a windbag or braggart, and who is respectful towards others. She believes (incorrectly) that she sees these qualities in Molchalin.
And again, Chatsky simply does not get it. Aside to himself: “She doesn’t give a damn about him!” Thus proving that, for all his education, he is stupider than Molchalin.
And Chatsky comes away from this confrontation with a stronger sense of denial, and in the strengthened belief that Sofia cannot possibly be in love with a guy like that idiot Molchalin!
And then turns to discussion of Bachelor #2: “What about Skalozub? Why, he is the very model of a military hero! Straight out of a novel.”
“Not my novel,” Sofia responds curtly.
“Then who else?” Chatsky demands, racking his brain, who could be Bachelor #3.
Scene 2. Liza dashes in to inform Sofia, in a whisper, that, as per instructions, Molchalin is coming to see her. Sofia lies to Chatsky, that she has to go and get her hair curled, in preparation for the party that evening. Sofia retires into her room, along with Liza.
Scene 3. Molchalin appears, in search of Sofia. Chatsky engages him in conversation. This scene between the two rivals is chock-full of Chatskyisms. When Molchalin brags that he has received 3 promotions already, due to his work in the Archives. Chatsky asks him (Molchalin) what he considers to be his special talents. “Two,” Molchalin replies, “moderation and accuracy”. Poking a bit at Chatsky, he asks him why he never received a rank of any sort. “You weren’t successful in the service?” he pokes. Chatsky replies with the famous couplet:
Чины людьми даются,
А люди могут обмануться.
(“Ranks are awarded by men.
And men can be mistaken.”)
Molchalin then goes on a rant about a noted dignitary-noblewoman named Tatiana Yurievna, whom he met in Petersburg, and who had some negative things to say about Chatsky. Chatsky professes not to know her. This dowager apparently controls all of the Petersburg beau monde, gives balls year round. Molchalin asks Chatsky whether he would consider entering the service in Moscow, he could receive some promotions while also living merrily. Chatsky replies with the famous verses:
Когда в делах — я от веселий прячусь,
Когда дурачиться — дурачусь,
А смешивать два эти ремесла
Есть тьма искусников, я не из их числа.
(“When I am working, I don’t play. And when it’s time to play, I play. But mixing these two things — a lot of people do that, but I am not one of them.”)
Molchalin then goes on another servile rant about a man named Foma Fomich, who is a Minister in the government, and also a writer. Chatsky responds negatively about the man and his compositions. Molchalin then says something stupid about how he (Molchalin) is still too young to have his own opinions. Chatsky’s reply:
Помилуйте, мы с вами не ребяты,
Зачем же мнения чужие только святы?
(“Forgive me, but you and I are not children.
Why are only the opinions of other people held sacred?”)
Molchalin: “We must be dependent on others.”
Molchalin: “Because we are of lower rank.”
С такими чувствами, с такой душою
Любим!.. Обманщица смеялась надо мною!
(“With such opinions, with such a shallow soul, and to be loved…. No! That little vixen was just teasing me.”)
Scene 4. With Chatsky once again reassuring himself, in his own blindness, there is a slight break in the time and place of the action. Now it’s evening, and the servants are preparing the house for the party. All the doors are wide open, except for the door into Sofia’s room. Servants are placing card tables, along with chalk and other gambling paraphernalia. The head servant announces the arrival of the carriage of a lady named Natalia Dmitrevna, along with her husband. But then everybody rushes out, because the carriages continue to arrive like lemmings..
Scene 5. Natalia Dmitrievna enters, with no else around, except for Chatsky. She turns out to be a young woman. After a moment, she recognizes Chatsky, but sees him out of context, as she didn’t know he was in Moscow. They haven’t seen each other in three years. Linguistic note: Chatsky compliments Natalia on how she has changed and looks better now; his remarks are gallant and flirtatious by the standards of that time, but by today’s standards would be considered a terrible insult to any woman:
Однако, кто, смотря на вас, не подивится?
Полнее прежнего, похорошели страх;
Моложе вы, свежее стали;
Огонь, румянец, смех, игра во всех чертах.
“Who, looking at you, would not be amazed at the change? You’re plumper than before, you’ve put on weight, gotten a lot better looking [“похорошеть” – literally to get better, but meant in those days “to put on weight“]. You look younger, fresher. The fire, the color in your cheeks…”
Natalia breaks off his flirting by announcing that she is married; and there might be the insinuation that she is pregnant – hence the weight gain. She points out her husband in the crowd, his name is Platon Mikhailich. He is a military man, now retired. His doting wife avers that, had he stayed in the service, he would be the Moscow Commandant by now.
Scene 6. When Platon approaches, Chatsky realizes that they know each other. In their conversation Platon reveals that married life is terribly boring. Natalia has trained him away from his former exciting life in the army. Now he takes flute lessons and engages in such activities as horse-dressing. Natalia fusses over his poor health, and it becomes pretty clear how hen-pecked the poor fellow is.
Platon whines: Теперь, брат, я не тот…
(“I am not the same man I used to be.”)
While the all-controlling Natalia continues to fuss at hubby, orders him to button up his jacket and keep away from the draft coming from the doors. And by the way, Natalia seems like a prototype of the main character in Anton Chekhov’s short-story Душечка (“Dushechka — Little Darling“). She is the kindly but ever-fussing controlling wife whom men should avoid. The Smother-Mother.
Chatsky pronounces judgement on his ill-fated ex-comrade:
Ну, Бог тебя суди;
Уж точно, стал не тот в короткое ты время;
Не в прошлом ли году, в конце,
В полку тебя я знал? лишь утро: ногу в стремя
И носишься на борзом жеребце;
Осенний ветер дуй, хоть спереди, хоть с тыла…
(“Let god be your judge.
You’re not the same man, indeed, and it happened rather quickly.
Was it not just last year, towards the end of the year,
I knew you when we were in the regiment together?
Barely had morning struck, when your foot was in the stirrup
And you were galloping about on your fiery stallion,
With the autumn wind whistling about your ears…”)
And Platon just repeats mournfully: “I’m not that guy any more.”
[Which, by the way, adds some background to Chatsky’s “three lost years”, by indicating that he had been serving in the regiment with Platon just last year, probably in Petersburg. And not so much “travelling all over the world,” as he had told Sofia.]
Scene 7. Joining this unhappy crew arrive Prince Tugoukhovsky, along with his wife and six daughters. Natalia squeals with glee as she greets the princesses: “Zizi! Mimi!” and they all air-kiss. Griboedov’s stage directions stipulate that the seven young women all sit down and examine each other minutely, from head to foot. The rest of their conversation is just a parody of girlish air-heads commenting on each other’s attire and accessories.
Meanwhile, the older woman, the mother of the six daughters, Princess Tugoukhovskaya notices Chatsky lurking in the corner. Natalia Dmitrievna informs her that the young man has just returned from travelling, and the Princess immediately wants to know if he is a bachelor. On learning that he is, she takes an interest and orders her husband, the Prince, to approach.
Some slapstick comedy ensues, as the Prince is quite deaf and has to hear everything through an ear-horn. And all he can pronounce is “Och” and “Eeech” as his wife chatters on. The Princess is eager for them to invite Chatsky to their place, so that she can check him over and see if he is good husband material. But, upon further questioning of Natalia Dmitrievna, she learns that Chatsky is not rich. Whereupon she loses interest in him.
Scene 8. Two new ladies join the group: The Countesses Khrumina, both grandmother and granddaughter. The slapstick here is that the old lady barely speaks Russian. The granddaughter recognizes Chatsky. Upon learning that he is still a bachelor, she expresses satisfaction that he didn’t marry a foreigner. The famous exchange:
В чужих краях на ком?
О! наших тьма, без дальних справок,
Там женятся и нас дарят родством
С искусницами модных лавок.
Несчастные! должны ль упрёки несть
От подражательниц модисткам?
За то, что смели предпочесть
Why should any man marry a foreigner?
We have tons of our own fully certified ladies.
Some men marry women from over there,
Who make us relatives with gold-diggers from the fashion stores.
Poor fellows! Do they deserve such reproaches
From ladies who imitate (foreign) culture?
Was it their fault that these men preferred
The originals to the copies?
Scene 9. The rest of the guests to the party just keep piling in. Sofia finally emerges from her room. The Granddaughter Countess speaks to Sofia in French, and a man named Anton Zagoretsky asks her if she has a ticket to the show tomorrow. She says no. He gives her a ticket, describing how hard it was to obtain it. The men go to cluster on one side of the parlor. But Platon Mikhailich drives Zagoretsky away. He explains to Chatsky that Zagoretsky is a crook, a swindler and bad type, probably a card cheat too.
Scene 10. Sofia’s aunt, Khlestova arrives. She is 65 years old. She complains about the arduous trip. There is some uncomfortable “racial stuff” going on in this scene, as Khlestova has brought with her two “pets”: a little dog and a little Negro girl. She treats them both equally (both dog and girl) and has sent them to the back of the house to be fed.
Ну, Софьюшка, мой друг,
Какая у меня арапка для услуг:
Курчавая! горбом лопатки!
Сердитая! все кошачьи ухватки!
Да как черна! да как страшна!
Ведь создал же Господь такое племя!
Чёрт сущий; в девичьей она;
“Well, Sofia, my friend,
You should see my little negress servant,
Such curly hair! Such shoulder blades!
She is feisty! And cunning, like a cat!
And how dark she is! And fearsome!
Amazing that God created such a tribe!
A veritable devil. She’s back there, in the servants quarters,
Should I bring her in to meet you?”
Sofia: “That’s okay. I’m good.”
Khlestova reveals that she acquired the negress from … none other than … the rogue Zagoretsky! There is a bit of slapstick here: On hearing his name, Zagoretsky starts to approach them. Khlestova continues by slamming Zagoretsky: He is a card sharp and swindler. Zagoretsky quickly disappears and slinks away. Khlestova continues with the story: Two negro children were purchased at the slave market in some Turkish town, where they are routinely brought out like animals to show to customers. Zagoretsky won them from their original owner, at a card game (where he cheated, of course), and re-gifted them to Khlestova and her sister Praskovia.
Khlestova then notices Chatsky laughing at her story. She recalls him as the boy who used to dance with Sofia; and whom she used to drag around by his ears when he was a child.
Scene 11. Sofia’s father Famusov arrives on the scene, calling loudly for Colonel Skaluzub. Khlestova complains about his bellowing voice.
Scene 12. Skalozub arrives on the scene, shortly followed by Molchalin. Khlestova engages in conversation with Skalozub, who irritates her. Famusov then takes the men away with him to play whist. Khlestova is left feeling angry and neglected. But Molchalin smooths everything over: He guides Khlestova to her table to play cards. Molchalin himself forms the fourth party in their card game. Continuing to suck up to Khlestova, he praises her little doggie and its silky coat, which he says he stroked. Khlestova is mollified.
Scene 13. With most of the other guests gone to play cards, Chatsky is mostly alone with Sofia. Damning with faint praise, Chatsky describes Molchalin as a “lightning rod” who managed to avert social disaster. Chatsky then exits Stage Left.
Scene 14. Left alone for a moment, Sofia muses on why Chatsky bothers her, and why she dislikes him so much: “He loves to degrade other people, he is envious, proud, and angry!”
At this moment, a man known only by his initials G.N. approaches Sofia and asks her how she finds Chatsky. This conversation is extremely important to the plot. Sofia replies: “He is not in his right mind.”
G.N.: “You mean, he is literally crazy?”
Sofia: “Well, not completely…”
G.N.: “But there are symptoms of insanity?”
And this is the moment when Sofia becomes evil and deliberately does a bad thing. Looking at G.N., she replies: “I think so.” And remarks to herself that, since Chatsky loves to make fun of other people, it is only fair that he should get a taste of his own medicine.
In other words, Sofia has decided to play a prank on her former friend. But this is not going to end well.
Scene 15. Another man, known only by his initials (G.D.) enters the scene. G.N. spreads the gossip along to G.D. concerning Chatsky’s clinical insanity. Then rushes off to spread the news to others.
Scene 16. The card-sharp Zagoretsky arrives, and chats with G.D. Zagoretsky picks up and embellishes the story with the “fact” that Chatsky was once committed to the “yellow house” (Russian жёлтый дом, which is an insane asylum). According to Zagoretsky, Chatsky’s uncle had to snare him and send him off to the loony-bin, where he lived chained to the wall. “But he’s here now,” G.N. informs him. Zagoretsky: “They must have let him off his chain.” G.D. then rushes off to spread the gossip even further.
Scene 17. Zagoretsky is informing Countess Granddaughter about Chatsky’s condition.
Scene 18. Countess Grandmother (who speaks mostly French, and Russian only poorly) is brought up to speed on Chatsky’s condition.
Scene 19. Slapstick comedy from Countess Grandmother’s terrible command of the Russian language. Zagoretsky embellishes the story some more: While travelling in the mountains (or serving in the army — probably in Chechnya!), Chatsky was wounded in the forehead. It was the wound that caused him to lose his mind. Countess Grandmother only understands that Chatsky is a Freemason.
Scene 20. Countess Grandmother and Prince Tugoukhovsky. Slapstick comedy from the interchange between an old woman who speaks Russian with a thick French accent vs. an old man who is mostly deaf. But Countess manages to get out that Chatsky is a Freemason and a follower of Voltaire.
Scene 21. Lots of other people pour onto the stage: Khlestova, Sofia, Molchalin, Platon Mikhailich, Natalia Dmitrievna, Countess Granddaughter, the Princess with all the daughters, Zagoretsky, Skalozub, Famusov, and tons more… Everybody is abuzz with the news that Chatsky is insane. Famusov claims the credit for first discovering this “fact”. In fact, he is surprised, given Chatsky’s radical views, that no one before has thought to tie him up. The despicable Molchalin takes the opportunity to stab his little knife into Chatsky’s back: “He advised me NOT to serve in the Archives in Moscow.” Famusov brings in some family history: Chatsky’s deceased mother, Anna Alekseevna, also went mad. Eight times. Khlestova posits that Chatsky went mad from drinking too much champagne. The conversation then turns to educational institutions and how they have corrupted the nation’s youth. Skalozub advises to keep books only for special occasions; whereas Famusov would like to burn them altogether.
Zagoretsky adds some funny verses about “fables” and how dangerous they are, and should be censored. Fables pretend to criticize lions and eagles, but are actually about Kings.
Khlestova remarks compassionately and as a Christian that it is a great pity, because Chatsky used to have a sharp mind, not to mention that he owned 300 “souls” (=serfs). This sparks an argument leading to a screaming match between her and Famusov as to the actual number of serfs owned by Chatsky, 300 or 400.
Scene 22. Chatsky suddenly reappears, and everybody hushes. Famusov speaks cautiously to Chatsky, advising him to rest. Chatsky utters the famous soundbite:
Да, мочи нет: мильон терзаний…
(“I have no strength left. A million torments…”)
When he approaches Sofia, the others make gestures behind his back. Sofia asks him what is wrong, why he is so angry.
Chatsky’s reply is another famous monologue. And reveals the essence of the Russian soul, and why Griboedov, for all his Masonism, was actually a vatnik:
Regardless that Chatsky hates the Russian system, hates feudalism, hates the Tsarist court and civil service; regardless that he is a Mason, a Voltairian; but when push comes to shove, he is upset because…. In the back room Chatsky just met a Frenchman, who came to Russia, in great dread, to visit the “barbarians”, and was relieved to find, that everybody in Russia is actually a European! Everybody he met speaks French, the women all dress in French fashions. Chatsky curses the “blind, slavish” imitation of European customs and fashions. “Let them call me an Old Believer,” Chatsky declaims, “but our land became a hundred times worse when it gave up its own ways for the new order. Our customs, our language, our ancient culture…” Chatsky rants on and on, but when he stops and looks around, everybody has left him, either dancing the waltz out on the floor; or playing cards at the table. Nobody cares.