It is finally time to finish my recap of Griboedov’s masterpiece, Горе от ума. Like I said, before that little detour to Teheran: All the elements are now in place for the final catrastrophe, namely the Triumph of Folly.
Griboedov decided to structure his play in Four Acts. Act I is the set-up, Act II introduced the “smoking gun”, so to speak, and Act III contained a lot of sheer buffoonery. When we left off, the heroine Sofia has done something bad. Really bad. She started a rumor about her former friend Chatsky: That he was a madman just escaped from an insane asylum. This was in the days before Social Media so, if you wanted to cyber-bully a friend, then you had to do it at a party or ball. This was not a nice thing to do, and it made my opinion of Sofia fall lower. Although I was already quite chafed with her for not just coming out and telling Chatsky the truth already back in Act I:
That she has fallen for her father’s clerk, the ratty little conformist, Molchalin. Unbeknownst to her father, this 17-year-old hottie spends many a tender night with the clerk, locked up in her bedroom, jamming music together and holding hands. Don’t worry – we learn later in Act IV that they never actually did it. Not so much because Molchalin is a gentleman, as because he fears the consequences of his actions.
Scene 1. The party is winding down, some of the carriages are being readied to take the departing guests back home. Countesses Grandmother and Granddaughter are herded into their carriage, both vociferously complaining about the terrible time they had at the party.
Scene 2. Natalia Dmitrievna and her hen-pecked husband also leave, she fussing at him without mercy the whole time.
Scene 3. Chatsky himself is eager to leave, and asks the lackey to hurry up with his carriage. In a monologue he expresses his disappointment, that the love and happiness he hoped to find here (with Sofia) have all turned to dust. His monologue ends with the famous couplets, indicating that he has fallen into a state of depression:
И едешь час, и два, день целый; вот резво
Домчались к отдыху; ночлег: куда ни взглянешь,
Всё та же гладь, и степь, и пусто и мертво…
Досадно, мочи нет, чем больше думать станешь.
“You ride for an hour, two hours, a whole day, you ride eagerly,
You arrive at the place of rest, a night’s repose, but wherever you look,
It’s still the same desolation, the steppe, everything is empty and dead…
It is vexing, I have no strength left, it gets worse the more you think about it….”
The lackey returns to inform Chatsky that he can’t find a coachman who is free. The young nobleman is upset and impatient: There is no way he is going to spend the night in this awful place.
Scene 4. And now, almost at the 11th hour, Griboedov introduces a brand new character, and quite an interesting fellow, too. His name is Repetilov. He dashes on the stage, does a comic pratfall, and quickly rights himself. This guy is apparently very late for the party. But he does recognize Chatsky, they are old acquaintances. Literary critics believe that Repetilov, like many of the other characters in the play, is an in-joke, a parody of one of Griboedov’s “frienemies”, probably a fellow Mason; and that his other friends would have recognized who it was, and laughed their heads off while watching the play. He is presented as a drunken orator with decidedly “Anglophile” views.
Recall that the Russian Masons of the time were very much like the (much-later) stereotypes of English Trotskyites, with their splinter-groups, splitters, and factions within factions. (Like the old Monty Python skit about the “Judean Popular Liberation Front” as opposed to their mortal enemies the “Popular Liberation Front of Judea”, and so on. Anyhow, Repetilov represents one of these variants, most likely.)
“Why do you demean yourself?” Chatsky challenges the newcomer.
Repetilov replies with his famous drunken rant:
Зови меня вандалом:
Я это имя заслужил.
Людьми пустыми дорожил!
Сам бредил целый век обедом или балом!
Об детях забывал! обманывал жену!
Играл! проигрывал! в опеку взят указом! *
Танцовщицу держал! и не одну:
Пил мёртвую! не спал ночей по девяти!
Всё отвергал: законы! совесть! веру!
“Call me a vandal, if you like!
I deserve it.
I placed too much value on worthless people.
I wandered for a century in seach of dinner, or a ball.
I forgot about my own children, I cheated on my wife!
I gambled, I lost, I was placed under arrest.
I dallied with a dancer, and not just one,
Three girls at once!
I drank the bitter ale. I did not sleep for nine nights in a row!
I rejected everything – laws, conscious, religion!”
Undeterred by Chatsky’s irritation, Repetilov goes on to challenge him: “Guess where I have been today?”
“I think I can guess,” Chatsky replies coldly.
“At the English Club,” Repetilov confirms.
Sidebar: Zavadovsky and the Duel
This sidebar is brought to you by Lyttenburgh, who provided an interesting comment in my previous post about Pushkin’s journey to Erzerum. In Repetilov’s next monologue we will hear him ranting on about the members of the English Club. “Gribo-veds” believe that the “Prince Grigory” of Repetilov’s rant, alludes to a man named Alexander Zavadovsky. Zavadovsky, along with Griboedov, participated in an infamous “4-man duel”, in 1813 or 1814. Which consisted of Zavadovsky vs. Lieutenant Sheremetiev on the one hand; and Griboedov vs. a man named Vasily Yakubovich, on the other. All of this originally incited by a quarrel over a famous ballerina named Avdotia Istomina. About whom Pushkin himself wrote the famous pornographic poem:
Орлов с Истоминой в постеле
В убогой наготе лежал:
Не отличился в жарком деле
Не думав милого обидеть,
Взяла Лаиса микроскоп
И говорит: “Позволь увидеть,
Чем ты меня, мой милый, е…”
(Lyttenburgh didn’t want to translate this, but I will:)
[Prince Alexei Fedorovich] Orlov was lying in bed
With Istomina, in all his pathetic nakedness:
The undependable general had not distinguished himself at all
In the performance of the hot deed.
But not wishing to offend her beloved,
Laisa picked up her microscpe
And said: “Let me see, my dear, what it was,
With which you f****d me.”
All of this tomfoolery happened when Griboedov was just 18, living in Petersburg and serving in the Hussar regiment. Zavadovsky won his part of the duel, against Lieutenant Sheremetiev, mortally wounding the other man. Due to the ensuing fuss and chaos, Griboedov and Yakubovich had to postpone their part of the duel for ten years ! – until 1824 in Tbilisi. Recall Pushkin writing that the consul’s ripped up body could only be identified by the dueling scar on one of his hands, where the bullet had gone all the way through.
With Sheremetiev dead, Zavadovsky went on to provide the template of a character in Griboedov’s play. And — irony of ironies — it is said that Istomina herself later performed in a production of the play on the Moscow stage — playing the role of Sofia!
End of Sidebar
So, Repetilov goes on to describe the “secret rituals” of their club. Again, all of this is inside info and in-jokes for Griboedov’s friends. Repetilov’s “secret society” meets every Thursday at the English Club in Moscow. It consists of the “cream of Moscow youthful intelligentsia”, all twelve of them, who meet to discuss such issues as Lord Byron. Repetilov invites Chatsky to join them, hinting that something special is in the works. (With hints of Revolution and overthrowing the government.) Repetilov then goes on to name the members of the Club: Prince Grigory, a passionate Anglophile [based on Zavadovsky]; Evdokim Vorkulov, who is a great singer; two brothers Levon and Borinka; Ippolit Markelych Udushiev, a writer who hasn’t written much, but they keep him around for better days, he is a highwayman , and duelist, was exiled to Kamchatka for a time…. [Griboveds believe this is Count Fedor Ivanovich Tolstoy.]
And Repetilov rants on and on about his shady friends, when suddenly the lackey reappears with a carriage and coachman… but not for Chatsky! For Colonel Skalozub.
Scene 5. As Repetilov rushes to embrace Skalozub, Chatsky makes his escape by ducking into the porter’s room. Repetilov starts in on Skalozub, who retorts curtly to him, but still cannot rid himself of this annoying man. Eventually, as Repetilov rants on, Skalozub also manages to slink away; and Repetilov finally realizes that he is talking to Zagoretsky now.
Scene 6. “What do you think of Chatsky?” Zagoretsky asks him outright. “He’s not stupid,” Repetilov replies. “He and I have the same tastes.” “But didn’t you notice that he is insane?”
Scene 7. The Prince, his wife, and their six daughters enter the scene, later Khlestova too, with Molchalin helping her down the stairs. With Zagoretsky egging them on, they are still all a-buzz about Chatsky’s isanity. Repetilov is the only person there who denies this “obvious fact” which “everyone knows”. The Princess declares that Chatsky is clearly a Jacobin. Then all of them pile into carriages and leave, except for Repetilov, Khlestova, and Molchalin.
Scene 8. Khlestova remarks sharpy that there might yet be some hope to cure Chatsky of his insanity; but for the likes of Repetilov, there is no hope. Molchalin goes back into his room and Khlestova rides away in her carriage.
Scene 9. Repetilov, along with his own private lackey (he had a private lackey all along?) also departs, in his own carriage.
Scene 10. It is the middle of the night, and the last lamp has been extinguished. Chatsky ventures out of the porter’s room, where he has been hiding. He overheard that last free-for-all, with everybody calling him crazy, and sliming him behind his back. He rants about evil gossips, those who make up stories, and those who pass them on. “Old ladies chatter something, and instantly this is public opinion!” Chatsky wonders if Sofia has heard this evil gossip about himself. (He doesn’t know yet that she is one who started it!) He comforts himself that she is not the kind of person who would just heed other people’s opinions; no, she would make up her own mind.
His thoughts then turn back to that fatal moment when Sofia fainted at the sight of Molchalin’s tumble from a horse. But no, it doesn’t mean anything. Chatsky is still in denial. Sofia’s nerves just betrayed her. She is the kind of squeamish person who would faint if even a dog or cat had their tail stepped on. It doesn’t mean anything.
And at that very moment, Sofia appears above, on the second floor, candle in hand, and calling for Molchalin.
At the sight of Sofia, Chatsky suddenly loses it again. His head and heart burn with unrequited love. She called out for Molchalin. And Molchalin’s room is nearby. And Chatsky starts to put two and two together. (Finally – duh!)
The lackey suddenly reappears, he managed to obtain a carriage for Chatsky. Last in line!
“Shhh!” Chatsky pushes the lackey away and hides behind a column. Now this has turned into a French bedroom farce again, with Chatsky determined to eavesdrop on Sofia.
Scene 11. The maid Liza appears, with a candle. Sofia has sent her out into the dark house on a scouting expedition. Sofia thought she might have spotted Chatsky, and wants to make sure he is gone, before proceeding with her rendezvous with Molchalin. Not seeing Chatsky anywhere, Liza knocks on Molchalin’s door. “The mistress has summoned you, so be quick!”
Scene 12. This scene forms the climax of the entire play. Molchalin was probably woken up, but he is happy to hear that it is Liza outside his door. “Are you here on your own behalf?” “No, I am here for the mistress.” Molchalin flirts with Liza, and she responds with her usual tart attitude. She teases Molchalin about his impending “nuptials” with Sofia. Molchalin: “There’s plenty of time for you and I to have some fun before any weddings take place.” Liza: “Sir, do you really think I would try to take another girl’s husband away from her?”
And then, this part of the plot is very crucial: Sofia is on the stairs, she can overhear everything now, but Molchalin doesn’t know that she is there. So he proceeds to open up to Liza and reveal more of himself than Sofia would ever want to know:
Не знаю. А меня так разбирает дрожь,
И при одной я мысли трушу,
Что Павел Афанасьич раз
Когда-нибудь поймает нас,
Разгонит, проклянёт!.. Да что? открыть ли душу?
Я в Софье Павловне не вижу ничего
Завидного. Дай Бог ей век прожить богато,
Любила Чацкого когда-то,
Меня разлюбит, как его.
Мой ангельчик, желал бы вполовину
К ней то же чувствовать, что чувствую к тебе;
Да нет, как ни твержу себе,
Готовлюсь нежным быть, а свижусь — и простыну.
“I don’t know, but I am filled with fear,
And one thought sends me into a panic:
That Pavel Afanasievich will someday catch us together,
And will curse me and drive me out of his household. And for what, I ask you?
Full disclosure: In Sofia Pavlovna I don’t see anything
That I would care to have. Oh, may she live a long life and prosper,
But she loved Chatsky once,
She’ll fall out of love with me, just as she did with him.
But you, my little angel, you’re the one I truly love,
I could never feel for her, the way I feel about you.
No matter how hard I try, oh, I try to be tender with her,
But the very sight of her fills me with coldness.”
Sofia (overhearing everything): “What a scumbag!”
Chatsky (from behind the column): “What a jerk!”
Liza: “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself!”
Molchalin reiterates his life’s philosophy, that it is necessary to please everyone, especially your betters, along with their doormen, butlers and dogs. “And this is why I put on the mask of a lover, in order to please my employer’s daughter.”
This is a very Chekhovian Act IV – all the masks are off now. Molchalin tries to kiss Liza, she resists him. Sofia then barges in and puts a stop to all of this.
Molchalin is thunderstruck that Sofia is there and overheard everything. Not knowing what else he can possibly do, he simply falls back on ancient instinct: He grovels before her. Literally, on his hands and knees.
Sofia reams Molchalin out, from bow to stern, she banishes him from the house and threatens to tell Daddy everything, if he doesn’t leave immediately.
“Just be happy that when you were alone with me all those nights you were a gentleman and maintained your native timidity, even more so than during the day. In you there is little daring, and much deformity of the soul. I am actually glad that I finally learned the truth and that it was in the middle of the night, with no witnesses around. I almost gave myself away, earlier, when I fainted in front of Chatsky… I’m so glad he is not here now.”
Chatsky (rushing out onto the stage): “Yes I am, you little deceiver!”
Liza and Sofia in unison: “Ah ah!” (Molchalin escapes back into his room.)
Scene 13. Chatsky finally unleashes his fury against Sofia: her deception and her bad behavior. In tears, Sofia tries to justify herself: Who knew that the guy was such a liar?
Scene 14. With the entire household aroused by all the noise and crying, Famusov rushes in, accompanied by a herd of servants carrying candles. Seeing his daughter with Chatsky, Famusov jumps to conclusions and curses her out. He accuses Sofia of being just like her mom: the kind of woman who was always off with a man, when her husband wasn’t looking. “And with this man? The one whom you yourself called insane?”
Another penny drops. Chatsky to Sofia: “Thus, I have you to thank for that rumor, as well.”
In his rage, Famusov does what many serf-owners do: He turns on the serfs. It’s all their fault. They get blamed for everything that goes wrong. He threatens to fire Liza from her cushy house job and put her out on the farm, tending the chickens. As for Sofia: He will banish her from Moscow, to the countryside, to live with her old aunt in Saratov. She will live like a hermit, spending her day knitting and embroidering. As for Chatsky: Famusov banishes him from his household forever, and threatens to file a complaint against him to the government.
Chatsky then launches on his bitter monologue, in which he curses the world and himself. How could he be so blind as to pin all his hopes on such an unworthy object as Sofia? And he asks her the crucial question: “Why did you lead me on with false hopes? Why didn’t you just come out and tell me right from the start that it was over between us? If you had done that, then I would have left right away, and not bothered trying to find out who your new love is.”
[Chatsky is only half right here. I would say that Sofia didn’t exactly lead him on, she made it pretty clear even back in Act I, that she wasn’t happy to see him. But he is right, that she never expressed this explicitly or told him exactly what was going on; and this doubt only fueled his obsession.]
Chatsky then goes on to advise her, bitterly, to take Molchalin back and turn him into her husband. “A husband-child, a husband-servant, a page-boy for you… The highest ideal of a Moscow husband!”
And ends his despairing rant with the couplet:
Вон из Москвы! сюда я больше не ездок.
Бегу, не оглянусь, пойду искать по свету,
Где оскорблённому есть чувству уголок!..
Карету мне, карету!
“I must leave Moscow! Away away! I will never come back here again.
I run away, not looking back, I will go to wander the world,
Try to find a place where a shattered heart can hide!
My carriage! Bring me my carriage!
Scene 15. Chatsky escapes, leaving the final word to Famusov: “You see? I told you he had lost his mind. Oh Lord, what is Princess Maria Aleksevna going to say about all of this?”