Portrait of Ostrovsky by Vassily Perov.
|Born||Александр Николаевич Островский
12 April [O.S. 31 March] 1823
Moscow, Russian Empire
|Died||14 June [O.S. 2 June] 1886
Shchelykovo, Kostroma Governorate, Russian Empire
|Occupation||Playwright • Translator|
|Genre||Comedy • Tragedy|
|Notable works||Enough Stupidity in Every Wise Man
Alexander Nikolayevich Ostrovsky (Russian: Алекса́ндр Никола́евич Остро́вский; 12 April [O.S. 31 March] 1823, Moscow, Russian Empire – 14 June [O.S. 2 June] 1886, Shchelykovo, Kostroma, Russian Empire) was a Russian playwright, generally considered the greatest representative of the Russian realistic period. The author of 47 original plays, Ostrovsky "almost single-handedly created a Russian national repertoire." His dramas are among the most widely read and frequently performed stage pieces in Russia.
Alexander Nikolayevich Ostrovsky was born on 12 April 1823, in the Zamoskvorechye region of Moscow, one of four children in the family of Nikolai Fyodorovich Ostrovsky, a lawyer who received a religious education. Apparently, Nikolai's ancestors came from the village Ostrov in the Nerekhta region of Kostroma governorate, hence the surname. According to another theory the Ostrovskys had Polish and Belorussian origins. In the late 19th century all Kostroma archives have perished in fires and this question remained unsettled. Later Nikolai Ostrovsky became a high-ranked state official and as such in 1839 received a nobility title and the corresponding privileges. His first wife and Alexander's mother, Lyubov Ivanovna Savvina, came from a clergyman's family. For some time the family lived in a rented flat in Zamoskvorechye, in the house of deacon Maksimov. Then Nikolai Fyodorovich bought himself a plot of land in Monetchiki and built a house on it. In the early 1826 the family moved there.
Lyubov Ivanovna and Nikolai Fyodorovich's first two children died, Alexander was the third (and the first one to survive), and after him there were six more, of whom three survived: sister Natalya, and brothers Mikhail and Sergey. Alexander played mostly with Natalya and her girl friends who taught him such unmanly things as sewing and knitting. Nanny Avdotya Kutuzova certainly had a role in his upbringing. Ostrovsky insisted it was the fairy tales she told him that formed the foundation for the play Snegurochka. His first tutor was Sergey Gilyarov, a distant relative who appeared in their house in 1829. In 1831 when Ostrovsky was eight his mother died during labour and his father had to bring his children up alone. He saw little of them, spending most of his time in his office, but on the other hand the family's wealth grew. In 1834 he sold the house in Monetchiki and bought two new houses on Zhitnaya street.
In 1836 Nikolai Fyodorovich married Baroness Emilia Andreyevna von Tessin, a noblewoman of Russian and Swedish descent.[note 1] She rearranged the patriarchal ways of their Zamoskvorechye house, making it look more like a nobleman's mansion and provided her stepchildren with high quality education. Emilia Andreyevna had four children of her own (four more died), one of whom, Pyotr Ostrovsky, later became a friend of Alexander. She played the piano, knew several European languages and tried to teach these to her children. It was thanks to her that Ostrovsky learned to read music, and developed a good ear which later helped him in writing down folk songs he heard while travelling.
In 1840 Ostrovsky graduated from the First Moscow Gymnasium and then studied law at the Moscow State University (1840–1843), where liberal views prevailed and many prominent scholars of the time lectured, including professors Pyotr Redkin, Timofei Granovsky and Mikhail Pogodin. As a student Ostrovsky moved with his family to Yauza banks, to one of the houses owned by Ivan Tessin, his step-mother's brother. Nikolai Ostrovsky bought five houses there and built three new ones. It was at this time that Ostrovsky started to write poetry, sketches and occasionally plays (none of the latter survived) and by the end of his second year became a theatre fan, spending many an evening in Moscow's Petrovsky Theatre (as the Moscow Imperial Theatre was then known). Having failed the Roman Law examination in May 1843, Ostrovsky left the University and, on his father's insistence in September of that year joined the Moscow Court of Consciousness as a clerk. In 1845 he was transferred to the Commercial Court where his father once worked and where cases related to bribery and corruption were most common. "If not for such a trouble that I've found myself in, there wouldn't have been A Profitable Position," Ostrovsky later said. In 1851 Ostrovsky decided to devote himself to literature and theatre.
By 1846 Ostrovsky had written numerous sketches and scenes from the Zamoskvorechye merchants community's life and made a draft for the play called The Bankrupt. An extract from this comedy (entitled "Scenes from the comedy The Bankrupt") was published in the No.7, 1847, issue of Moskovsky Gorodskoi Listok (Moscow City Paper)[note 2] as a collaboration with actor and a minor dramatist Dmitry Gorev who had co-written one scene of it. This episode caused serious trouble for Ostrovsky in the early 1860s, with detractors seizing this opportunity to accuse him of laying claims to other people's work. Also in Listok appeared (as unsigned) "Pictures of Moscow Life" and "The Picture of a Family Happiness", two sets of scenes which were later published by Sovremennik (No. 4, 1856) under the title The Family Picture (Semeinaya kartina). Ostrovsky regarded it as his first original work and the starting point of his literary career.
On 14 February 1847 Ostrovsky made his public debut in the house of the University professor and literary critic Stepan Shevyryov, with the readings from "The Pictures". The audience which included Aleksey Khomyakov and several members of the Listok staff responded positively, both Shevyryov and Khomyakov speaking of the emergence of a new major talent in Russian literature. On 27 August 1851, The Picture of Family Happiness (which had been reportedly approved, among others, by Nikolai Gogol) was banned from being produced on the Imperial theatre stage. "Judging by these scenes what the Moscow merchants only do is cheat customers and drink while their wives are cheating on them," censor M. Gedeonov wrote.
In the end of 1849 The Bankrupt was finished. Ostrovsky's first audience was his University friend Alexey Pisemsky who greeted it rapturously. Actor Prov Sadovsky, who regarded the comedy as a revelation, started to recite it in Moscow literary circles, including that of Countess Rostopchina whose saloon was frequented by young authors like Boris Almazov, Nikolai Berg, Lev Mei and Yevgeny Edelson, Ostrovsky's friends from his University years. All of them soon accepted Mikhail Pogodin's invitation to join the Moskvityanin and formed the so-called "youth faction" of this magazine's staff. Apollon Grigoriev, the informal leader of the team, also started to actively promote Ostrovsky as a driving force of what he saw as the "new, authentic Russian literature," stripped of foreign influences.
Among the members of the so-called "Ostrovsky circle" were also some non-literary friends (actor Prov Sadovsky, musical scholar Tertiy Fillipov), merchant Ivan Shanin, shoe-maker Sergey Volkov, teacher Dyakov and Ioasaf Zheleznov, a Cossack from Ural, all united by the ideas and the spirit of Russian national revival (narodnost). It was then that Ostrovsky, initially a Westernizer, started to slowly drift towards Slavophilia. The circle enjoyed itself in prolonged drinking sprees, glorified by one of its members, Alexandre Dubuque's famous "drinking anthem" of the time ("The left side, the right side, where is which/ The street, the street, my bro' you are drunk"). From February 1850 Ostrovsky started to regularly visit Countess Rostopchina's saloon and bring his friends along. There he met for the first time young Ivan Turgenev, the veteran Russian mason Yury Bartenev, and an eccentric ornithologist Nikolai Severtsov. By this time Ostrovsky lived with Agafia Ivanova, his civil wife, whom he first met and became close to in the late 1840s.
Finally approved by censors, The Bankrupt appeared in the March issue of Moskvityanin under the new title It's a Family Affair-We'll Settle It Ourselves (Svoi liudi - sochtiomsya!). The play, portraying the rude, ignorant and smug merchants of Moscow, made Ostrovsky instantly famous in the city. Soon it was banned from being produced on the Imperial Theatre's stage (to be permitted only ten years later after Alexander II took the throne) and became the reason for Ostrovsky's being placed under secret police surveillance. Ostrovsky tried his hand as a Shakespeare translator, but his 1852 version of The Taming of the Shrew (titled "Ukrosheniye zloi zheny", The Taming of an Evil Wife) was banned as well. Censor Nordstom (who characterised the author as "...already known for his dirty play Family Affair") found more than one hundred "rude" words and phrases in it and declared the translation "true to indecent and totally unacceptable for the Russian theatre spirit of the original." Ostrovsky, in need for a respite, submerged himself into the daily affairs of the Moskvityanin and soon became the editor-in-chief of the magazine. His first critical review for this publication was that of Evgenya Tur's The Mistake (Oshibka), his second - a sympathetic take on The Muff by Alexey Pisemsky.
Ostrovsky's second play was The Young Man's Morning (Utro Molodovo tcheloveka, 1850), based upon a single act of his early play The Legal Case (Iskovoye proshenye; another act formed the basis for The Picture of Family Happiness). The follow-up, an experimental psychological piece in the style of Alfred de Musset called The Surprise Case (Neozhidanny sluchai, 1850), appeared in the Kometa almanac. Mikhail Pogodin, was unimpressed and Sovremennik' Ivan Panaev responded with a caustic review, parodying its characters' vapid, insubstantial dialogues. Finally, Ostrovsky's second full-length play, The Poor Bride (Bednaya nevesta), appeared in the No.4, 1852 issue of Moskvityanin. Alexey Verstovsky, Maly Theatre's inspector agreed to include it in the repertoire "conditionally", pending the censorial verdict. It took six months to obtain official permission, but the text appeared to be so mangled by the censors that Ostrovsky lost all interest and asked Verstovsky to delay the production of The Bride and wait for the publication of the next play which he'd been working on already.
Stay in Your Own Sled (Ne v svoi sani ne sadis', 1852), a melodrama, less daring than Family Affair and not as ambitious as The Poor Bride, was published in Moskvityanin. It became Ostrovsky's first play to make it on to the Maly Theatre stage where it premiered early the following year, had great success and was received rapturously even by Ostrovsky's detractors like Vasily Botkin. With Lyubov Nikulina-Kositskaya starring, it, according to Lakshin, marked the birth of what would later be known as the "Ostrovsky's theatre, the true union of the drama and the actors." The play was played 12 times in its first season in the Maly, and as many times in the Bolshoy Theatre.
In the early February 1853 Ostrovsky went to Saint Petersburg for the first time where he was warmly received by Alexander Gedeonov, the director of the Imperial Theatres. On 12 February 1853, The Young Man's Morning was premiered in Petersburg's Circus Theatre and on 19 February Stay in Your Own Sled - in the Alexandrinka. Tsar Nicholas I came to see the performance and appeared to be impressed, mostly by the "edifying" finale. He figured out the play's idea to be that "children should follow their parents' advice, otherwise, everything goes wrong" and, turning to Gedeonov and his own entourage, pronounced: "There haven't been many plays that gave me this much pleasure," adding in French: "Се n'est phis une piece, c'est une lecon" (This is not a play, but a lesson). Next day the Tsar even brought his family to the theatre. Ostrovsky found out about this much later: he had to leave the capital hastily before the play's premiere upon receiving the news of his father's serious illness. By the time he arrived home, Nikolai Fyiodorovich has been dead.
In August 1863 The Poor Bride was successfully performed at the Maly with Ekaterina Vasilieva starring as Marya Andreevna. The same month Ostrovsky started to work on his next play Poverty is No Vice and finished it in just two months to be taken up by the Maly Theatre for the benefit of Prov Sadovsky who played a "virtuous drunkard" Lyubim Tortsov. Poverty is No Vice, reproducing the atmosphere of the old Russian folk carnival, svyatki, lacked the Bankrupt's social awareness, but highlighted the conflict between the Slavophiles and Westernizers, the latter satirised by the author. It became popular in Moscow and prompted Apollon Grigoriev's rapturous review called "Step Aside, There Goes Lyubim Tortsov." In Saint Petersburg, though, it was criticised by Krayevsky's Otechestvennye zapiski (which referred to Lyubim as a 'drunken lout') and the anonymous reviewer of Sovremennik who happened to be young Nikolay Chernyshevsky.
Ostrovsky's rise to fame in both major cities was quick, but a serious opposition was already forming, notably among Moscow actors, including Mikhail Shchepkin, Dmitry Lensky, Sergey Shumsky and Ivan Samarin. Another influential detractor was poet Nikolay Sherbina. "What kind of characters, what sort of language!.. Only in kabaks and indecent houses do people speak and act this way. Some would argue that such things do happen in reality. But we see all kind of things around us, not all of them can be put to stage. This is theatre, after all, not a market-place show or a backyard where one is free to spill garbage out... Oh these young geniuses!", Lensky complained in a letter to a friend. Nevertheless, Maly became the second home to Ostrovsky and he made it a habit to spend entire days and often nights there.
To many, Ivan Turgenev included, Ostrovsky appeared to be indifferent to the Crimean War which, by 1854 Russia has been deeply involved in. In reality, sickened by what he saw as the wave of government-induced "trumpet patriotism," he started to avoid the high society, feeling the need to examine his "Russian roots." "The cult of simplicity has now become his mania," biographer Lakshin wrote. Ostrovsky's plays of this period were devoid of political references; in his 1857-1858 works the war was mentioned fleetingly, twice. Feeling the urge to "poeticize the Moskovian patriarchal ways," he shifted still closer to the Slavophiliac doctrine with his next play, Don't Live as You Like (Ne tak zhivi, kak khotshetsa, 1854), portraying Moscow of the 18th century and the Maslenitsa pagan folk carnival. The play, premiered in the Maly on 3 December 1854, with Kornely Poltavtsev as Pyotr, was poorly received. For some, it was not daring enough, for others too outspoken. "I was counting upon the new Ostrovsky play to stir up the public in a big way but it did stir only the negativism among critics who, unfortunately, this time proved right. It is sad to see such a talented man as Ostrovsky being so self-indulgent, spreading filth around. Once soap has become his worst enemy one can never approach him with advice, for any criticism he sees as a swipe at his 'simplicity' thing. The worst thing that can happen to an author is when he finds himself among people regarding him a demi-god," the writer Sofia Engelgardt wrote to Alexander Druzhinin. Leo Tolstoy was among those few who liked it. One of the reasons for purists' outrage was the fact that actress Nikulina-Kositskaya, playing Grusha, appeared on stage looking drunk. The play was performed only four times in Moscow and three times in Saint Petersburg's Alexandrinka before being dropped from both theatres' repertoires. Meanwhile, Ostrovsky's quest for 'simplicity' proved to be contagious. "[The Russian] authors took their cues from the success of The Sledge and decided it was time to come out all 'natural'. Unfortunately, this naturalism of theirs revolves around the same kind of talk, the same sermyaga coats invading our theatre stage," Verstovsky complained in a letter to Gedeonov in December 1854. That was probably the first time the phrase "sermyaga coat" was applied to Ostrovsky's work, a cliché that dogged him for the rest of his life.
In February 1855 Tsar Nikolai I died and the word 'thaw', first used by Fyodor Tyutchev in the political sense, entered the Russian cultural elite's lexicon. Nikolay Nekrasov's Sovremennik and Alexander Herzen's Kolokol were on the rise. Ostrovsky, although indifferent to radical trends, still was full of hope for the better. In December 1855 he finished Hangover at Somebody Else's Feast (V tchyuzhom piru pokhmelye) featuring a noble old teacher Ivanov as the main character and also Tit Titych, a domineering and rude type of man for whom Ostrovsky coined the term samodur which instantly became popular. One of the characters, Agrafena Platonovna, provided the definition: "Samodur is the one who listens to nobody no matter how you try to knock it into him and does only what suits him. Stamps a foot: see who I am? Which means all the family and household should drop on their knees or otherwise all the Hell would break loose". "For Ostrovsky the samodur word became what nihilist was for Turgenev or oblomovshchina for Goncharov," biographer Lakshin remarked. The play was premiered in Moscow on 9 January 1856, with Prov Sadovsky as Tit Titych and had great success. The public recognised a common type of a domestic tyrant whom Ostrovsky was the first to ever show on the Russian theatre stage. 1855 and 1856 were the years when the once famous Ostrovsky's circle disbanded with Tertiy Filippov joining the Slavophiliac Russkaya Beseda and Apollon Grigoriev departing to France.
The Sovremennik years
Nikolai Nekrasov's team had long been discussing the prospects of tempting Ostrovsky from Moskvityanin over to Sovremennik, and, responding to visits from Ivan Turgenev, Dmitry Grigorovich and Alexander Druzhinin, at the end of 1855 he made a trip to Saint Petersburg to spent most of his time with the authors of that magazine, striking a friendship with young Leo Tolstoy. Nekrasov made Ostrovsky sign a four-year contract and published his first play The Pictures of Family Happiness, under the new title The Family Picture, as it has become known since. On 15 February 1856, the six authors (Nekrasov absent for being unwell) went to the photographer Sergei Levitsky's studio to pose for a photograph that itself has made history.
In 1856 Great Duke Konstantin offered Russian writers an assignment to visit different Russian regions and describe the industry and everyday life there, originally just with the view of providing the basic data for reforming the Russian Navy's recruiting system. Ostrovsky was initially left behind and had to ask for special permission to be added as a volunteer to the list of eight, eager to follow the example set by Leo Tolstoy who, with the Crimean war experience behind him, looked like a man who had seen the world.
Ostrovsky took a cruise down the Volga River, his area of inquiry laying along the upper part of it, memorable for some important events in the Russian history. He travelled Volga from its beginnings down to Nizhny Novgorod and compiled a dictionary of local terms concerning navigation, shipbuilding and fishery. There for the first time he came into contact with the provincial Russian intelligentsia, people who knew real life and had strong opinions about it. Travelling through poor, even devastated areas was in itself enough to have a profound effect upon the author who until then knew well only the life of merchants, state officials and minor noblemen.
The trip was marred by two incidents. In May 1856, as the new allegations of plagiarism have been made against him in both major cities, based upon his ex-co-author Gorev's accusations, Ostrovsky had to compile his own account of the events concerning the inception of the Family Affair and sent it to Moskovsky Vestnik and Sovremennik. Nekrasov supported his case wholeheartedly; besides, the Russian press' interest in Gorev died out the moment he published his own play Here and There (Splosh da ryadom, Otechestvennye Zapiski, No.56, 1856) which proved to be a disaster. Then in Kalyazin, Ostrovsky's carriage overturned. He spent two months in bed with a broken leg and had to return home for further treatment. Despite urges from Ivan Panaev to start writing, he returned to Upper Volga in the spring of 1857 and resumed his journey, visiting Rybinsk, Uglich and Nizhny Novgorod in the summer. Eventually Morskoi Sbornik published only one of Ostrovsky's reports. Since this magazine, keen only on facts and figures, tended to remove details it deemed 'artistic', the author decided not to go on with the project. It was while on this trip that Ostrovsky came up with the idea of writing a series of plays called Nights on the Volga. The project has never materialised but numerous real-life stories gathered during this voyage were used in later plays, notably The Storm. Also based upon these impressions were his 1860s historical dramas Kozma Zakhar'yich Minin-Sukhoruk, The False Dmitry and Vassily Shuysky and Vassilisa Melentieva (the name of Ivan the Terrible's court lady favourite), as well as the comedy Voyevoda.
By 1858 Ostrovsky, now a father of four, had made it his habit to work at nights, spending weeks doing apparently nothing or practising his stylistic skills by translating from Greek or English, then in three or four days churning out the whole play, writing feverishly, talking to himself and his characters, as an obsessed man. After his Volga trip Ostrovsky lost interest in the "Slavophile or Westernizer" dilemma and started to develop a deeper understanding of the Russian people and Russia.
1857 saw the release of A Profitable Position (Dokhodnoye mesto), rated exceptionally high by Leo Tolstoy. "This is a colossal thing in terms of depth, power and relevance and this impeccably real character, Yusov," he wrote in a letter. The new play had little to do with the 'denouncing literature' of the kind that had become popular with the Sovremennik followers, but Ostrovsky (according to biographer Lakshin) was already thinking along the different lines: "Would it be worthwhile to wage wars against bribe-takers when they are only part of the way of life where the corruption serves for a hidden mechanism? Wouldn't it be more intriguing to try and get under the skin of these people, learn how their special kind of morality works, expose the logic which helps them find excuses for themselves?" Ostrovsky loathed tendentiousness and didacticism. "For a statement of truth to be effective and make people wiser, it has to be filtered through the soul of a highest quality, the soul of an artist," he argued.
A Profitable Position's premiere, scheduled for 20 December 1857, was cancelled at the eleventh hour, as censors labelled it as "an opus poking fun at state officials." On the brighter side, the police surveillance over Ostrovsky has been finally lifted, of which the local police chief informed the author personally, visiting him at his home. In September (seven months after it was banned for the second time) the Family Picture was at last permitted for the theatre production. "You may write now more openly, censors are confused," Nekrasov advised Ostrovsky in a letter. Also in 1857 The Real Celebratory Sleep Is That Before Dinner (Prazdnitchny son - do obeda) came out, the first part of the Balzamininov trilogy (parts two and three, Two Dogs Fight, the Third Keep Away and Whatever You Look for, You'll Find appeared in 1861).
In 1858 Not of the Same Ilk (Ne soshlis kharakterami), written originally as a novelette, came out. Subtitled "The Picture of the Moscow Life" and telling the story of an impoverished nobleman who marries a rich merchant woman only to find out she's an exceptionally stingy person, it was hardly Ostrovsky's best. By far more significant was his next one, A Protégée of the Mistress (Vospitannitsa, 1859), continuing the "nobility's degradation" theme and written during the three weeks he was on a visit to Saint Petersburg in 1858. It was banned from being staged on 23 October of the same year by Alexander Timashev after a censor in his report posed a question: "Should we indeed give way to a play showing such immorality in Russian landowners' daily life?"
In 1859 Count G.A. Kushelev-Bezborodko published the first edition of The Works by A.N. Ostrovsky in two volumes. Censored by none other than Ivan Goncharov (who helped to get the Family Affair into the collection), it inspired Nikolai Dobrolyubov to write the first of his two famous essays, hailing Ostrovsky as "a ray of light in the realm of darkness." In November 1859, the author visited Dobrolyubov in his house to thank him personally for what he saw as the first ever proper analysis of his work. "In retrospect one cannot fail to see the polemic nature of [Dobrolyubov's] two articles. Ostrovsky wasn't a satirist, not even a humorist. What he cared for was the objectivity in depicting life... and even among the ugliest things he managed to find beauty," critic P. Morozov wrote half a century later. Ostrovsky himself saw his duty in just portraying a Russian man the way he saw him. "Let him see himself and rejoice. Correct his wrongs - there always will be people around who'd want to. But to have the right to correct the wrongs, one has to see clearly the good side of the people too," he added.
In 1860 came out another play inspired by Ostrovsky's Volga voyage, The Storm, a tragic story of unhappily married Ekaterina. The motif of an impending hurricane which never comes, the latter construed by Dobrolyubov as a metaphor for the social changes that the Russian society started to awaken itself to in the 1860s. To make sure the play overcame the censorial barrier Ostrovsky made a trip to the capital and had a hard time convincing the censor Nordstrom that Kabanikha (Ekaterina’s vile mother-in-law) was not some secret swipe at the late Tsar Nikolai I. The Storm was premiered on 16 November 1859, as actor Sergei Vasiliev's benefice, and enjoyed great success.
Ostrovsky was greatly upset by the moral climate in both theatres (Alexandrinka in particular, corrupted as it was by its closeness to the Court) which seemed to bring out the worst in their actors. One of the few exceptions was Alexander Martynov, a man Ostrovsky admired and respected. In the spring of 1860 Martynov, terminally ill with tuberculosis, ventured on a trip down to Odessa and Ostrovsky agreed to follow him as a companion. On the way home, in Kharkov, the actor died. "With Martynov I lost all that I've ever had in Petersburg's theatre," Ostrovsky wrote in a letter to Panaev.
In 1861 Ostrovsky finished Whatever You Look for, You'll Find (Za chem poidesh, to I naidesh), the final part of the Balzaminov trilogy (praised among others by Dostoyevsky), and the historical drama in verse, Kosma Zakharyich Minin-Sukhoruk, the result of six years of work. The latter, published by Sovremennik, was seen by many as a political statement and was criticised by those whom weren't keen on the author's idea of giving at last some credit to the merchant class which he'd been rather harsh on in most of his plays. In 1862 the Tsar showed his approval by presenting the author with a golden ring (which rather upset Ostrovsky, who saw it as a scant reward for all the pains he had to go through with censors. A year later Minin was banned without an explanation. Rumour had it that the January Uprising in Poland was the reason, making the authorities fear that the play might "agitate the public", either against or for the Poles. Minin returned to the Russian theatre years later, severely cut.
In the spring of 1862 Ostrovsky went abroad and visited Germany, Austria, Italy, France and England, feeling acutely the contrast between the two different time planes Russia and Europe were living on.[note 3] In London Ostrovsky visited Alexander Hertzen, although this fact became known only years later through the memoirs of his companion Ivan Gorbunov and confirmed by some of the people that the dramatist had talked to. In August 1862 he returned to Russia full of new ideas and by the end of the year finished Sin and Sorrow Are Common to All (Grekh da beda na kogo ne zhivet). Published in Dostoyevsky's Vremya magazine, it was a drama of strong characters, based on a real-life story related to the author by one of his merchant friends. In Autumn 1863 Ostrovsky finished Difficult Days (Tyazhyolye dni), a sequel to the Hangover, telling the story of ignorance and backwardness of the Russian provinces. It was followed by Jokers (Shutniki, 1864) and The Deep (Puchina, 1865), the latter concluding the vast Zamoskvorechye cycle. One of Ostrovsky's experimental pieces (more a novel than a play, fashioned after the recently translated Thirty Years by Ducange), it was subjected to heavy censorial cuts and had little success on stage. In 1865, accompanied by a friend and personal secretary Ivan Gorbunov, Ostrovsky made another trip down the Volga River.
By the mid-1860s Ostrovsky's reputation as Russia's leading dramatist has become indisputable. Two of his plays, The Storm and Sin and Sorrow, have earned him the prestigious Uvarov's Prize. Yet, being a man of the theatre, he had more and more difficulties with writing plays which were not to be staged. He said:
|“||A writer in Russia finds himself in the most peculiar situation. Once the play’s finished, he sits down again, this time to compose a plea: "I see it as my honour to present such and such play to directors and humbly implore them to accept it," etc, etc. Then the play, having gone through the censorship, works its way into the Literary and Theatrical committee. Could such a thing be imagined anywhere abroad? Everywhere a play of any merit would be grabbed by any theatre. Instead of writing petitions the author would rather receive ones, directors asking for his work, then giving the green light to it. Here in Russia to write a play is only half the trouble: the main thing is to drag it through all kinds of tribulations.||”|
Like his predecessor Tsar Alexander II was an avid theatre-goer, preferring ballet and French vaudeville. "Ostrovsky is a talented man, but his plays for me are unbearable. I come to the theatre to rest from my labours and be amused, but Ostrovsky's plays leave me depressed and distraught," the Tsar complained, according to Burdin. After the much-mangled Minin has found its way back to the Imperial theatre's stage, Ostrovsky followed on with more historical dramas: Voyevoda (1866), The False Dmitry and Vasily Shuisky (1866) and Tushino (1867). In 1867, as Stepan Gedeonov (the official who once helped with The Sled) became the director of the Imperial Theatres and in just six weeks Ostrovsky wrote Vasilisa Melentyeva, using Gedeonov's script. But the 3rd Department suspected some political subversion, Gedeonov failed to provide financial support and again Ostrovsky was down in the dumps.
In 1846-1847 Ostrovsky's father purchased four estates, the largest of which was Schelykovo in the Kostroma Governorate, the 18th-century mansion built by captain Mikhail Kutuzov. After Nikolai Ostrovsky's death, Alexander with brother Mikhail bought the estate in 1867 from their stepmother. "At last I'll have the opportunity the keep of our modest house and drop the soul-rendering theatre slavery which took the best years of my life," he wrote in a letter. For a while he was trying to embark upon the new life of a man of the land, building a creamery and setting up a garden. Soon it became clear that this enterprise would not make him richer and Maria Vasilyevna, his second wife, took control. Yet it was here that Ostrovsky spent his happier days, receiving guests and enjoying bouts of inspiration for new plays. Producing new ideas in summer, in winter he travelled to Moscow and then Saint Petersburg to sit at another premier. Ostrovsky called Shchelykovo "the Kostroma Switzerland" and insisted that even in Italy he had never seen such beauty.
By 1867, with the peak of his fame now behind him, Ostrovsky fell into a deep depression, feeling a worthless and lonely man. Tushino (1867), an early-17th-century chronicle, could be published only in the humble Vsemirny Trud journal, others rejected it. Neither Dostoyevsky nor Nekrasov now had magazines of their own to support him. After Dmitry Karakozov's assassination attempt on the Tsar, many of Ostrovsky's friends in high places lost their posts. To make ends meet he undertook translations and wrote librettos. But then Nekrasov became the head of Otechestvennye zapiski. Ostrovsky was warmly welcomed in and debuted there in November 1868 with Enough Stupidity in Every Wise Man (Na vsyakovo mudretsa dovolno prostoty).
Taking cues from the 'worst enemy' operetta which came from France to conquer Petersburg and drove Ostrovsky's plays from theatre repertoires, he wrote "Ivan-tsarevich", an ironic fairytale with a Russian folklore plot mixed with modern parody and farce. The lack of finance forced Ostrovsky to cancel the project, but the idea was soon revived in Enough Stupidity in Every Wise Man, a pamphlet written in contemporary language but set in Moscow of the old times. It was followed by The Ardent Heart (Goryachee serdtse, 1869), part detective fiction, part naive fairytale, part modern pamphlet aimed at Moscow traders who had started to buy from aristocrats huge plots of land. The main character Khlynov bore strong resemblance to Moscow millionaire trader M.A. Khludov, who became famous for his bizarre projects and pranks. The premier of The Ardent Heart in The Maly on 15 January 1869 (played as a benefice for Prov Sadovsky as Kuroslepov), was triumphant and heralded Ostrovsky's return as the major force in Russian theatre. Not all critics were happy, though. With his new satirical approach, some lamented the 'good-heartedness' of old.
Also in 1869 Money to Burn (Beshenye dengi) came out, reflecting the author's interest (and wariness too) in the new emerging class of capitalist entrepreneurs, 'practical people', as they became known. Ostrovsky himself was a very impractical man, even if he liked to pretend to be otherwise. "All these publishers are crooks and they drink my blood," he used to say. "Nekrasov openly laughed at me and called me an altruist. He said no man of literature would sell their work as cheaply as I do," complained Ostrovsky in a letter. Nekrasov (who paid him 200 roubles per act which was considered a good price) tried to help Ostrovsky in the business of publishing. "But it just happened so that in the end [Ostrovsky] was always losing money... and was constantly on the verge of bankruptcy," Lakshin wrote. Each of his new plays was sent simultaneously to Maly Theatre and Otechestvennye zapiski. Occasionally the publication preceded the premiere: such was the case with The Forest (1871), the story of actors travelling from Vologda to Kerch which satirised the backwardness of the Russian province of the time.
Now visiting Petersburg regularly, Ostrovsky was enjoying the parties Nekrasov staged in a fashion of Sovremennik happenings, but for all the thrills of meeting people like Gleb Uspensky and Nikolai Mikhailovsky, in the capital he felt clumsy and often came across as an arrogant man which he was not. For some reason the plays which were successful in Moscow were flopping in Petersburg, such as The Ardent Heart, due to the poor quality of the Alexandrinsky theatre's stage production. In January 1872 Alexander II unexpectedly visited the theatre to watch It's Not All Shrovetide for the Cat (Ne vsyo kotu maslennitsa, 1871) and showed little enthusiasm. Gedeonov's efforts to make sure Ostrovsky should be granted a personal pension, in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of his literary career, came to nothing. The Tsar refused to sign the document and there was no official commemoration of the date at all. The jubilee premiere of the play The False Dmitry and Vassily Shuisky (first published in 1866) on the Mariinsky stage on 17 February 1872 failed to meet expectations. "Costumes shocked everybody with their ruggedness, decorations looked as if they were brought from Berg's puppet show and everything reeked of negligence towards Russian theatre and Russian talents", the Grazhdanin reviewer wrote. The ceremony held behind the stage was a low profile affair with only theatre actors and director Alexander Yablochkin present. Disappointed, Ostrovsky returned to Moscow where he had always been revered as a veteran dramatist and the head of the Russian drama authors society. Here the celebration was lavish and prolonged, involving a tour through all the best restaurants. "Ostrovsky for Moscow has become what the Pope means for Rome," Ivan Goncharov wrote.
The year 1872 also saw the release of The 17th Century Comic (Komik semnadtsatovo stoletiya), written for the 200th anniversary of the Russian theatre. The play was soon forgotten, but decades later Marina Tsvetayeva praised it as "exemplary in language". A year later one of Ostrovsky's most unusual plays, The Snow Maiden (Snegurochka) came out, based on the myth of the Berendey kingdom with its noble tsar, who was a poet and an artist. Lev Tolstoy and Nekrasov both loathed the experiment (so it had to be published in Vestnik Evropy) and the Moscow premiere drew only a lukewarm response. But the musical community was enthusiastic and it took just three weeks for Pyotr Tchaikovsky to write the music for the stage production, and later Rimsky-Korsakov created an opera, keeping most of the original text in the libretto.
In the early 1870s Ostrovsky started to experiment more with his plays. Most of them had little success on stage and all were more or less disliked by critics. "The Impotence of Creative Thought", the title of Nikolai Shelgunov's article in the democratic Delo magazine, reflected the general mood. While in the old days Ostrovsky was criticised for being too epic and paying little attention to form, Late Love (1873) and Wolves and Sheep (1875), with their perfect inner mechanism of action and technical gloss, were seen as too "French-like in structure." "I am at a loss, being scolded from all sides for my work which I've been totally honest in," Ostrovsky complained to Nekrasov in a 8 March 1874 letter.
Most of Ostrovsky's later plays were based on real life stories. "All of my plots are borrowed, they were made up by life itself. A dramatist does not invent stories but writes of things that have happened, or could have happened," Ostrovsky was reported as saying to fellow dramatist Dmitry Averkiev. Wolves and Sheep (Volki i ovtsy, 1875) told the story of a real court case involving the denouncement of hegumenness Mitrofania (Baroness Praskovia Rosen in real life) who in October 1874 was sued for fraud. Ostrovsky saw the story of this woman (landowner Murzavetskaya, in the play) as an unusual mix of extraordinary personal ambitions and religious hypocrisy of "the Russian Tartuffe in a frock." The Last Victim (Poslednyaya zhertva, 1877) told a real-life story of actress Yulia Linskaya who left the theatre to marry an affluent man, became a rich widow and finally, left penniless by her younger lover, died in poverty.
Without a Dowry (Bespridannitsa, 1878) was based on a criminal case dealing with a murder arising from jealousy (committed by a certain Konovalov, a millionaire and a harem-holder, Knurov's prototype), which was going on in the Kineshma court where Ostrovsky once worked and which he since then often visited.[note 4] Marked by the author as "Opus 40" the play was meant, as he hoped, to start "a new line" in his career. It went by unnoticed, though, and only in retrospect was seen as a new word in 'domestic drama' and a precursor to Checkov's similar line of work. The play was written especially for the new Alexandrinka actress Maria Savina who "with all her arsenal should drive the audience mad", as the author hoped. Indeed, in Petersburg the play was more successful than in Moscow, but not among critics. Revived by Vera Komissarzhevskaya after the author's death, the play, according to Lakshin, "remains a timeless reminder of how deep the chasm between two sides of success, the artistic and the public one, can be."
In the autumn of 1877 Ostrovsky left his old house at Nicola-Vorobin and moved into a posh and comfortable flat in a house on Prechistenka street. Despite having fallen out of favour with critics, Ostrovsky, a great authority and a theatre patriarch, was continuously visited by young authors seeking his advice and assessment. He discovered several new dramatists, among them Nikolai Solovyov, a monk and a gifted playwright (recommended to him by Konstantin Leontiev) who became the co-author of Belugin's Marriage (Zhenitjba Belugina, a re-working of Solovyov's Who Could Expect?) and two more plays. He left it to his wife to entertain guests. Ostrovsky spent most of his time writing in his room, a process which became for him more and more difficult, as the ever increasing financial demands of his family meant he couldn't give himself a day of rest. "I know I’d feel much better should I be given two or three months of freedom from working and thinking, but this is unthinkable and, as Eternal Jew I am doomed to walk on and on and on," he wrote in 1879. People who visited him in Moscow in his last years were horrified at how tired and unhealthy he looked.
Ostrovsky and Russian theatre reform
In 1874 Ostrovsky co-founded The Society of Russian Dramatic Art and Opera Composers which dealt mostly with legal issues and gave financial support to authors writing for the theatre. The Society published plays, organised performances and exerted a strong influence upon the development of the Russian theatre. Prior to this, in 1865, Ostrovsky initiated the formation of the Artists' Circle, a club and an informal school of drama. Appalled by the deep crisis faced by the Russian theatre during the 1870s, Ostrovsky worked out a profound plan for its radical reform and revival. In 1881 he came to Petersburg with two long reports: "On the Situation in the Modern Drama Art in Russia" and "On the Needs of the Imperial Theatre". Minister I.I. Vorontsov-Dashkov invited Ostrovsky to join the government committee and the latter's enthusiasm was later rewarded by Alexander III, who presented him a golden tobacco-box. But after five months of hard work, disillusionment started to creep in, for the committee was ignoring most of his ideas, dealing mainly with financial questions and caring little for the organisational reforms Ostrovsky insisted upon. On the other hand, his idea of opening in Moscow the first "people's theatre", independent from officials in Petersburg, suddenly appealed to the Tsar and soon independent private theatres started to open all over Russia.
Ostrovsky worked with actors and young dramatists and, according to biographer Anna Zhuravlyova, in his later years had every reason to write: "Other arts have schools, academies, mentors in high places... Russian drama has only myself. I am its everything: the academy, the sponsor and the protector."
After one of his cherished projects, the creation of a "people's theatre" in Moscow, failed. In the autumn of 1883 Ostrovsky made a trip down to the Caucasus. The lavish reception he received in Georgia moved him to tears. Refreshed and full of new hopes, Ostrovsky came back and promptly finished Guilty Without Fault (Bez viny vinovatye). Back home, though, he was again in financial trouble. "I am on the brink, there is no way out: Maria Vasilievna is ill, all those worries have broken me totally, my heart falters and I often faint. None of the theatres pays me and I live in debtб" he wrote to Burdin.
In the early 1884 Ostrovsky was finally granted a personal pension from the Court, something he had requested 15 years earlier and had been refused. Mikhail Ostrovsky, now one of Alexander's ministers and a member of the State Council of Imperial Russia, mentioned his brother's financial difficulties to the Tsar and the problem was solved in a minute. Ostrovsky's feelings were mixed, though: 3 thousand roubles a year was not a large sum and there was a tinge of humiliation too in the way it had been obtained. Still on 5 March 1884, Ostrovsky came to the Palace to see Alexander III and had a 15-minute talk with the monarch. The Tsar asked why had the author chosen such a hero for The Handsome Man (Krasavets-muzhchina), a play about a pimp. "Such is the spirit of our times," Ostrovsky answered simply.
In December 1885, Ostrovsky was appointed the Imperial theatre's repertoire director. For several months he spent every evening in one of the Moscow theatres, inspecting productions, having talks, trying to implement reforms he had been thinking over for years. Driven by the idea of "making the theatre the home of a thinking man" Ostrovsky invited university professors (N. Storozhenko, N. Tikhonravov) and dramatist N. Chayev to work on the repertoires. He was helping new authors, firing corrupt or inadequate officials and trying to stop theft which was going on every level. He reorganised the Moscow drama school.
On 28 May, Ostrovsky went to Schelykovo, feeling already very ill. In an inn he had a severe asthma attack. His condition started to quickly deteriorate; his last days he spent in great pain, unable to move. On 2 June, Ostrovsky died in his home of angina pectoris while at his desk translating William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.
Alexander Ostrovsky was buried in the local cemetery in Nikolo-Berezhki. Only close relatives, a couple of old friends, dramatist Nikolai Kropachev and A.A. Maykov (his colleague in the Theatre department and Apollon's nephew) were present. The ceremony was modest and humble. Brother Mikhail's plans to move the coffin to the Moscow Novodevichye Cemetery remained unfulfilled. "Ostrovsky's life was hard, full of strife, inner suffering and hard work. But he lived it as if he wrote it, being loyal to simple ideals: native land, pure feelings, goodness in people and the source of both happiness and torment in his life, theatre," biographer Lakshin wrote.
Works adapted in music
Several of Ostrovsky's plays have been turned into operas, mostly by Russian composers. In particular, the play The Storm (Groza) was the inspiration behind Leoš Janáček's opera Káťa Kabanová. He's known outside of Russian-speaking countries mostly because of these two works.
The historical drama The Voyevoda (Dream on the Volga) was transformed into two operas: one by Pyotr Tchaikovsky (as The Voyevoda) and later another by Anton Arensky entitled Dream on the Volga. Tchaikovsky also later wrote incidental music for a scene in the play.
In 1847 Ostrovsky (an attractive young man, "pale, tall and lean", with "soft blonde hair opening up a tall forehead", as a biographer described him) met Agafia Ivanovna, a lower middle-class 24-year-old woman who lived in the Yauza neighborhood, and became close to her. No photograph of the woman remained and even her surname remained unknown (her sister's name was Natalya Ivanovna Belenkova, but that second name might have belonged to her husband). According to biographer Lakshin, there was a strong possibility that her parents were ex-serfs; in that case her surname most certainly would have been Ivanova.
Ostrovsky's first ever visit to Schelykovo was inspired by his father who hoped to make the son forget about Agafia Ivanovna. Yet in the summer of 1849 Ostrovsky refused to go to the estate and, while the family was away, took Agafia into the house as his civil wife. Marriage was out of question and Agafia (Gasha, as she was known) never demanded that. Ostrovsky apparently wasn't regarding this union as a lasting one, but it proved otherwise and Gasha stayed with him until her death in 1867. Poorly educated, but exceptionally talented and intelligent woman, she had deep knowledge of lower classes' life and certainly exerted some influence upon the dramatist.
While writing The Storm Ostrovsky spent time nearby Moscow, in villages Davydkovo and Ivankovo, places of actors' gatherings. It was there that he became close to Lyubov Nikulina-Kositskaya, whom they were friends with from the times of the Sledge. For several years in Ostrovsky-Kositskaya relations there's been coldness caused by the Gorev incident. Then she wrote him a letter asking for a benefice play and he gave her the role of Nadya in The Protégée. The new director of Imperial theatres Saburov disapproved of this (having nothing against the play as such) then it was banned altogether and Kositskaya has got nothing. In the Autumn of 1859, as Ostrovsky was working on The Storm (apparently having Kositskaya in mind as Katerina) the two fell in love. Judging by the remaining Kositskaya's letters, Ostrovsky was madly in love, promising to "elevate" her "up a pedestal"; she appeared to have reservations, reminding her lover of his duties towards his civil wife. After two years of uncertainty which caused great anguish (to Agafia Ivanovna in particular, whose dignified behaviour made Ostrovsky's friends treat her with still more respect and admiration) Ostrovsky proposed and Kositskaya refused. It transpired that by this time she's been in love with her young follower Sokolov, a flamboyant merchant's son who first squandered his own money, then started spending hers. This doomed romance was so painful and humiliating to Ostrovsky that for the rest of his life he did everything to keep it shut off his memory.
In the early 1860s Ostrovsky met Maria Vasilievna Vasilieva, the Maly Theater actress whom he became close with in 1864. In the New Year Eve Maria Vasilievna gave birth to a child, Alexander. In August 1866 Mikhail was born, in the end of 1867 daughter Maria. On 12 February 1869, Ostrovsky and Vasilieva got married, in church.
Alexander Ostrovsky is considered one of the most important Russian playwrights of the 19th century, credited with bringing dramatic realism to the Russian theatre stage. His best-known plays, in which he meticulously portrayed the Russian society of his time, focusing on the morals and manners of the newly emerging merchant class, were extremely popular during his lifetime and remain an integral part of the Russian repertoire. They are esteemed for their skillful characterization and use of dialect.
Ostrovsky wrote 47 original plays featuring 728 characters, "a real word of its own where some figures might seem similar, but no two of them are the same," according to Y. Kholodov. "Ostrovsky's world was exceptionally diverse, as was his set of formats: he's written dramas, historical chronicles, scenes of Moscow life, a spring fairytale and a dramatic etude… His legacy could be seen as one endless play set on one stage, that of Russia, of the last three centuries," the critic continued. His work divided the critics, and while Apollon Grigoriev enthused about their originality and Nikolai Dobrolyubov praised their social straightforwardness, some (like Nikolai Chernyshevsky) criticised the author of being maudlin and sentimental as regards patriarchal habits and ways. Politically neutral critics and the theatre community especially, though, loved his work and the best Russian stage stars, like Sadovsky, S. Vasiliev, Stepanov, Kositskaya and Borozdina were totally on his side.
Some scholars doubted the existence of the actual piece of paper on which Nikolai Gogol has allegedly scribbled the words of encouragement to the young dramatist, but in retrospect most of them agreed that regardless of that Ostrovsky came as a direct heir to Gogol's tradition of realism, humanism and closeness to folk culture and language. Ostrovsky was foreign to pastel colours and undertones, subtlety was not his thing. Critics used to compare his scenes to paintings by Pavel Fedotov. His was juiciness of natural brightness, dramatism, strong emotions, bright humour and unforgettable, lavishly painted characters. Ostrovsky was regarded as a master of language. Back in 1859 Nikolai Dobrolyubov (in his Realm of Darklness essay) remarked that many phrases he coined were being eagerly adopted by people and attributed the quality of folk sayings, common people talk. "Nobody has had such glorious, tasteful and clear Russian language before Ostrovsky," Turgenev wrote.
Ostrovsky is considered a master of the realistic drama, being praised in particular for his insight into the psychology of the Russian people, and many of his well-drawn characters are favorites among Russian actors and audiences. While international recognition of his talent has been limited by the difficulties of translating his heavily idiomatic dialogue, his contributions remain central to the development of modern Russian drama.
Detractors often referred to Ostrovsky as a vain man but this has not been corroborated by facts. He's failed to write a comprehensive autobiography and did nothing to present himself in a 'winning' way to the posterity. He's never kept diaries and his letters were informational, obviously never meant to be preserved. In 1879, answering Russkaya Starina's Mikhail Semevsky who was asking for memoirs, Ostrovsky replied:
|“||I've been for quite a while cherishing a dream of how after all I'll start a book of memoirs and relax a bit, enjoying myself, but now I know for sure this will remain nothing more than a dream. To put my reminiscences in order I need some rest and peace - two things I haven't got and never will have... Every moment of my life I do my work for theatre or thinking ahead, making plans for new plots, dogged by this chronic fear of finding myself without new plays - in other words, without a piece of bread for my family. So memoirs is the last thing that's on my mind.||”|
Most of Ostrovsky's letters (including those to Nikolai Nekrasov, biographer S. Maksimov and friend Ivan Gorbunov) disappeared. The dramatist's son S.A. Ostrovsky when he was going to the World War I promised to hand to Knyaznin (Apollon Grigoriev's biographer) all the Ostrovsky's letters he had in his disposal, but never did. In Shchelykovo huge amount of papers has been destroyed through negligence. The first academic works dealing with Ostrovsky and his legacy started to appear only in the Soviet times, via scholars N. Kashin, N. Dolgov, A. Revyakin, A. Lotman, E. Kholodov, V. Lakshin. Still, in his biography there remain gaps, unconfirmed dates and uncorroborated facts, according to Lakshin.
Unlike those of his contemporaries Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Turgenev, Ostrovsky's works are little known outside of Russian-speaking countries. The two that are fairly well known in the West became so mostly because they were adapted for operas: "Katya Kabanova" (based on The Storm), and his play that became "The Snow Maiden" by Rimsky-Korsakov. Ostrovsky wrote mostly of the conservative "old Russia", the traditional Russian society—of the everyday life of merchants and poor city dwellers—the subjects that seemed to attract little interest in the West.
- Emilia von Tessin's grand-grandfather Karl Gustaf Tessin (1695-1770) was a Swedish politician, diplomat and the King's Chancellery's head, best known for his book Letters to Prince Albert. His son, accused of links with freemasons escaped to Russia and settled in Moscow. In the early 19th century on the Yauza bank there appeared the Tessin Lane which is still there.
- The first Russian private newspaper, started in January 1847 by Moscow liberal professor Vladimir Drashusov (1820−1883). It was in Listok that Ostrovsky has met Alexander Hertzen for the first time.
- Several years later when The Storm was premiered in France and had little success, it was said the French regarded it as historical, not social drama, for the things it described were common in 14th-century France. Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin was aware of that too, saying: "For [West Europeans] I am virtually a 17th-century author."
- Dmitry Furmanov, who came from Kineshema, once planned to write a novel about this case called "On the Trace of Without a Dawry."
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- Ostrovsky, Alexander -- San Diego Opera