Discovering the triumph and tragedies of Russia's Shakespeare

It is impossible to imagine the Russian stage without the works of Alexander Ostrovsky – they are performed all over Russia today, just as they were more than a century ago, and they are still timely.
Portrait of playwright Alexander Ostrovsky by famous Russian artist Vassily Perov. Source: press photo

“What a pity people can’t fly like birds.” These lines from a monologue by Katerina, the heroine of the play “The Storm,” are known to everyone in Russia, as is the name of the author, Alexander Ostrovsky, a dramatist and theater reformer. The Maly Theater, one of the country’s most acclaimed theaters, is even nicknamed the “House of Ostrovsky.”

Alexander Nikolaevich Ostrovsky was born on March 31 1823 in Moscow on Malaya Ordynka Street. In 19th-century Moscow, Zamoskvorechye, Ostrovsky’s neighborhood, was a distinct city with its own flavor. Its residents included merchants and tradesmen, and there were noblemen’s country estates. The district was replete with low private houses with yards and kitchen gardens, and church domes and bell towers were visible everywhere.

At night the windows closed with noiseless shutters; people made jam, pickled cucumbers, placed flasks with liqueur on the windowsills, and lingered over tea on summer evenings. They would go to sleep early while life was still simmering in the center of Moscow. The inhabitants of Zamoskvorechye became prototypes for the heroes of Ostrovsky’s early plays.

Ostrovsky grew up in comfortable circumstances. He felt drawn to writing early on, but his father envisioned him as a lawyer. After high school Alexander entered law school at Moscow University, but he dropped out of the program due to a quarrel with a professor and became a legal clerk, working in the Moscow courts until 1851.

The playwright earned his initial fame from the play “A Family Affair,” which was first published in 1850. This comedy about merchant mores not only drew favorable reactions (including from Nikolai Gogol), but it also “touched the people” – students read it aloud in taverns. But the Moscow merchants did not care for the work, seeing in it a caricature of their class, and they complained about the playwright. Production of the comedy was forbidden, and it could not be staged until 11 years later, but it played for another two decades with censors’ deletions.

Such a debut did not hinder Ostrovksky’s success as a playwright – his works were performed in Moscow’s and Petersburg’s renowned theaters, and Ostrovsky was a longtime contributor to the magazine, "Sovremennik" (The Contemporary), which published the gems of Russian thought at the time. Ostrovsky’s plays draw portraits of the lives of the merchant class, petty officials and petty bourgeoisie. He also wrote works on historical themes and one folktale play, “The Snow Maiden,” which Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov adapted into an opera.

Ostrovsky exerted a major influence on the development of Russian theater. It is therefore interesting that for much of his career, he earned little or no money from his plays because there were no mechanisms for compensating authors. In order to change this situation, define copyright and uphold compliance with it, the Society of Russian Dramatic Authors and Opera Composers was formed, and Ostrovsky became its president. He also insisted on the need for reforms in the Russian theater and participated in developing regulations for administering the troupes of imperial theaters and compensating actors.

Ostrovsky believed that an actor should receive special training, and he was a proponent of a realistic acting style. In 1885 he was named artistic director of Moscow’s imperial theaters and head of the theater school. Outside the theater, he welcomed Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy and other well-known contemporaries into his home.

His tragic heroines are particularly beloved by the public. The most famous ones are Katerina Kabanova from “The Storm” and Larisa Ogudalova from “Fiancée without Fortune.” “The Storm,” which takes place in a small town on the Volga, is a tragic story of an unhappy marriage. The story’s surface simplicity belies a certain depth, and it addresses not only the conflict between duty and feeling, but also freedom and the impossibility to realize it.

The writer considered “Fiancée without Fortune” to be his best play, but his peers did not value it: critics saw the story of a poor “marriageable” girl as banal, and the premiere at the Maly Theater was a flop. Yet the play outlived its time, and now the role of the heroine is one that actresses aspire to play.

The nobleman Ostrovsky lived nearly 20 years in an unofficial marriage with Agafya, who was considered a “commoner.” Ostrovsky’s father did not give Alexander his blessing, threatening to cut off Alexander’s inheritance. Two years after Agafya’s death, Ostrovsky married the actress Maria Bakhmeteva, who bore him four sons and two daughters.

Ostrovsky died at the age of 63 – his work apparently took its toll on his health. But he was not a rich man in the end. Tsar Alexander III granted money for the playwright’s burial and gave a pension to the widow and children.

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