A Look at the Life of the Playwright
Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol was born in 1809 in a small town in Ukraine called Sorochintsy. At the time, Ukraine was a part of the Russian Empire. Gogol struggled to find purpose in his life at a young age and experimented with a number of different vocations with mixed results. In 1828, he went to St. Petersburg to try his hand at civil service but realized he did not have the money nor the connections to succeed. In an effort to gain recognition as a writer, he self-published a poem he penned in high school. Its reception was so remarkably horrible that he burned all the copies and considered moving to the United States. Gogol decided instead to do some soul searching in Germany. When his money ran out, he returned to St. Petersburg and accepted an ill-paying government job.
Gogol stumbled upon the success he had been craving in his youth while working at his government job. He published a series of volumes titled Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, which chronicled his memories of growing up in rural Ukraine. The whimsical nature of his writing captivated the Russian literary world. The sudden fame he encountered placed him in the sights of Russian poet, Aleksandr Pushkin, who would become one of his closest friends and gave him the inspiration for the Government Inspector, as well as Gogol’s most famous novel, Dead Souls. Through a special order from the Tsar, the Government Inspector was performed on April 19, 1836. The weight of the reactionary press and officialdom was too much for Gogol, who ended up leaving Russia for Rome after the play was produced and stayed there until 1842.
Gogol fought with depression for much of his life, and in his later years, he became deeply religious due to his friendship with a churchman, Matvey Konstantinovsky. This friendship proved fatal to Gogol’s creativity. Konstantinovsky convinced Gogol that his writing was sinful and following his advice, Gogol burned the unfinished manuscript to the second part of Dead Souls (a planned trilogy). He fell sick immediately afterwards and died in severe pain nine days later in 1852. Despite the difficulties Gogol faced in life, he had an immense influence on Russian literature, influencing the likes of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy.
The History of the Play
Gogol had the opportunity to sit in on the rehearsals for the first production of the Government Inspector, but was dismayed at how the actors were playing the piece for cheap laughs. He insisted that truthful depictions would be much funnier and his initial fears were realized when the play premiered to mixed reviews. The audience had never seen a play like this before and many felt it was slanderous towards the Russian bureaucracy. Emperor Nicholas I, on the other hand, enjoyed the play, stating “That was some play! Everyone received their comeuppance; and me most of all.” Gogol felt that the Emperor and the audience had misinterpreted the play and would go on to do a rewrite in 1842. The revised version received its first production after his death in 1870.
The Government Inspector has been performed countless times since its inception in 1836. The most famous production is Vsevolod Meyerhold’s 1926 staging that made heavy use of expressionism and symbolism. The version you will see this evening was adapted by David Harrower in 2011 for London’s Young Vic Theatre. It was warmly received by critics, with Michael Billington of the Guardian commenting on how “Gogol’s play exists at a tangent to reality and boldly confronts endemic corruption with a form of certifiable self-delusion”. Despite the hardships of Gogol’s life, his play has continued to make people laugh for over one hundred years.
19th Century Russia at a Glance
At the time of the Government Inspector’s inception, the Russian Empire covered three continents and had a population of 125.6 million people, making it the third largest population in the world. The Empire was at a crossroads of history, torn between pursuing modernisation and retaining its traditional values, two themes prominent in Gogol’s work. The Napoleonic Wars took a major toll on Russia despite their victory in expelling Napoleon’s forces. The war gave Russian Officers a chance to travel freely to Western Europe where they witnessed the economic growth being enjoyed thanks to industrialism. This sparked uprisings against the autocratic Russian government, which were ultimately contained but led to Nicholas I implementing a doctrine called Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality (1833). He demanded loyalty to the Tsar and the Orthodox Church.
Russia was severely over governed in the 1800s. The size of the nation meant corruption was rampant because it was difficult to regulate the individual provincial administrations. Government employees would often hire friends and family and bloat the already overloaded government with more workers. The society was broken up into four categories: the clergy, nobility, urbanites and rural dwellers (serfs or peasants). These four categories had numerous subdivisions that were nearly impossible to keep track of and the rural dwellers felt the brunt of the system’s taxation. To give an example of the ludicrous titling system, when Gogol moved to St. Petersburg he was considered as “minor nobility belonging to the fourteenth class”. The Russian Empire was overthrown in the revolution of 1918, replaced by the Soviet Union which fell in 1991, and established the Russian Federation that still exists today.
Government Inspector runs each evening at 7:30 p.m. February 9 – 18, 2017 in the Timms Centre for the Arts (87 Avenue & 112 Street). For the full creative team, show dates and ticket details, see www.ualberta.ca/arts/shows/theatre-listings/government-inspector
Presenter: U of A Studio Theatre
Event Title: Government Inspector
Dates: February 9 – 18, 2017 at 7:30 p.m.
Matinee Thursday, February 16 at 12:30 p.m.
Venue: Timms Centre for the Arts, University of Alberta
Single show tickets: $12 student, $25 adult, $22 senior, available online and at the Timms Centre box office one hour before each performance.
Billington, Michael. “Government Inspector – Review.” The Guardian, 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2011/jun/10/government-inspector-review, 2017. Lavrin, Janko. “Nikolay Gogol.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2012, www.britannica.com/biography/Nikolay-Gogol, 2017. Penford, Adam. “Resource Pack – Government Inspector.” The Young Vic Teachers Programme, 2011, http://www.youngvic.org/sites/default/files/documents/Resource_packs/Government_Inspector_Resource_Pack.pdf, 2017.
Feature image by Ed Ellis.