Gogol’s Gamblers.

One of the best things about my omnivorous approach to nineteenth-century Russian literature is that I stumble on good things I would never have read otherwise. I almost passed up Gogol’s play «Игроки» [The Gamblers]; much as I love Gogol, I was put off by Mirsky’s description (“It is an unpleasant play, inhabited by scoundrels that are not funny, and, though the construction is neat, it is dry and lacks the richness of the true Gogol”) and by the fact that Nabokov says not a single word about it in his book on Gogol, not even bothering to call it “a rather slipshod comedy” as he does «Женитьба» [Marriage, or as Nabokov calls it, Getting Married]. But I sighed, thought “If I don’t read it now, I never will, and after all, it’s Gogol,” and gave it a try. It turns out it’s a wonderful play that simply fell through the cracks of Mirsky’s and Nabokov’s artistic sensibilities. It should, however, fit perfectly with the sensibilities of an age that appreciates, say, David Mamet. These days we don’t need uplifting or well-rounded characters in our drama — a well-turned, clever plot and punchy dialogue makes us happy. (And come on, there’s a deck of cards named Adelaida Ivanovna!) If you liked The Sting or The Usual Suspects, I bet you’ll like this play. (I know there are translations into English, but I don’t know if any of them are any good; there’s a 1927 one by Isaac Don Levine online, but a quick glance suggests it’s pretty creaky, though Levine does call the play “a masterpiece of dramatic suspense” at the end of his brief introduction.)

Addendum. Here is a filmed version of the play (in Russian); the actors are perfect for their parts.


  1. I laughed and laughed and laughed while reading it. It gets better and better as you read along with a wonderful twist right at the end. And I too, was thinking about The Sting.

  2. Shostakovich began setting this as an opera during the Siege of Leningrad, immediately after completing his seventh symphony. He abandoned it when he realised the material would have been “morally unacceptable” in the wartime USSR. He also tried setting the play straight, with no omissions or alterations, which caused him artistic problems. Recordings exist of the surviving music, but I’ve never heard it.

  3. One of the grimly amusing things about the Soviet leaders is that they were just as puritanical as the imperial ones.

  4. Here’s a review of a performance from four years ago, Sir J.

  5. And then there’s this…

  6. The surviving scenes from Shostakovich’s version of The Gamblers are available on a double CD from Melodiya along with his wonderful opera of The Nose, both conducted by G. Rozhdestvensky. Catalogue number is MEL CD 10 01192.

  7. Thanks! And I can attest that The Nose is a splendid opera.

  8. just as puritanical as the imperial ones

    Or as the character of Tristan Tzara in Tom Stoppard’s Travesties puts it: “As a Dadaist, I am the natural enemy of bourgeois art and the natural ally of the political left, but the odd thing about revolution is that the further left you go politically the more bourgeois they like their art.”


  1. […] liked Gogol’s The Gamblers (Игроки, published 1842). My favorite Gogol play is […]

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