Ostrovsky’s Forest.

I hadn’t really been planning to read more Ostrovsky. I’d read and enjoyed several of his early plays and last year read Гроза [The Thunderstorm], which is generally considered his masterpiece; I’m not really a theater person, and I was eager to read more Dostoevsky, but I wanted to take a breather before attacking Бесы [The Devils], so I thought what the hell, I’d give Лес [The Forest] a try. The first act was an enjoyable bit of domestic comedy, with the greedy landowning widow Gurmyzhskaya trying to sell some forest lands to the merchant Vosmibratov while insisting her poor-relation dependent Aksinya (nicknamed Aksyusha) marry the handsome but brainless orphan Aleksei (“Alexis”) Bulanov; Aksyusha and Vosmibratov’s son Pyotr love each other, but Vosmibratov won’t allow Pyotr to marry without a 3,000-ruble dowry, which Gurmyzhskaya is never going to provide — she wants to get the girl off her hands as cheaply as possible. I thought I’d gotten the general idea, and was almost ready to abandon it, but I turned to the second act, and in Scene 2 the play is lifted into another sphere entirely by the appearance of two provincial actors who run into each other while trudging the back roads of Russia looking for work (“Where are you going?” “From Vologda to Kerch, and you?” “From Kerch to Vologda”). Gennady Neshchastlivstev (“Unhappy”) is a tragic actor, Arkady (“Arkasha”) Shchastlivtsev (“Happy”) a comic one; Neshchastlivstev, whose real name turns out to be Gurmyzhsky, is the long-missing nephew of Gurmyzhskaya, who has been talking loudly about her intention to leave him all her wealth.

Neshchastlivstev is one of the great characters of world drama, impulsive, generous, and imperious, without much regard for the feelings of those about him unless they touch his heart. In their first scene together, Shchastlivtsev objects to Neshchastlivstev’s putting his hand on his shoulder, recounting with remembered horror an episode when he was playing the German doctor Fidler in Kukolnik‘s play Князь Михаил Васильевич Скопин-Шуйский [Prince Mikhail Vasilevich Skopin-Shuisky] and the actor playing the hero, Lyapunov, had gotten overexcited and actually thrown him out a window (“I flew three sazhens and broke the door of a women’s dressing room… I could have been a cripple for life!”). Neshchastlivstev enthusiastically says “Эффектно! Надо это запомнить” [Effective! I’ll have to remember that], grabs poor Shchastlivtsev by the collar and pretends he’s about to reenact the scene. Realizing they’re near the estate where he grew up, he insists Shchastlivtsev accompany him so they can both rest up and be well fed for a few days… but Shchastlivtsev will have to pretend to be his servant.

Neshchastlivstev is constantly referring to Shakespeare and quoting Hamlet (he also recites a provocative bit of Schiller’s Robbers at a critical moment), and with his appearance the play becomes Shakespearean and remains so, with a superb mix of comedy and pathos. At one point Aksyusha tries to drown herself, and when Neshchastlivstev rescues her he tells her to forget about her love and become an actress (“They’ll shower you with flowers and gifts… You’ll go onstage a queen and leave as a queen”). He torments the people who need tormenting and helps those who need helping, and the play ends with him telling the old servant Karp (whom he’s been calling by different fish names all along, and who at one point comes out with the marvelous “Живем в лесу, молимся пенью, да и то с ленью” [We live in the forest, we pray to a stump, and that lazily]) “Руку, товарищ!” [Give me your hand, comrade!]. I read with increasing enthusiasm and was sorry when it was over, and I was pleased to see Prince Mirsky’s comment that it “shares with The Thunderstorm the honor of being regarded as his masterpiece.” There’s a terrific performance by the Maly Theater online here, with Aleksandr Yermakov as an unforgettable Neshchastlivstev, and you can read an appreciative review of a Classic Stage performance in English here; there are at least a couple of translations available, though I have no idea how good they are. I’m glad I took a chance on it!


  1. “Where are you going?” “From Vologda to Kerch, and you?” “From Kerch to Vologda.”

    “Nothing to be done.” “I’m beginning to come round to that opinion.”

    Actors — the same the world over.

  2. The Guardian’s theatre critic Billington also compared Ostrovsky’s two actors to Didi and Gogo in his book “The 101 Greatest Plays”.

  3. I’m glad it made the list of the 101 greatest!

  4. Wait … The Forest is amongst The 101 Greatest Plays? I’d never heard of it before Hat’s post. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen it produced anywhere.

    Perhaps it’s only Waiting for Godot that’s amongst the 101; and Billington is mentioning Ostrovsky as an antecedent?

  5. Agh I withdraw and apolgise. There it is. I’ve at least heard of nearly all the 101.

    Waiting for Godot isn’t there, but All That Fall is. So what’s the criterion for “Greatest”? Most influential? Most representative of their author or their times?

  6. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    How common a name is Lyapunov? I ask because I wonder if there is any reason for choosing the name of a very distinguished intellectual family. The most famous Lyapunov today is probably the mathematician Aleksandr (1857-1918 — suicide, I think), whose exponents still play a part in chaos theory. However, his brothers Sergei (composer) and Boris (philologist) were famous in their time. Their father Mikhail was a well known astronomer. Their cousins Sofia and Aleksandra were the mothers (adoptive and biological respectively) of Victor Henri, one of the giants in the origins of experimental psychology (he was assistant to Alfred Binet) and enzymology, not to mention some 500 papers in physical chemistry, and reorganization of Russia’s industry during the 1st World War. Sofia was grandmother-in-law of Pyotr Kapitsa, who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1978. All this raises the same sort of questions that would ask if a British novelist named his main character Charles Darwin, or if an American called him Richard Feynman.

  7. It’s quite common; furthermore, the only Lyapunov on that list who was alive at the time the Kukolnik play was written (it’s from 1835) was the astronomer, and he was only a teenager. So it would not have carried any particular connotations.

  8. Prokopiy Lapunov was an actual historical figure, one of the military leaders during the Time of Troubles. No idea whether Lapunovs the scientists are relations.

  9. Ah, of course — I should have realized that as a historical play it probably had historical characters!

  10. For the Darwins there is the set {Charles, Erasmus}, and for the Feynmans there is {Richard, Joan}, though in both cases most of the fame is attached to one member.

    The list. The comments are quite decent, as often at the Grauniad when the subject isn’t too political. Of course the list should have been called “101 good plays”, per Northrop Frye’s comment that what matters in art is not comparative greatness, but positive goodness or genuineness.

    I have seen perhaps half these plays performed (for thirty years Gale and I went to see a play off-Broadway, or sometimes off-off, every Thursday, until we were priced out of the market), and have read quite a few more, and they are indeed good plays. My main gaps are in the Spanish and Italian drama, though I did persuade (through the medium of an audience survey) the Jean Cocteau Theater (pbuh) to put on Pirandello’s “Six Characters”.

  11. The comments are quite decent

    The first one had such a belligerent-asshole vibe I didn’t proceed farther.

    A very interesting list; as I say, I’m not a theater person, so I’ve never even heard of a lot of the plays and seen very few — I’m deeply impressed that you’ve seen half or thereabouts. I wouldn’t have guessed you to be such a devotee of the stage!

    I have to admit I was surprised to find a Gorky play there — I think of him more as a Soviet idol than a good writer, though I enjoy his autobiographical trilogy. Has anyone here seen Summerfolk (aka The Summer People, in the original Дачники ‘people who spend time in dachas’)? Is it deserving of being in such distinguished company?

  12. A British family comparable to the Lyapunovs would probably be the Huxleys, including Darwin’s bulldog, as well as Aldous, Julian, and Andrew, among others.

  13. All the prominent Lyapunovs of the 19th and 20th centuries seem to have descended from Vasily Lyapunov (1778-1847), a “syndic” at the Kazan university. His son Mikhail, a student of Lobachevsky’s, was an astronomer and the father of the three Lyapunovs mentioned by Athel Cornish-Bowden above – of which Alexander is probably the best known, at least among mathematicians and natural scientists. The other, equally mighty, Lyapunov branch sprang from Mikhail’s elder brother Victor (1817-1856), a doctor (he died during a cholera outbreak), the father of Alexandra and Sophia. Alexey N. Krylov, the famous Russian naval engineer, was Sophia’s son and Petr Kapitsa’s father-in-law. Victor Henri was Alexey Krylov’s half-brother and first cousin.

    Victor Lyapunov was also the great-grandfather of Alexei (or Alexey) A. Lyapunov, probably the best-known of the 20th-century Lyapunovs. A few links in case you’ve never heard of him: Kiselev; Fet; Genealogy (in Russian).

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