The place of Alexander Nikolaevich Ostrovsky (1823–86) in the history of Russian drama is secure. Four years before his death, after almost four decades of writing for the theater, his friend I. A. Goncharov, the creator of Oblamov, delivered the judgment:
You have made the gift of an entire library of artistic works; you have created for the stage your own special world. You alone have finished the building for which Fonvizin, Griboedov, and Gogol set the cornerstone. But only after you can we Russians say with pride: “We have our own Russian, national theater. By rights it should be called The Theater of Ostrovsky.”
It is therefore surprising that, in the light of Ostrovsky’s legacy of more than fifty plays, his writings on dramatic theory, on the state of the contemporary theater, on the problems of the acting profession, and his continuing place in the Russian stage repertory, he is known in the West almost exclusively by a single play, Groza (The Storm, 1859). While this work is certainly the culmination of the earliest period in Ostrovsky’s development (1847–60), it hardly affords a fair representation of the complete range and [End Page 1003] variety of his dramatic writing. Norman Henley’s admirable edition of four other plays, covering the years from 1857 to 1882, goes a long way toward rectifying this situation.
Professor Henley, who published a useful Russian edition of Groza in the Bradda series (1963), has selected here four other works for translation and brief commentary: A Profitable Position (Dokhodnoe mesto, 1857), An Ardent Heart (Goriachee serdste, 1869), Without a Dowry (Bespridannitsa, 1879), and Talents and Admirers (Talanty i poklonniki, 1882). Taken together, these four plays afford the anglophone reader an opportunity to assess Ostrovsky’s mastery of realist dramaturgy and to explore that oppressive domain of corrupt businessmen, domineering patriarchs, and compromised civil servants that the playwright made peculiarly his own—a realm the radical critic N. A. Dobrolyubov styled “The Kingdom of Darkness” (Temnoe tsarstvo). The first play reflects some of Ostrovsky’s own disillusioning experiences as a young man in the Moscow civil service, while the second follows the consequences of a young woman’s Nora-like revolt against the shackles of arranged provincial marriages. The two later plays are remarkable, as the editor points out, for their modern portrayal of women struggling against a mercenary, oppressive society. The predicament of Larisa in Without a Dowry is summed up in the title of the play, while in Talents and Admirers Alexandra, the young actress in a provincial theater, has to protect herself from her patrons who treat her as a commodity. As Henley observes, in this theatrical world that Ostrovsky knew so well, “women were equal to men only on the stage.”
This collection raises again the question of why Ostrovsky’s plays, perennially popular on the Russian stage, have not found a place in the Western repertory. Some have cited their peculiarly “Russian” character and the depressing, negative constraints of a society single-mindedly dedicated to the pursuit of money and the preservation of patriarchal power, the rule of the samodurs. Certainly the world that Ostrovsky represents with such scrupulous realism does not leave much room for the triumph of the individual. As Henley justly observes, the emphasis in his plays is on “social psychology” rather than the nuanced “psychology of the individual.” But the “Russian” emphasis on a drama of ensemble acting and the representation of group dynamics anticipates one of the glories yet to come of Chekhov’s admittedly more “poetic” theater. And, as Henley demonstrates in his commentaries, many of the social issues Ostrovsky’s theater addresses have a peculiar modernity.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to a just appreciation of Ostrovsky in the West is rooted, however, in the very strength of his realistic dialogue—uncompromisingly vivid, earthy, and colloquial—which has often proved the despair of translators. Professor Henley is clearly aware of this challenge and has given us versions that transfer much of this vernacular vitality into English. He...