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Anticipating Chekhov: Tragicomic Elements in Griboedov's Woe from Wit

From: Pushkin Review
Volume 15, 2012
pp. 125-142 | 10.1353/pnr.2012.0001

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[Woe from Wit] is considered a comedy. A number of scenes in it completely justify that style. But in this great play there is much of the author's bitter grief for his country and his people… The great Russian classic dramatists showed their deep love for their people and their country by bringing out the tears which are hidden in laughter—a characteristic expressive of many Russian works of art.

— Konstantin Stanislavsky

[Why must actors try] to convince me at all costs that Chatsky, who spends much time talking to fools and who loves a foolish woman, is a very intelligent man…

— Anton Chekhov, A Dreary Story

In its nearly 200-year history, scholarship on Griboedov's play Woe from Wit has been dominated by ideological readings. In the first few years of the play's circulation, it sparked debate between conservative critics and Decembrist-Romantic writers about its depiction of Moscow society. The progressive critics of the mid- to late nineteenth century, such as Vissarion Belinsky and Nikolai Dobroliubov, praised the work as one of the first sobering depictions of Russian reality, a tradition that, according to them, was continued by Pushkin and Gogol. Soviet critics would later canonize this reading of Woe from Wit in the twentieth century. The political reading has indeed been predominant—many critics have viewed the work as a Decembrist manifesto and its hero Chatsky as the most articulate spokesman of that movement. Even the Formalist Yuri Tynianov focused on the historical prototypes for the play's characters rather than its innovative formal aspects. Western scholarship about the play is relatively limited, but has included some re-evaluation of the play's characters and analyses of its meter and language. However, the main feature of the play—its mixing of the tragic and comedic, or rather its status as a tragicomedy— has to my knowledge received little attention. This paper therefore provides a reading of Woe from Wit as a tragicomedy and, in doing so, shows how it anticipated many of Chekhov's dramatic techniques: an undermined raisonneur and concomitant authorial distancing, a domino effect of unrequited love, constant miscommunication and disconnect between all characters, and the incorporation of elements of commedia dell'arte. This reading opposes the view of Chekhov's dramaturgy as anomalous and unprecedented in Russian letters and instead suggests an evolution of the tragicomic genre, which had its earliest roots in Denis Fonvizin's The Minor, was developed further in Griboedov's Woe from Wit and Gogol's The Government Inspector, and culminated in Chekhov's plays.

First let us consider the nature of tragicomedy, a genre that is difficult to define. Hazel Barnes attempts a definition using three dramatic situations. The first of these occurs when there is an incongruity between subject and tone, that is, between a situation as it is normally judged and the attitude to it induced by the characters. The second tragicomic situation arises when there is a discrepancy between the attitudes of the characters and the spectators, not because of dramatic irony, but when the characters are fully aware of their circumstances. A common device used to create such situations is undercutting, as when a character makes a solemn declaration and then trips and falls over, as Trofimov does in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, or when one takes a bite out of a cucumber while musing on existential questions, as Sharlotta does in the same play. The final tragicomic scenario involves an "unrealistic closing up or denial of the gap between desire and reality … a betrayal of the human condition."

To recognize these tragicomic scenarios in Woe from Wit, one need not look further than the play's conclusion. In this fraught denouement, Sofya discovers Molchalin's duplicity, Chatsky is declared insane by society, and all romantic intrigues collapse. Nevertheless the action is conveyed in lighthearted couplets and is accompanied by the jeers and laughter of the society characters. There is a striking incongruity between the attitudes of the characters to what is taking place and the way it would normally be judged. One cannot say that, following Aristotle's definition, tragedy is brought to its full expression and causes the audience...

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