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Masks of the Empress: Polyphony of Personae in Catherine the Great's Oh, These Times! Lurana Donnels O'Malley A famous ruler wrote a letter to a famous philosopher in October of 1772 on the subject of a group of new plays: Opinion here is that the anonymous author of these new Russian comedies, though he shows talent, has grave faults; he knows nothing about the theatre, and his plots are weak. However this is not the case with his characters, which are well-sustained and drawn from everyday life. There are flashes of wit, he makes you laugh, his morality is pure, and he knows his nation very well.' The philosopher in this case was Voltaire, to whom the ruler planned to send a Russian comedy in French translation, entitled Oh, These Times! Nowhere did this letter reveal that the female ruler shared a body and a pen with the anonymous male playwright , that they were in fact the same person—Catherine the Great. Catherine's authorial output was prolific in genres as diverse as drama, children's stories, proverbs, satirical essays, and memoirs. Kevin McKenna, commenting on Catherine's inclusion of a variety of perspectives in her satirical weekly periodical All Sorts (Vsiakaia vsiachina), observes that "Catherine constructed a polyphony of personae,"2 but this periodical was not the only venue where she constructed and manipulated personae. In her plays she participated in the particularly eighteenth-century game of masks; she disguised her views by splitting her ideas among her various characters. Moreover, her own persona as a playwright was also a "character," adding another voice to the rich multi-vocal variety that characterized Russian comedy and satire in the eighteenth century. Such polyphony of personae appears in Catherine's first play, 65 66Masks of the Empress Oh, These Times! (O vremia!), written in 1772. Initially she disguised herself as the play's anonymous author about whom certain clues were revealed to the public. The unknown writer claimed in print to have composed the play in Iaroslavl during the time of the plague, and appeared modest and humble in a letter which appeared in a satirical journal—modesty consistent with the above-cited private correspondence with Voltaire, who may or may not have been aware that his epistolary companion was also herself the playwright. Although Catherine was to write many plays and opera libretti throughout her reign as Empress, she chose to conceal her literary identity behind the mask of anonymity. By assuming the device of anonymity she was able to assert her ideas and convictions about literature and society through public discourse rather than by the other means available to her of official proclamation or imperial decree. Not surprisingly, therefore, Catherine's own political agenda reveals itself in the play in various of her dramatis personae. She adapted Oh, These Times! from a 1745 comedy, Die Betschwester (The Prayer Sister) by German playwright Christian Fürchtegott Geliert.3 The play was to be translated into Russian as Bogomolka by Mikhail Matinskii in 1774—that is, two years after Catherine's version appeared.4 Although many aspects of her plot and some scenes follow Geliert' s play closely, her drama is far superior in characterization, structure, and humor.5 Oh, These Times! concerns marriage negotiations which Mr. Notshallow (Nepustov) is conducting on behalf of his friend Mr. Milksop (Molokososov), who wishes to marry a young Muscovite girl named Khristina. Their efforts are continually thwarted by her grandmother, Mrs. Sanctimonious (Khanzhakina), who is a religious hypocrite and a miser—and who is not eager to part with Khristina's dowry. The servant girl Mavra reveals both Sanctimonious's externally devout behavior and her stinginess and cruelty to those around her. Meanwhile, Milksop begins to have doubts about Khristina, who is completely silent in his presence. Mavra assures him that her upbringing is to blame, for Sanctimonious deliberately has kept her in ignorance and isolation. We next meet two other comic old women, companions to Sanctimonious: Mrs. Tattler (Vestnikova) and Mrs. Marvel (Chudikhina), who are, respectively, overly gossipy and excessively superstitious. Their interactions and ridiculous tales form the basis of the play's humor. The marriage of Milksop and Khristina...


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pp. 65-85
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