Twentieth Century Russian Drama: From Gorky to the Present by Harold B. Segel, and: The Theater of Nikolay Gogol: Plays and Selected Writings ed. by Milton Ehre (review)
- Comparative Drama
- Western Michigan University
- Volume 15, Number 1, Spring 1981
- pp. 90-91
- View Citation
- Additional Information
90 Comparative Drama Harold B. Segel. T w en tieth C en tu ry R ussian D ram a: F rom G o rk y to the Present. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979. Pp. 502. $27.50 cloth, $12.00 paper. T h e T h eater o f N ik o la y G ogol: P lays an d S elected W ritings. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Milton Ehre. Translated by Milton Ehre and Fruma Gottschalk. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980. Pp. 206. $18.50. Russian theater, ever since the visit of the Moscow Art Theater to New York in 1923, has received a great deal of attention in the United States. Russian drama, on the other hand, except for works by Chekhov and Gorky, is still relatively unknown to American audiences. These two volumes will do much to enlighten readers about Russian and SovietRussian drama. In fact, if they reach a wide audience, we might very well see a revival of plays by Gogol, Bulgakov, Andreev, Mayakovsky, and Yevreinov, just as we have witnessed the recent revival of Gorky. Nikolai Erdman’s T h e Suicide, with Derek Jacobi, is currently enjoying a Broad way run. Not a year goes by without a revival of Chekhov (witness the publicity surrounding Lincoln Center’s production of T h e C h erry O rch ard) or Gogol (Liviu Ciulei’s disappointing production of T h e In sp ecto r G en eral at the Circle Theater last season). But still, Russian drama is far from becoming the mead of audiences shot through with electronic rays. And as one reads through these two volumes, the reason for the lack of enthusiasm for most of these plays becomes clear: most of them are dated and were boring even the day they were written. Having taught courses to students raised on Maude, the Jeffersons, and the family X-rated fare at the local movie emporium, paraphrasing Nabokov, the class usually begins with a blinding flash of lightning (the first fifteen minutes) and ends in a heavy fog (the remainder of the hour). In other words, most Russian and Soviet-Russian plays cannot sustain prolonged discussion or interest. If they are read in Russian, however, some of them are a fund of intellectual and entertainment treasures—Gogol in particular. And this raises the issue of translation. Even though Ehre and Gott schalk have done a serviceable job on Gogol’s three plays (yes: he wrote two other fine works besides T h e In spector G eneral— M arriage and T h e G a m b lers), the translations barely suggest the originals. Gogol above all is language—not words. And that is the problem. Ehre supplies us with copious notes, a fine introduction to Russian drama before Gogol, an excellent bibliography, but he does not give us Gogol. In fairness we must add that is is not his fault. This translation is the best I have read— and there are scores of them, including my own. But to bring Gogol to life in English we would need an equivalent genius. Not even Nabokov could do it—and he tried. Segel, on the other hand, proves another theory: there are few Soviet-Russian plays worth producing. Most are of interest to students of Russian; few can sustain universal interest. But Segel’s book almost succeeds in making us want to go back to these plays. His style is enter taining and light. He covers over two hundred plays and gives accurate Reviews 91 synopses of all of them. If there is little new in his critical approach, it is because he is intent on providing information to the uninitiated reader. The book is an encyclopedia of factual detail of almost every significant play published (if not produced) since the Revolution. It is neither as intense and personal as Nikolai Gorchakov’s T he T h eater in S o viet R ussia (English translation, 1957) nor as vindictive and authoritarian as Marc Slonim’s R ussian T heater fro m th e E m pire to th e S oviets (1961): Segel’s book is...