Alexander Griboyedov, the author of what has been called Russia’s greatest play, remains all but unknown outside his native land. Like his contemporary Pushkin, he excelled in pithy verse rather than the expansive prose most Westerners still associate with Russian literature. Like Pushkin he died young and violently. Unlike him, he wrote only a single work of consequence.
Born into the nobility, he entered Moscow University at the age of twelve, served in the army during the Napoleonic invasion, and afterwards settled in St. Petersburg to begin a career as a diplomat. There he also wrote or coauthored his first plays. He was a brilliant conversationalist, a student of languages, including Persian and Arabic, and a good pianist and composer. Shortly after writing his masterpiece, he was briefly implicated in the Decembrist rebellion that followed the death of Alexander I. He was cleared, but the strict censorship imposed by Nicholas I prevented publication or performance of the play, and so for a number of years it was circulated in manuscript. Even so it quickly became famous. In 1829, at the conclusion of the Russo-Persian War, he was sent to Teheran to negotiate peace terms, and there he, along with the rest of the Russian legation, was killed by a mob that stormed the Russian Embassy.
The Woes of Wit (or Woe from Wit, as it is more usually translated) is one of the most frequently performed works in the Russian dramatic repertoire. One could hardly name an important Russian actor who has not been known for one or another of its roles. It is also one of the most quoted texts in Russian literature; Pushkin predicted, on first reading it, that a good half of its lines were destined to become proverbs, and indeed many, if not quite half, have become enough a part of the Russian language to be quoted by people who have never read or seen the play. But the marvelous pregnancy of its language is also what brings it alive as drama, and what no foreign version has ever adequately conveyed. Only a handful of English translations have been published in the hundred and sixty some years since it was written, and none is of a quality to hold the stage, or to give readers much idea of the wealth of character, humor and lyricism Russians hear in its elegantly rhymed but thoroughly natural-sounding dialogue.
The play will remind many readers of Molière’s Misanthrope, the one work to which it is most often compared. But Griboyedov’s relation to classic French drama is a complicated one. The early plays in which he had a hand were mostly adaptations or translations of French parlor comedies, themselves not very worthy descendants of the great Molière. French was still the language of culture in Russia, and Russian writers still looked to French models. At the same time there was a certain chafing against the French tradition that moved Pushkin to place Molière, whom he knew so intimately, below Shakespeare, whom he could read only in French translation. Molière’s characters seemed to him caricatures, while Shakespeare’s were individuals, and Griboyedov voices very similar reservations about Molière in his letters. French literature, which the Russian classicists acknowledged to be the height of formal perfection, lacked, in their eyes, a certain richness that they envisioned for their own, just as the French language, polished as it was, lacked the richness of their native Russian. On a number of levels, the theme of French artificiality versus Russian soulfulness that Edmund Wilson found all through Tolstoy’s War and Peace is already to be seen in The Woes of Wit, within a form that still seems at least superficially Gallic.
The play is in fact written not in the normal couplets of French classicism but in a more naturalized verse form originally devised by the fabulist Krylov in imitation of La Fontaine. With lines of varying length and a constantly changing rhyme scheme, these free iambs, as they were called, were imbued by Krylov with an earthiness that belied their French origin, and Griboyedov built them into a dramatic verse capable of conveying the polished and the colloquial with equal ease and pithiness. Echoing at times the logical march of Molière’s couplets, they can take unexpected turns, expanding when the character grows expansive, contracting into curtness or to point up a joke, always adapting themselves to the character and mood of the speaker. Griboyedov’s treatment of plot and character is in line with his cavils about Molière. His characters, though they are recognizable types, are rarely built on a simple formula, as even the most complicated of Molière’s can be seen to be. The blindness of Alceste, who despises insincerity yet falls in love with a coquette, can be reduced to his misanthropy: he doesn’t want a woman who would be capable of satisfying him, he wants one who will exemplify his view of human nature. The blindness of Chatsky, his counterpart in The Woes of Wit, hasn’t this sort of rigid logic: his barbs at those around him have no rancor in them; they are an unselfconscious expression of his own vitality, and he honestly cannot see why people are offended by the high-spirited manner in which he hurls them. His disappointment in Sofya is perfectly candid and real: how could a girl who had shared in his laughter at the world have come to prefer the poker-faced, obsequious little clerk Molchalin? His gradual disillusionment is the real action of the play, giving him a dimension that Molière’s Alceste, who merely confirms his initial intolerance of human failings, lacks.
Yet something of Molière’s impartiality survives in Griboyedov as well. The play’s more generous view of its protagonist does not exclude all interest in its other characters, and the representatives of “society” in the play are by no means as odious as Soviet commentators must often have wished them to be. They never say quite what we expect them to say; even those who verge on caricature have an element of fancy in them, which we enjoy for its own sake, though it does little to advance the plot. In this again, Griboyedov is very Russian, and departs entirely from the French tradition. The lies of Tartuffe, though they lack nothing in imaginative verve, are all calculated to serve his ends; the lies of Zagoretsky and Repetilov are typical Russian vranyo, indulged in for pure love of lying. Famusov and Khlyostova, the perfect embodiments of the views the hero tries to combat, express their complacency with a roundness and vigor that even the hero can’t help but appreciate. The least sympathetic character in the play is the one who has no views of his own, who never says anything bold or witty, for fear of endangering his humble position (his very name, Molchalin, connotes “silence”).
Griboyedov is thus at one with Molière, and with all writers of comedy, in standing on the side of human vitality, only in his play vitality is measured not, as in Molière, against various antisocial obsessions, but by “wit” in the broader sense of any kind of liveliness of mind and spirit, which social conventions try to suppress. Beyond its critique of a particular society, the whole play can be seen as a sort of anatomy of wit, from the most high-minded to the most pedestrian, and a demonstration of what happens, in any group of people, to the superior wit at the hands of the inferior. Viewed in this way, it has a more logical structure than might appear at first, though one that allows for a certain abundance, even superfluity of characterization when compared to the rigorous formulas of Molière.
Thus Repetilov, who falls (literally) into the fourth act out of nowhere and vanishes a few pages later, while he contributes nothing essential to the plot, has his place in the larger anatomy; after three solid acts of fun at the expense of society’s conservatives, he offers the parody of a progressive, showing that Chatsky’s wit, the wit of the truly intelligent man, can’t be identified with a set of opinions, progressive or otherwise. But beyond parody, Repetilov’s own brand of wit is, in its very irrelevance, a delight in itself. Encapsulated in his hundred-odd lines, one sees the embryo of any number of Dostoyevskian clowns.
But if Griboyedov revels in the individuality of his characters more than Molière, in the end this leads his play to an impasse that almost removes it from the realm of comedy. For Molière society, however corrupt, is always preferable to the isolated individual, however admirable, and Alceste, in fleeing society, is seen to be unreasonable. Chatsky also flees, but in his case it is society that is unreasonable, and rejects him as decisively as he does it. Chatsky would seem to be the misanthrope that Rousseau wished Molière had created: one who is totally justified in his quarrel with society, an admirable, even tragic figure, with nothing of the antisocial buffoon about him.
That he towers so far above his satiric surroundings has made him unconvincing to some, though, starting with Pushkin, who faulted the play on this very point. Chatsky, he said, can’t be as intelligent as he seems, because a truly intelligent man never argues with fools. Those who have played him, on the other hand, are more likely to compare him to Hamlet, a character with his own propensity to unnecessary self-expression, who has likewise been both an enigma to critics and a challenge to actors.
Whatever the logical answer to objections like Pushkin’s, the only answer that counts in the theater is a compelling Chatsky, of which there have been many since Pushkin’s time. Griboyedov himself, like Shakespeare, persuades more through force of language than logic, and that is where a translator can only try to follow him. If the language doesn’t sparkle, Chatsky, not to mention the more intentionally tiresome characters, will grow tiresome indeed, and his concluding tirades, so crackling with righteous outrage, will merely sound self-righteous. On the other hand, focusing on clever rhymes and bons mots is likely to yield nothing better than a string of bad jokes; Griboyedov’s verbal wit is never ostentatious, but seems like a casual by-product, an essence compounded of the characters themselves and the author’s judgment on them. I have aimed this translation at the stage, and have therefore tried mostly for clear characterization and flow, within the indispensable contours of Griboyedov’s lines and rhyme schemes, hoping that a ghost of that essence, at least, will creep through to readers, actors and audiences.