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NIKOLAI GOGOL’S GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR

IT’S A “story as timely as today’s headlines.” Well, maybe only in that Nikolai Gogol is a Russian and his play The Government Inspector, 1842, is a satire about greed, stupidity, and political corruption.

Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, 1809–1852, Russian dramatist of Ukrainian origin.

At age 19 Gogol moved from his birthplace Ukraine to Saint Petersburg, where he soon began the 19th-Century analog of networking: His introductions to the Saint Petersburg literary crowd included Alexander Pushkin, the founder of modern Russian literature and the country’s greatest poet.

Gogol’s first published works were romantic tales from his Ukrainian upbringing. Despite (or maybe because of?) titles such as Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, 1832, his early works were successful and recognized as an emergence of a Ukrainian, rather than purely Russian, voice in literature.

Before long, though, he turned to satire in writing—and seemingly in life itself. Gogol had an interest in Ukrainian history and sought a position in Kiev University’s History Department. He got turned down by a bureaucrat as unqualified.

Gogol next tried for, and received in 1834, an appointment as Professor of Medieval History at the University of Saint Petersburg. This time, it was a job for which he really had no qualifications and, according to Wikipedia, “He turned in a performance ludicrous enough to warrant satiric treatment in one of his own stories.”

Gogol’s first lecture was filled with academic buzz words and little else. The rest of the time, he “missed two lectures out of three, and when he did appear, muttered unintelligibly through his teeth.”

When it came time for his students’ final examinations, Gogol feigned a toothache with a handkerchief around his head, and sat mum while another professor quizzed the students. It was no surprise that Gogol resigned his chair in 1835.

Gogol’s “The Nose” appeared in 1836. This satiric short story is a surreal political tale of a Saint Petersburg bureaucrat’s nose that leaves his face and takes on a life of its own.

The Nose, by Nikolai Gogol, 1836.

“From Leningrad With Love, or At Least With Dialectical Materialism” includes a SimanaitisSays review of Dmitri Shostakovish’s opera The Nose, based on the Gogol story. The opera is a romp.

The Nose, opera by Dmitri Shostakovish, 1928. Image from The Metropolitian Opera’s William Kentridge production, 2013–2014.

And so is the play. On April 19, 1836, Gogol’s The Government Inspector had its debut in the Saint Petersburg State Theatre. Noted D.S. Mirsky, a Russian political historian almost a century later, the play “is not only supreme in character and dialogue—it is one of the few Russian plays constructed with unerring art from beginning to end.”

The Government Inspector, celebrated in a postage stamp commemorating the 200th anniversary of Gogol’s birth.

The play takes place in a small Russian town that’s filled with corrupt officials, the Mayor included. A rumor has it that a Government Inspector is working there undercover.

Khlestakov, a foppish civil servant with a wild imagination, is mistaken for this inspector, though at first he doesn’t realize why the officials are so obsequious. No matter, he takes advantage of things by arranging massive “loans,” moving into the Mayor’s residence, flirting with the Mayor’s wife and daughter, even getting engaged to the latter.

The Government Inspector, in a 1926 production. Image from Herman Digital Archie.

The town’s oppressed Jewish and Old Ritualist merchants have been bled by officials, and they plead with Khlestakov for succor. He catches on to the Government Inspector misunderstanding, agrees to help them—and pockets money from them as well.

Realizing that the game is up, Khlestakov and his valet go on the lam to Saint Petersburg. This gives the Mayor a free hand to increase the squeeze on people.

The Government Inspector, a production of the Department of Theatre & Dance, The University of Memphis, during its 2016-2017 season.

But then an intercepted letter arrives. It reveals Khlestakov’s identity and his mocking opinion of them all. The Mayor is humiliated and blames his cronies. At this point, he faces the audience and says, “What are you laughing about? You are laughing about yourselves!”

The play ends with the arrival of a real Government Inspector. As I said, a story as timely as today’s headlines. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017

One comment on “NIKOLAI GOGOL’S GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR

  1. sabresoftware
    June 23, 2017

    And there was also the 1949 Danny Kaye movie, The Inspector General version of this tale.

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