- Presented by: Colorado Shakespeare Festival
- Venue: University Theatre
- University Theatre Building, 261 University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80302
In Nikolai Gogol's 19th-century masterpiece of dramatic satire, the system of graft, corruption and ineptitude in Tsarist Russia plays out in a backwater town. Local leaders and their cronies curry favor by giving a visiting official money, women and more. But are they greasing the right man's palm? This very funny play, directed and designed by master artists from Russia, will surprise and delight – and may even remind you of some government officials in the news today!Read more
The Mayor of a small provincial town in Russia announces to a gathering of officials that a government inspector is on his way, and will likely arrive in disguise. The announcement sparks a panic as the corrupt officials devise plans to disguise their corruption and quickly clean up the town. Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, two local landowners, announce the presence of a mysterious stranger staying at the local inn – he must be the inspector, already arrived. The Mayor sets off to greet the new arrival as his wife (Anna) and daughter (Marya) are left to speculate what the inspector will be like. Meanwhile, Khlestakov, a low-ranking civil servant from St. Petersburg, has lost his money gambling. His servant Osip hasn’t eaten in two days, and the innkeeper refuses to serve them until Khlestakov pays his bill. The Mayor arrives with Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky in tow, and assuming Khlestakov to be the inspector, insists on taking him home and feeding him. A confused Khlestakov, making the most of the mix-up, follows the Mayor home. Anna and Marya grill Dobchinsky for details about the inspector’s age and appearance, then argue about what to wear. Osip arrives and heads straight for the kitchen as the Mayor, Khlestakov, and several town officials come in. The locals (including the Mayor’s wife) flatter Khlestakov outrageously, and he invents increasingly extravagant tales of his own importance.
The next morning, the town officials all take turns offering Khlestakov bribes in the form of loans. Khlestakov then pens a letter to a friend in Petersburg, in which he describes the situation and ridicules the town. Osip takes the letter to the post office as a series of shopkeepers and townspeople enter and beg the inspector to punish the corrupt and abusive Mayor. Khlestakov accepts more money, promising vaguely to fix the problem. Khlestakov attempts to seduce Marya, then Anna, then Marya once more, pleading for her hand in marriage, which is granted upon the Mayor’s arrival. Meanwhile, Osip suspects the game may be up and procures a horse and carriage. Khlestakov declares his intent to gain permission for the marriage from his own father and leaves town with Osip (and another “loan” from the Mayor). Anna and Marya fantasize about the wedding and life in St. Petersburg as the officials and their wives arrive to congratulate them on their good fortune. The Postmaster arrives with Khlestakov’s letter, he is revealed as an impostor, and the officials angrily berate and blame one another for the perilous misunderstanding. In the midst of this melée, a gendarme arrives to announce that the real government inspector has arrived. The corrupt officials are left frozen in terror.
The Government Inspector (also translated as The Inspector General or simply The Inspector) is one of Russia’s most produced plays, and has been called the greatest Russian play ever written. It was first performed in St. Petersburg in 1836 in a production that emphasized the broad comedy in the play, minimizing (or ignoring) the elements of satire and social commentary. The production’s social critique was sufficiently softened that Tsar Nicholas I saw and recommended the play. Conservative critics, however, were not pleased. Gogol was disappointed in the production, later deriding the characterization of Khlestakov as a conventional vaudeville stereotype, who appeared, unchanged, on the Russian stage for two hundred years. The actors, perhaps, are not to be blamed. The Russian theatre of the early nineteenth century was not known for its nuance. It relied heavily on sentimentality, bombast, and stock characters. Social relevance was not part of its vocabulary, and comedy generally fit into the classical mold, ending happily with a marriage. Gogol’s frustrations with the production and its reception prompted him to leave the country and subject his script to extensive rewrites, heightening the satire. He later commented, “In The Government Inspector I decided to gather into one heap everything rotten in Russia as I then saw it . . . I decided to hold up everything to ridicule at once.” The new version of the script was published in 1842, but not performed until 1870.
Acclaimed director Vsevelod Meyerhold took on The Government Inspector in 1926, in a production often called his masterwork. Inspired by some of Gogol’s published critiques of the original production, Meyerhold took the play in a notably different direction. He focused his attention on the darker elements, instructing his cast to reject buffoonery and steer a course for tragedy. Meyerhold’s production is more accurately named an adaptation; he re-structured the play into fifteen episodes, added characters, and incorporated elements from other Gogol works, including the novel Dead Souls. The farce of the first production took on a nightmarish quality, especially in the final moments of the play.
The fact that The Government Inspector can support such vastly different interpretations is part of its brilliance and historical significance. Meyerhold described the play’s position in Russian theatrical history as a pivot point:
What is most amazing about The Inspector General is that although it contains all the elements of those plays written before it, although it was constructed according to various established dramatic premises, there can be no doubt – at least for me – that far from being the culmination of a tradition, it is the start of a new one.
The Government Inspector does not belong entirely to what came before or after. The play represents a significant break from comic tradition, specifically in its use of the age-old comic device of mistaken identity. The revelation of a character’s true identity conventionally sparks the resolution and reconciliation characteristic of classic comedy. In The Government Inspector, however, the revelation of Khlestakov’s identity marks a significant shift to a much darker tone. In this comedy, no one is redeemed, no one gets married, and no one gets the expected happy ending. Gogol transcends genre to create a masterpiece that lives simultaneously in two worlds – comedy and tragedy. With this innovation, he established himself as the link between the nineteenth century Russian stage and the twentieth century innovators who followed in his footsteps.
-Heidi Schmidt, Dramaturg
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