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Pisemskii’s plays after A Bitter Fate, part 1: Warriors and Temporizers

June 24, 2020

I am going to split my notes on Mogilianskii’s chapter on Pisemskii’s plays after A Bitter Fate (Горькая судьбина, 1859) into several posts. This is another chapter that has me excited to read more Pisemskii, and also to see performances of the plays if possible. The gist of the chapter overall: Pisemskii’s plays are really good and really different from each other; the best ones are A Bitter Fate, the “duology” of Former Falcons (Бывые соколы, written 1865, published in part 1868, in full 1886) and Fledglings of the Last Flight (Птенцы последнего слета, written 1865, published 1886), and Baal (Ваал, 1873); some of them couldn’t be produced at the time because of censorship, and in some cases Pisemskii fought hard to get them published at least in some form; and some of them were quite successful on the stage either when they were written or when they could finally be performed. Here’s Mogilianskii on the first set of plays:


In the years after the hostile reception of Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863), Pisemskii (who considered A Bitter Fate his best work) wasn’t able to publish much in the thick journals (exception: “Russian Liars” [Русские лгуны] in Kraevskii’s National Annals in 1865) and focused on plays, especially tragedies (110). Pisemskii called the first of these plays a “drama” and the rest “tragedies,” perhaps finally realizing how little comedy suited him (110). He was interested in what made Russian tragedy distinctive and in particular what distinguished it from English tragedy (110).

Warriors and Temporizers and later rewritings of it, Mines and The Plunderers

The drama Warriors and Temporizers (Бойцы и выжидатели, 1864) was suppressed by the censor and published only posthumously, in 1886. Pisemskii’s tireless efforts to get at least part of it (one act, with many cuts and changes) into print show that he thought it was important (110). In it Pisemskii juxtaposes a “monotonous, dry, and extremely harsh drawing” to a “multicolored pastel executed with minute shading”: the former is careerist bureaucrat Terkhazin and Prince Maskata, the latter Iakov Obolonskii, a correspondent for Gertsen’s The Bell (110). All three men serve in the same office (110–11). Obolenskii loves the daughter of the powerful Count Poltashev; Obolenskii and Poltasheva plan to emigrate together; Prince Maskata tells Count Poltashev of their plans; the Count has them arrested (111). But all is not lost: Del’iabel’, an actress the Count has given a million rubles to (a camellia?) intervenes to help Obolonskii, blaming everything on the Count’s daughter (111). Obolenskii and Poltasheva are freed; the Count tries to keep forcing the issue, but is told that his resignation has been accepted, and his place will now be taken by Terkhazin (111). End result: the Prince loses the promotion to a less high-born rival; the Count cannot buy the obedience of Del’iabel’; Obolenskii remains fully independent (111).

In 1868 Pisemskii managed to publish act 2 of Warriors and Temporizers (111). He wasn’t satisfied with this, though; A. F. Koni’s memoirs show that Pisemskii remained obsessed with the characters he had created for the play (111). Right after he finished In the Whirlpool (В водовороте, 1871), he transformed Warriors and Temporizers into a new “dramatic satire” that is known under several titles (111). One version, called Mines (Подкопы), was published in 3,000 copies in a collection published by the journal The Citizen (Гражданин), but has not been preserved, as the government had it cut out of the printed issues and destroyed, even though the censor N. A. Ratynskii had considered it publishable (111). Pisemskii never tried harder to get one of his censored works into print than with this play (111). In 1873, by rewriting the play with everyone holding a lower rank, Pisemskii was able to publish a different version of the play, still called Mines, in The Citizen, which was now being edited by Dostoevskii (111).

We have the full text of an early version of this satirical play and a partial text of an even earlier version; it is unclear how these texts are related to the one the censors destroyed (111). These days the satire is published as The Plunderers (Хищники), which is the title used when it was first performed during the Revolution of 1905 (111).

Mines/The Plunderers is very different from Warriors and Temporizers; it is “a kind of zoological phantasmagoria,” and it’s Pisemskii’s most clearly satirical work (a type of literature that didn’t come naturally to him), while Warriors and Temporizers wasn’t a satire at all (111–12). That said, the skeleton of the two plays is the same (112). Count Poltashev from WaT becomes Count Zyrov in M/TP and still has a daughter who is interested in one of her father’s subordinates, who is now named Aleksei Nikolaevich Andashevskii (112). What’s changed is that Andashevskii resembles an even worse version of the careerist Terkhazin more than he resembles the independent-minded Obolonskii from WaT (112). There is no one in M/TP like Obolonskii, and the Count’s daughter cares more about her husband’s career and money than about love (112). She sacrifices her father to help her husband’s career (112). In WaT, Obolenskii never tried or intended to get promoted, so the battle for the top spot is more complicated in M/TP, featuring the director of the department Vladimir Vuland, an “experienced and powerful participant in bureaucratic intrigues” (112). Vuland gives Count Zyrov documents compromising Andashevskii, but Zyrov tears them up in front of him, and Vuland dies soon after (112). Zyrov is removed from his position, but this turns out to be a catastrophe for Andashevskii, as the person appointed to replace him is not Andashevskii himself but Karga-Korovaev, a character previously unknown to the audience (112).

The Plunderers is a good title for a work about bureaucratic battles for promotion, seen as only a means of acquiring further promotion and personal wealth (112). But Pisemskii was incapable of writing a pure satire even as an exception to the rule (112). The Plunderers has an important character named Mariia Sergeevna Sonina, Andashevskii’s lover whom he cast aside to marry Count Zyrov’s daughter; she has no connection to the satirical thrust of the play, undermining it and taking on a self-sufficient importance (112).

See chapter 8, “Драматургия Писемского после ‘Горькой судьбины’ [Pisemskii’s Plays after A Bitter Fate]” in A. P. Mogilianskii, Pisemskii: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo (Leningrad, 1991), pp. 110–121.

I haven’t yet found any videos of a full performance or film version of Warriors and TemporizersMines, or The Plunderers, but there is a 1989 Russian radio drama version of The Plunderers. The minor changes in phrasing and word order they make while following the text are interesting from a linguistic point of view—avoiding пустяки, changing какая-нибудь to какая-то, в службе to на службе, etc. I take it that they’re slightly modernizing the language while making it easier to follow in an audio-only format.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    June 24, 2020 9:07 am

    Is пустяки now archaic?

    • June 24, 2020 10:56 am

      My sense is that it’s a word most people would easily understand but wouldn’t use today because it sounds like it comes from the time of top hats, maybe something like saying “capital” to mean “very good” in English. I associate it with Chekhov, and the Google Ngram has it peaking from 1880–1920 (but still in use now).

      I was mildly surprised to hear it edited out. I’d be curious to hear what a native speaker thinks.

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