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Pisemskii’s plays after A Bitter Fate, part 2: Former Falcons and Fledglings of the Last Flight

June 25, 2020

Mogilianskii divides the rest of Pisemskii’s plays into 1860s plays at least partially on historical subjects and 1870s plays on contemporary subjects. Here he is on a pair of plays that he considers among Pisemskii’s best:

Overview of Pisemskii’s historical plays

Between Warriors and Temporizers (Бойцы и выжидатели, written 1864, published 1886) and The Plunderers (Хищники, 1873), Pisemskii wrote five tragedies, which, if they cannot in every case be called historical, nevertheless incline in that direction (113). The last of them, Miloslavskys and Naryshkins (Милославские и Нарышкины, written 1866–67), takes place at the time of the rebellions of the streltsy and the childhood of Peter the Great (113). The one before it, Lieutenant Gladkov (Поручик Гладков, 1867), sheds light on the era of Anna Leopol’dovna and the fall of Biron (113). The Unbridled Ones (Самоуправцы, 1867) takes place during the beginning of Paul I’s reign. The reminiscences of the characters in Former Falcons (Бывые соколы, written 1865, published in part 1868, in full 1886) also concern the early reign of Paul I, though the main action of that play is in the 1840s (113). Its sequel, Fledglings of the Last Flight (Птенцы последнего слета, written 1865, published 1886), advances to 1862 (113). Some but not all of these plays feature famous real historical figures (Sof’ia, Khovanskii, Biron, Minikh, Volynskii), lots of footnotes, and precision down to the day of when events take place (113). This led P. A. Efremov at The Spark to write a parody called Pafnuty the Elder: A Tragedy in Five Acts (Старец Пафнутий: Трагедия в пяти действиях, 1867) (113). Former Falcons and The Unbridled Ones give the typical features of a given period, usually specified to the year, or else they describe what later happens to people whose characters were formed in an equally specific, but now remote period (113). These works are not of equal dramatic and artistic value, but they all have something to offer and are interesting on the level of theory and literary history; the plays are above all experimental and innovative (113).

The duology of 1865: Former Falcons and Fledglings of the Last Flight

The duology of Former Falcons and Fledglings of the Last Flight are a massive canvas revealing the moral degradation of the nobility (113). In it Pisemskii sets himself the twin goals of 1) the naturalistic exposé of a gradual physical and moral extinction and 2) addressing larger issues of philosophy and the philosophy of history (113). These two plays are artistically among Pisemskii’s best works, though there is a misguided tradition of belittling them as melodrama (113). They were published by the People’s Commissariat for Education during the Civil War, which is also when they could first be performed (114).

Pisemskii was as restrained and objective in his portrayal of the nobility in Former Falcons as he had been in A Bitter Fate; nothing comes across as exceptional or straining credulity, and a character even remarks that the tragic event being discussed in the Senate. horrible as it seems, is not uncommon (114). This event was incest, and though Pisemskii is part of a long line of people writing about incest (Sophocles, Ovid, Shelley, Ibsen, D’Annunzio, and others), the censor banned the play, even though a translation of Shelley including incest themes had recently been permitted (114). Like Sophocles before him, Pisemskii had the actual incest take place before the action of the play, which dealt with its aftermath (114). Pisemskii was only able to publish the play three years later, in 1868 and in part, having had to remove the incest theme that made the entire duology make sense (114).

As always, Pisemskii didn’t limit himself to one theme, and the play has three major themes: the consequences of the crime [of incest], “fathers and sons,” and masters and their slaves (114). This makes Former Falcons into a logical continuation of A Bitter Fate (114). Pisemskii had evolved ideologically in the intervening years (114). Ananii Iakovlev in A Bitter Fate used an ax only as a threat and killed the master’s child by accident, but the enserfed weaver Egor deliberately kills his master Bakreev and the master’s manager Tsaplinov on stage (114). Pisemskii now put all his hopes in the workers (114). The relationship between Egor’s wife and the master is also more typical in Former Falcons: it is presented as entirely coercive in nature (114).

The conflict between Bakreev and his son Boris ends abruptly without being resolved (115). But the question of the incestuous relationship between Bakreev and his daughter Vera becomes more and more important (115). Boris finds out about his sister and father in act 2 and about their son in act 4 (115). To hide the child from Boris’s wrath, Vera persuades Sashanskii to pretend he is Sashanskii’s own illegitimate child (115). The relationship between Sashanskii and Sof’ia (the youngest sister in the Bakreev family) thus is founded on lies (115). This motif is the foundation of Fledglings of the Last Flight (115). Upon reaching adulthood, Vera’s son who was adopted by Sashanskii seduces the Sashanskiis’ extremely young daughter (115). But the latter’s mother [Sof’ia?], who has been cheating on her husband with the officer Pankrevich for some time, is more worried about Pankrevich showing interest in Boris Bakreev’s wife than she is about her own daughter (115). Thus the playwright saw in the 1840s a battle between something obsolete and something healthier that still justified hope, but in 1862 he saw a scene of complete degradation (115). This degradation was shown in an entirely tragic light, with no hint of satire (115).

Writing the duology in 1865, Pisemskii was concerned with the role of the nobility in post-emancipation Russia (115). It is surely significant that he has Boris Bakreev head a number of joint-stock companies (акционерные общества) in the early 1860s (115).

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 found any performances of these plays online so far.

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