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Pisemskii’s plays after A Bitter Fate, part 3: The Unbridled Ones, Lieutenant Gladkov, and Miloslavskys and Naryshkins

June 27, 2020

Here are the 1860s Pisemskii plays that Mogilianskii seems less excited about. I’m sure it’s an artifact of reading these things one after the other, but Mogilianskii’s description of Prince Imshin below made me think of the “double opposition” to both the state and the people that Pavel Khazanov says the Russian intelligentsia has found itself since perestroika.


The Unbridled Ones

The Unbridled Ones (Самоуправцы, 1867) focuses on a sociological analysis of powerful feudal nobles and their opposition to Paul’s regime, which was cruel to them (115). Artistically speaking it further develops the principles at the heart of Warriors and Temporizers (Бойцы и выжидатели, written 1864, published 1886) (115). A harsh naturalism is combined with a wide palette and intricate drawing (115). Certain lines from almost nameless characters with bit parts are capable of taking on an artistic meaning, as well as a profoundly sociological one (115). In the play Prince Platon Imshin is opposed not only by Paul’s policies, but also by a mass of people “anarchic by nature and diverse socially” led by a retired officer from an impoverished noble family, Devochkin, the father of Imshin’s incarcerated wife (115).

Statism and people’s attitude toward it are at the center of the playwright’s analysis of the loss of social-estate unity among the nobility and the social contradictions of Paul’s Russia in general (115). Any attempt to consolidate the social-estate interests of the entire nobility (seen in Rykov, Prince Imshin’s young rival) is treated as practically comic (115). The author seems more sympathetic to impoverished noble characters who complain of how the wealthier nobles treat them (116). In act 4 we see the position of the serfs themselves (we had already seen some in Devochkin’s army, the greater part of which was escaped serfs) in the serf gardener Mitrich; a “philosopher of serfdom,” Mitrich is outwardly loyal to his master Imshin but knows that Imshin is acting illegally, and as soon as Devochkin and his armed peasants show up, Mitrich goes over to their side and betrays his master (116). The Unbridled Ones is the only one of Pisemskii’s 1860s plays that was approved by the censor for stage performances; it went on to be one of the first added to the repertoire of the Moscow Art Theater, where Imshin was played by Stanislavskii, and it has played in Soviet theaters too (116).

Lieutenant Gladkov

In the duology of 1865 and in The Unbridled Ones, Pisemskii unearthed an anti-state and anti-popular (антинародное) element in the lawless nobility; in Lieutenant Gladkov (Поручик Гладков, 1867) he painted the wretched condition of the post-Petrine monarchy (116). He presents a cynical and ugly picture, but as elsewhere he strives for exact factual accuracy (116). Lieutenant Gladkov is the weakest of Pisemskii’s six plays of the 1860s because of its occasional clumsy didacticism and  because the events described are extremely complex and require too many characters (116–17). But Pisemskii’s drama of this period was at such a high level overall that even the weakest of the six is a strong effort; the blatant attack on the monarchy unfolds against a remarkably even and unprejudiced background (116–17).

Miloslavskys and Naryshkins

Pisemskii’s second purely historical tragedy, Miloslavskys and Naryshkins (Милославские и Нарышкины, written 1866–67), worked better than Lieutenant Gladkov (117). Instead of being didactic, Pisemskii focused on the breadth and the artistic splendor of the picture he was creating (117). At the same time, the struggle between classes and between intra-class groups is depicted much more definitely in Miloslavskys and Naryshkins (117). The first three acts are set in 1682 and end with the triumph of the Miloslavskiis and Tsarevna Sof’ia (117). The last two acts take place in 1689, when the young tsar Peter suddenly and successfully showed his worth in the decisive battle (117).

The first three acts are complicated (much more than the last two), and they include both a rebellion by the streltsy and activity by Old Believers; the struggle was much more than a fight between two aristocratic families, the Miloslavskiis and the Naryshkins (117). This is why catastrophe befalls Prince Khovanskii, the leader of the streltsy, who was by no means an ally of the Naryshkins (117). What makes Pisemskii’s play stand out is the way he creates successful, individualized portraits of a number of historical figures (the best: Khovanskii, Tsarevna Sof’ia, Princes Vasilii and Boris Golitsyn, Shaklovityi) and casts light on the most critical moments of the struggle (117).

Pisemskii tried to have Miloslavskys and Naryshkins produced at a Moscow amateur [?] theater (московский народный театр) that he was involved with, but it was decided that the production would be too complicated and too expensive (117).

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.


Once again I don’t know of any performances of these plays available online.

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