Skip to content

Pisemskii’s plays after A Bitter Fate, part 4: Baal

June 28, 2020

Baal (Ваал, 1873) is one of the few things by Pisemskii that’s been translated into English, by Andrew Donskov (“Baal,” Russian Literature Triquarterly 9 [1974], reprinted in The Unknown Russian Theater: An Anthology, vol. 1, ed. Michael Green and Jerome Katsell. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1990). Here is Mogilianskii on Baal; the other two 1870s plays and one unfinished play are coming next in the fifth and last post on this topic.

Plays of the 1870s

We have already talked about the satirical comedy The Plunderers (Mines) (Хищники, a.k.a. Подкопы, c. 1873), which leaves three other 1870s plays (117). Unlike the 1860s plays, they were all set in the author’s time (117).

In Pisemskii’s varied dramatic career there are three peaks (117). First of all, A Bitter Fate (Горькая судьбина, 1859), which is his best work overall, not just for the stage (117). Second, 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) (118). Last, Baal, which was published in The Russian Herald in 1873 (118).


Baal was something entirely new in Pisemskii’s already multifaceted body of dramatic work (118). In his 1860s plays he had usually painstakingly made everything consistent, but in Baal he used two completely different manners in the same work: one refined and precise, the other bordering on the madcap puppet show (переходящая в балаган) (118). The latter manner was for depicting the effects of capitalist amorality and related phenomena on society (capitalism had exploded in post-1861 Russia) (118). Against this madness the characters opposing the destructive influence of capitalism stood out all the more, in particular the young zemstvo deputy Mirovich and Kleopatra Sergeevna, the wife of the wealthy trader Burgmeier [see this 2014 post about Pisemskii’s female characters named Cleopatra] (118).

Act 2 is meant to show how possible it is to fight against capitalism’s weapons of buying people off and blackmailing them (118). Mirovich proves that he can’t be bought and understands his responsibility to the community (118). But when Kleopatra Sergeevna comes to his apartment and announces that she is separated from her husband, Mirovich gives up the fight and resigns out of love for her (118). Mirovich is condemned to a life of poverty; Kleopatra Sergeevna’s efforts to earn money by working as a tailor are insufficient (118). Nearly sent to debtors’ prison, he ends up taking an offer from an American company and emigrating (118). Everything after act 2 is commentary on and the consequences of the decisive act 2 (118).

The puppet show–like scenes mostly happen in act 3 in Burgmeier’s apartment, in the absence of Mirovich and Kleopatra Sergeevna, who are mentioned only in connection with their poverty (118). It turns out that Burgmeier himself is not as amoral as his agents (118). The center of acts 3 and 4 is Mirovich’s friend Kunitsyn, a freelance lawyer and “philosopher of capitalist amorality” who already in act 2 had declared to Mirovich that this was a time for scoundrels who “like to reach into other people’s pockets without letting anyone into theirs” and that he, Kunitsyn, was going to work at a bank, swipe a million, and run off to America (118–19). But in acts 3 and 4, it turns out the Kunitsyn, for all his cynicism, is the most decent and unselfish character; he saves Mirovich from debtors’ prison with his own money (119). Pisemskii needed this not to “exalt someone like Kunitsyn” but “to give a complete picture, an exhaustive overview of the situation and the era” (119). Baal was a success on stage (the first performance was a failure, but later it grew more popular from show to show) and in academic criticism; A. V. Nikitenko wrote that it was true to life and free of didacticism (119, 119n127).

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 don’t immediately see a full version of Baal on the internet, but as of now there is a public social media post that shows a scene performed by students at the Shchepkin Theater School attached to the Maly Theater in Moscow in 2015.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: