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Pisemskii’s plays after A Bitter Fate, part 5: An Enlightened Time, The Financial Genius, and A Domestic Pool

June 30, 2020

Here is what Mogilianskii has to say about Pisemskii’s last plays:

An Enlightened Time

An Enlightened Time (Просвещенное время, 1875) was darker than Baal (Ваал, 1873), lacking any characters analogous to Mirovich or Kleopatra Burgmeier or even Burgmeier (119). Unlike them, everything in An Enlightened Time is lowered as much as possible (119). And against this background the heroine of the play, Sof’ia Mikhailovna Dar’ialova, who is unremarkable and frivolous, comes to seem special and significant (119). The swindler-capitalists in An Enlightened Time, including Sof’ia Mikhailovna’s husband Dar’ialov, aren’t worth our attention (119). When the audience first sees Sof’ia Mikhailovna, she is already the lover of Amaturov but still lives with her husband and isn’t dependent on her free-spending lover; after the collapse of Dar’ialov’s fraudulent company, he goes into hiding, and she is forced to rely on Amaturov (119). For her character act 3, when she has an unexpected epiphany and breaks up with Amaturov, is pivotal (119–20). But the most intense part of the play is act 4, when all the characters are on stage at once for the first time (120). Manifestations of abnormal psychology, public scandal, and growing tension anticipate Russian and European drama of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (120).

Goncharov wrote about Dar’ialova’s love for Amaturov that she had no right to call him a sensualist, as the entire play was filled with her own outpourings of jealous carnal love (120). In 1875 audiences called for the author of the play starting after act 2 (120). Amaturov was played by S. V. Shumskii and Dar’ialova by N. A. Nikulina (120).

The Financial Genius

Just as Pisemskii was wrong to call An Enlightened Time a tragedy, he was wrong to call The Financial Genius (Финансовый гений, 1876) a comedy (120). It is a new kind of play in which the boundaries between comedy and drama have been erased (120). In Pisemskii’s last play, as in An Enlightened Time, much is exaggerated and crude, but several characters are drawn as seriously and painstakingly as in his previous plays (120).

The Financial Genius anticipates Tolstoi’s The Fruits of Enlightenment (Плоды просвещения, 1889–90) in attacking spiritism, a movement that in the mid-1870s was taken seriously by the likes of D. I. Mendeleev (120). Other Russian scientists, like the chemist A. M. Butlerov and the zoologist N. P. Vagner, were against spiritism, as was the often conservative critic N. N. Strakhov (120). Pisemskii’s play was topical, as it was published in January 1876 in the middle of this controversy; its first performance was January 30, 1876, with M. N. Ermolova in the leading role (120–21).

The main male character, Sosipatov (the “financial genius”), goes mad from a combination of overwork and interest in spiritism (121). His wife tries to save him (121). A group of professional swindlers surrounds him and tries to get their hands on his capital (121). After the Senate finds that Sosipatov is mentally unfit, a committee is formed to dispose of his property, but the investigating authorities have the leaders of the committee arrested (121).

Another financier, Kergof, was previously involved in Sosipatov’s financial dealings, but Kergof’s reputation doesn’t suffer from Sosipatov’s bankruptcy (121). The theme of love for a woman is shown only through Kergof, who has long been in love with the charming but unavailable Sosipatova (121).

The theme of the corruptibility of the press is a major one in The Financial Genius, along with spiritism (121).

A Domestic Pool (a.k.a. Old Accounts)

Pisemskii worked on A Domestic Pool (Семейный омут, also called Old Accounts or Старые счеты) from 1876 to late 1880, but was prevented from finishing it by his ultimately fatal illness (121). The first two acts and a significant portion of act 3 were published in 1886 (121). On January 31st, 1882, at a meeting of the Society of Lovers of Russian Literature, N. I. Storozhenko read acts 1 and 3, declaring that “in Pisemskii’s last work the still unflagging strength of the late realist’s talent is still palpable” and “the artist’s powerful brush grew no weaker to the end of his days” (121).

The plot centers on a romantic competition between a mother and daughter who are both in love with the shady dealer (аферист) Zertsalov (121). Earlier Zertsalov had forged the will of his previous lover’s husband, making it appear that he had left everything to his widow (121). Now Zertsalov convinces the mother to agree to let him marry the daughter and give them an enormous dowry (121). The brother of the man who had died before, General Potasov, became suspicious when he learned of “this unnatural marriage and the mother’s strange generosity,” and he successfully exposes the forging of the will (121). The figure of Potasov, with his impatience with the institutions of the Russian Empire, is interesting in itself (121). A Domestic Pool brings new motifs into Pisemskii’s drama, enriching our idea of the possibilities of his dramatic technique (121).

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.

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