Last night, I saw Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Nicolai Gogol’s 1836 play, “The Inspector General” at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre. Although I enjoyed the play, and laughed at a number of the comedic lines, I must say that, overall, I was disappointed.
“The Inspector General”, first performed before an appreciate tsar in early 19th century Russia, made fun of provincial Russia, but certainly not of the royal family (or the church, which does not play a role in the script). The plot is very simple:
A small provincial village, with a naive yet mendacious mayor, his wife and daughter, as well as the local judge, schoolmaster, and hospital administrator are informed that a government inspector will be visiting the town from St. Petersburg, that he may already be there, and that he will be traveling under a false identity.
A dissolute young Russian, member of the minor nobility, traveling with one servant, has lost all of his money through drink and gambling, and is staying at the town’s inn (where he is not paying his bill). The village leaders decide that he must be the government inspector, they house and feast him, and each give him substantial bribes. He meanwhile enjoys the food, the vodka (but not the local wine), the opportunity for a long rest, and the daughter and wife of the mayor.
Proposing marriage to the mayor’s daughter, he is convinced by his servant to leave town, and he tells his village host that he will be back in a day or two. After his departure, those who remain realize they were conned and, at the same time, get an official notice that the government inspector general has arrived.
I am far from an expert on the history of this play, but it has apparently been performed as a comedy, a farce, and as a comic-tragedy. It has been set in 19th century Russia, in the Soviet Union, in contemporary Russia, and just about everywhere else. It has been the base for a Danny Kaye film, for a BBC television series, and more. Some versions have been praised; others, ignored. Some remembered, others forgotten.
The Shakespeare Theatre production is not a premiere for the Jeffrey Hatcher adaptation, first presented four years ago in Minneapolis. The current production has received strong, positive reviews from local critics. I fully expected to agree with them.
But I didn’t. Why?
I think, first of all, because this was such an important play (considered by some as the first successful Russian theatrical production and the start of the successful tradition of Russian theater), I wanted to see some historic connection, but there was none. There was little about the play that seemed Russian (except perhaps the set) – no accents, silly (but not particularly Russian) costumes, etc. Its set could have been “anywhere” (in fact, of course, the play is in many regards, universal), and this to me was a negative.
Second, the costumes were the costumes of buffoons, as several of the characters had large, artificial protruding stomachs, for example, and very loud costumes that were just that – costumes.
Third, the play relies on a series of jokes. For example, in the first few acts, when the mayor wants the town spiffed up to fool the coming inspector, he learns that the new hospital was improperly built and can accommodate only very small children – this is not in the original; there are jokes about the poor teachers not being able to be fired because of teacher union issues – this was not in the original; when we meet our young anti-hero, he is holding a pistol to his head, about to commit suicide because of his bad luck and current, impoverished situation – this is not in the original.
All of this makes the play less Gogol, and more Hatcher. And perhaps this play should be billed as “The Government Inspector” by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on Nicolai Gogol’s “The Inspector General”, rather than as Gogol’s play as simply adapted by Hatcher.
As to the quality of the farce-like pratfalls and jokes, I did not find them particularly clever, although some were clever enough that I laughed at them. If I had thought them funnier, would I have objected to the adaptation as I obviously did? Perhaps, not, I really don’t know.
Because the play, for me, is a satire, a satire on the mendacity of provincial government, provincial life. And satire requires a dose of reality, which this production does not include. The more you turn a play into farce, the less successful it is as satire. And, in fact, this might be my biggest problem with this production.
We did not see Derek Smith, who has received good reviews as the lead; he was replaced last night by Tom Story, who did a fine job. As to so many of the others who are regular Washington theater personalities, they all played their roles well. But I have seen each of them, in other productions, where I thought they performed better (OK, perhaps with the exception of Sarah Marshall, who was terrific, as she always is).
So, I’d give “The Government Inspector” a “B”. Not bad, but not what I hoped it would be.