Russia at the Shakespeare Theatre: Ostrovsky’s “A Family Affair”

As part of Shakespeare Theatre’s Rediscovery Series, the theater put on a staged reading of Alexander Ostrovsky’s “A Family Affair”.  Written in 1850, subject to various levels of Russian censorship and not performed in any iteration for about 12 years, it is considered one of the first Russian satirical comedies, and is also the first of over 40 plays written by Ostrovsky.  The reading, with an excellent cast and using an English language adaptation by Nick Dear, clearly enthralled the audience.

Ostrovsky is not only not well known among American theater goers, but I must admit that he was relatively unknown to me, even though I have somewhat of a background in Russian literature.  (OK, I flatter myself, and it’s been a long time).  But he became a well produced favorite of Russian audiences, particularly in the second half of the 19th century.  “A Family Affair” was his first, and perhaps his most scathing, making fun of the Russian merchant class the way his predecessor Gogol made fun of the nobility.

Samson Bolshov is a very successful Moscow merchant, an occasional drunkard and a domestic tyrant.  His wife Agrafena is long suffering, and his daughter Lipochka has reached the age of 20, is unmarried and very willful, and is awaiting her prince (she believes he will be a nobleman and a military man, and refuses to even consider marrying a merchant).  Samson thinks she will marry whomever he selects, because he is the boss in his own house.  Samson relies heavily on his clerk Lazar, and his vodka-imbibing lawyer, Rispolozhensky.

Bolshov suffers business reverses when his creditors fail to pay for the merchandise he delivers them, and consequently cannot pay his own creditors.  Rispolozhensky suggests that he transfer all of his assets to an “independent” party, someone completely reliable, allowing Bolshov to proclaim he is insolvent, to working a kopecks-on-the-ruble payoff plan for his creditors, and then to receive his property back from the party to whom he has deeded it.

Bolshov thinks that young Lazar is just the man, trustworthy, smart and loyal.  Lazar thinks this is a good idea, too, although he has no plans to ever return the property to Bolshov.  He too hires Rispolozhensky, paying him more than Bolshov to turn against the merchant.

In the meantime, Ustinya, the marriage broker is looking, without much luck, for a husband for Lipochka.  She finally finds someone, but Lazar convinces her to ditch her client and propose himself, Lazar, as Lipochka’s spouse.  For this, he promises Ustinya 1500 rubles and a fox coat (which he never delivers, and denies he ever promised).

The transfers take place, but the creditors won’t accept the settlement proposal.  Lazar marries Lipochka, but won’t make available any of Bolshov’s assets to up the ante.  Bolshov has to declare bankruptcy.  He is thrown in debtor’s prison, and his kids won’t bail him out.  As the play ends, he appears to be on his way to Siberia, while Lipochka and Lazar are living the life of luxury in a Moscow mansion.

My plot description reads, I guess, like a tragedy, but the play is more a light, satirical, slapstick comedy.  There is not one sympathetic character in the production – everyone is, on one level or another, except perhaps the servants, involved in criminal activity……as is everyone they seem to know.

Because it makes fun of the Russian establishment (although the characters are from the merchant class, there are also allusions to the shortcomings of the nobility), and also because the language is very earthy, the censors had a terrible time with the play.  A study of how Ostrovsky wrote the play, and what happened to it as it went from one censor to another would, of course, be interesting, but I don’t know whether it has ever been undertaken, or whether it would be possible.

Part of the purpose of the Redirection series is to determine whether to mount a full stage production of the play.  We will see what Shakespeare decides to do.



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