An analysis of the early development of dramatic literature in Russia
The following essay is reprinted from Russian Literature. Petr Alekseevic Kropotkin. London: Duckworth & Co., 1905.

The Drama in Russia, as everywhere else, had a double origin. It developed out of the religious "mysteries" on the one hand and the popular comedy on the other, witty interludes being introduced into the grave, moral representations, the subjects of which were borrowed from the Old or the New Testament. Several such mysteries were adapted in the seventeenth century by the teachers of the Graeco-Latin Theological Academy at Kiev for representation in Little Russian by the students of the Academy, and later on these adaptations found their way to Moscow.

Towards the end of the seventeenth century--on the eve, so to speak, of the reforms of Peter I--a strong desire to introduce Western habits of life was felt in certain small circles at Moscow, and the father of Peter, the Tsar Alexis, was not hostile to it. He took a liking to theatrical representations, and induced some foreigners residing at Moscow to write pieces for representation at the palace. A certain GREGORY undertook this task and, taking German versions of plays, which used to be called at that time "English Plays," he adapted them to Russian tastes. The Comedy of Queen Esther and the Haughty Haman, Tobias, Judith, etc., were represented before the Tsar. A high functionary of the Church, SIMEON POLOTSKIY, did not disdain to write such mysteries, and several of them have come down to us; while a daughter of Alexis, the princess Sophie (a pupil of Simeon), breaking with the strict habits of isolation which were then obligatory for women, had theatrical representations given at the palace in her presence.

This was too much for the old Moscow Conservatives, and after the death of Alexis the theatre was closed; and so it remained a quarter of a century, i.e., until 1702, when Peter I, who was very fond of the drama, opened a theatre in the old capital. He had a company of actors brought for the purpose from Dantsig, and a special house was built for them within the holy precints of the Kremlin. More than that, another sister of Peter I, Nathalie, who was as fond of dramatic performances as the great reformer himself, a few years later took all the properties of this theatre to her own palace, and had the representations given there--first in German, and later on in Russian. It is also very probable that she herself wrote a few dramas--perhaps in collaboration with one of the pupils of a certain Doctor Bidlo, who had opened another theatre at the Moscow Hospital, the actors being the students. Later on the theatre of Princess Nathalie was transferred to the new capital founded by her brother on the Neva.

The _répertoire of this theatre was pretty varied, and included, besides German dramas, like Scipio the African, Don Juan and Don Pedro, and the like, free translations from Molière, as also German farces of a very rough character. There were, besides a few original Russian dramas (partly contributed, apparently, by Nathalie), which were compositions drawn from the lives of the Saints, and from some Polish novels, widely read at that time in Russian manuscript translations.

It was out of these elements and out of West European models that the Russian drama evolved, when the theatre became, in the middle of the eighteenth century, a permanent institution. It is most interesting to note, that it was not in either of the capitals, but in a provincial town, Yarosláv, under the patronage of the local tradesmen, that the first permanent Russian theatre was founded, in 1750, and also that it was by the private enterprise of a few actors: the two brothers Vólkoff, Dmitrévsky, and several others. The Empress Elisabeth--probably following the advice of Sumarókoff, who himself began about that time to write dramas--ordered these actors to move to St. Petersburg, where they became "artists of the Imperial Theatre," in the service of the Crown. Thus, the Russian theatre became, in 1756, an institution of the Government.

SUMARÓKOFF (1718-1777), who wrote, besides verse and fables (the latter of real value), a considerable number of tragedies and comedies, played an important part in the development of the Russian drama. In his tragedies he imitated Racine and Voltaire. He followed strictly their rules of "unity," and cared even less than they did for historical truth; but as he had not the great talent of his French masters, he made of his heroes mere personifications of certain virtues or vices, figures quite devoid of life, and indulging in endless pompous monologues. Several of his tragedies (Hórev, written in 1747, Sináv and Trúvor, Yaropólk and Dilitza, Dmitri the Impostor) were taken from Russian history; but after all their heroes were as little Slavonian as Racine's heroes were Greek and Roman. This, however, must be said in favour of Sumarókoff, that he never failed to express in his tragedies the more advanced humanitarian ideas of the times--sometimes with real feeling, which pierced through even the conventional forms of speech of his heroes. As to his comedies, although they had not the same success as his serious dramas, they were much nearer to life. They contained touches of the real life of Russia, especially of the life of the Moscow nobility, and their satirical character undoubtedly influenced Sumarókoff's followers.

KNYAZHNIN (1742-1791) followed on the same lines. Like Sumarókoff he translated tragedies from the French, and also wrote imitations of French tragedies, taking his subjects partly from Russian history (Rossláv, 1748; Vadim of Nóvgorod, which was printed after his death and was immediately destroyed by the Government on account of its tendencies towards freedom).

OZEROFF (1769-1816) Continued the work of Knyazhnin, but introduced the sentimental and the romantic elements into his pseudo-classical tragedies (Oedipus in Athens, Death of Olèg). With all their defects these tragedies enjoyed a lasting success, and powerfully contributed to the development of both the stage and a public of serious playgoers.

At the same time comedies also began to be written by the same authors (The Brawler, Strange People, by Knyazhnin) and their followers, and although they were for the most part imitations of the French, nevertheless subjects taken from Russian everyday life began to be introduced. Sumarókoff had already done something in this direction, and he had been seconded by CATHERINE II, who contributed a couple of satirical comedies, taken from her surroundings, such as The Fête of Mrs. Grumbler, and a comic opera from Russian popular life. She was perhaps the first to introduce Russian peasants on the stage; and it is worthy of note that the taste for a popular vein on the stage rapidly developed--the comedies, The Miller by ABLESIMOFF, Zbitenshik (The Hunter), by Knyazhnin, and so on, all taken from the life of the people, being for some time great favourites with the playgoers.

VON-WIZIN, by his two comedies, The Brigadier (1768) and Nédorosl (1782), which continued to be played up to the middle of the nineteenth century, became the father of the realistic satirical comedy in Russia. Denunciation (Yábeda), by KAPNIST, and a few comedies contributed by the great fable writer KRYLOFF belong to the same category.


During the first thirty years of the nineteenth century the Russian theatre developed remarkably. The stage produced, at St. Petersburg and at Moscow, a number of gifted and original actors and actresses, both in tragedy and in comedy. The number of writers for the stage became so considerable that all the forms of dramatic art were able to develop at the same time. During the Napoleonic wars patrotic tragedies, full of allusions to current events, such as Dmitri Donskói (1807), by Ozeroff, invaded the stage. However, the pseudo-classical tragedy continued to hold its own. Better translations and imitations of Racine were produced (KATÉNIN, KOKÓSHKIN) and enjoyed a certain success, especially at St. Petersburg, owing to good tragic actors of the declamatory school. At the same time translations of KOTZEBUE had an enormous success, as also the Russian productions of his sentimental imitators.

Romanticism and pseudo-classicism were, of course, at war with each other for the possession of the stage, as they were in the domains of poetry and the novel; but, owing to the spirit of the time, and patronised as it was by KARAMZIN and ZHUKÓVSKIY, romanticism triumphed. It was aided especially by the energetic efforts of Prince SHAHOVSKÓY, who wrote, with a good knowledge of the stage, more than a hundred varied pieces--tragedies, comedies, operas, vaudevilles and ballets--taking the subject for his dramas from Walter Scott, Ossian, Shakespeare, and Pushkin. At the same comedy, and especially satirical comedy, as also the vaudeville (which approached comedy by a rather more careful treatment of characters than is usual in that sort of literature on the French stage), were represented by a very great number of more or less original productions. Besides the excellent translations of HMELNITZKIY from Molière, the public enjoyed the pieces of ZAGÓSKIN, full of good-hearted merriment, the sometimes brilliant and always animated comedies and vaudevilles of Shahovskóy, the vaudevilles of A.I. PISAREFF, and so on. True, all the comedies were either directly inspired by Molière or were adaptations from the French into which Russian characters and Russian manners had been introduced. But as there was still some original creation in these adaptations, which was carried a step further on the stage by gifted actors of the naturalist, realist school, it all prepared the way for the truly Russian comedy, which found its embodiment in Griboyédoff, Gogol, and Ostrovsky.


Back to Russian Theatre

Home · Theatre Links · Monologues · One Act Plays · Bookstore · © 2006 TheatreHistory.com