Ostrovsky, Alexander Nikolayevich
OSTROVSKY, ALEXANDER NIKOLAYEVICH
(1823–1886), playwright and advocate of dramatists' rights.
Alexander Nikolayevich Ostrovsky wrote and coauthored some fifty plays, translated foreign plays into Russian, and worked tirelessly to improve conditions for actors, dramatists, and composers. Half a dozen of his works form the core repertory for the popular theater movement, a series of initiatives to advance enlightenment and acculturation that steadily expanded theater production and attendance in Russia from the 1860s to World War I.
Young Ostrovsky studied languages, ancient and modern, with tutors and his stepmother, a Swedish baroness. While a student at Moscow University, he regularly attended performances at the Maly Theater. A civil service position, as clerk in the Commercial Court, acquainted him with the subculture of the Russian merchantry in the "Overthe-River" district south of the Kremlin in the 1840s. Merchants then seemed exotic to educated Russians because, like the peasants, they had resisted Westernization, maintained the patriarchal family life and customs prevalent from the sixteenth century, and held a strictly formal attitude toward legality. Ostrovsky's first published work, revised as It's a Family Affair—We'll Settle It Ourselves (1849) brought him to the attention of the publisher of the journal The Muscovite, and he became its editor in 1850. In his "Slavophile period" Ostrovsky set out to explore with a circle of friends what was good and unique about Russians. They studied and sang folk songs and frequented taverns, especially at festival times, to savor the witty repartee between factory hands and performers.
Ostrovsky would go on to write historical plays that let him exploit the pithy Russian of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that predated the language's syntactical remodeling and massive borrowing of foreign words. In this way, and by focusing on cultural enclaves that had survived into the modern period, Ostrovsky mined the equivalent of an Elizabethan linguistic vein for dramatic purposes. A new regime in politics brought him an unparalleled opportunity to steep himself in the living residue of Old Russian. After the Crimean War, Alexander II's Naval Ministry commissioned professional writers to go to various river ports and describe the local people and manners. Ostrovsky, assigned a section of the Volga, traveled there in 1856 and 1857. He noted on index cards hundreds of unfamiliar words and expressions with examples of usage. As he traveled, he observed how the steamship and other innovations were undercutting ancient patterns of courtship and family organization and overturning assumptions about the world.
His best-known play, The Storm (1859), which drew on this experience, won the prestigious Uvarov prize for literature. It shows the old ways—at their harmonious best and despotic worst—compromised by a transportation revolution that was shrinking space and accelerating time, and urbanization that promoted civic life as a value while redefining public and private space. Commercial prosperity and a scientific outlook increasingly sanctioned individual autonomy and rights.
From the beginning, Ostrovsky wrote in a realist style, freely depicting the rude manners and behavior observable in actual life. For a time this caused censors to deny permission to perform his plays. But as cultural nationalism advanced, his
portrayal of strengths set in relief by flaws and crudeness became irresistible. His true-to-life situations made his plays enormously accessible. He seemed to define "Russianness" by showing individuals confronting concrete social and ethical dilemmas as they moved beyond the traditional culture, where custom dictated behavior.
In 1881 he drafted a proposal for a Russian national theater, which appealed to Alexander III's Great Russian chauvinism by arguing that the existence of a Russian school of painting and Russian music gave reason to hope for a Russian school of dramatic art. He claimed that an already extant body of Russian plays demonstrated the ability to teach the "powerful but coarse peasant multitude that there is good in the Russian person, that one must look after and nurture it in oneself."
When Ostrovsky died at Shchelykova, his country estate located between the Volga towns of Kostroma and Kineshma, he was at his desk translating one of Shakespeare's plays into Russian. In the Soviet period a community for retired actors would be built on the property. His plays continue to be performed in Russia to enthusiastic audiences. The richness of their language and the deft incorporation of folk songs and dances in the works of his Slavophile period ensure their survival, even as the historical nuances of authority and status that motivate much of the action recede from living memory.
See also: slavophiles; theater
Hoover, Marjorie L. (1981). Alexander Ostrovsky. Boston: Twayne Publishers.
Thurston, Gary. (1998). The Popular Theatre Movement in Russia, 1862–1919. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
Wettlin, Margaret. (1974). "Alexander Ostrovsky and the Russian Theatre before Stanislavsky." In Alexander Ostrovsky: Plays. Moscow: Progress Publishers.