Tragedy or Comedy? Boris the Visuals and Musico-Visuals
Juliet Forshaw and Stacy Dubov
In the Boris-related courses offered through the Slavic Department, one obstacle to visualizing the Meyerhold production was the paucity of designed sets and fully blocked scenes. We knew how the production was supposed to sound, and at which points Meyerhold wanted Prokofiev’s music to punctuate or accompany Pushkin’s text. But only select episodes had been staged or provided with details of costume or color. One such was Pimen bustling around his clean, cozy white-and-yellow cell (Meyerhold heavily rehearsed scene 5), but this prompt was not incorporated into the Princeton production. For his Cell Scene, Vasen and the lighting engineer chose to go with a bright metallic blue gleam on the bungees, the better to set off the Evil Monk dream in a day-glo burst of white light following Grigory’s curse.
To gain a sense of the visual options, we sought analogues in book illustrations of Pushkin’s play (interpreted canonically as a tragedy and then more recently as a comedy), in earlier stagings of Boris (as drama and opera), in the 1986 film Boris Godunov by Sergei Bondarchuk (its battle scenes recalling a more savage, lower-tech Borodino), and also in the contemporaneous cinema of Meyerhold’s prize student, Sergei Eisenstein. The Ivan the Terrible films were an especially rich source of visual and behavioral prototypes for 16th-century tyrants, conspiracy, and war. In the graduate seminar we considered the series of seven sketches made by Eisenstein in the spring of 1940—before embarking on the Ivan films but after Meyerhold had been executed—entitled “Dostig ia vysshei vlasti…,” part of his ill-starred “Pushkin Concept” and a requiem on the futility of power. Equally ill-starred was another concept we discussed and juxtaposed to the canonical text of Pushkin’s: the Gippius-Merezhkovskii screenplay for Boris Godunov from the late 1920s. Its sixteen episodes, of a savage, populist texture, echo (but do not reproduce) Pushkin’s play, and are set in the borderland wilderness of pubs and bathhouses with a recurring staircase dream and a cast of familiar figures who are all spies and double agents. It persuaded us that 20th-century variants on this plot were inevitably and lethally politicized.
We include here only two examples of “interdisciplinary” student work: one from opera, the other from visual art.
1. Pushkin’s Boris and Musorgsky’s
JULIET FORSHAW (Class of ’07, major in Music)
Juliet Forshaw, now enrolled in a PhD program in Music at Columbia University, graduated from Princeton with a major in Music and extensive acting experience. As a singer with a good knowledge of Russian, familiar with Russian operatic and vocal repertory, she was struck by certain parallels between Pushkin’s play in its uncensored 1825 version (specifically scene 6, “The Monastery Wall”) and the Jesuit Rangoni that Musorgsky interpolated into the revised (1874) version of his Boris Godunov opera. The essay below, submitted as part of her final work for that seminar, develops this thesis.
The “Evil Monk” in Pushkin’s Play and Musorgsky’s Opera
One of the most memorable characters in Musorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov is the crafty Jesuit Rangoni. He ruthlessly manipulates Princess Marina and the Pretender Dmitry into each other’s arms and into his own plot to bring Roman Catholicism to Russia by converting the future tsar. Rangoni is the only important character in the opera without an antecedent in Pushkin’s play—though he was obviously suggested by Pushkin’s minor character Father Czernikowski, who in scene 12 agrees to support the Pretender in return for the latter’s insincere promise to help convert Russia to the Roman faith. (Interestingly, Musorgsky appears to have made use of the Father Czernikowski character twice, in two different guises: he also turns up by name in the opera as one of the two Jesuits whom the Russian peasants attempt to lynch in the last scene.) Rangoni is drawn more literally from Nikolai Karamzin’s source history of Russia and from a sixteenth-century biography of the Pretender, both of which describe him by name as a powerful papal nuncio whose support the Pretender only nominally obtained. Thus the character of Rangoni was based on both a minor character from Pushkin’s play and on a historical figure who had little personal contact with or political investment in the Pretender. His importance in the opera, when contrasted to the peripheral nature of his prototypes in the play and in the historical accounts, begs the question: what was Musorgsky’s object in creating him?
Scholars have long explained this magnified composite of Czernikowski and the historical Rangoni as an expression of Musorgsky’s own xenophobic anti-Catholicism. Rangoni is a projection of the composer’s belief that the papally directed cadres of Jesuits were engaged in a conspiracy to bring the whole world under the Pope’s control. They claim further that Rangoni’s devious machinations serve the useful function of whitewashing the self-serving princess and Pretender into more sympathetic characters, thus allowing for a somewhat sincere love duet between them, obligatory for operas of the time. One might add that the practice of combining minor characters into composite ones is a necessary adjustment in opera, an art form that must make every effort to streamline plots and reduce the number of extraneous characters.
While correct, these explanations overlook another possible motive on the part of Musorgsky, which comes into the picture when we consider an important connection between Rangoni and yet another character in Pushkin’s play: the nameless “evil monk” (zloi chernets) who appears in the censored scene 6 (“The Monastery Wall”). It is this evil monk who urges Grigory Otrepiev to impersonate the dead Tsarevich Dmitry shortly after the pious monk Pimen plants the idea in his head. The provocative advice of this monk anticipates similar, even more forceful advice on the part of Musorgsky’s Rangoni. We do not know precisely why scene 6 disappeared from the first published version of Pushkin’s play; it appears that Pushkin himself removed it, in part for formal reasons, in part because a Russian Orthodox ecclesiastic portrayed as a traitor to the tsar would never have been approved for print. (There is some evidence that Pushkin wished to restore it in a second edition, but his death in a duel in 1837 cut short that plan.)
However, along with the other censored scenes, scene 6 had found its way into print by the time Musorgsky began to consider setting the play in the 1860s. The composer was committed to restoring the censored scenes as far as possible. By transforming the “evil monk” into a Jesuit (at the time a familiar gothic stage villain) and transporting him across the border to the ranks of hostile Poland, Musorgsky both restored the politically correct Karamzinian hypothesis that the Pretender Dmitry owed his success to a foreign rather than Russian conspiracy, and, more importantly, salvaged the otherwise unacceptable “evil monk” for his opera. In the process he not only salvaged the character but amplified him.
What makes the “evil monk” worth amplifying? The transfer of this character from Chudov Monastery to the Mniszech court has the effect of vastly expanding his sphere of influence. Now, as Marina’s confessor, he plays the role of evil genius with her as well as with the Pretender. Instead of merely prodding the two to their respective ventures, as the “evil monk” does with the Pretender in Pushkin’s play, Rangoni directly manipulates the two for his own purposes, playing on the Pretender’s naïve belief in romantic love and on Marina’s superstitious fear of hellfire. Rangoni’s manipulation of the Pretender in the opera is a striking reversal of the Pretender’s manipulation of Father Czernikowski in the play. Instead of the manipulator, the Pretender is the manipulated; instead of a brilliant opportunist, he, along with Marina, is a puppet controlled by someone else. Rangoni’s position as puppet master renders two of the most Machiavellian characters in the play less intelligent, less aware of their own positions, less able to decide their own fates.
The fact that two such resourceful and enterprising characters are ultimately revealed as mere catspaws suggests a pessimistic view towards the possibility of forging one’s own destiny. The deluded collusion of the princess and the Pretender with Rangoni’s sinister agenda mirrors the clueless cooperation of the Russian people in the even more sinister historical events that occur throughout the opera. On both a personal and a national level, then, Musorgsky presents a fatalistic rather than pragmatic picture of the progression of events—just the opposite of Pushkin, who wanted to show that fortune favors the bold and that people succeed or fail according to their own ability to play given situations to their advantage. The synthesis of the “evil monk” with Father Czernikowski and the historical Rangoni into the operatic Rangoni is thus an important tactic in Musorgsky’s strategy to impose his own, grimmer worldview onto Pushkin’s play.
2. Boris Godunov, the Playtext Illustrations
In our discussions of the genre of the play—comedy, romantic tragedy, tragedy, tragicomedy—we sampled two very different styles of illustration. First were the “classical” woodcut-style images by the eminent graphic artist Vladimir Favorsky (1886–1964) that illustrate the “School Library” editions of Pushkin (A. S. Pushkin, Boris Godunov. Tragediia. Moscow: “Detskaia literatura,” 2002). (Figure 15. Scene 11, Favorsky, Boris and his children) We contrasted this canonical visualization to the “carnivalesque” sketchings of Engel Nasibulin that illustrate Sergei Fomichev’s 1993 edition of Pushkin’s 1825 play (A. S. Pushkin, Komediia o Tsare Borise i o Grishke Otrepieve 1825, Paris-Petersburg: Grzhebina / Notabene, 1993). Nasibulin gives us a bare-breasted Marina kicking an orb (Figure 16, Nasibulin's Marina), a False Dmitry with his facial warts prominently displayed (Figure 17, Nasibulin's Dmitry), the Russian people in rags (Figure 18. Scene 18, Nasibulin’s narod and the holy fool), Tsar Dmitry murdered and obscenely exhibited on Red Square (a flash-forward to 1606). When the players wear masks (as Stacy notes below), this should not be understood as a simple allusion to the comic and tragic masks routine in ancient Greek drama. The most mature, seemly face is that of Pushkin himself, who is depicted, at the end, glancing back over his shoulder at the “disaster to the Muscovite State” that he has commemorated.
STACY DUBOV, Class of ’09, is an Economics major with a certificate in Russian Studies. She submitted the following discussion as part of her written work for COM 335/SLA 335.
On Favorsky’s Tragedy and Nasibulin’s Comedy
Favorsky depicts the tragedy of Boris Godunov in the form of classical, robust figures standing monumentally in space. Nasibulin, on the other hand, portrays grotesque, awkwardly shaped puppets with distorted body parts for Pushkin’s original Comedy. Tragedy is depicted in a traditional, poetic sense, whereas comedy is personified crudely with overlapping bodies that lack “closed lines,” definition, and volume.
Favorsky shows his figures as gallant and poignant. They live in their own space and do not cross over into the space of others, a trait of neoclassical art. The artist utilizes the space of the frame and elongates it by making the boyars and the narod the same height. Furthermore, he gives them a life beneath the cloak. These idealized figures, with similar expressions and bodies, represent not only a moment in time but also a genuine story of tragedy, battle, and perseverance. The artist is sending a political message by making people and boyars of equal stature.
The architecture is Romanesque: every figure is framed by a rounded arch or a stained glass window; the grid-work of the paintings is horizontal, making the scenes feel heavy and monumental (Figure 15. Scene 11, Boris and his children). The Kremlin looms in the background only when the narod is the subject of the work. The boyars, on the other hand, are anchored by the Church. People taper off on the sides, adding to the drama of the event, and create a continuous narrative out of the piece; there is always something more to the painting than we, as viewers, can readily see. But even in this allusion to a larger scope, everything is organized and calculated. There is no wayward motion or unruliness among the masses. Peasants fall in graceful swanlike patterns, while boyars stand in rigid poses.
Nasibulin, in contrast, uses the classical Russian caricature of children’s stories and combines it with a Bosch-esque foulness to produce beautiful faces with distorted and sometimes phallic features (Figure 17. Nasibulin’s Dmitry). Particularly interesting is the juxtaposition between the delicate features of Pushkin’s face and the grotesque mirror-opposites that portray a frazzled looking, devilish form. The contrast continues in the portrayal of the boyars as evil and menacing, yet sitting in an exposed, fetal position on the ground. In a place where they are supposed to be at the peak of their power, they are feeble and angry. The artist portrays the boyars in long, flowing garments that display signature Russian floral art, with pointy boots taken from Russian folklore images. As opposed to Favorsky’s stylization, these figures look like cartoons rather than holy illustrations of Russia’s past.
Nasibulin’s work illustrating Boris Godunov as a Comedy poses interesting questions about the art of pretendership. His subjects are wearing masks. Visually they stimulate us to conclude that the characters are false, are acting falsely, and know that they are doing so. Not only is there no subconscious, but the figures are willingly hiding their true natures. In this context, what does it mean to wear a mask? Are you openly admitting to being a pretender? Or (counterintuitively) are you being more honest because you are openly admitting that you are putting on a façade? In one of Nasibulin’s sketches, the left side depicts Marina primping in front of a mirror. She is concealing herself behind a mask of makeup. On the right side, the False Dmitry is donning a mask. Which one, by these definitions, is the “real” pretender?
In the Russian context, masks are neither a neutral masquerade showpiece nor a party game, but almost always demonic. Viewed in this light, the innocent Marina hides behind a cosmetic mask while seductively eyeing the royal orb (Figure 16. Marina in her dressing room). Simultaneously, the pretender hides behind a mask that only emphasizes his warts, greedily holding onto a coat of arms. What these figures hide is not beauty, but more grotesqueness. This grotesquerie feeds the disaster and turmoil at the heart of the organism. Nasibulin, in fact, capitalizes on this ironic tension between falsehood and the grotesque. He distorts and adds limbs; he makes the narod's hands as big as their heads (Figure 18. Nasibulin’s narod and the holy fool). This use of non-idealized, contorted proportions creates a Bosch-like mystique that breeds feelings of anxiety and upheaval. In contrast, Favorsky fits the narod into a small, clustered space in his Tragedy. Throughout, we see a compact, highly structured and quiescent group, wearily looking at the viewer; some shake their heads in disbelief, while others stare off into the distance. This forlorn desperation only heightens the drama, creating an ethereal effect that adds to the solidity and monumentality of the event.
 See Leonid Kozlov, “Boris Godunov i Ivan Groznyi: Fragmenty k teme,” in Leonid Kozlov, Proizvedenie vo vremeni: Stat´i, issledovaniia, besedy (Moscow: Eizenshtein-tsentr, 2005), 98–114.
 Tamira Pachmuss published an edition of this screenplay together with “Dante” in 1991, with an informative introduction. See D. S. Merezhkovskii and Z. N. Gippius, Dante, Boris Godunov (New York: Gnosis Press, 1991), 111–95.