Review: Chester Dunning, et al. «The Uncensored "Boris Godunov"»

Chester Dunning with Caryl Emerson, Sergei Fomichev, Lidiia Lotman, and Antony Wood, The Uncensored “Boris Godunov”: The Case for Push­kin’s Original Comedy, with Annotated Text and Translation. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006. xxv + 550. Index. ISBN 0-299-20764-1.


     Rarely have I learned so much from a single (albeit lengthy and complex) tome as from The Uncensored Boris Godunov, a book that combines a facing-page translation of Pushkin’s 1825 version of the play, meticulously annotated with background on the history of its writing and the Time of Troubles, together with the work of multiple scholars on related topics. Suffice it to say that the authors easily convince the reader of the need to displace the altered and censored 1831 version of Boris Godunov from its current position of canonized prominence in favor of Pushkin’s 1825 orig–inal Comedy About Tsar Boris and Grishka Otrepiev. The original, which Pushkin read aloud to great acclaim and tried unsuccessfully to publish, was not only better received, but is also more dramatically effective and historically accurate.

     This book offers an interesting model for scholarship with an introduc­tion and conclusion jointly authored by Caryl Emerson and Chester Dun­ning, three individual articles by Dunning, two by Emerson, one by Sergei Fomichev, and a substantive preface by Antony Wood that accompanies his translation of the play.

     The introduction lays out the general argument that Pushkin’s 1825 Comedy, although never published by him, was greeted as a radical, excit­ing work and much praised when he read it aloud at numerous gatherings, while the 1831 Godunov, shorn of significant portions and greeted with lit­tle enthusiasm, has wrongly been treated as the canonical text. This is due in part to a scholarly bias toward print; cuts also helped to make the sec­ond version more “Karamzinian,” i.e., more critical of the Pretender, who in the 1825 version appears a real contender for power, supported by the Russian people, who are sick of the tyranny, famine, and serfdom endured under Boris. The 1831 play famously concludes with “narod bezmolvstvuet” (the people are silent)—an ending that has received outsized attention and has tended to define the play, the author, the Russian folk, even the shape of Russian history—while the original and more historically correct Com­edy ends with the people cheering “Long live Tsar Dmitry Ivanovich.”

     In chapter 1, Dunning discusses the history of the competing versions of Boris Godunov. Despite its quality, the play wasn’t published until 1831—in a significantly altered version; although a few isolated scenes from the 1825 play were eventually published, the politically correct ver­sion of Pushkin that the tsarist regime created for his 1899 jubilee re­quired rejecting the 1825 version in favor of its successor. The idea that Pushkin closely followed Karamzin and agreed with most of his views then became entrenched. Given that this is the most studied of Pushkin’s works, it is surprising that so little attention was paid to the 1825 original, to dif­ferences between the two versions (other than the last line), or to their different contexts of composition and dissemination.

     Dunning, whose view of Pushkin is almost invariably admiring, points out in chapter 2 that Pushkin was an excellent historian, even at this early stage, and particularly interested in popular uprisings against the autoc­racy. Pushkin had discovered in family papers that many of his ancestors had been rebels and troublemakers, including Gavrila Pushkin, who sup­ported the Pretender Dmitry, and when called upon by friends to write something serious, decided to write about the Time of Troubles. Pushkin’s models for his play were Schiller’s Demetrious and Shakespeare; he also appreciated the recently published bolder tenth and eleventh volumes of Karamzin’s History (Pushkin had criticized the more conservative earlier volumes) and, using Karamzin’s copious notes, went to the same sources himself; these included Western revelations that the Russian people had to be forced to cheer the new tsar, Godunov, even though they thought he was a regicide and usurper, while they had welcomed the Pretender Dmitry. Pushkin also knew that enserfment had been established by Boris and re­alized that support of the Pretender was effectively opposition to serfdom.

     Chapter 3 treats the demise of Pushkin’s Comedy. Here Dunning notes that after Pushkin met with Nicholas in 1826 and was told that the Tsar would become his personal censor, he began confidently reading the Com­edy aloud to friends. Benckendorff became his de facto first reader, how­ever, and sent the play off to another censor to obtain a negative report; he then claimed that Nicholas recommended it be turned into a novel. After reworking the play in 1829, Pushkin still did not receive permission to publish it: Benckendorff wanted to see his friend Bulgarin’s novel Dmitry Samozvanets in print first. In his capacity as police spy, Bulgarin had ear­lier been asked to write a report on Pushkin’s Comedy and it was clear to the author and his friends that Bulgarin plagiarized a good deal from it, despite his more patriotically Russian interpretation of events. Since re­cent scholarship has raised questions about whether Bulgarin did in fact plagiarize Pushkin’s “Comedy,” some may wish to consult other sources on this topic. Nicholas then agreed to let Pushkin publish the play “on his own responsibility” and Pushkin, Zhukovsky, and Pletnev worked on changes. Their modifications tended to confuse the narrative, however: dropping the (probably too atheistic) “Monastery Wall” scene made it impossible to understand how and why the monk Grigory Otrepiev decides to become Dmitry and, while deleting “Maryna’s Dressing Room” eliminated some pro-Polish sentiment, it also distorted and darkened the character of Dmitry’s bride. The ending itself is confusing and appears inno manu­script of the play: it may be the result of censorship, a parody of Karamzin, or have its source in Bulgarin (Pushkin plagiarizing the plagiarist).

     Fomichev’s chapter 4 addresses humor in the Comedy. While early drafts included no funny scenes, Pushkin later added the monk/skomorokh character, Varlaam, and other touches. Fomichev helpfully lists differences between the two plays and points out that not all of the changes were due to censorship: if Pushkin’s original was written for the stage, the 1831 version was meant to be read, and perhaps for that reason the comic ele­ment was toned down. In Fomichev’s view only two versions of the per­formed play, YuryLiubimov’s 1980s version at the Taganka, and Declan Donnellan’s 2001 Moscow production, have been truly revelatory: each in its own way reconstituted the comic element of the play to the fullest.

     In chapter 5, Emerson discusses Pushkin’s use of dramatic genres. Between 1825 and 1830, he called Boris Godunov a comedy, a tragedy, a Romantic tragedy, and even a “sochinenie” (composition). His shift away from comedy as a name for the play is significant, since tragedy connotes such genre responsibilities as finding justice and assigning cause and blame. For a time, scholars were enthusiastic about finding aspects of Bakhtinian carnival in Pushkin’s play, but more recently they have begun to raise doubts about the applicability of the French Rabelaisian milieu discussed by Bakhtin to far more conservative early 17th-century Russia. Comedy tends to restore order and focus on the common people, Emerson notes, so one can imagine that Pushkin wrote in the spirit of historical comedy, with gossip, slander, rumor, and cynical realism working not just as comic relief but as agents in the plot. Meyerhold’s 1936 attempt at staging the play was intended this way. In the end, Emerson wonders if Boris Godunov was another of Pushkin’s works that must be read in terms of “genre insecurity” — much as readers didn’t know if Eugene Onegin was a verse narrative or a novel.

     Emerson continues her genre discussion in chapter 6. In some ways, she avers, Boris Godunov’s fate is tragic, the Pretender’s is Romantic, and Shuisky, a Iago type, survives them both. If Pushkin had written his in­tended sequels, Shuisky’s role would have become larger. As it turned out, however, Pushkin’s revisions made the play more “tragic” in the Shake­spearean sense and on the whole less comic.

     It is hard to imagine a more authoritative and densely-packed work than this one, a must for anyone teaching or writing about Boris Godunov. This book will also be informative for anyone who studies Pushkin, Rus­sian theater, or how authors and playwrights adapt historical record for their art. It includes a lengthy bibliography and helpful index.


Katya Hokanson
University of Oregon


Download: Hokanson, Katya. Rev. of Chester Dunning, et al. The Uncensored Boris Godunov: The Case for Pushkin's Original Comedy, with Annotated Text and Translation. Pushkin Review 12-13 (2009-10): 153-55.