Anticipating Chekhov: The Tragicomic Elements in Griboedov's «Woe from Wit»

Justin Wilmes


[Woe from Wit] is considered a comedy.
A num­ber of scenes in it completely justify
that style. But in this great play there
is much of the author’s bitter grief for
his country and his people… The great
Russian classic dramatists showed their
deep love for their people and their country
by bringing out the tears which are hidden
in laughter—a characteristic expres­sive
of many Russian works of art.
— Konstantin Stanislavsky

[Why must actors try] to convince me at
all costs that Chatsky, who spends much
time talk­ing to fools and who loves a
foolish woman, is a very intelligent man…
— Anton Chekhov, A Dreary Story


In its nearly 200-year history, scholarship on Griboedov’s play Woe from Wit has been dominated by ideological readings. In the first few years of the play’s circulation, it sparked debate between conservative critics and Decembrist-Romantic writers about its depiction of Moscow society. The progressive critics of the mid- to late nineteenth century, such as Vissa­rion Belinsky and Nikolai Dobroliubov, praised the work as one of the first sobering depictions of Russian reality, a tradition that, according to them, was continued by Pushkin and Gogol. Soviet critics would later canonize this reading of Woe from Wit in the twentieth century. The political reading has indeed been predominant—many critics have viewed the work as a Decembrist manifesto and its hero Chatsky as the most articulate spokesmanof that movement. Even the Formalist Yuri Tynianov focused on the historical prototypes for the play’s characters rather than its innovative formal aspects. Western scholarship about the play is relatively limited, but has included some re-evaluation of the play’s characters and analyses of its meter and language.[1] However, the main feature of the play—its mixing of the tragic and comedic, or rather its status as a tragicomedy—has to my knowledge received little attention. This paper therefore provides a reading of Woe from Wit as a tragicomedy and, in doing so, shows how it anticipated many of Chekhov’s dramatic techniques: an undermined raisonneur and concomitant authorial distancing, a domino effect of unrequited love, constant miscommunication and disconnect be­tween all characters, and the incorporation of elements of commedia dell’arte. This reading opposes the view of Chekhov’s dramaturgy as anomalous and unprecedented in Russian letters and instead suggests an evolution of the tragicomic genre, which had its earliest roots in Denis Fonvizin’s The Minor, was developed further in Griboedov’s Woe from Wit and Gogol’s The GovernmentInspector,and culminated in Chekhov’s plays.

First let us consider the nature of tragicomedy, a genre that is difficult to define.Hazel Barnes attempts a definition using three dramatic situations.[2] The first of these occurs when there is an incongruity between subject and tone, that is, between a situation as it is normally judged and the attitude to it induced by the characters. The second tragicomic situation arises when there is a discrepancy between the attitudes of the characters and the spectators, not because of dramatic irony, but when the characters are fully aware of their circumstances. A common device used to create such situations is undercutting, as when a character makes a solemn declaration and then trips and falls over, as Trofimov does in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, or when one takes a bite out of a cucumber while musing on existential questions, as Sharlotta does in the same play.[3] The final tragicomic scenario involves an “unrealistic closing up or denial of the gap between desire and reality … a betrayal of the human condition.”[4]

To recognize these tragicomic scenarios in Woe from Wit, one need not look further than the play’s conclusion. In this fraught denouement, Sofya discovers Molchalin’s duplicity, Chatsky is declared insane by society, and all romantic intrigues collapse. Nevertheless the action is conveyed in lighthearted couplets and is accompanied by the jeers and laughter of the society characters.There is a striking incongruity between the attitudes of the characters to what is taking place and the way it would normally be judged. One cannot say that, following Aristotle’s definition, tragedy is brought to its full expression and causes the audience to experience emo­tional catharsis, nor that they simply laugh at the outcome of the play. Rather, the audience is left in a sort of mixed emotional state, simultane­ously amused by the absurd behavior of most of the characters and full of pity for the thwarted happiness of the play’s more sympathetic protagon­ists. The effect, then, recalls Barnes’s description of the tragicomic effect on the audience: “We are left with ambivalent feelings, aware that we can­not quite sum it all up, either intellectually or emotionally.… Tragedy and comedy, each in their own way, give distinctive answers [to the question posed by drama]. Tragicomedy indicates that when all has been said on all sides, the question remains and one still does not quite know whether or not to take it seriously.”[5]

Tragicomedy holds a special place in Russian culture. Many writers have made use of tragicomic techniques and mixed moods. Nikolai Gogol’s formulation of “laughter through tears”[6] characterizes most of his works and those of Anton Chekhov as well. In Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, the German doctor Herzenstube remarks that Russians very often laugh when they ought to weep. Richard Peace, in his study of Chekhov, explores the close connection between the comic and pathetic.[7] Laughter and tears are both vehicles for releasing emotional tension. He points out that virtually all situations are a mixture of the two—even slapstick comedy in­volves the pain and humiliation of a character, as well as humor.[8] Chekhov perfected the tragicomic form through careful emotional orches­tration and developed a number of dramatic techniques for achieving this that have come to be known as “Chekhovian” devices.[9] While Chekhov scholars have identified a wealth of such devices, I will focus on those mentioned above, which are characteristic of the tragicomedy. I hope to demonstrate that Griboedov, most likely himself impacted by Fonvizin’s The Minor,[10] employed a number of these techniques much earlier in Woe from Wit.

Griboedov’s own literary tastes shed light on the creative process that led to his generic innovations. In an article on the playwright’s aesthetic, critic L. A. Stepanova analyzes Griboedov’s letters, his contributions to lit­erary polemics, and the reminiscences of his contemporaries to conclude that his aesthetic was one of artistic freedom from convention, a universal dialogue with all times and cultures, and the depiction of reality with “naturalness and fullness of life.”[11] He was an “outsider” who was not in­terested in adhering exclusively to a specific philosophical, political, or literary camp. Griboedov was well-versed in European literature, valuing particularly Shakespeare, Goethe, Moliére, and Byron. Among these writ­ers, he placed Shakespeare and Goethe above the rest. Byron, with all of his diversity of thought, described only the individual, whereas Goethe captured all of humanity, and therefore, Griboedov wrote, “eminence in greatness should be given to Goethe.”[12] Similarly Shakespeare represented to Griboedov complete artistic freedom and versatility. While recog­nizing Moliére as a genius, Griboedov nonetheless criticized him for “limit­ing his gifts in the narrow frame of the three dramatic unities” and “not giving his imagination free reign to spread out over a wide field.”[13] His own play Woe from Wit was certainly in dialogue with Moliére’s Misanthrope, but would part with it artistically in various ways. In all these preferences and criticisms we can see Griboedov privileging “naturalness” and “freedom” from rules—the typical Romantic protest against “stilted” and rule-based Classicism.The rejection of the conventions of Classicism, which traditionally separated the tragedy and comedy, freed him to engage a hybrid genre. While clearly rooted in the tradition of early Russian comedy, the play departs from this tradition in a number of unprecedented ways. These innovations include a shift away from heavy didacticism and a violation of the unity of action, since the play features the double intrigue of both a romance and a social satire. Such changes reflect not only Griboedov’s aesthetic preferences, but also a growing sophistication among Russian audiences. As David Welsh notes in his pioneering study of early Russian comedy, “Part of [Griboedov’s] contribution to the development of the Russian theatre was his ability to use or jettison rules which hampered his predecessors.”[14]

The question of Woe from Wit’s genre is closely bound up with a number of other considerations, including characterization, the level of complexity, and the implied authorial viewpoint. A key feature that separates the tragicomic from pure comedy and satire is complexity of character. Complicated characters are not a sufficient, but rather a necessary ingredient in the mixed mood play. Psychological complexity distinguishes its protagonists from the stock characters of the comedy, whose misfortunes arouse laughter rather than pathos because we view them as caricatures rather than flesh-and-blood humans. The developed characters in the plays of Griboedov and Chekhov, with whom we can identify, make us laugh at their gaffes, but when they fail to achieve happiness, they also arouse our pity. Thus, they are located somewhere between Aristotle’s formulation of characters in comedy and tragedy, i.e., that comedy “aims at representing men as worse, tragedy as better than in actual life.”[15]

The extensive critical debate about the interpretation of Sofya and Chatsky in Woe from Wit, as well as the author’s own remarks on the play, speak to this complexity of character. Starkly different views of the protagonists accompanied the first circulation of the play via manuscript in 1824–25. In response to his friend Pavel Katenin’s criticisms of the overly complex portraits in the play, Griboedov wrote: “‘Portrait characters.’ Yes! And if I don’t have the talent of Moliére, then at least I am more sincere than he; portraits and only portraits go into the composition of comedies and tragedies.… I hate caricatures, in my picture you won’t find a single one [Karikatur nenavizhu, v moei kartine ni odnoi ne naidesh´].”[16] Pushkin also perceived this emphasis on portraiture. While praising the play overall, he questioned Griboedov’s decision to make Repetilov so vile, asserting that he should have left him merely flighty and stupid. He also thought Molchalin should have been made a more obvious coward.[17] Even Pushkin seems to have advocated a stricter adherence to the conventions of the comedy: in the case of Repetilov, to simplify the character to a one-dimensional type, the characterless man; in the case of Molchalin, to make his principal vice, cowardice, more pronounced.

It must be noted that despite Griboedov’s distaste for caricature there are a number of unmistakable types in the play, as will be addressed later in the discussion of his use of commedia dell’arte figures. Nevertheless, Griboedov’s relative emphasis on portraiture was an important development in Russian drama. It is arguably complexity of character (and the mixed mood such characters create) that distinguishes Woe from Wit and has led to its lasting popularity, in contrast to other Neoclassical comedies.

In his initial reaction to the play, Pushkin initiated the two-century-long debate about the main character’s nature. While Chatsky was ecstatically received by many of Griboedov’s contemporaries (as a spokesman for the Decembrist cause), Pushkin challenged this interpretation of him as a positive raisonneur. He wrote: “Everything he says is very intelligent. But to whom is he saying it? Famusov? Skalozub? […] It is unforgivable. The first sign of an intelligent man is to know at first glance with whom he is dealing and not to cast his pearls before Repetilovs and the like.”[18] This keen insight was later echoed by major literary figures of the nineteenth century, including Dostoevsky and, at least indirectly, Chekhov himself, who all found fault with Chatsky’s unwillingness to compromise and his wagging tongue.[19] However, countless others have viewed Chatsky as a positive hero and direct mouthpiece for Griboedov himself. Many nineteenth-century literary critics opposed to the government and Soviet scholars championed him as the first great social critic of Russian literature. For example, the nineteenth-century poet and critic Apollon Grigor´ev called him “the only truly heroic character, not only of our drama, but of our literature as a whole.”[20] More than a half a century later, Konstantin Stanislavsky, with his penchant for the serious and psychological, still viewed Chatsky as a great hero who “tortures himself [and] attempts to move mountains.”[21]

Sofya, too, has been interpreted variously as an empty-headed coquette and an intelligent, if misguided, girl who opposes Chatsky’s blustering, immoderate wit with common sense. In “A Defense of Sof´ja in Woe from Wit,” for example, Gerald Janecek argues that she actually can be seen as the only “moderate and wise character” in the play, as her name suggests.[22] Sofya’s reservations about Chatsky and her preference for Molchalin can be viewed as highly sensible. She herself is deceived by Molchalin, a remarkably duplicitous character, whom she believes to be a devoted admirer and a more dependable match than Chatsky. After all, Chatsky left her without a clear reason at the height of their courtship three years earlier, and she heard nothing from him in the interim. Molchalin’s lack of quick wit appeals to Sofya, in contrast to Chatsky’s incessant mockery. What’s more, Sofya is the only character in the play who poses any real challenge to Chatsky’s point of view. One is inclined to accept Chatsky’s characterization of the other characters and Moscow society prima facie until one encounters Sofya’s sobering retorts:


Ясам? неправдали, смешон?

Да! грозныйвзгляд, ирезкийтон,

Will you not hear two words of criticism?
If someone is the least bit odd or quaint
Your merriment knows no restraint.
You’re always ready with some witticism,
Yet you yourself…

Myself? True—am I not absurd?

You are! With each stern look or word.
Your repertoire is vast. You might well profit
By all this carping if you were the object of it.[24]

She provides a compelling alternate narrative to that of Chatsky as indignant social critic, i.e., she presents the foil that makes Chatsky’s views and actions in the play seem unreasonable and out of touch with reality. Moreover, we can sympathize with her position in a society that is obsessed with arranging “advantageous” but loveless marriages. Within these constraints she is, in fact, a progressive and a social critic herself when she speaks out against marriages of convenience. She is clearly aware of her own unfortunate position; her overtures to Molchalin are bold, considering his class background. Numerous other subtle details distinguish her as the noblest female character (and arguably most sensible character in general) in the play, such as her disinterest in Khlestova’s arapka-devka at the ball. Sofya has no curiosity for the blackamoor slaves with which the play’s more frivolous society people amuse themselves.

The extensive critical debate about Chatsky and Sofya, if nothing else, is a tribute to the characters that Griboedov carefully crafted. The ambiguity, which allows for such opposing interpretations of Chatsky and Sofya, effectively distances the author from any particular viewpoint and underscores epistemological uncertainty in a world where no one possesses absolute truth and no character is rewarded with a “happy end” to his or her life. Such character ambiguity and authorial distancing was a clear departure from the traditions of early Russian comedy and would later become a hallmark of Chekhov’s dramatic art.

While Chekhov did not directly express his opinion of Chatsky or Griboedov’s play in his own writings,[25] he does so indirectly in the novella A Dreary Story (1889), where the narrator and professor of medicine complains of an actor “trying to convince me at all costs that Chatsky, who spends much time talking to fools and who loves a foolish woman, is a very intelligent man” (on staraetsia ubedit´ menia vo chto by to ne stalo, chto Chatsky, razgovarivaiushchii mnogo s durakami i liubiashchii duru, ochen´ umnyi chelovek).[26] This characterization echoes the words of Pushkin and others while recalling Chekhov’s own method of authorial distancing as well as, in the absence of an identifiable viewpoint, his constant emphasis on epistemological uncertainty. Had Pushkin lived to read Chekhov’s plays, he probably would have given a no less ambivalent assessment of their most positive characters than he gave of Chatsky, and Chekhov may have agreed wholeheartedly. In Uncle Vanya, for example, Astrov seems to voice many of the author’s own sentiments about work, nature, active living, and so on, but he also loves a foolish woman, resigns himself to an uninspired provincial existence and declares himself “takoi zhe poshliak kak vse”(the same kind of vulgar person as everyone else)—and he may well be right.[27] Just as it is problematic to identify Chatsky as Griboedov’s direct mouthpiece, it would be misguided to equate Chekhov’s viewpoint with that of Astrov in Uncle Vanya or Trofimov in The Cherry Orchard.

A close reading of Griboedov’s play justifies the comments of Pushkin and others who, while agreeing with much of his social critique, also find fault with Chatsky. In his opening monologue the hero immediately begins sermonizing:

Чуть свет уж на ногах! И я у ваших ног.
Ну, поцелуйте же, не ждали? Говорите!
Что ж, рады? Нет? В лицо мне посмотрите.
Удивлены? И только? Вот приём!
Как будто не прошло недели,
Как будто бы вчера, вдвоём
Мы мочи нет друг другу надоели,
Ни на волос любви! Куда как хороши!
И между тем, не вспомнясь, без души,
Я сорок пять часов, глаз мигом не прищуря,
Вёрст больше семисот пронёсся, ветер, буря;
И растерялся весь, и падал сколько раз—
И вот за подвиги награда![28]

You rise at break of day! And I fall at your feet.
Come, kiss me. Speak. I’m unexpected, out of place here?
You’re glad? You’re not? Do look me in the face, dear.
Surprise? That’s all? You, welcoming me thus!
As though last night the two of us
Were wearied by our constant, daily meeting.
What! Not a trace of love! That’s splendid! I arrive
Here scarcely conscious, only half alive,
With not a wink of sleep in forty-five long hours,
Seven hundred versts through storms and icy showers,
All shaken senseless—then the horses fell—
The past deserves a better present![29]

In his first words we encounter a remarkably plaintive tone, a rash accusation, and a description of his own trip home as a “podvig” (feat).[30] His wordy reprimands never cease until the play’s conclusion. There are numerous similar passages in the play that cast doubt on the dominant interpretation of Chatsky’s heroism and Sofya’s frivolity.[31] This does not invalidate Chatsky’s social critique, however. His indictment of the Moscow aristocracy is poignant and witty and certainly reflects many of Griboedov’s views, such as his jest about Russian high society’s peculiar speech as a “mixing-up of … high-French low-Russian conversations” (smeshen´e iazykov, frantsuzskogo s nizhegorodskim)[32] and his famous description of Moscow aristocratic life:

Что нового покажет мне Москва?
Вчера был бал, а завтра будет два.
Тот сватался—успел, а тот дал промах.
Всё тот же толк, и те ж стихи в альбомах.[33]

What else will Moscow show me that is new?
A ball last night, tomorrow there’ll be two.
One man’s accepted and another man is jilted.
Small talk. Bad verse in albums, stiff and stilted.[34]

Griboedov, however, also expresses his views through the mouths of other characters. Sofya laments marriages of convenience and expresses deep anxieties about the pressure put on her to marry someone with wealth and rank. She describes the people who criticize her for wanting to marry Molchalin as “terrifying creatures / With strange half-animal, half-human features” who “groan and roar and laugh with pleasure” (kakie-to ne liudi i ne zveri … nas provozhaiut ston, rev, khokhot, svist chudovishch) when recounting the dream to her father in Act I, Scene 4; here she anticipates society’s gossip and the ridicule of Chatsky at the end of the play.[35] Famusov, like Chatsky, repeatedly criticizes French fashions: “It’s all ‘Kuznetsky Most’ and those eternal Frenchies, / Their authors on our shelves, their fashions on our wenches” (A vse Kuznetskii most, i vechnye frantsuzy / ottuda mody k nam, i avtory i muzy).[36] While clearly a parodic double of Chatsky and Decembrist dandyism, Repetilov parrots progressive political views, many of which Griboedov shared.

This diffusion of the author’s views into those of various characters, even the most clownish and satirical, is another Chekhovian device. In describing the so-called “Chekhovian perspective,” Vladimir Kataev writes: “The relative, conditional nature of ideas and opinions, and of stereotyped ways of thinking and behaving; the refusal to regard an individual solution as absolute; and the baselessness of various claims to possession of ‘real truth’: these are constants in Chekhov’s world.”[37] In Woe from Wit as in Chekhov’s plays later, no single character—not even Chatsky—is the owner of the complete and sole truth.

In addition to complexity of character and the epistemological uncertainty resulting from an undermined raisonneur, Griboedov’s play anticipates another hallmark of the Chekhovian tragicomedy—constant miscommunication and a disconnect between all characters. Again, the initial reception of the play by Griboedov’s contemporaries proved prescient. Kiukhelbeker remarked that the true originality of the play lies in its “meeting of two antipodes” that have no common language and therefore cannot interact or compete.[38] I would argue that not only are the antipodes of Chatsky and Moscow high society at odds, as Kiukhelbeker recognized, but real communication is in fact absent among all characters in the play. Consider the love stories: Chatsky loves Sofya, Sofya loves Molchalin, Molchalin lusts after Liza, and Liza is smitten by a servant named Petrusha (who has only one line in the play). Liza succinctly sums up the romantic disconnect:

Ну! люди в здешней стороне!
Онакнему, аонкомне,
Ая… одналишьялюбвидосмертитрушу.

Well! What about this lot! You see?
Madame loves him and he loves me
And I’m… the only one who’s scared to death of Cupid!
Except… Petrusha! ’course I love him. I’m not stupid.[40]

Not one of these pairs is able to achieve reciprocated love. Griboedov draws attention to the tragic lack of understanding between them and comically exaggerates these misunderstandings, such as when Chatsky ecstatically greets Sofya with “I’m very glad you’re here,” to which she makes the aside, “And very much de trop” (Chatskii: Vy zdes´? Ia ochen´ rad, ia etogo zhelal. Sof´ia: I ochen´ nevpopad).[41] Her indifference to Chatsky is punctuated throughout the play by similar asides, shoulder shrugging and other gestures of bemusement, which contrast humorously with his earnest professions of love. Molchalin’s overtures to the maid Liza are met with similar disinterest and bemusement. At the end of the play, when Sofya has finally realized Molchalin’s true nature, one senses an opportunity for reconciliation with Chatsky and a potential happy ending. Chatsky, however, being unable to overcome his bitterness and control his tongue, berates her for the mistake and decides to resume his European travels. As in Chekhov’s plays, miscommunication is underscored by near communication.

The lack of real interaction between characters is not limited to romantic relationships. Famusov and his daughter Sofya do not understand one another. He wants her to marry according to rank and wealth, and she tries in vain to explain her supposed love for Molchalin. There is no sense of familial affection between them, as Famusov regards Sofya mainly as goods to be sold advantageously to a suitor. Famusov’s closest acquaintance appears to be Skalozub, but their relationship is one based upon self-interest and rank. Instances of miscommunication in the play are often the result of social factors and punctuate Griboedov’s social critique, but some (such as Sofya and Chatsky’s failed romance) have an existential nature and more closely resemble those in Chekhov’s plays.

To emphasize the lack of communication, Griboedov, like Chekhov, makes repeated use of the motif of deafness. Countess Grandma (Grafinia Babushka), whose “ears are blocked” (mne ushi zalozhili) mishears all of the initial gossip about Chatsky and repeats it back in exaggerated and distorted form.[42] Prince Tugoukhovsky (which translates roughly to “Prince Hard-of-Hearing”) carries an ear horn and similarly can barely make out anything said to him. These two deaf characters unite in one scene, in which they uncomprehendingly discuss Chatsky, thus bringing the miscommunication to a comic height. The countess concludes the scene by unwittingly stating perhaps the central idea of the play:

Да!.. в пусурманах он! Ах! окаянный волтерьянец!
Что? а? глух, мой отец; достаньте свой рожок
Ох! глухота большой порок.[43]

Yes!...He’s an infidel!
Ah! Damned disciple of Voltaire.
What? Eh? My Lord, you’re deaf. Put your ear trumpet in.
Oh, deafness is a mortal sin![44]

The literal deafness of Tugoukhovsky and Grafinia Babushka, of course, parodies the metaphorical deafness of Famusov, Skalozub, Chatsky, and others. In Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, the deaf old servant Firs serves a similar dual effect of comedic relief and serious parody.

In numerous other scenes we have miscommunication that is caused not by old age, but by the characters’ unwillingness or inability to listen to each other. Two scenes in particular illustrate this most central of the play’s themes. The first is a scene in which Chatsky and Famusov reveal their political views to one another. For most of the scene, Chatsky rails against the servility and insincerity of the older generation, oblivious to his unsympathetic audience. Famusov constantly interjects his disapproval and his own admiration for the generation of “fathers,” but Chatsky doesn’t hear this and instead continues his oration. The effect of the scene is certainly tragicomic, for while the conversation is hilarious on the level of action, it nonetheless has damning implications for Chatsky’s aspiration to marry Sofya. The second scene consists of yet another “meeting of antipodes.” Chatsky and Molchalin, men whose attitudes to life leave little room for common ground, uncomprehendingly speak past one another in a similar, and even more comical, fashion. They exchange opposite views of Tatiana Yurevna and Foma Fomich, prominent figures in Moscow society. Chatsky doesn’t care for them, but Molchalin reveres them for their connections and manners. Molchalin gushes about the benefits of visiting such a virtuous woman as Tatiana Yurevna, and Chatsky responds, “I visit women for a rather different reason” (Ia ezzhu k zhenshchinam, da tol´ko ne za etim).[45] Here the divide is not merely ideological but also linguistic. Molchalin’s style, clearly a parody of sentimentalist poetry, collides humorously with Chatsky’s roguish Byronic voice.

There is not a single relationship in Woe from Wit that reflects genuine understanding, familial devotion, or love, which suggests that the rigid, predetermined roles and values of this society preclude the possibility of authentic relationships. Everyone is trapped in his or her own “shell” (as in Chekhov’s “Man in a Shell”). Chatsky, moreover, is so blinded by his idée fixe to criticize society that he is declared insane by it, anticipating Gromov in Chekhov’s story “Ward Number Six.” The domino effect of unreciprocated love in Woe from Wit anticipates similar chains of failed romance in Chekhov’s plays. In The Seagull, for example, Masha loves Treplev who loves Nina who loves Trigorin, and so on. Moreover, Grafinia Babushka’s succinct summary of the play’s moral, “Deafness is a terrible vice,” bears a striking resemblance to Sharlotta’s memorable line in The Cherry Orchard: “How I long to talk, but there’s no one to listen…” (tak khochetsia pogovorit´, a ne s kem).[46] In this respect, both Griboedov and Chekhov draw upon the tradition of the character comedy (comedie de caractere), with its emphasis on universal human foibles and imperviousness to truth.[47]

A final significant innovation in Griboedov’s play is its incorporation of elements of commedia dell’arte in a manner that anticipates that genre’s resurgence in the early twentieth century. Chekhov has been called the prophet of commedia dell’arte in the Russian drama of this period. One can read Chekhov’s plays as commedia, in which all of the characters are locked into a set of caricatured gestures and actions.[48] In the decades immediately following Chekhov’s death, commedia would become a dominant genre in Russian modernist theater, championed by the Symbolists, Vsevelod Meyerhold, and others. Chekhov, and later the modernists, appropriated commedia dell’arte as an expression of the absurdities of human existence, the automatization of social relations, and circumscribed, predictable human behavior.[49]

Scholars have provided convincing readings of Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard as instances, not of comedy, but of commedia, citing the frequent Pierrot-Columbine-Harlequin love triangles (such as Vania-Elena-Astrov and Epikhodov-Duniasha-Iasha), marionette-like characters, and a sense of improvisation that is ultimately circumscribed by predetermined roles.[50] In Chekhov’s use of commedia figures there is a difference between the major and minor characters. While the minor characters are usually purely comedic, the major characters are torn between their theatrical emploi and their internal lives and sense of autonomy.[51] Herta Schmid illuminates the paradoxical coexistence of stock figures and psychological complexity in Chekhov’s major characters, stating, “Chekhov constructs dramatic characters who are too weak to fulfill their own claim of becoming autonomous individuals.”[52] Thus Chekhov’s plays seem to suggest that, no matter how genuine our emotions and despite our best efforts to control our lives, we are doomed to play out predetermined roles, as the commedia suggests.

In Woe from Wit, Griboedov employs figures from commedia dell’arte, not in the manner of Neoclassical comedy, but in a way that anticipates Chekhov and the modernists. In addition to the obvious function of comic relief provided by the lower stock characters, the use of such figures underscores the circumscribed fates of all characters in Woe from Wit and the futile theatricality of their lives. Thus Griboedov’s play is not only a work of social critique, but also a statement about human existence. As Chekhov would do later, Griboedov populates his play with a number of stock characters of the servant class, as well as more complex parodies of commedia figures in his upper-class characters. The result is very similar: a chance-necessity pattern that ultimately suggests that the marionette-like characters are powerless to overcome their roles.

Despite Griboedov’s remark about his distaste for caricatures, we can certainly observe a number of stock characters in the play. Liza is a classic soubrette, a cheeky maid who creates plot dynamics by attracting male attention and spreading gossip. Famusov can be viewed as a vecchio figure, that is, a wealthy old man with a pretty, marriageable daughter who himself makes advances toward young women, oblivious to his own advanced age. Skalozub is a variant of Il Capitano, a caricature of the conservative military man, who cares about nothing but army life and, for example, thinks books should not be used in schools. The love triangle between Molchalin, Sofya, and Chatsky could be viewed as a version of the commedia love triangle. Molchalin, physically weak and submissive, is a parody of Pierrot. In the commedia scenario, Chatsky can be viewed as a failed Harlequin, whose conviction that Columbine will certainly be his is ultimately thwarted.[53]

The inclusion of commedia figures in the play serves the purpose of comic relief by gags and other improvisations reminiscent of the lazzi, but at the same time it reinforces the powerlessness of its characters. These predetermined theatrical roles are well-suited to Griboedov’s real-life critique of the conventions of Moscow society and demonstrate Lotman’s description of the theatricality of nineteenth-century life. Theatricality and social convention, Lotman argues, pervaded Russian aristocratic life at this time, consisting not only in the rigid conventions of dress, manners, and speech, but also in the imitation of literary and theatrical figures.[54] The suffocating conventionality of this society gave rise to the opposite tendency, “outbursts of freedom and the rejection of conventional constraints,” embodied by the figures of the dandy and the jaded romantic.[55] Such figures were known to “publicly call things by their names, ‘make a noise’ at balls and in society, since it was exactly in this calling that they saw the liberation of the individual.”[56] Thus even the most eccentric and individualistic character in the play, Chatsky, can be viewed as acting out another theatrical role, that of the dandy.

The question of Woe from Wit’s direct impact on Chekhov’s dramaturgy is, unfortunately, difficult to answer since Chekhov did not comment explicitly on this issue in his writings. Nonetheless, it is clear from his letters, intertextual links, and frequent quotation of the play that Woe from Wit had a major impact on Chekhov’s dramaturgy. The professor’s characterization of Chatsky in “A Dreary Story,” moreover, demonstrates Chekhov’s awareness of tragicomic elements in Griboedov’s play. Similarities between Woe from Wit and Chekhov’s plays may influence the modern readers’ perception of both. Questions of direct influence aside, a comparison of character types and dramatic techniques in these plays reveals a gradual development of the genre of tragicomedy in Russian drama. Devices such as the unrequited love chain, the undermined raisonneur, the complete absence of communication, and figures from commedia dell’arte, circumscribed by their roles, are well-suited to the genre because they simultaneously create both comic and tragic effects.

Woe from Wit has long been viewed as either too moralistic or overtly political. These are both one-sided readings. Undoubtedly, a critique of the establishment is to be found in Griboedov’s comedy, but social critique coexists with, and is arguably secondary to, his other concerns. He is above all interested in the human condition—the tragicomic quality of human life. This aura does not even escape his “raisonneur” Chatsky, who, infatuated with his own moral uprightness, cannot stem the torrent of words that creates as many obstacles to human inter-communication as the deceit and hypocrisy of the other characters. This does not mean that Woe from Wit pursues no moral—as is the case later with Chekhov, the moral is found in our lack of empathy with each other that leads to constant tragic misunderstandings, be it through silence, prolixity, or plain deceit. On the level of action these tragic misunderstandings create a genuine comedy.


The Ohio State University



Wilmes, Justin. "Anticipating Chekhov: The Tragicomic Element in Woe to Wit." Pushkin Review 15 (2012): 125-42.

[1] For examples of the debate between conservative critics and Decembrist-Romantic writers, see M. A. Dmitriev’s critical review of the play in 1825, “Zamechaniia na suzhdeniia ‘Telegrafa,’” Vestnik Evropy, no. 6 (1825): 109–23; a defense of the play by Kiukhelbeker in V. K. Kiukhel´beker, Puteshestvie. Dnevnik. Stat´i, ed. N. V. Koroleva and V. D. Rak(Leningrad: Nauka, 1979), 227; and A. A. Bestuzhev-Marlinsky, “Vzgliad na russkuiu slovesnost´ v techenie 1824 i nachale 1825 godov,” Poliarnaia Zvezda (1825): 16–18.A discussion of this polemic is found in A. M. Gordina, A. S. Griboedov v russkoi kritike (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izd-vo khudozhestvennoi literatury, 1958), xii–xvii. For social readings of the play, see A. Shtein, “Natsional´noe svoeobrazie ‘Goria ot uma,’” in A. S. Griboedov, 1795–1829: Sbornik statei, ed. I. Klabunovskii (Moscow: Gosudarstvennyi literaturnyi muzei, 1946), 7–38; A. Slonimskii, “‘Gore ot uma’ i komediia epokhi dekrabristov (1815–1825),” in A. S. Griboedov, 1795–1829, 39–73; and Iu. P. Fesenko, “Tema ‘Griboedov i dekabristy’ v rabotakh poslednikh let,” in A. S. Griboedov: Materialy k biografii. Sbornik nauchnykh trudov, ed. S. A. Fomichev (Leningrad: Nauka, 1989). For Yuri Tynianov’s historical analysis, see his “Siuzhet ‘Goria ot uma,’”in Pushkin i ego sovremenniki (Moscow: Nauka, 1969), 347–79. For Western studies of the play’s characters and poetics, see Gerald Janecek, “A Defense of Sof´ja in Woe from Wit,” The Slavic and East European Journal 21: 3 (Autumn 1977): 318–31; and George Kalbouss, “Rhyming Patterns in Griboedov’s Gore ot uma,” The Slavic and East European Journal 39: 1 (Spring 1995): 1–13.

[2] Hazel Barnes, “Greek Tragicomedy,” The Classical Journal 60: 3 (December 1964): 125–31.

[3] In such situations Griboedov, like Chekhov later, makes use of bathos, slapstick, and other classic comedic devices. Frequently, their use of these devices goes beyond mere laughter at incongruity to serve the broader purpose of evoking a mixed mood.

[4] Barnes, “Greek Tragicomedy,” 128.

[5] Ibid., 131.

[6] This is a famous contraction of Gogol’s original formulation from Dead Souls: “Долго еще определено мне чудною властью судьбы идти об руку с моими странными героями, озирать всю громадно несущуюся жизнь, озирать ее сквозь видный миру смех и незримые, неведомые ему слезы.” N. V. Gogol´, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, ed. B. V. Tomashevskii (Leningrad: Izd-voAkademii nauk, 1951), 6: 134.

[7] Richard Peace, Chekhov: A Study of the Four Major Plays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).

[8] Ibid., 120.

[9] For discussions of devices in Chekhov’s drama, see Peace, Chekhov, and for his stories, Gleb Struve, “On Chekhov’s Craftsmanship: The Anatomy of a Story,” Slavic Review 20: 3 (October 1961): 465–76.

[10] David Welsh notes a gradual evolution of tragicomic elements in early Russian drama. He detects tearful elements in the final scenes of Fonvizin’s The Minor and suggests that Fonvizin and other early Russian dramatists were influenced in part by French sentimental comedies (comédie larmoyante), which alternated comic and affected scenes. See David Welsh, Russian Comedy1765–1823 (Paris: Mouton, 1966), 111–12. Similarly, Simon Karlinsky argues that The Minor, while remaining a Neoclassical comedy par excellence, is an early example of character complexity, as well as the mixed mood evoked by the fate of Mrs. Prostakova, whose coddled son ultimately turns on her. See Simon Karlinsky, Russian Drama from Its Beginnings to the Age of Pushkin (Berkley: University of California Press, 1985), 156 and 161–62.

[11] L. A. Stepanova, “Estetika Griboedova,” in A. S. Griboedov: Khmelitskii sbornik, ed. S. A. Fomichev (Smolensk: Smolenskii gosudarstvennyi universitet, 1998), 15  All translations in this essay are mine unless otherwise noted.

[12] Ibid., 12.

[13] Ibid., 13.

[14] Welsh, Russian Comedy,119.

[15] Aristotle, Poetics, trans. S. H. Butcher (New York: Cosimo, 2008), 9–10, 4.

[16] A. S. Griboedov, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v 3-x tomakh, ed. S. A. Fomichev (St. Petersburg: Rossiiskaia Akademiia nauk[Pushkinskii Dom], 1995), 3: 87. Hereafter PSS, with volume and page numbers specified.

[17] A. S. Pushkin, “Pis´mo k A. A. Beztuzhevu, konets ianvaria 1825,” in A. S. Griboedov v russkoi kritike, 40.

[18] Ibid., 41.

[19] Dostoevsky, although expressing some ambivalence, seems to have viewed Chatsky largely as an immoderate prattler, if a sincere one, who was out of touch with his own country: “Он был в высшей степени необразованным москвичом, всю жизнь свою только кричавшим об европейском образовании с чужого голоса” (He was very much an uneducated Muscovite who spent his entire life shouting other people’s words about European education) and “Если бы… не вопил бы он, не кричал бы он так на бале, как будто лишился всего, что имел… Он имел бы надежду и был бы воздержанее и рассудительнее” (If he hadn’t wailed, hadn’t shouted such at the ball, as if he’d lost everything he had… He would have had a chance and would have been much more temperate and judicious); A. L. Bem, “Gore ot uma v tvorchestve Dostoevskogo,” in O Dostoevskom (Prague: Petropolis, 1936), 15, 16.

[20] Cited in D. P. Costello, introduction to Gore ot uma (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951), xvi.

[21] Cited in Nikolai Gorchakov, Stanislavsky Directs, trans. Miriam Goldina (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1962), 129.

[22] Janecek, “A Defense of Sof´ja,” 329.

[23] Griboedov, PSS, 1: 62.

[24] Aleksandr Griboedov, Woe from Wit: A Commentary and Translation, trans. Mary Hobson (Lewiston, New Zealand: Edwin Mellen Press, 2005), 68. All English quotations of the play are from Hobson’s translation, which is the most successful rhymed English translation to date in my view. All citations of this translation will be abbreviated “Griboedov, WfW.”

[25] Chekhov very often quotes the play’s krylatye vyrazheniia in his letters and plays; he mentions having seen productions of it in the theater but does not comment directly on its merits. However, when Chekhov suggested a curriculum to the schools of Sakhalin after his travels there, in his list of required reading he includes Griboedov’s Woe from Wit near the top, second only to Pushkin’s Sochineniia. Also, in one interesting exchange with his friend, the publisher Aleksei Suvorin, Chekhov defends Ivanov, the eponymous hero of his play, from Suvorin’s charge that he is a “fixed character” who does not change (i.e., that Chekhov “vzial ego gotovym”). Chekhov compares him to another “ready-made character,” Chatsky in Woe from Wit, and holds up that portrayal as an example of artistic achievement. See Anton Chekhov, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v 30-i tomakh, ed. N. F. Bel´chikov (Moscow: Nauka, 1974–83), Pis´ma 4: 180 and Pis´ma 3: 190. Hereafter Chekhov, PSS, with the volume and page numbers specified.

[26] Chekhov, PSS, Works,7: 270.

[27] Ibid.,13: 108.

[28] Griboedov, PSS, 1: 25–26.

[29] Griboedov, WfW, 22–23.

[30] The lines about his “heroic journey” may be a rare instance of levity and self-irony on Chatsky’s part, although he makes similar comments in earnest later.

[31] Chatsky is a prototype for later figures in Russian literature with hypertrophic intellect and underdeveloped emotional sensitivity, such as Turgenev’s Rudin.

[32] Griboedov, WfW, 27; PSS, 1: 29.

[33] Griboedov, PSS, 1: 27.

[34] Griboedov, WfW, 25.

[35] Griboedov, WfW, 15; PSS, 1: 20. This description also anticipates another famous dream in Russian literature: Tatiana’s in Eugene Onegin.

[36] Griboedov, WfW, 15; PSS, 1: 17.

[37] Vladimir Kataev, If Only We Could Know: An Interpretation of Chekhov, trans. Harvey Pitcher (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002), 164.

[38] Cited in Gordina, A. S. Griboedov v russkoi kritike, xii.

[39] Griboedov, PSS, 1: 59.

[40] Griboedov, WfW, 66.

[41] Griboedov, WfW, 67; PSS, 1:61.

[42] Griboedov, WfW, 105; PSS, 1: 89.

[43] Griboedov, PSS, 1: 90.

[44] Griboedov, WfW, 108.

[45] Griboedov, WfW, 79; PSS, 1: 70.

[46] Chekhov, PSS, Works 13: 215.

[47] Welsh, Russian Comedy, 101.

[48] J. Douglas Clayton, Pierrot in Petrograd: The Commedia dell’arte/Balagan in Twentieth-Century Russian Theatre and Drama (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993),15.

[49] Ibid., 132.

[50] For this interpretation of The Cherry Orchard, see Irene Masing-Delic’s “Comedy or Commedia? Commedia dell’Arte, Circus and Balagan in Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard,’” Sub Rosa: In honorem Lenae Szilard, ed. Anna Han and Attila Hollos (Budapest: ELTE BTK, 2005), 451–57. For a brief discussion of Uncle Vanya as commedia, see Clayton, Pierrot, 14–15.

[51] Clayton, Pierrot, 163.

[52] Herta Schmid, “Cechov’s Drama and Stanislavskij’s and Mejerchol´d’s Theories of Acting,” in Theatre and Literature in Russia 1900–1930, ed. Lars Kleberg (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1984), 31.

[53] Chatsky, like Treplev later, is also a Hamletian figure, whose love for words fails to translate into action.

[54] Iurii Lotman, “Iskusstvo zhizni,” in Besedy o russkoi kul´ture: Byt i traditsii russkogo dvorianstva XVIII–nachalo XIX veka (St. Petersburg: Iskusstvo-SPG, 1994), 183.

[55] Ibid., 189.

[56] Ibid., 340.