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