Discovering the triumph and tragedies of Russia's Shakespeare
“What a pity people can’t fly like birds.” These lines from a monologue by Katerina, the heroine of the play “The Storm,” are known to everyone in Russia, as is the name of the author, Alexander Ostrovsky, a dramatist and theater reformer. The Maly Theater, one of the country’s most acclaimed theaters, is even nicknamed the “House of Ostrovsky.”
Alexander Nikolaevich Ostrovsky was born on March 31 1823 in Moscow on Malaya Ordynka Street. In 19th-century Moscow, Zamoskvorechye, Ostrovsky’s neighborhood, was a distinct city with its own flavor. Its residents included merchants and tradesmen, and there were noblemen’s country estates. The district was replete with low private houses with yards and kitchen gardens, and church domes and bell towers were visible everywhere.
At night the windows closed with noiseless shutters; people made jam, pickled cucumbers, placed flasks with liqueur on the windowsills, and lingered over tea on summer evenings. They would go to sleep early while life was still simmering in the center of Moscow. The inhabitants of Zamoskvorechye became prototypes for the heroes of Ostrovsky’s early plays.
Ostrovsky grew up in comfortable circumstances. He felt drawn to writing early on, but his father envisioned him as a lawyer. After high school Alexander entered law school at Moscow University, but he dropped out of the program due to a quarrel with a professor and became a legal clerk, working in the Moscow courts until 1851.
The playwright earned his initial fame from the play “A Family Affair,” which was first published in 1850. This comedy about merchant mores not only drew favorable reactions (including from Nikolai Gogol), but it also “touched the people” – students read it aloud in taverns. But the Moscow merchants did not care for the work, seeing in it a caricature of their class, and they complained about the playwright. Production of the comedy was forbidden, and it could not be staged until 11 years later, but it played for another two decades with censors’ deletions.
Such a debut did not hinder Ostrovksky’s success as a playwright – his works were performed in Moscow’s and Petersburg’s renowned theaters, and Ostrovsky was a longtime contributor to the magazine, "Sovremennik"(The Contemporary), which published the gems of Russian thought at the time. Ostrovsky’s plays draw portraits of the lives of the merchant class, petty officials and petty bourgeoisie. He also wrote works on historical themes and one folktale play, “The Snow Maiden,” which Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov adapted into an opera.