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by Lyubov MANKOVA, Cand. Sc. (Philol.)
Each September the Sukhovo-Kobylin country estate (the village of Novoye near Yaroslavl) lying on the bank of the picturesque Sit, under the shade of age- old lime trees of a wonderful park, hosts a theatrical festival commemorating the famous Russian playwright, Honorary Member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin. Therefrom the celebrations proceed to the library named after him housing his memorial literary museum, the only in this country. Here Russian and foreign scholars make lectures and presentations, and exchange their research findings.
Alexander Vasilyevich Sukhovo-Kobylin was born on September 29, 1817, in Moscow. He got home education under the tutorship of the best professors in a curriculum broader than that of a classical gymnasium (grammar school). Besides, the youngster attended lectures at Moscow University. His tutor was the famous scientist Fyodor Moroshkin. He directed Alexander's reading and recommended him to keep a diary which the young man entitled "Journal of Ideas, Thoughts, Wishes, Intentions and Remarks". On its front page the tutor wrote: "I suggest that every week you put down something by way of practicing presentation of thoughts-correctly and with ease. Moroshkin."
In 1834 - 1838 the would-be playwright and academician attended the Department of Physics and Mathematics of Moscow University's Faculty of Philosophy from which he graduated with honors. Carried away by Hegel's ideas, he continued his education in Germany. Back in Russia, Alexander refused to go to civil service explaining it by the chronic repulsion he felt towards bureaucracy. Instead, he took up agriculture and forestry with much pleasure and success, and even merited a state prize in the 1890s.
But he always combined practical work with arts and research. Sukhovo-Kobylin was long sure that the pleasures given by science and arts are "the best, since they justify one saying: Omnia mea mecumporto (all mine I carry with me), and that means a lot in life".
Sukhovo-Kobylin was an extraordinary personality. Anything he took up he did brilliantly. That is equally true of theater, literature, philosophy, commerce, industry, horse breeding and agriculture... Alexander Vasilyevich was an interesting interlocutor, his speech was surprisingly imaginative: a rare person could speak so beautiful Russian. As his contemporaries recalled, he could say something once and for all, and that is fully confirmed by his comedies: many of their lines turned into pithy sayings.
He wrote his famous "Krechinsky's Wfedding" in jail to which he was confined at the charge of murdering the French lady Louise Simon-Demanche. This personal tragedy of his was depicted in several books, and in a movie, but the mystery of that crime was never unlocked. The investigation of the criminal case dragged on for 7 years. Finally, it was closed, Sukhovo-Kobylin was released but never exculpated as suspect.
In the upshot, Alexander Vasilyevich wrote three plays which made him a classic of Russian dramaturgy. "Krechinsky's Wedding" (1854), "The Case" (1861) and "Tarelkin's Death"
(1869), in terms of their literary style, developed the tradition of Gogol's "social comedy" with its hyperbolic typification and symbolic potential of satirical image. All the three works were published in 1869 under the common title of "Pictures of the Past", though actually they were social studies of the time when the playwright lived and worked. The stage life of the trilogy was sad. The plays were either killed by censorship or mutilated by stage productions.
Under the reign of Nicholas I "Krechinsky's Wedding" was banned altogether. A censor asked the author:
- Where did you hear words and expressions like those you are using in the play?
- Anywhere-in public, from common people.
- You'll have to change that. Such expressions are impermissible!
- I will not change anything!- answered Sukhovo-Kobylin.
- In this case let your work rest on this shelf for a while.
That was the end of the talk. And still, after the very first production many words and lines turned into pithy sayings, and the main character, Raspluev, became a common name.
On August 22, 1862, the Maly Theater in Moscow was visited by Emperor Alexander II. They played "Krechinsky's Wedding". After the performance the czar appeared behind the curtains and thanked the famous Russian actors Prov Sadovsky and Sergei Shumsky for the brilliant performance.
On his 80th anniversary the playwright received a congratulatory cable from St. Petersburg's Alexandriysky Theater company sent by the prominent actor Vladimir Davydov. Touched by his attention, Sukhovo-Kobylin sent his thanks to the friend saying: "In my strange life this is a capital event at the time when the literary Areopagus has ostracized my name deleting it from the history of Russian literature." It is only in 1917 that the great director Vsevolod Meyerhold staged the complete trilogy at the Petersburg Alexandriysky Theater.
However, literary talent was but a small part of Sukhovo-Kobylin's gift. Having become a classic of Russian belles-lettres, he did not think of himself as such. 'I have neverbeen a professional pen," the playwright would confide to his friends. "And, quite frankly, I have never wanted to be one. I'm a landlord, a gentleman, a distillery owner-anything but a man of letters. I wrote my plays not for the sake of literature but rather for my pleasure alone, and that may be the reason why they are not to be found in any literature textbook. In fact, they are too personal, too down-to-earth to make our professors feel comfortable".
Sukhovo-Kobylin believed philosophy to be his true calling in life. He made his cherished dream come true: translated from German all Hegel's works and wrote comments to them. Regretfully, the fruits of this titanic
endeavor perished in fire in the ancestral estate of Kobylinka. His nephew, the famous Russian historical novelist Count Eugene H. Salias de Tournemir * recalled the last days of his uncle's life: "As quite an old man he could hardly recognize his kin. He would ask a relative of his: 'Are you my sister?' And still, when he started to tell me about Hegel whom he adored I listened to him for half an hour and was struck by the perfect clarity and fineness of his mind."
Sukhovo-Kobylin died on March 24, 1903, in the French town of Beaulieu. Alas, it is just shortly before his death that his literary work received the long-deserved recognition. In 1902 the playwright was elected an Honorary Academician in the nomination of belles-lettres. Sukhovo-Kobylin's biography provides invaluable material for historians and writers. Citizens of Nekouz near Yaroslavl keep the memory of the prominent champion of Russian culture. They piece together whatever they learn of his life and creative work. Now his country folks are preparing to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the comedy "Kxechinsky's Wedding". Together with the company of the Yaroslavl Dramatic Theater they will take part in the performance: which will be staged in September 2004 in Sukhovo-Kobylin's estate. The hospitable hosts will give guests a warm welcome in the lime-tree aisle of the country park.
* See: L. Mankova, "A Russian Dumas... Who Was He'.'", Science in Russia, No. 2, 1991. -Ed.
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