We begin our season, “Found in Translation,” with a 19th century farce regarded by Russians as a national treasure. First performed in St. Petersburg in 1836, Nikolai Gogol’s Inspector General shocked its audience as no play had before. With incisive wit and raw slapstick Gogol exposed the corruption of Russia’s bureaucratic kleptocracy, which fostered a hierarchy of unaccountable officials treating their towns like personal fiefdoms, and where anything could be had if the price was right. The Inspector General laid bare what everyone knew but never dared to say. But because the play was so brilliantly written, so clever in its conception and original in its execution, even the Czar had to laugh. Ultimately Gogol achieved what every great comic playwright going back to Aristophanes has managed: to hold a mirror up to society; to force a confrontation with the truth about the world by means of ridicule; and to illustrate the consequences of the insane ideas, crackpot beliefs, uncontrolled desires, and irresponsible conduct that effect the downfall of individuals and whole societies.
The Inspector General is not a relic of some far away place long ago, nor is it some literary museum piece no longer relevant to the modern world. Bureaucrats and politicians continue to abuse their power, and to be complicit in graft and self-enrichment. Con artists high and low and everything in between prey on human beings’ infinite capacity for self-delusion, wishful thinking, and the tendency to pursue the path of least resistance in every aspect of our lives. The Grand Prize, Big Score, or whatever chimera we are chasing almost always proves to be a waste of time and resources. We find that though the times have changed, humanity has not.
Whereas Tragedy is humanity suffering beautifully, Comedy is humanity suffering stupidly. Nevertheless, the common denominator is suffering, which Aeschylus and Sophocles described in their plays as being inextricable from learning about and finally knowing the Truth. As The Inspector General unfolds, we realize that the characters are headed for a catastrophe of their own making; they are the authors of their own suffering. We laugh at them along the way, until we arrive at the finale where suddenly, almost miraculously, Gogol turns the farce into a Tragedy by transforming objects of ridicule into objects of pity. We see them not as caricatures, but as deeply flawed human beings who made spectacularly bad choices–and who among us is not flawed, who has not done what we later came to regret. If the actors have done their jobs, the audience’s hearts will reach out to the characters in compassion, which accounts for Gogol’s choice to end the play with such a powerful and unusual stroke. We have enjoyed working on this world classic immensely, and we hope you have as much fun watching it as we do performing it in the rough/holy style of the Theatre of the Poor.
William Conte, Artistic Director