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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Kate Sealey Rahman

Ostrovskii on the British stage: 1894 - 1928[1]

The position of the Russian dramatist, Aleksandr Ostrovskii (1823-1886), in the study and reception of Russian theatre in the West is a curious one. In Russia, he is considered their greatest playwright, the father of Russian theatre, and is hailed as the founder of the Russian repertory. In his day, he was accepted as the equal of contemporaries such as Turgenev, Tolstoi and Goncharov, and even today his plays remain the most performed works on the Russian stage. Yet in the West, his name passes virtually unrecognised; his plays are overlooked in favour of those by Chekhov, Gorkii and Gogol. In similar vein, Western critical literature on Ostrovskii remains remarkably sparse, and although such discussion as does exist is almost invariably accompanied by a lament on his virtual anonymity, efforts to impress Ostrovskii's name upon the Western consciousness have so far remained unsuccessful.

One area of discussion from which study of Ostrovskii has been excluded is the growing body of research on the reputation and reception of Russian writers within Britain. (Alongside a multitude of articles on the subject, book-length studies have been devoted to British recognition of and attitudes towards writers such as Turgenev, Dostoevskii, Chekhov and Herzen.) The omission of Ostrovskii from this area of study is perhaps, at first, not all that surprising - Ostrovskii did not share the direct contact with Britain and Britons of Herzen or Turgenev, and the lasting and profound impact of Dostoevskii on English literature and Chekhov on British theatre would be hard to match. Yet nonetheless, a connection exists. Few Britons are aware that Russia's foremost nineteenth-century playwright visited their country (like Dostoevkii, Ostrovskii's visit to Britain was limited to a short stay in London during 1862), and his interest in and admiration for English literature cannot be denied. Shakespeare, perhaps unsurprisingly, plays a key role in this - Ostrovskii's writings are full of references to Shakespeare; he both began and ended his prolific career as a translator with translations of Shakespeare plays; and some of his own original works are re-workings of Shakespeare plays within a Russian setting. However Ostrovskii's interest in English literature did not end here. His library is full of English works - both in translation and in the original - including classics by Dickens, Thackeray, Byron, Milton, Richardson and Scott; non-fiction by Darwin and W.F. Collier; and play texts, ranging from works by Shakespeare and Sheridan to the pantomimes of J.F.McArdle and H.Mayhew, and the comic fairytales of W.S. Gilbert. One of his earliest known pieces of critical writing was a review of Dickens's Dombey and Son. One of his most popular original works - Even Wise Men Err [Na vsiakogo mudretsa dovol'no prostoty] - is a reworking of Sheridan's School for Scandal; and towards the end of his life, the playwright embarked on a project to introduce the British tradition of Christmas pantomime to the Russian stage.

Ostrovskii's clear affinity with English literature aside, the neglect of his work by the British theatrical world seems doubly curious given the enduring vogue for Russian literature within Britain (at its peak, perhaps, in the first half of the twentieth century), and the remarkable impact of Chekhov's works on the British stage. Why is it that the British stage, which so readily absorbed Chekhov into its theatrical tradition, should overlook a playwright considered by his fellow countrymen to hold at least an equal, if not far greater, position in the history and development of Russian theatre?

This paper, which forms part of a larger, on-going study of Ostrovskii and Britain [2], seeks to shed light on this apparent paradox through study of the British response to his drama, and to ask whether any explanation for the Western world's curious neglect of Ostrovskii can be found in the history of his relationship with Britain and British audiences and critics. The paper falls into two parts: a brief chronological history of the early reception of Ostrovskii's work in Britain, concentrating in particular on performances up to 1928 [see Appendix A], followed by some preliminary conclusions drawn on the basis of this history.

The first references to Ostrovskii in British publications were extremely cursory. The earliest known appearance of his name was in 1859 in the eighth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Here, in his rather sparse discussion of Russian literature, Henry Bishop cites that after "Greeboyedoff" and Gogol, "the only other dramatists of distinction are Pooshkin and Ostrovski." [3](Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol.XIX, p.549) Such fleeting references aside, the first substantial discussion of Ostrovskii's work was a review of his four-volume Sochineniia or Collected Works, which featured in the July 1868 edition of the Edinburgh Review. [4] (Ralston, The Edinburgh Review, pp.158-90) Written by William Ralston, almost certainly at the suggestion of Turgenev, this piece appears to be among the earliest discussions of Ostrovskii's drama within Western Europe. Running to some thirty-two pages in length, it is remarkable in its detail, providing comprehensive plot summaries and including translations of lengthy excerpts from plays that even today have not been fully translated into English.

Following Ralston's article, nearly a decade was to pass before further reference to Ostrovskii's work appeared in the British press, and again such references as did occur were brief almost to the point of insignificance. They consisted, in the main, of fleeting remarks in the 'Russia' section of The Athenaeum's yearly review of continental literature. Even the rare mentions outside The Athenaeum bear witness to the scarcity of comment on the playwright within Western Europe. A letter from a Russian reviewer, for example, originally published in a French periodical and reprinted in The Academy in 1882, observes that: "When I inform you that one of our foremost dramatists, Ostrovski, has just placed on the boards a new play, I have told you nothing, for, notwithstanding his undeniable ability, Ostrovski is unknown in France." [5] (The Academy, vol.21, 1882, p.211)

Then, on 14th January 1894, we have a milestone in Britain's relationship with Ostrovskii's drama: the first introduction of an Ostrovskii play to a British audience. The play was The Storm [Groza], and its introduction to the British stage was not by means of a performance, but took the form of a dramatic reading that illustrated a lecture on the theme of Russian drama. The lecture was organised by the renowned theatre critic and founder of the Independent Theatre, Jacob Thomas Grein, who planned a series of Sunday debates on matters theatrical. In a review of a later performance of The Storm, Grein recalled that: "a dramatic reading of the play had been given at the late Opera Comique" by a "Russian refugee". In explaining the use of reading rather than performance, he argued that "nobody had the courage to man the play dramatically; we had not the actors then who could master these esoteric figures; we had not the producers to create the atmosphere". [6] (The Sketch, Dec 18, 1929)

The 'Russian refugee' was Sergei Stepniak (his real name was Sergei Mikhailovich Kravchinskii), who had fled Russia in 1878 after murdering the notoriously brutal St Petersburg Chief of Police, N.V. Mezentsev. He arrived in Britain in 1884, where he quickly established himself as a prolific propagandist against the Tsarist regime. Befriended by much of the left-leaning intelligentsia (he numbered among his close friends the Garnetts, Edward Pease and George Bernard Shaw), he was a frequent contributor to newspapers and journals and wrote a number of political and literary works, most notably Underground Russia and The Career of a Nihilist. In 1890 he founded the Society of the Friends of Russia and began publishing a monthly newsletter, Free Russia.

Together with his political writing, Stepniak was determined to promote knowledge of Russian literature within Britain, believing firmly, as his American biographer, Donald Senese has noted, that acquainting Britain with contemporary Russian fiction was one of the most effective ways of developing the understanding of Russian society he viewed as central to his political struggle [7] (Senese). To this end, a significant portion of Free Russia was each month devoted to translations from contemporary Russian literature and Stepniak frequently delivered lectures on the subject of Russian literature. The reading of The Storm undoubtedly formed part of this campaign.

Perhaps the most detailed account of the evening's events comes from the diary of Olive Garnett, the sister-in-law of the translator, Constance Garnett. In the entry for Sunday 14th January 1894, she writes:

…Lucy [Olive's youngest sister] & I arrived at the Opera Comique after the doors had opened. We sat in the dress circle. Stepniak appeared in a box on the first tier & surveyed the audience. In a box above were Fanny [Stepniak's wife], M & Mdame Bervi, Miss Roche & Voynich. The Cleggs, the Pole & Mr Rapaport [sic] sat near us. There was quite a crowded auditorium. Stepniak, Wm. Archer [the dramatic critic] (chairman), Grein and a young man appeared on the stage, on which were a table, a few chairs & a reading stand. Stepniak spoke for considerably over an hour, & delivered a deeply interesting & moving lecture on Russian Drama as illustrated by the works of Ostrovsky. He read the scenes from the Thunderstorm beautifully, so that I wept… When he had finished the audience was invited to speak. One man (he said his name was Fryer but I hear that it was not) appeared in the gangway about a yard from me & in a voice gradually rising with excitement made an onslaught - in the worst possible taste - on the lecture, lecturer, Russians & the Russian drama generally. He was a fool, but some people applauded, while others hissed. I felt ready to sink through the ground with shame & knew not how to contain myself. I had a desperate desire to knock him down, then to slaughter him in reply but could not move a muscle. I shall not forget Fanny's face, it grew almost mahogany coloured & almost melted as she looked at Stepniak. No one was found to reply, so Mr Grein in an excellent little speech - really clever & I hope more than that too - dealt some neat blows at the fool & paved the way for some remarks (critical) from the chair. Stepniak closed the debate, very charmingly & gently & Mr Grein ended with an exposition of his plans in connection with the [future] lectures… How rich in interest was this evening to me!…" [8](Olive and Stepniak, p.30)

The compiler of the 'Theatrical Gossip' section of The Echo was perhaps a little more sardonic in his account, published the following day:

The Sunday lectures of the Playgoer's Club having proved so great a success and so great a boon to the many people who find the tedium of a London Sabbath intolerable, Mr Grein, an officer of the club, has been tempted to supplement them with a series of Sunday lectures under his own management, to be held in one or other of the theatres. We understood his action has given rise to some little heartburning, but was assured that Mr Grein will in all cases consult the convenience of the body he has served so loyally, and to which he is under no small obligation, since it first provided him with a stool from which to address a certain section of the public. Last night the first of these experiments took place at the Opera Comique, when Mr.William Archer occupied the Chair, and Mr. Stepniak delivered an address on the Russian Drama, reading the greater part of play called The Thunderstorm, by Astrofski [sic], an extremely powerful work, and pausing now and again to explain some racial or national peculiarity necessary to the understanding of the drama. The result was far from uninteresting; but in the attempted debate which followed showed that the lecturer had a monopoly in the knowledge of his subject, the irrelevant remarks of the one speaker who ventured to address the meeting not being remarkable either for their courtesy or taste. The theatre was very fairly filled, many of those people one is accustomed to associate with advanced crotchets in art and politics being present. The project, which promises well, should at least succeed in keeping the energetic and persevering Mr Grein well in the public eye." [9] (The Echo, Jan.15 1894, p.1)

Despite this writer's view of The Storm as an "extremely powerful work" and Olive Garnett's declaration that it moved her to tears, such positive responses were not universal. The Echo journalist's dismissal of Mr Fryer's remarks as 'irrelevant', prompted the said Mr Fryer (we do not know whom Olive Garnett believed him to be) to reply in a letter to the Echo that "stigmatised the plot of the Thunderstorm as 'childishly ridiculous', its construction as 'absurdly clumsy', and its dialogue as 'primitively rough'." [10] (Olive and Stepniak, p.48) Even J.T. Grein noted that the evening was less than successful, as "unfortunately, Stepniak was a bad reader; his accent was thick, and, although certain scenes sounded dramatic, the play as a whole did not grip." [11](The Sketch, Dec.18, 1929)

An Ostrovskii play next appeared on the British stage, fifteen years later, in December 1909, when the Russian actress, Lydia Yavorskaia, included a performance of the fifth act of Vasilisa Melent'eva, in her London programme at His Majesty's Theatre. The choice of this play was perhaps a little surprising, as it is generally considered that Ostrovskii's historical dramas are his least successful works. Certainly they are not representative of the majority of his plays, which are, for the most part, comedies. In the late nineteenth century the play was perhaps best known for the sensational on-stage suicide of the Russian actress Evlaliia Kadmina, who, in an 1881 production of the play, upstaged the actress playing the role of the Tsarina (a role which involves death by poisoning), by herself drinking real poison on stage. She died a few days later in her hotel room. According to newspaper reports, Kadmina's suicide was as a result of recent abandonment by her lover, an officer named Treskin, who had rejected her in order to marry a rich merchant's daughter. In a final macabre touch, Kadmina sent front row tickets for the performance to her former lover and his new spouse. [12]

It was perhaps the melodrama of the piece that attracted Yavorskaia. Opinions as to her acting talent were mixed. Mikhail Chekhov (Anton's younger brother) "especially disliked her voice, screechy and cracked as if she had a chronic sore throat" [13] (Senelick, p.12) and Chekhov himself remarked on her "tendency to pose" [14 ](Heim and Karlinsky [eds.] p.265). Aleksey Bartoshevich has suggested that: "she tended to regard acting as a contest to establish her personal domination of the play, the director, and the other actors". [15] (Bartoshevich, p.20-29) (Significantly, he goes on to suggest that: "She was not remotely the person to represent Russian dramatic art in London", noting that: "it is one of the ironies of theatrical history that the English public's acquaintance with the Russian stage began not with Chekhov in a Moscow Arts production, but with the actress who was the prototype of the cabotine Arkadina in The Seagull.") [16](ibid) The theatre critic for The Athenaeum, reviewing Yavorskaia's performances at His Majesty's Theatre suggested that: "hysteria seems to be the note of her art", but qualified this statement with the assertion that "she is far from being monotonous or consistently lachrymose". He went on to note that "on the whole she produced a very favourable impression", describing Yavorskaia as "a woman of graceful carriage and fine presence, an actress of unusual emotional sensibility", before noting, perhaps rather dryly, that "…in her capacity for abandoning herself to the luxury of grief she has no equal on the English stage." [17] (The Athenaeum, Dec.11, 1909, pp.741-2)

The presentations of the fifth act of Vasilisa Melent'eva took place on December 2nd and December 10th. The performances were in Russian - which in itself would have severely limited their accessibility to the English public - and on each occasion they were preceded by a lecture (in English) on both the play and the playwright, delivered by Yavorskaia's husband, Prince Bariatinskii. It seems probable that the audience was similar in make up to that which attended the Stepniak reading. Constance Garnett was almost certainly there - in a letter to her husband, Edward, she notes that she has had "quite a gay week" at the theatre, and in his biography of Constance, her grandson, Richard Garnett, asserts that she went several times that week to the theatre to see Lydia Yavorskaia. [18](Richard Garnett)

Despite the obvious difficulties afforded both by the fact of the performance taking place in Russian, and by its brevity - with only the fifth act of the play performed - the reviews were remarkably favourable. Much of this success can perhaps be ascribed to Prince Bariatinskii's lecture, which appears to have been particularly well received. The Times reviewer (anonymous, but probably Arthur Walkley - the Times' chief drama critic pre-1926) talks of him speaking "with a clearness as admirable as his English" [19] (The Times, 3 Dec. 1909, p.11), while a second reviewer noted that "Prince Bariatinsky, seated at a small table, gave from his notes a most animated and interesting description of the play and its author. His excellent English, the clearness of his delivery, and his perfect ease and good humour were warmly appreciated." [20] Both reviewers provide details of Ostrovskii's life and works, together with a synopsis of the play itself - information gleaned, no doubt, from the Prince's talk. Notably, both reviewers draw similarities between Ostrovskii and other authors perhaps more familiar to their readership. Thus the review in the Times notes first that: "Ostrovsky resembled Turgenev in his realistic treatment of idealistic characters, his recognition of the fact that no man was all good or all bad, and the fidelity of his treatment of life in his drama," before going on to suggest that one scene in the play "reminds one directly of a scene of Macbeth". [21] (Ibid) The second reviewer also alludes to Shakespeare, noting that: "Sometimes Ostrovsky's work seemed reminiscent of Shakespeare - 'Macbeth' came to mind more than once." [22]

Opinions as to the quality of the acting were rather more varied. One reviewer, comparing Yavorskaia's performance with her earlier portrayal of Marguerite in La Dame aux Camelias, observed that "Madame Yavorskaia's performance was even finer than before, her elaborate death scene, if distressing, being vivid in every detail." [23] The Times reviewer was more circumspect, suggesting that: "the acting did not on this occasion give us all the help we wanted. Mme Yavorskaia cajoled and coaxed to perfection, but she hardly expressed the dramatic character we expected from Prince Bariatinsky's description to find in Vassilissa." He was particularly concerned with the difficulties caused by the language barrier, observing that: "One longed to understand Russian, partly in order to appreciate the metre of Ostrovsky's 'blank verse', but chiefly in order to catch the finer shades of mood and meaning which doubtless underlay this - on the surface- merely brutal piece of work. What would Othello be in dumbshow?" [24](The Times, 3 Dec. 1909, p.11)

Russian was also the language used for the next two performances of Ostrovskii plays in Britain - Bednost' ne porok and Ne vse kotu maslenitsa - which were performed, a decade later, in 1919, at the Cripplegate Institute, in London's East End. These appear to be the first Ostrovskii plays to be performed in full on a British stage, yet sadly, very little is known about these productions. The listings of playscripts submitted to the Lord Chamberlain's office for performance licences inform us that scripts were submitted for the performance of the two plays, under the titles Poverty is No Disgrace and Christmas Comes But Once a Year. Further examination of the Lord Chamberlain's files reveals that a note on one of these scripts - written in a Russian hand - states that it was submitted on behalf of the 'Russian Dramatical Society' and that the licences for performance were granted - the censor, G.S. Street, noted on both occasions that, 'as far as one can tell from the synopsis' the plays are 'entirely innocent', and recommended them for licence. Given the lack of additional material regarding these productions - no mention of them appears in the press or in theatrical journals - it seems reasonable to assume that the 'Russian Dramatical Society' was an amateur theatrical group formed from within East London's sizeable Russian emigre community, and that their audience was comprised of the same. And thus, once again, the scope of these productions for promoting recognition of Ostrovskii's work within the wider British community seems limited.

The first full-length English-language production of an Ostrovskii play took place three years later, in April 1922. The play was Svoi liudi - sochtemsia, translated by George Raphael Boxes under the title It's A Family Affair. The theatre company was an amateur society named the Pax Robertson Salon, who staged their performances in the Bedford Hall in Chelsea. Sadly the brief review of the performance published in the Era magazine conveys little sense of the production itself. The reviewer begins by noting that "this production serves to strengthen the reputation Miss Pax Robertson has already achieved for presenting plays that can rarely or never be seen in London," before declaring, perhaps somewhat paradoxically: "that this should be the first performance [in London] of a work by the well-known Russian dramatist is a reflection on the conservatism of the English theatre." [My emphasis.] He describes the play itself as "an entertainment from beginning to end", with "very entertaining scenes…and biting satire that lies behind the amusing dialogue." As regards the acting, he notes simply that: "Miss Pax Robertson played exceedingly well as Olimpiada, the daughter; a rich piece of character acting was given by Miss Catherine Lewis as a professional matchmaker; and Miss Catherine Robertson was entirely in the picture as the housekeeper." [25](The Era, 3 May 1922, p.9)

The production must have had some measure of success, or at least been attractive to the performers themselves, as, in January 1923, the Salon tackled another Ostrovskii play, this time, Bednost' ne porok, translated by Jane Robertson under the title Poverty is no Crime. Again we have only a brief review in the Era magazine to give a flavour of the production; yet once again, the reviewer is full of praise for both the Salon, which he describes as a "little temple of dramatic art in Upper Manor Street, Chelsea", and the play. Typically, he assesses the latter as: "a clever and life-like study of Russian types - from the affluent middle-class merchant to the simple peasantry and denizens of the underworld." Yet despite this traditional nod to the 'Russianness' of the piece, he is quick to acknowledge its universality, observing that: "although the satire is directed at Russians, it has a homely ring for English ears, for snobbery is not purely a Russian disease." The greater part of the review is devoted to an assessment of each individual acting performance, of which most enthusiasm is reserved for Miss Pax Robertson, "delightfully sweet and virginal" as Liubov; Miss C.A. Arfwedson, "brilliant" as Anna; and Miss Catherine Lewis, who "won enthusiasm for her clever performance" as the bear. The review concludes with the observation that: "Miss Pax Robertson deserves every credit for the skilful producing." [26] (The Era, 18 Jan. 1923, p.11)

Poverty is no Crime again appeared on the London stage in April and May 1928 - this time at the Garrick Theatre - when a tour of London by the Prague Group of the Moscow Art Theatre (MKhT), under the direction of Maria Germanova, included the play in its programme. The MkhT tour was extensively trailed in the press, with The Times article of 3rd April typical in providing a potted history of the company: "In the early days of the Revolution these players were driven out of Russia by the Bolshevists. For nearly ten years they have wandered the earth, and they have twice visited the United State", before noting that "It is expected that the [opening] play on Saturday night will by The Brothers Karamazoff, by Dostoievsky", and providing the startling statistic that "Over five tons of scenery are being brought with the players from Paris." [27](The Times, 3 April, 1928, p.18). Again, despite the difficulties of language, reviewers of MKhT's production of the Ostrovskii play were enthusiastic in their reception. H.H., the reviewer in The Observer; contrasting the play with Dostoevskii's The Brothers Karamazov (also included in MKhT's London programme), declared forcefully: "If only the Moscow Art Theatre had opened its London Season with this friendly comedy instead of with those dismaying cameos of the tragic Karamazovs!" Clearly enthralled - he describes the "tinkle of sleigh bells, the ravishing whispers of the balalaika, and the songs both grave and gay" as "romance itself…communicable joys that transcend mere language" [28] (The Observer, 22 April 1928, p.15). The Times reviewer is equally effusive, noting that: "To the many Englishmen whose experience of Russian drama is bounded on all sides by the brilliant, but not very representative, name of Tchekov, Ostrovsky will be a revelation, so vigorous is his attack, so direct and sweeping his portraiture, so unblushingly and delightfully theatrical his manipulation of a tale." [29] (The Times, 17 April 1928, p.14) While the title of a third review speaks for itself -"Russian high spirits. Moscow Players' Brilliant Success in New Vein" - before going on to record that "…with the second week and in Ostrovsky's Poverty is No Crime, The Moscow Art Theatre Company at the Garrick last night plunged into sheer gaiety and undiluted high spirits."[30]

All of the reviews single out the acting for particular praise. H.H describes the cast as a "radiant gallery", "impressive and delightful", and concludes that "Here, for me at least, the legend that preceded these marvellous Muscovites came true" [31] (The Observer, 22 April 1928, p.15); while a second reviewer discusses "the consummate acting of the company, which shines as brightly in comedy as in the sterner moods of Dostoievsky and Tchekov", noting in particular "Mlle Krischanovska's adorable Liuboff and Alanev's almost satanically clever study of her wealthy pursuer" as "two only of a series of character-drawings full of subtle touches."[32] But especially striking, however, are the pains the reviewers take to emphasize the play's universality, and to disregard the use of Russian language as a potential barrier to a British audience's enjoyment of the performance. H.H., for example, comments that the play's "features, although homely, wear a universal smile", asserting that "humour makes the whole world kin: it is our tragedies that divide us." It is, he suggests, this universality that enables one to overcome the barriers of language, as "a tale of young true love, thus told, would be explicit whether its language were this or that." [33] (The Observer, 22 April 1928, p.15) The Times reviewer notes that: "whether a spectator have Russian or no Russian, the piece expresses itself clearly, and never for an instant hangs fire", declaring: "Tears and laughter; laughter and tears. Russian or no Russian, what a rich and delightful evening!" [34] (The Times, 17 April 1928, p.14) While another reviewer asserts that: "Here is a comedy which happily for the non-Russian speaking public loses little from lack of translation. The language of love-making and love-teasing is international; and still more international is the revelry of a merry dancing party. Whole slices of the entertainment could be transported bodily to the variety stage in London, and would be enormously successful."[35]

This Moscow Art Theatre production remained the pinnacle of success in the early history of Ostrovskii theatre in Britain. Perhaps inspired by it, Malcolm Morley staged a production of The Storm at the Everyman Theatre in Hampstead in December 1929, but met with mixed success. And then the story of British productions again falls quiet - with the exception of a brief, one night performance of Bogatye nevesty, or Rich Brides, staged, again by Malcolm Morley, in 1933, it was to be fifteen years before another Ostrovskii play appeared on the British stage.

Yet despite the somewhat intermittent nature of the early history of Ostrovskii's reception in Britain - characterised by brief flurries of interest, followed by lengthy periods of inactivity - these early productions nonetheless raise some intriguing questions, and a number of general observations can be drawn:

Firstly, that the very early history of Ostrovskii in Britain in no way suggests the story of neglect which was to follow. Although the brief references in the Athenaeum were merely that, this, with the possible exception of Turgenev, was not much different from the fate of other Russian writers at the time. Ostrovskii's closest contemporary, Dostoevskii (1821-1881) had to wait until 1875 before his name appeared in a British periodical, and it was 1887 before he was treated to a critical article comparable with the Ralston study. [36] Similarly, although the Stepniak reading met with mixed success, it was nonetheless contact with the British stage and, moreover, appears to be, if not the only, then certainly one of the very few occasions on which a Russian play appeared on the British stage, in any form, throughout the entire nineteenth century. That the story of Ostrovskii's relationship with Britain in the nineteenth century was crowned, in 1899, with a translation of The Storm by a translator of the eminence of Constance Garnett suggests that Ostrovskii was poised on the brink of possible success at the turn of the century. Yet as we have seen, between 1900 and 1930 there were only eight British productions (and that includes both amateur and professional productions) and between 1930 and 1950, only a further eight. In contrast, at least forty major professional productions of Chekhov plays appeared on the British stage in the same period.

Particularly significant, perhaps, was the neglect of Ostrovskii in the first two decades of the twentieth century. In this key period in the promotion of Russian writers within Britain - when Chekhov's work was first appearing on the British stage, and the 'cult of Dostoevskii' was fast emerging, discussion of Ostrovskii is conspicuous by its absence. A major volume of translations of his plays by the American scholar George Rapall Noyes, published in New York in 1917, passes entirely without comment in Britain. [37] (Noyes)

Secondly, the positive critical reaction to the early productions also seems to belie the subsequent neglect. Much has been written on the negative critical response to the early British productions of Chekhov, and the contrast with the largely positive reaction to Ostrovskii's drama is perhaps surprising. Ostrovskii was not immune to the tendency of critics at that time to value Russian literature purely as social documents rather than artistic works - the reviews are full of discussion of his Russian types and their exotic strangeness. Yet, whereas early British audiences found Chekhov's Russians baffling and foolish, Ostrovskii's pictures of Russian life were warmly received. It could be that they conformed more easily to the desire at the time to find social and political messages in literature - one of the most frequent British criticisms of the early Chekhov productions was the lack of a clear 'purpose' to his plays. Certainly, as the above reviews indicate, despite the much-mentioned 'national flavour' of Ostrovskii's plays, there was a willingness to look beyond the Russian setting and find universal messages in his drama. Paradoxically, the realism, much welcomed by the early reviewers, may have hindered later appreciation of his drama. A feature of the British response to Ostrovskii's work is that his drama has been viewed at times as both marvellously authentic yet nonetheless accessible to British audiences, and at times as too authentic and too local to maintain this accessibility. By 1949, a London published History of Russian Literature included the confident assertion that Ostrovskii's "plays do not have universal significance…the saturation of the atmosphere with the very essence of Russian [life] …make it hardly understandable to a foreigner." [38](Mirsky)

Thirdly, while this paper has focused largely on productions, the lack of translations during this period is striking. Of the nearly fifty original plays written by Ostrovskii, only one full-length work and two minor sketches were translated and published in Britain in the sixty year period between Ralston's article and the Moscow Art Theatre production [39]. In contrast, a bibliography of British translations from Turgenev between 1854 and 1900 lists fifty-nine different translations [40](Waddington), and almost all of Chekhov's short stories and major plays had been translated by 1923. The question of the lack of English translations of Ostrovskii's work is a vexed one. Scholars have traditionally argued that the absence of translations stems from Ostrovskii's use of idiom and merchant slang, making his drama difficult to translate. Yet this explanation fails to satisfy. His use of language is not so extreme, nor so far removed from that of other Russian writers to warrant such a scarcity of translations. Possibly the answer lies in the fact that he was solely a playwright. Much of the rest of Russian drama has reached the British stage via its author's prose works. Constance Garnett was first attracted to Chekhov's work through knowledge of his short stories (Richard Garnett writes that she "had been trying to persuade someone to publish Chekhov's writings ever since she had first heard of his story, 'Ward No. 6' in 1893"[41]) and Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol, were all known in Britain for their prose works before any of their plays reached British theatres.

Finally, from Turgenev, through Stepniak, Yavorskaia, the unknown Russians at the Cripplegate Institute and the Moscow Art Theatre, the role played by Russians themselves in the promotion of Ostrovskii's work in Britain is striking. This is a trend that was to continue - a flurry of productions at the end of the 1940s was prompted, in part by the general upsurge of interest in Russia at this time as a war ally, but also by the publication in London of a volume of Ostrovskii plays translated by yet another Russian-born writer, David Magarshack. That Russians should wish to promote their foremost nineteenth-century dramatist is unsurprising, but their influence was not always benign. Stepniak's desire to use Russian literature as a political tool meant that he emphasised the political aspects of Ostrovskii's work, which undoubtedly had an impact on how his plays were subsequently viewed within Britain. Similarly the fact that so many of the early productions were in Russian must have severely limited their accessibility to the British population. Indeed the Moscow Art Theatre's production of Bednost' ne porok prompted The Times's theatre critic to declare that the Russian language is "the most baffling" a playgoer is ever likely to hear spoken in the British theatre. In French, German, Italian, Spanish and even in Yiddish, he claims, there is enough echo of familiarity "to save [one] from feeling utterly lost", but with Russian "even its proper names, unless of exceptional brevity, are unrecognisable." He describes how the audience member sits and stares and listens "aching for a familiar sound, clinging to such encouragement as there may be in a samovar or a bottle of cognac, rejoicing in the conspicuous internationalism of a giggle or a sneeze." And even a synopsis, he laments, offers no assistance, since, as those familiar with Russian plays well know, "the characters, having a marked taste for the recumbent position, are accustomed to lie about on beds or tables or stoves and talk and talk and talk. Of what use is a synopsis here? For [it] never goes far beyond the action and is profoundly silent about the wisdom of the stove." [42] (The Times, 29 May 1982, p.10)

Of equal hindrance to a more widespread recognition and appreciation of Ostrovskii's drama in Britain is the amateur nature of many of the early productions. Particularly intriguing here, as the productions at the Cripplegate Institute suggest, is the role played by the Russian emigre community in the early history of Russian theatre on the British stage - a role that, to date, has been largely overlooked. Certainly initial research suggests that the emigre community was staging Chekhov in Britain as early as 1903 - six years before George Calderon's 1909 production of The Seagull, which is commonly cited as first staging of Chekhov in Britain. However, the difficulty in obtaining further information about these emigre productions suggests that the emigre community was perhaps to a large extent ghettoised - maintaining a cultural life discrete from the mainstream British population - and this, coupled with the difficulties posed by language, in turn suggests that these productions would have had little, if any, impact on the wider British audience. Yet despite these limitations, where evidence of audience reaction does exist - in the reviews of the Yavorskaia and Moscow Art Theatre productions, for example - what is most striking is the willingness of reviewers to see beyond the language barrier and to appreciate Ostrovskii's work in spite of such difficulties.

Most clearly of all, however - and to return full circle to this paper's starting point - the continual presence of Russians in the early history of Ostrovskii's reception in Britain again highlights the contrast between the Western and Russian response to Ostrovskii. This paper began with an expression of surprise at the Western world's neglect of Ostrovskii's work, but could such surprise be misplaced? The adoption, or perhaps assimilation, of Chekhov as a classic of British theatre is, as many critics have noted, a staggering cultural phenomenon - and it is perhaps this that is the surprise, the aberration, rather than the scant attention paid to another Russian playwright. Yet it is Ostrovskii's centrality to the Russian theatrical tradition, his enduring and sometimes overwhelming presence on the Russian stage, that lends surprise to his failure to extend much beyond his native borders, and his failure to capture the British theatrical world continues to intrigue.

Appendix A

Ostrovskii on the British stage: Productions 1894-1928

1. 14th January 1894. Dramatic reading of The Storm. The Opera Comique Theatre, London. [Reading by Sergei Stepniak; Organiser, J.T. Grein, Chair, William Archer]

2. 30th Nov., 2nd Dec., 12th Dec. 1909. Vassilissa Melentieva (or Ivan le Terrible) (5th Act only). His Majesty's Theatre, London. [Lydia Yavorskaia's St Petersburg Company] (Russian language)

3. 13th June 1919. Bednost' ne porok (Poverty is No Crime). Cripplegate Institute, London. [Russian Dramatical Society] (Russian language)

4. 15th October 1919. Ne vse kotu maslenitsa (Christmas Comes but Once a Year). Cripplegate Institute, London. [Russian Dramatical Society] (Russian language)

5. 30th April 1922. It's A Family Affair. Bedford Hall, Chelsea, London. [Pax Robertson Salon]

6. 14th January 1923. Poverty is no Crime. Bedford Hall, Chelsea, London. [Pax Robertson Salon]

7. 16th-18th, 25th, 28th April; 7th, 12th May 1928. Bednost' ne porok. Garrick Theatre, London (later at the Pavilion Theatre, London, and the Kingsway, London). [Moscow Art Theatre, Prague Group. Dir. M. Germanova] (Russian language)


  1. This is a revised version of a paper given at the AAASS 35th National Convention in Toronto in November 2003. The author acknowledges the support of the British Academy whose funding enabled her to attend the conference, and whose current funding of a postdoctoral fellowship enabled the research on this paper.
  2. The completed study will include a performance history of Ostrovskii's plays on the British stage, analysis of the reception of Ostrovskii's work in Britain, and analysis of the influence on his drama of both his visit to London in 1862 and of English literature more generally.
  3. Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol. XIX, Edinburgh, 1859, p. 549
  4. Ralston, WRS, 'ART VI. Socineniya A.N.Ostrovskogo. [The Works of A.N. Ostrovsky.] 4 Vols. St Petersburg: 1859-67', The Edinburgh Review, 261 (July 1868), 158-90
  5. The Academy, vol.21, 1882, p.211
  6. The Sketch, Dec.18, 1929
  7. See Donald Senese. S.M. Stepniak-Kravchinskii: The London Years, Russian Biography Series, 33. (Newtonville, Mass., 1987)
  8. Olive and Stepniak: The Bloomsbury Diary of Olive Garnett, 1893-1895, edited by Barry C. Johnson (Birmingham: Bartlett's Press, 1993) p.30
  9. The Echo, No. 7809, Jan. 15, 1894, p.1
  10. Olive and Stepniak, p.48
  11. The Sketch, Dec.18, 1929
  12. For further information on Evlaliia Kadmina, see Julie Buckler's "Her Final Debut: The Kadmina Legend in Russian Literature" in Andrew B. Wachtel, ed. Intersions and Transpositions, 1998 pp.225-252 and B. Iagolin. Kometa divnoi krasoty: zhizn' I tvorchestvo Evlalii Kadmina (Moskva, 1970)
  13. See Laurence Senelick. The Chekhov Theatre: a Century of the Plays in Performance (Cambridge, 1997) p.12
  14. see Letters of Anton Chekhov, trans. M.H. Heim and Simon Karlinsky (London, 1973), p.265
  15. See Aleksey Bartoshevich "The 'inevitability' of Chekhov: Anglo-Russian theatrical contacts in the 1910s' in Patrick Miles, ed. Chekhov on the British Stage (Cambridge, 1993) pp. 20-29
  16. Ibid
  17. The Athenaeum, no. 4285, Dec 11 1909, p.741-2
  18. See Richard Garnett, Constance Garnett: A Heroic Life (London, 1991)
  19. The Times, Friday December 3rd 1909, p.11
  20. Unreferenced review held in the archives of the Theatre Museum, Covent Garden, London
  21. The Times, Friday December 3rd 1909, p.11
  22. Unreferenced review held in the archives of the Theatre Museum, Covent Garden, London
  23. Ibid
  24. The Times, Friday December 3rd 1909, p.11
  25. The Era, May 3, 1922 p.9
  26. The Era, January 18, 1923, p.11
  27. The Times, 3 April, 1928, p.18
  28. The Observer, 22 April, 1928, p.15
  29. The Times, 17 April, 1928, p.14
  30. Unreferenced review held in the archives of the Theatre Museum, Covent Garden, London
  31. The Observer, 22 April, 1928, p.15
  32. Unreferenced review held in the archives of the Theatre Museum, Covent Garden, London
  33. The Observer, 22 April, 1928, p.15
  34. The Times, 17 April, 1928, p.14
  35. Unreferenced review held in the archives of the Theatre Museum, Covent Garden, London
  36. Mention of Dostoevskii was first made in The Athenaeum, no.2513, 25 Dec. 1875, p.874. The first full-length article on Dostoevskii was John Lomas's "Dostoiewsky and his Work", MacMillan's Magazine, vol 55, 1887, p.198
  37. This was G.R. Noyes's translation of four plays by Ostrovskii. See Noyes, G.R., tr. and ed. Plays (New York, 1917)
  38. D.S. Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature (London, 1949) p.238
  39. These were Groza, translated by Constance Garnett as The Storm (London, 1899) and Semeinaia kartina, translated as A Domestic Picture, and Ne soshlis' kharakterami!, translated as Incompatibility of Temper, by E.L. Voinich, and published in The Humour of Russia (London, 1895)
  40. See Ivan Turgenev and Britain, ed. by Patrick Waddington, 215-221
  41. See Richard Garnett, p.253
  42. The Times, 29th May 1928, p.10
  43. Works cited

    The Academy, vol.21, 1882

    The Athenaeum, no. 4285, Dec 11, 1909

    The Athenaeum, no.2513, Dec. 25, 1875

    Bartoshevich, Aleksey. "The 'inevitability' of Chekhov: Anglo-Russian theatrical contacts in the 1910s' in Patrick Miles (ed.) Chekhov on the British Stage (Cambridge, 1993) pp. 20-29

    Buckler, Julie. "Her Final Debut: The Kadmina Legend in Russian Literature" in Andrew B. Wachtel, (ed) Intersessions and Transpositions (1998) pp.225-252

    Chekhov, A. Letters of Anton Chekhov, trans. M.H. Heim and Simon Karlinsky (London, 1973)

    - Chaika (The Seagull). 1896

    Dumas, Alexandre, fils. La Dame aux Camelias. 1848

    The Echo, No. 7809, Jan. 15, 1894

    Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol. XIX, Edinburgh, 1859

    The Era, January 18, 1923

    The Era, May 3, 1922

    Garnett, Constance. The Storm by Ostrovsky, Modern Plays (London, 1899)

    Garnett, Richard. Constance Garnett: A Heroic Life (London, 1991)

    Iagolin, B. Kometa divnoi krasoty: zhizn' I tvorchestvo Evlalii Kadmina (Moskva, 1970)

    Johnson, Barry C. (ed.) Olive and Stepniak: The Bloomsbury Diary of Olive Garnett, 1893-1895 (Birmingham: Bartlett's Press, 1993)

    Lomas, John. "Dostoiewsky and his Work", MacMillan's Magazine, vol 55, 1887, p.198

    Mirsky, D.S. A History of Russian Literature (London, 1949)

    Noyes, G.R., (tr. and ed.) Plays (New York, 1917)

    The Observer, 22 April, 1928

    Ostrovskii, A.N. Bednost' ne porok (Poverty is no Crime). 1854

    - Bogatye nevesti (Rich Brides). 1876

    - Groza (The Storm). 1860

    - Na vsiakogo mudretsa dovol'no prostoty (Even Wise Men Err). 1868

    - Ne vse kotu maslennitsa (It's not always Shrovetide for the cat). 1871

    - Svoi liudi - sochtemsia (It's A Family Affair). 1850

    - Vasilisa Melent'eva. 1868

    Ralston, WRS, 'ART VI. Socineniya A.N.Ostrovskogo. [The Works of A.N. Ostrovsky.] 4 Vols. St Petersburg: 1859-67', The Edinburgh Review, 261 (July 1868), 158-90

    Senelick, Laurence. The Chekhov Theatre: a Century of the Plays in Performance (Cambridge, 1997)

    Senese, Donald. S.M. Stepniak-Kravchinskii: The London Years, Russian Biography Series, 33. (Newtonville, Mass., 1987)

    Sheridan, Richard Brinsley. The School for Scandal. 1777

    The Sketch, Dec.18, 1929

    The Times, 17 April, 1928

    The Times, 29 May, 1928

    The Times, 3 April, 1928

    The Times, Friday December 3rd 1909

    Voinich, E.L. The Humour of Russia (London, 1895)

    Waddington, Patrick (ed.) Ivan Turgenev and Britain (London, 1980)

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