Nikolai Gogol, Maly Theatre, Moscow

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Not all lessons are learned or even remembered. One that has stuck with me occurred during a lecture by Stanislaw Baranzcak on Polish literature at Harvard in the mid-1980s. Professor Baranczak was explaining the great Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz’s wickedly satirical idea of what constituted a great, a classic work of art, as expressed in Gombrowicz’s novel Trans-Atlantyk. I hesitate to put the memorable phrase into quotes because I surely don’t recall it exactly, but it went something like this: A classic is a classic, because we are told it is a classic. Yessirree! The self-fulfilling prophecy of greatness. Boy, did that sink in! It is a seditious notion that, in one form or another, I have lived with ever since. For example I recall Baranczak and Gombrowicz every time I visit Moscow’s Maly Theater and, before the show or during intermission, I pass by the statues commemorating Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Alexander Griboedov and Mikhail Lermontov in the second-floor foyer. You look at these statues and think – “Ah, yes! A statue of a classic! A classically-depicted classic! A classic way of showing a classic! A true and genuine classic!” The “great” gaze, the wisely-folded hands, the “recognizable” visage (although none of us have ever seen anything but other people’s renditions of what these people looked like), the Romanesque clothing, the uplifting setting (classical niche-archways). But perhaps I should restrain myself, my sarcasm is getting the better of me…

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Having said all those smart-aleck things, I now should add: How cool  that you go to the theater and have the opportunity to hob-nob, sort of, with Pushkin and Gogol… And the Maly Theater itself is a wonderful place to be. I love the powder yellow (as in “powder blue”) coloring. As for Gogol, there is good reason for a statue of him to be here – his great The Inspector General (The Government Inspector, if you’re British) was staged here for the second time, just five weeks after the world premiere took place in April 1836 in St. Petersburg. The Maly also staged one of the first performances of Gogol’s The Marriage; they did a dramatization of his novel Dead Souls, and they mounted the world premiere of The Gamblers on Feb. 5, 1843. In short, the Maly did as much as anyone to bring us the great, the classic Nikolai Gogol, for which we offer our eternal thanks…

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