Write about the dead, and you’ll never run out of anything to write. That’s how it seems to me of late, anyway. In any case those were the thoughts I had as I rummaged through photos I took some time ago at the 17th and 18th century necropolis in St. Petersburg. My choice of topic today falls on Denis Fonvizin, one of the first truly popular Russian playwrights, and, legitimately speaking, the oldest playwright whose work is still occasionally performed in Russia today.
Setting a somewhat curious precedent for Russia, Fonvizin achieved fame with a small number of plays – two to be exact. After him, Alexander Griboedov would achieve lasting fame with one play; Nikolai Gogol wrote two full-length dramas; Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin would write three; Anton Chekhov four; Nikolai Erdman two, and so forth. That’s not to say that all Russian playwrights are not prolific – the great Alexander Ostrovsky wrote over 50 plays – but it does seem that an inordinate number of Russians gained glory not by quantity but by quality.
Denis Ivanovich Fonvizin was born in 1745 in Moscow and died in 1792 in St. Petersburg. As his name indicates, he descended from a German great-grandfather (Berndt von Wiesen, apparently known as Peter in Russia), who was taken prisoner during the Livonian War (1558-1583) and remained to serve Tsar Ivan the Terrible. By the time of Denis’s birth, his family’s service to the tsars had put the clan in a relatively comfortable situation. The young man excelled at languages in school, and procured a position as a translator upon traveling to St. Petersburg in search of a position in 1760 at the ripe age of 15. It was a fateful trip, for Fonvizin met the great polymath Mikhail Lomonosov (who was a playwright among many other things), the famed playwright Alexander Sumarokov, and actors such as Fyodor Volkov and Ivan Dmitriev (also a playwright and translator). Whether these acquaintances gave the young man ideas for the future, or whether they fired an already active imagination, I do not know. But it is a fact that Fonvizin soon embarked on a successful career as a translator, and, subsequently, playwright.
According to Russian Wikipedia, “In 1761, by order of a Moscow bookseller, Fonvizin translated Holberg’s fables from the German. In 1762, he translated the political and didactic novel of the French abbey Terrasson, Heroic Virtue or the Life of Seth, King of Egypt, … Voltaire’s Alzira, a Tragedy, Ovid’s Metamorphoses; in 1769 Gresse’s sentimental story ‘Sydney and Scilly, or Benevolence and Gratitude,’ which Fonvizin renamed ‘Corion.’ His favorite writer was Rousseau.”
His first play, The Brigadier General, appeared around 1769 and his second, the hugely popular The Minor was written in 1871, first reaching the public in 1872.
I have never understood why The Minor is the play that everyone remembers, and that theaters, even to this day, occasionally stage. A version of The Minor which premiered at the Maly Theater in Moscow in 1986 is still running to this day. Boris Yukhananov staged an experimental version of the play in Lithuania in 1999, and published a detailed book about his work on the play in 2017. I personally find the purposefully didactic play to be virtually unreadable without laughing in all the wrong places for all the wrong reasons. The Brigadier General, on the other hand, is a swifter comedy and seems to offer plenty of reason for physical humor without beating a spectator or reader over the head.
Be that as it may, it is merely my personal opinion, and history remembers Fonvizin for The Minor. As author of both plays, he is rightly considered the Father of Russian comedy.
As you can see in the photo below, there is a possibility that Fonvizin’s spirit was hanging around waiting for me the day I walked the alleys of the St. Petersburg necropolis. What else would that be hovering over his casket? If this is true, I am pleased, for I have always had a soft spot in my heart for this writer. If he didn’t accomplish quite enough for his plays to remain in regular repertoire for 260 years, he did break sufficient ground that gave almost all subsequent Russian comic playwrights something to think about as they wrote their works. It so happened that the first article I ever wrote was an encyclopedia entry on Fonvizin way back in 1986. (Research Guide to Biography and Criticism: World Drama [Washington, D.C.: Research Publishing, 1986]).
Fonvizin’s grave curiously stands alone in the extremely cramped necropolis, where the rule is bones being buried upon bones. Our comic playwright, however, stands in the middle of a relatively wide open space, where only an old tree competes with him for attention. On the slab, which runs the full length of the grave, is written the following message: “Beneath this stone is buried the body of State Councillor Denis Ivanovich Fonvizin, born in 1745, April 3, deceased in 1792, December 1. His life lasted 48 years, 7 months and 28 days.” Very much in the fashion of the 18th century, the gravestone was adorned with a rather chilling skull and bones.
2 thoughts on “denis fonvizin grave, st. petersburg”
Thanks for this; I’ve never been able to make my way through The Minor, and now I can stop feeling guilty about it!
))))) Yeah, but now you have to read “The Brigadier”! You didn’t expect to have to do that!