Alexander Sumarokov plaque, St. Petersburg

I don’t know why, but I have always loved Alexander Sumarokov. For a non-Russian scholar of Russian literature, Sumarokov is one of those writers that you cram in before your oral exams. You didn’t study him in any classes or seminars – they were devoted to the Pasternaks, the Tolstoys, the Dostoevskys, the Pushkins, the Gogols. The Sumarokovs and other writers of the 18th century? Nobody taught them. But a grad student isn’t there to be taught. A grad student is there to learn. So you do that on your own. You spend a week reading Vasily Trediakovsky, a few days reading Mikhail Lomonosov.
The student who imagines himself being something of an expert in drama and theater someday reads all the tragedies of Vladislav Ozyorov (actually loving Fingal). You plan to read all of Catherine the Great’s plays, but you end up admitting that you probably don’t need to. You read Vasily Kapnist and absolutely love Chicanery, wondering why in the hell nobody has taken that on for 200 years. You more than familiarize yourself with Yakov Knyazhnin and Alexander Ablesimov (which repays you decades later in Moscow when you see productions at two different theaters based on works by these writers). You read Mikhail Kheraskov but don’t remember him. You love Denis Fonvizin, especially his The Brigadier, even though everyone tries to tell you his The Minor is his major play – bunk. You enjoy reading the comedies of Alexander Shakhovskoi, although you don’t come close to reading all 100 of his plays – you actually probably bail out having not reached the 10% mark. But you admire his ability to turn a comic phrase.
In other words, you read yourself silly, virtually without any tutoring from anyone. Oh, there are a handful of books out there that give lip service to early Russian drama. You read those and you don’t come away with much. So this marathon reading of very old plays that no one has cared about for centuries (with the rare exception, natch), really puts you on your toes. It’s sink or swim and you admit to no one at all that you are finding yourself sinking as often as swimming.
But then there’s Alexander Sumarokov. The man doesn’t get much respect. Other writers laugh at him. Critics and historians tell you he wasn’t much of a writer. D.S. Mirsky, one of those fundamental historians I mentioned, wrote that “the literary value” of Sumarokov’s plays “was small,” and that they “reeked of translation.” Ech. It would seem nobody had talked to Mirsky about the folk tradition. Well, except, Sumarokov was hardly of the folk…
Anyway, I always had a soft spot for Sumarokov. If he didn’t like somebody (and he didn’t like lots of people), he sat down and wrote a play attacking them, as he did in the quite funny Tresotinius, which parodied Trediakovsky. Sumarokov had no doubts about his own place in the history of Russian literature in the mid-18th century: He was its greatest and most influential star. In fact he truly was, at least until Gavrila Derzhavin and then Alexander Pushkin came along. After that, Sumarokov kind of fell of the table. But the man had character, he had chutzpah, and he had no little talent. Just you try to corral the influences and styles and hopes and aspirations of an entire nation that has no literary traditions, unless your name is Pushkin… But even Pushkin, of course, had all the writers I’ve already mentioned to cast off from. Sumarokov had next to nothing. So, when he brought Hamlet and Macbeth into the Russian canon – even if he did simplify and bowdlerize them – he was setting down signposts for the future of Russian culture. On top of this, Sumarokov was one of the first major Russian publishers, as editor of the influential journal The Busy Bee, or The Industrial Bee, depending on how you translate it. He wrote poetry, essays, engaged in social and political debate (to a degree), and was an all-around – let’s be honest, let’s give it to him – Renaissance Man.

Sumarokov was born November 25, 1717, and he died October 12, 1777 (using the contemporary dates of the Gregorian calendar). According to the chronological, but incomplete “Selected Works of A.P. Sumarokov,” he wrote his first poetry around 1739. He wrote in at least 25 different poetic genres, including the ballad, the ode, madrigals, translations, epistles, eclogues, idylls, elegies, sonnets and many others. This far-from-incomplete source lists 268 works. (The list includes some tragedies and translations, but includes none of his journalism, essays, 12 comedies, or his Shakespeare re-workings.) But there is a serious problem with counting and researching Sumarokov’s full literary output, for his entire archive was lost. We have nothing but published texts to go back to. Furthermore, by the time of his death, virtually no one cared about him anymore. He was destitute, unloved, unrespected, really not even thought about by anyone. He was buried in the cemetery at the Donskoi Monastery in Moscow, but even his grave was eventually lost. A grave marker was erected there in his honor in 1951, but the placing of that slab (which I remember seeing and coming to an abrupt stop as if I had seen a ghost) has nothing to do with the location of his remains. When Sumarokov died he did not have enough money left over to pay for the burial, so some Moscow actors took up a collection and covered the expenses. His was a classic case of riches to rags.
The last time I was in St. Petersburg a few years ago, I spent five days wandering the city with a huge list of addresses in hand. One of them was Bolshoi Prospect 31 on Vasilyevsky Island. Research had indicated that there was a plaque honoring Sumarokov there. Indeed there was, and this is what is written on it: “On this plot was located the house in which resided, from 1765 to 1769, the writer, poet, playwright, and great theater practitioner Alexander Petrovich Sumarokov.”
So, what are we looking at when we stand on this street corner and read the words on the plaque honoring the great man? Nothing. Virtually nothing. Unless we are looking into the catacombs of our own memories and thoughts. Standing here, I felt no chills, no mystical magnetism, no sense of deja vu. I tried. I looked for it. I felt for it. It wasn’t there. The building standing here now had nothing to do with Sumarokov or his times – it came much, much later. The streets here, the people standing around or walking by – none of them have anything to do with Sumarokov at all. No one stopped to look at the plaque, no one cared. Not even when I set up and began photographing it from one side and another. That is usually enough to make at least some passersby curious. Not here. Not this place. These locals already knew: Nothing here we need to know.
Fate is a turkey, as the Russians say. I have no idea where this phrase came from. But it is one you can have a good, hard feel for. Especially when you ponder the life and work of Alexander Sumarokov, and then ponder the way the world turned away from him by the time he died, and then just plain forgot him after that.
However, so as not to drown ourselves in our own tears, let us rejoice that the small Chelovek (Human) Theater in Moscow recently opened a show called (Sumarokov’s) Hamlet. It may be the first time the once-great writer has been staged in 200 years. Good for Vladimir Skvortsov, who directed. A man after my own heart. Long live the memory of Alexander Sumarokov.


4 thoughts on “Alexander Sumarokov plaque, St. Petersburg”

  1. Thank you for another fabulous post. You are the only person I know who could still pass his Ph.D. exams (both oral and written), perhaps doing even better. Great idea about the “reverse Mirsky”. Indeed, who reads him today?

    1. Ha ha! Man, I would be wiped out in a PhD exam these days!!! Life brings on a certain tunnel vision! But it’s fun to remember those days when the brain was a bit less porous and a bit more flexible!

  2. I guess it’s one of my character flaws – I always root for the underdog. And if Sumarokov was once Top Dog, that status has long, long since passed! Incidentally, I see that Mirsky thinks as little of Narezhny as he does of Sumarokov))))) Project for another life: Use Mirsky as a reverse guide – read all the writers he trashes!!! Next life, next life…

  3. A great post — I love tributes to forgotten writers! (I have my own candidates, like Vasily Narezhny and Alexander Veltman; the wider your reading, the more lost gems you’re going to discover.)

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