Tag Archives: Alexander Sumarokov

Yakov and Yekaterina Knyazhnin gravesite, St. Petersburg

Click on photos to enlarge.

DSC04360

DSC04358

There aren’t many of us left who can make sense of this one. Look at the first photo above. Even if you know Russian extremely well, you may not be able to make out that the name on this monument is Yakov Borisovich Knyazhnin (1742-1791). I wouldn’t have been able to read it had I not been informed about it by the map at the entrance to the Lazarevskoe cemetery (18th-century necropolis) at the Alexandro-Nevskaya Lavra in St. Petersburg. You see that map directly below – Knyazhnin’s grave marker is No. 49. Note that the No. 49 stands under the left of two columns. That is because this precisely is the monument to Knyazhnin, one of the most important playwrights and poets of the late 18th century in Russia.
The monument on the right, however, is also of interest to us (see second photo immediately below). It commemorates the life of Knyazhnin’s wife Yekaterina (1746-1797), who was not only the daughter of Russia’s first great playwright Alexander Sumarokov, she was, according to many sources, the first woman to have published poetry in Russia. It’s a hard story to follow on short-notice research, and I do not claim to present the gospel truth here. But it would appear that some of her work, usually with the support of her famous father, perhaps sometimes with the aid of her husband, did make it into print during her lifetime. Some claim these were actually poems written by Sumarakov, and, naturally, there are claims that her work was “edited” by her father and her husband. It was once believed that several of her songs were put to music by the Russia-based German composer German Raupach, but that apparently has been disproved. One can also find conjecture that Knyazhnina published several of her poems under pseudonyms – not at all unexpected for the late 18th century. We do know that she published a poem, “Oh, You, Who Is Always,” in the March 1759 issue of the literary journal The Busy Bee. This is the one that marks her as Russia’s first published woman writer.
Both Knyazhnin and his wife took it on the chin from Ivan Krylov, Russia’s first great writer of fables. In a comedy called Pranksters, Krylov satirized Knyazhnin as Verse-Stealer (Rifmokrad) and Knyazhnina as Babbler (Taratora). Supposedly it was Knyazhnina who insulted Krylov and pushed him to attack her family, although the details of the incident are not readily available to an internet-searcher. Most sources simply state that the attack was “probably” due to some personal insult.
The couple was originally buried in the Smolenskoye Cemetery in St. Petersburg, but were moved to the 18th-century necropolis in the 1950s, where their monuments are crammed in tightly and rather forlornly among other prominent personages of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

DSC04351DSC04361DSC04359DSC04357DSC04367

Yakov Knyazhnin doesn’t get a whole lot of respect in the historical record. Krylov’s attack on him as a verse-stealer didn’t help, although it is common knowledge that writers in the 18th century freely borrowed from others, particularly if the source was in a foreign language. Krylov himself, for God’s sake, honed his pen by copying/translating the fables of de La Fontaine. Pushkin called him “imitative.” Knyazhnin, like Sumarokov before him, leaned heavily on the great writing of Europe to provide him inspiration. Sometimes he called his work a translation, other times he took authorship for himself. In fact, Knyazhnin was highly educated and spoke French, German and Italian. His profession was translator.
His first play was apparently the melodrama Orpheus (1763), while his first genuine literary success was the tragedy Didon, written in 1767 (some sources 1769), eight years after his wife’s first published poem, by the way.
The 1770s were an eventful decade for the fledgling writer. While giving in to a passion for cards and losing enormous sums of money, he also wrote several works that were popular at the time – the tragedy Vladimir and Yaropolk  (a reworking of Racine’s Andromaque, 1772) and the comic work Misfortune from a Carriage (1779).  However, he was plunged into disgrace when he embezzled 5,773 rubles. He was originally condemned to death, but that sentence was commuted to a demotion to the rank of simple soldier. Catherine the Great,  also a prominent playwright of the time, took pity on the disgraced soldier, overturned his sentence and gave him the rank of captain. This was in 1777. He wisely chose to get out of the service while he could and retired immediately, throwing himself into literary work, translating Voltaire’s epic poem Henriade (1777) as well as several tragedies by Corneille and Claude Crebillon. He penned another tragedy, Rosslav, which I remember reading with some pleasure in grad school, in 1784. It was another hit, if we can speak of plays as “hits” in those years.
Over the last decade of his life, Knyazhnin turned out numerous works of note. They included three “serious” works, The Mercy of Titus (1778), Sofonisba (1786), and Vladisan (1786), and numerous light works – either comedies or comic operas – The Miser (1782?, music by Vasily Pashkevich), The Fisherman and the Spirit (1781), The Braggart (1784/5), The Honey-Mead Maker (1783), The Failed Mediator (?), Odd Fellows (1790), Mourning, or The Widow Consoled (?), and The Woman who Faked Insanity (?).
Knyazhnin, labeled as a Russian classicist, had the reputation of writing works on patriotic themes while remaining a bit of a freethinker. This became particularly apparent in his last work, the tragedy Vadim of Novgorod (1788/9), in which his sympathies lay not with the ruler Ryurik, but with the rebel Vadim. The play is sprinkled with attacks on the notion of tyranny and tyrants, which could not possibly have pleased Catherine. Understanding this well, Knyazhnin originally gave Vadim of Novgorod to a theater for staging, but changed his mind and stopped the production. When it was published after his death, Catherine had the copies hunted down and destroyed. Fortunately, she could not get to all of them, and the play text, like most of what he wrote, has come down to us.
One Russian source sums his work up this way: “One of Knyazhnin’s merits was that he developed what was, for his time, an excellent style, and, relative to Sumarokov, light, attractive versification. Knyazhnin, thanks to his translations, introduced the most relevant current works of Western literature into his cultural sphere. Additionally, his use of blank verse for the first time in Russian literature was innovative.

DSC04366DSC04365DSC04364DSC04362DSC04363

asdfasdasdfasdfasdf

Advertisements

Mikhail Shchepkin house, Moscow

IMG_9101.jpg2 IMG_9098.jpg2

No, it’s not Tomsk. It’s smack dab in the middle of Moscow, a long block from the busy thoroughfare known as Prospekt Mira (Peace Prospect), the metro stop named after that prospect, and a stone’s throw from the Olympic Sports Complex, the rounded roof of which you can see looming in the low sky in a couple of photographs below. Today we’re looking at the old, wooden home in which Mikhail Shchepkin, the great Russian actor of the 19th century, lived for the last four years of his life, from 1859-1863. There are still a few wooden structures left in Moscow, but this is surely one of the biggest and most interesting, in part because of the good shape it’s in and in part because of the history attached to it. The street here was named Third Meshchanskaya Street when Shchepkin was resident; it has been called Shchepkin Street since 1962. As several of the photos show here, the structure is rather under siege from less attractive, less ornate, more imposing modern buildings. It does look a bit out of place among its neighbors, I must say, but that only makes you appreciate it more. Especially when you step through the gate and see the house from the inside courtyard (the first two photos in the final block below). The address here is house No. 47. These days the official address also has a “building 2” attached to it.
Still, having said all these nice things about this building as one of the few such remaining in Moscow, the truth must also be told. Shortly after Shchepkin’s death the house passed into the hands of a family that significantly reconfigured the facade, and not only the facade. It was given a facelift with stone columns and detailed, fanned bas reliefs that lasted until the late 1990s when the additions and changes were removed and the building, more or less as Shchepkin knew it when he lived here, was restored. You can see photos of what the building looked like from 1865 to the late 1990s at the wonderful Know Moscow website. Today the structure houses a museum honoring Shchepkin, as well as a working theater company called the House Theater at the Shchepkin House, run by a very cool cat, Anatoly Ledukhovsky.

IMG_9100.jpg2 IMG_9104.jpg2IMG_9103.jpg2Shchepkin (1788-1963) had something wonderfully warm about him.  You can see that a little, perhaps, in the statue of him that I wrote about here back in May. He was plump enough that you know he enjoyed his food, and surely his drink, too. And there was something in his sad sack face that oozed generosity and understanding. Indeed, he was so willing to help out anyone in need of it that any house he lived in – this one included – was usually full of guests. Often enough they were people Shchekpin didn’t even know. He just wasn’t the kind to turn away a fellow human in need. Maybe this came to him naturally, as the son of a serf who, against all odds, became famous and at least financially independent, if not wealthy. He would never have been given the opportunity to study acting or to become a professional actor if the master who owned him and his family had not recognized the young man’s talent. Shchepkin began by acting in the home theater of his master Volkenstein and then began working in various provincial cities. He played his first theatrical role ever in 1800 in Alexander Sumarokov’s comedy The Lady Cut-Up. Afterwards he is reported to have said that on stage he “felt so good, so happy” that he “couldn’t describe it.” He was not officially given his freedom until 1822, when he was 34 years old. Shortly thereafter he was invited to work in Moscow and, in 1924, he joined the Maly Theater, one of Russia’s two top dramatic playhouses, the other being the Alexandrinsky in Petersburg. By that time Shchepkin had established an enviable reputation as a comic actor. During the next few decades, when he was Moscow’s leading actor, he also exhibited his genius for dramatic and tragic roles. Alexander Herzen defined Shchepkin’s greatness by declaring he was the first person in Russian theater to be “nontheatrical.”
I have drawn some of this latter information from the Chronos biography site.

IMG_9108.jpg2 IMG_9109.jpg2 IMG_9102.jpg2