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 Alexander Ostrovsky

Born:   31 March 1823
Deceased:   14 June 1886

a famous Russian playwright


Alexander Nikovaevich Ostrovsky is a famous Russian playwright, which works became the most important stage in Russian national theatre's development. He lived and worked in the central decades of the nineteenth century, of the years when the realistic school was all-powerful in Russian literature, of the period when Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy created a literature of prose fiction that has had no superior in the world's history. Ostrovsky was able to find his own niche among other talented writers of that time, as he described Russian life from an unique point of view. He was the first Russian writer who spoke about Russian merchants, that homespun moneyed class, crude and coarse, grasping and mean, yet gifted with a rough force and determination not often found among the cultivated aristocracy. Alexander Ostrovsky had no equal with that theme, though his talents extended much wider.

Alexander Ostrovsky was born on 31 March 1823 in Moscow, on Malaya Ordynka street. His father was a titular counselor, who gained nobility in 1839. His mother died when little Alexander was only eight. In five years after her death, his father married baroness Emilia Andreevna fon Tessin, the daughter of a Sweden nobleman. There were four children in Ostrovsky's family and all they were lucky to take concern by their stepmother, who busied herself with their education and breeding. 

Thanks to father's library, Alexei Ostrovsky began his acquaintance with Russian literature early and felt his passion for writing, but his father wanted him to be a lawyer. In 1840, after graduating from the gymnasium faculty of the 1st Moscow Academy, Ostrovsky entered a judicial faculty of the State Moscow University, but wasn't able to finish his education there. In 1843 he entered the civil service as an employee of the Court of Conscience in Moscow, from which he transferred two years later to the Court of Commerce, where he continued until he was discharged from the service in 1851. That work helped Ostrovsky watching many different types of people among Russian merchant class, from which he was thus enabled to draw the chief characters for his earliest comedies.

Ostrovsky began his literary career in 1846 with several short comedies, such as "The Poor Bride" (Bednaya nevesta), "Poverty is No Vice" (Bednost' ne porok), and "Keep to Your Own Sledge" (Ne v svoi sani ne sadis'). But his literary fame began in 1850, after publication of the "It's a Family Affair - We'll Settle It Ourselves" play. It gained favourable reviews by Nikolai Gogol and Ivan Goncharov, but, unfortunately, aroused against the writer the most bitter feelings among the Moscow merchants, because of the play's mordant but true picture of commercial morals. Discussion of the play in the press was prohibited, and representation of it on the stage was out of the question. It was reprinted only in 1859 and acted in 1861 in an altered form at the instance of the censorship. The original play's text appeared at the stage only in 1881. Besides all this, the drama was the cause of the dismissal of Ostrovsky from the civil service, in 1851. The whole episode illustrates the difficulties under which the great writers of Russia had to labor that time.

Beginning with 1852, Ostrovsky gave his whole strength to literary work. He is exceptional among Russian authors in devoting himself almost exclusively to the theatre. Since that time and for more than 30 years almost each theatrical season of Moscow's Maly and St. Peterburg's Alexandrinsky theatres opens with a new Ostrovsky's play. So, he created several historical dramas: of great merit, such as "Kozma Zakhar'yich Minin-Sukhoruk" (the full name of the famous butcher who saved Moscow from the Poles), "The False Dmitry and Vassily Shuisky", "Vasilisa Melentieva" (the name of a favorite court lady of Ivan the Terrible) and the comedy "Voyevoda".

In 1856 Alexander Ostrovsky began his collaboration with the "Sovremennik" journal. The same year he, among several Russian writers, went to an expedition to describe the region from upper reaches of the Volga to Nizhny Novgorod. Ostrovsky travelled by a steamship, writing numerous notes, which later were published as several ethnographic books.

In spite of Ostrovsky's great talent in history, ethnography and comedies, his real strength lay in the drama of manners, giving realistic pictures of Russian life among the Russian city classes and the minor nobility. 
In 1855-1861 he created his most important plays, such as "Groza" (The Storm, 1859), "Dokhodnoye Mesto" (Paying Place, 1856), "Ne soshlis Kharakterami" (They Could Not Get On, 1858), "Vospitannitsa" (Ward Girl, 1859), "Stary Drug Luchshe Novykh Dvukh" (An Old friend is Better than Two New Ones, 1860), "Zshenitba Balzaminova (Balzaminov's Marriage, 1861). In 1860 Nikolai Dobrolyubov published his most well-known article "Luch Sveta v Temnom Tsarstve" ("A Ray of Light in the Realm of Darkness"), and Ostrovsky gained fame as "the realm of darkness" teller. 

Next important period in his creativity is 1870s, when Ostrovsky created several plays dedicated to Russian nobility and some folklore elements - "The Forest", "Money to Run", "Wolves and Sheep", "The Snow Maiden", "There is Enough Stupidity in Every Wise Man".

Ostrovsky enjoyed the patronage of Alexander III (his brother Mikhail was one Alexander's ministers and a member of the State Council of Imperial Russia), and received a pension of 3000 rubles a year. With the help of Moscow capitalists, he established the Maly Theatre as a model theatre and school of dramatic art, of which he became the first director. He also founded the Society of Russian Dramatic Art and Opera Composers.

1870-1880s is the last big period of Ostrovsky's works. He turns his attention to the destiny of Russian woman, creating "Bespridanitsa" (Without a Dowry), "Talanty i Poklonniki" (Talents and Admirers), "Bez Viny Vinovatye" (Guilty Without Fault), "Poslednyaya Zhertva" (The Last Victim) and other plays.

Several months before his death, he was appointed repertoire director of all the state theatres in Moscow, but because of his sickness had no time to start the job. On June 14, 1886, Ostrovsky died of stenocardia in his estate near Kostroma at his desk while translating William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.

Alexander Ostrovsky's plays became the basis for Russian theatre in its modern meaning. The writer created the theatrical school and an all-in-one conception of staging. The essence of Ostrovsky's theatre is in lack of extremal situations and actor's anguish. His plays are full of ordinary situations and ordinary people, which problems happens because of their everyday life, routine and deep psychological implication.
    Several of Ostrovsky's plays have been turned into operas, mostly by Russian composers. In particular, the play "The Storm" (Groza) was the inspiration behind Janáček's opera Káťa Kabanová. The most notable Russian opera based on an Ostrovsky play is Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Snow Maiden" (Snegurochka). Tchaikovsky also wrote incidental music for this play. 

Ostrovsky's plays are still on stage on big and small theatres of almost every Russian city. Many of his works were filmed. Most well-known films are "Zhestoky Romans" (A Cruel Romance) made by Russian film director Eldar Ryazanov according to "Bespridannitsa" play and "Zhenitba Balzaminova" (Balzaminov's Marriage) by Konstantin Voinov according to the same name play.

Sources: Wikipedia Biographer Theatre Database

Julia Alieva

Tags: Russian Literature Russian Writers Russian theatre Alexander Ostrovsky  

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