Chronicler of Russian Life. Alexander Ostrovsky, a playwright and a person

Ostrovsky is known as the founding father of modern Russian theater, and his works, as the encyclopedia of Russian life. Indeed, he described the customs of merchantry and urban commoners with such talent that his plays are still running in theaters across Russia. In 2022, at the initiative of Russia and Belarus and with support from Armenia, Bulgaria, and Thailand, the 200th anniversary of Alexander Ostrovsky was included in UNESCO list of memorable dates.

Native Muscovite

Alexander Ostrovsky was born in the spring of 1823 in Moscow. His father was a court official, and his career as a lawyer was so successful that he was granted nobility. The family was well-off, and young Alexander went to a top-tier boys-only grammar school and spend time at his father’s extensive library reading Russian classics. Life in Zamoskvorechye, one of the most vibrant districts of old Moscow, had a great influence on his life. It was an old merchant district, and the atmosphere there was noticeably different from other corners of Russia’s capital.

“Here across the Moscow River we have the largest and loudest bells, and nowhere else do they bake such pies, with the smell spreading throughout the whole block,” Ostrovsky wrote in a series of essays Notes of a Zamoskvorechye Resident. He passionately studied his beloved district, noting not only the rich merchant life, but also a certain fatal “Zamoskvorechye force” that often forced people to act according to calculation, not according to conscience. We can say that since young age, Ostrovsky showed keen interest in what we today call mass consciousness. He had plenty opportunities for observations: merchants often came to his father’s office to talk about bankruptcies, transactions and profits. The plots for future plays and the peculiar speech of Ostrovsky’s characters stem from these scenes of local everyday life.

From Lawyer to Writer

Ostrovsky showed interest in literature already in grammar school, but his father insisted that his son go to study law at the Moscow University. However, he studied poorly, went to performances instead of lectures, and was eventually expelled “for not understanding the sciences.” In fact, that was not true — Ostrovsky was simply bored. The father found a place for his no-good son at a court of requests that considered family and property disputes, and later the young lawyer became secretary at the Commercial Court. Nobody knew at the time that Ostrovsky secretly copied minutes of court hearings and noted the colloquial style and remarkable appearance of plaintiffs and defendants, thus collecting material for his works. In 1847, Ostrovsky’s first play, The Picture of Family Happiness, was published in a daily newspaper. However, it was another play, It’s a Family Affair — We’ll Settle It Ourselves (original title — Bankrupt), published three years later, that brought him real fame. It was a success not only with ordinary readers, but also with famous writers. For example, Leo Tolstoy wrote, “The whole comedy is wonderful… Ostrovsky is a brilliant dramatic writer, jokes aside.” But the mighty Moscow merchantry was offended by the portrayal of merchant Samson Bolshov as a tyrant and a swindler and complained to the authorities. The play got banned as the result, but Ostrovsky was on a roll for he has found his vocation.

Great Talent from Maly Theatre

In 1852, Alexander Ostrovsky wrote a play Stay in Your Own Sled and gave it to the Maly Theater for free. It was his first play that was staged. Writer and actor Ivan Gorbunov recalled, “The performance became an event of exceptional artistic significance. In the midst of deep silence, the audience listened to the first act and enthusiastically, several times, encored the actors.” After that, his new plays were staged at the Maly Theater in Moscow and at the Alexandrinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg every season for more than 30 years. Alexander Ostrovsky did not just write plays, he changed the Russian theater. 

Tiny details, human characters, and everyday situations in his plays fascinated the audience with their resemblance to reality: the audience recognized themselves, their relatives and neighbors in the characters. There is a story that a worker at a Moscow inn refused to take money from actor Petr Stepanov who played the part of innkeeper Malomalsky in the play Stay in Your Own Sled: “Sorry, sir, we don’t take money from innkeepers!” — “Do you think I am an innkeeper?” — “The best innkeeper possible! You performed like one perfectly!”

An interesting fact — Ostrovsky always got involved in theatrical productions. Usually he would gather the entire cast and read the play to them. He was a great reader: contemporaries noted that he imitated the speech of merchants, clerks and officials brilliantly, with subtle humor. As a result, the actors required no further explanations, they acted according to “the voice of the author.”

In the summer of 1856, Ostrovsky went on ethnographic expedition together with prominent writers who aimed to “study and describe various Russian localities in terms of industry and everyday life.” Ostrovsky chose to study the customs of people who lived along the Volga River, from its upper reaches to Nizhny Novgorod. He recorded the stories of local merchants, and this later helped him write new plays Profitable Position, Incompatibility of Temper, Ward Girl and the famous The Storm. The Storm is probably the most personal work of Alexander Ostrovsky. He wrote the main character Katerina Kabanova after actress Lyubov Kositskaya-Nikulina, with whom he was desperately in love. Kositskaya became the first performer of the role of Katerina, and all actresses after her, consciously or not, followed her lead. For this play, Ostrovsky was awarded the Uvarov Prize that was given to historians and playwrights who made a significant contribution to the study of Russian history and national character.

By the 1870s, the playwright was so tightly associated with the Maly Theater that the people called it the Ostrovsky House. Therefore, Alexander Ostrovsky felt responsibility and offered help when in 1873, the building was closed for repairs, and the company was merged with that of the Bolshoi Theater. Such merger required a play where both dramatic actors and opera and ballet artists could participate, 

so Ostrovsky wrote The Snow Maiden. Music for the play was provided by the young composer Petr Tchaikovsky at the request of the playwright. The play was written in verse, but the author thought not only about rhyme and rhythm: while working on The Snow Maiden, Ostrovsky consulted with historians and used historical and folk works, including the Tale of Igor’s Campaign. Theater director Konstantin Stanislavsky said about the play, “The Snow Maiden is a fairy tale, a dream, a national legend, written and told in Ostrovsky’s magnificent sonorous verse. One might think that the playwright, a known realist and portrayer of ordinary life, has never wrote anything but wonderful poems, and was never interested in anything else except pure poetry and romance.”

Work and Creation

Contemporaries noted that Ostrovsky was incredibly hardworking, he wrote one play after another. He was required to do so by the nature of theatrical life: it was necessary to have a play ready for the start of the season or for a special event by a certain actor. At the same time, Alexander Ostrovsky took his writing very seriously, and even if a character would utter only a couple lines during the entire play, these had to be catchy phrases that were instantly appreciated by the audience.

Despite such hard work, Ostrovsky found time for public projects. Together with the pianist Nikolai Rubinstein and writer Vladimir Odoevsky, he established the Artistic Workshop in Moscow. It organized concerts and literary evenings, and helped set up a library and a private theater. Ostrovsky also chaired the Society of Russian Drama Writers and even wrote its charter. The society assisted writers in protecting their rights and seeking punishment for theaters that staged plays without the permission of the authors.

Ostrovsky believed that every playwright requires “diligent study of foreign literature,” and therefore he has been doing a lot of translations. He translated Plautus and Terentius, Shakespeare and Cervantes, Goldoni and Calderon. Ostrovsky did not finish the translation of Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra — he died from a heart disease at his desk in his Shchelykovo estate in 1886.

Ostrovsky Forever

Alexander Ostrovsky is a writer with an unexciting biography, but rich legacy. He wrote almost 50 plays, and 20 of them are still running. Moreover, he holds the record for most screen adaptations — around 80 films, both live-action and animated, have been released based on his works since 1911. Interestingly, the play Without a Dowry (1878) that focused on the main female character rather than on action, turned out to be too innovative for the time and was met with rather cool reception. However, the film Cruel Romance (1984) based on the play was a huge success and remains a classic of Soviet cinema.

Ostrovsky wrote in the 19th century and about the 19th century, but he belongs not only to that era. Every generation rediscovers his legacy. Perhaps the whole point is that the “chronicler of Russian life” managed to bring together all the best: humor, self-irony, and the belief that although bad things prevail in our lives, the good ones are much more important.

Tatiana Borisova