A Review of Interpretations and the So-Called Canonical Text
Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin (1799-1837) wrote Boiris Godunov in 1824-25, while living in exile on his father's estate under constant surveillance by tsarist authorities. With plenty of time on his hands, the angry young poet - by then widely acclaimed as one of Russia's greatest writers - created an extremely ambitious and provocative historical drama set in early modern Russia's darkest hour, the Time of Troubles (1598-1613). Inspired by reading volumes ten and eleven of Nikolai Karamzin's semi-official History of the Russian State, Pushkin conducted serious historical research for the first time in his life, and the play he wrote was a remarkable achievement in many ways. The original version of Boris Godunov, titled Komediia o tsare Borise i o Grishke Otrep'eve (Comedy about Tsar Boris and Grishka Otrepiev), was definitely not intended to win Pushkin's release from exile or to curry favor at the court of Tsar Alexander I (r. 1801-25). Nor was Pushkin's Comedy intended to echo Historian Laureate Karamzin's safe, conservative interpretation of the Time of Troubles. "Instead, the play was a boldly defiant and subversive work written by an unrepentant young genius who refused to humble himself and was well aware that he was tempting fate with his bold pen." Pushkin was very pleased with his play. Immediately upon completing it, he wrote to his friend, Pyotr Viazemsky: "My tragedy is finished; I reread it aloud, alone, and I clapped my hands and shouted, 'at a boy, Pushkin, 'at a boy, you son of a bitch!" Pushkin's enthusiasm for his historical drama stayed with him for the rest of his life. Of all the superb poetry and prose that he wrote, Boris Godunov was always his favorite. Indeed, he considered it to be his magnum opus.
Pushkin finished his Comedy about Tsar Boris and Grishka Otrepiev in November 1825, just before Tsar Alexander I's sudden death triggered the ill-fated Decembrist Rebellion. When the poet, newly returned from exile in 1826, read his Comedy to his friends (including many of Russia's leading writers and intellectuals), they were stunned by the beauty and naturalness of the play's language, its revolutionary form, and its daring political content. Suffice it to say, Pushkin's Comedy was an instant and spectacular success. Unfortunately, nervous censors working for the new tsar, Nicholas I (r. 1825-55), refused to allow publication of the highly provocative play in its original form. For the next several years, Pushkin tried repeatedly to publish his Comedy without alteration, only to be told by tsarist officials that changes were required. When an altered, "politically correct" version of the much-anticipated play (one that did not stray from Karamzin's interpretation of history) was finally published in 1831, it was received coolly by many critics; and Boris Godunov has confused and disappointed readers ever since.
A quick review of the huge bibliography of Pushkiniana reveals that Boris Godunov has been the single most studied of the great poet's many works (edging out even Evgenii Onegin). The play has correctly been called Pushkin's "most ambitiously planned" and "most carefully executed work," and it is generally regarded as "one of the masterpieces of Russian drama." Nevertheless, the play that was published in 1831 puzzled many of Pushkin's contemporaries and is still considered to be "problematic" if not downright "incomprehensible" by leading scholars and critics. Boris Godunov has seldom been performed and is usually regarded as a dramatic flop owing to its "failure to convey an important idea" and its somewhat awkward structure. Especially difficult to assess is the published play's final line: the famous "silence" of the narod (the common people) in response to the announcement that young Tsar Feodor Borisovich and his mother have committed suicide - a convenient lie intended to facilitate the Pretender Dmitry's seizure of the throne. That ending has been much debated. It is not even clear if the final line of the play ("Narod bezmolvstvuet.") is meant to be read or is merely a stage direction. There are many disagreements and radically different ideas about the play's final scene, yet there is no resolution of several basic questions. For example, what did the narod's silence mean? What did Pushkin intend to convey? How can the play be staged, or did Pushkin even intend for it to be staged? Another difficult question to answer is how the final scene of Boris Godunov relates to the opening of the play - in which the cynical narod is forced to cheer at the accession of Tsar Boris Godunov (himself guilty of murdering the real Tsarevich Dmitry - the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible - several years earlier)? Was Pushkin trying to imitate Shakespeare? Is Boris Godunov a naive attempt at a Shakespearean tragic drama with a poor ending? Or was Pushkin trying to move beyond Shakespearean tragic drama? Could Boris Godunov be a deliberate parody of Shakespeare's plays? There are a host of other important but unanswered questions about the play. For example, who is the dramatic hero, or is there a hero?
One of the main goals of the present volume - especially in light of continuing scholarly debate and bewilderment about Boris Godunov - is to try to explain why Pushkin himself was so strongly attached to his troublesome play. A closely related question is why - in sharp contrast to most reviews of the published version of Boris Godunov - Pushkin's Comedy was so well received in 1826. Did Pushkin and his friends discern something in his Comedy that others later missed in Boris Godunov? In order to answer these questions satisfactorily it will first be necessary to review current scholarship about the play and about what constitutes its canonical text.
The problem of evaluating Boris Godunov is greatly complicated by the fact that Pushkin's Comedy contains three scenes and a number of other lines of dialogue that were omitted from the version published in 1831. Most strikingly, the original play also ends differently - not with silence but with the narod shouting "Long live Tsar Dimitry Ivanovich!" This fact is well known to specialists but is often ignored in evaluations of the play. Most scholars and critics have assumed - without careful examination of the issue - that Pushkin changed his original play for purely aesthetic reasons and that the published text is the one he intended to write. Unfortunately, that longstanding hypothesis has prevented Pushkin scholars from moving very far beyond the initial puzzlement and disappointment that greeted Boris Godunov in the 1830s. In fact, often without realizing it, many modern interpretations of the play merely echo Vissarion Belinsky's influential assessment (written in 1845) of Boris Godunov as a magnificent failure, as the great poet's "Waterloo." During the second half of the nineteenth century, however, some scholars took an interest in Pushkin's long battle to publish the original version of his historical drama and concluded that Nicholas I's censors had forced Pushkin to make changes that harmed the play. They argued, in effect, that the 1831 version was not what Pushkin intended and that his 1825 Comedy was the real Boris Godunov.
Reconstructing Pushkin's original Comedy in order to compare it to Boris Godunov was extremely difficult, if not impossible, while Nicholas I still ruled. Only one of the provocative scenes that had been omitted from the play ("Ograda monastyrskaia" or "Monastery Wall") was published during Pushkin's lifetime, and it stirred considerable interest. After Pushkin's death, his close friend Vasily Zhukovsky published the first edition of the collected works of the great poet, Sochineniia Aleksandra Pushkina (1838-41). Laboring under the watchful eyes of tsarist censors, however, Zhukovsky did not restore any of the missing scenes to Boris Godunov or even mention them. In fact, he had to work hard to overcome the genuine desire of some officials (and Tsar Nicholas) to have all of Pushkin's previously published writings subjected to additional censorship to remove material the censors might have missed the first time around. Zhukovsky's faithful reprint of the 1831 version of Pushkin's play appeared in 1838 in volume one of Sochineniia Aleksandra Pushkina. Possibly in reaction to the republication of the "politically correct" version of Boris Godunov, and certainly as a tribute to the dead poet, the editors of Sovremennik (a journal founded by Pushkin) published the omitted scene "Zamok voevody Mnishka v Sanbore. Ubornaia Mariny" ("Maryna's Dressing Room") in 1838. In 1841, after switching to a private press, Zhukovsky quietly published two of the scenes omitted from Boris Godunov ("Maryna's Dressing Room" and "Devich'e pole. Novodevichii monastyr" or "Maidens' Field") in volume nine of Sochineniia Aleksandra Pushkina (1838-41). Finally, in 1854, the last year of Tsar Nicholas I's life, the editors of the journal Moskvitianin published the "Monastery Wall" scene. Although it is often forgotten by modern scholars, the early publication record of Pushkin's play makes it clear that most critics of Boris Godunov - including Belinsky - were either completely unaware of the existence of Pushkin's Comedy or were hampered by lack of access to (or even knowledge of) some of the scenes and other lines omitted from the published play.
During the first year of the reign of Alexander II (r. 1855-81), who loosened official censorship considerably, Pavel Annenkov was permitted to publish an edition of Boris Godunov with two scenes ("Maidens' Field" and "Maryna's Dressing Room") restored to the text. In an appendix, Annenkov also provided his readers with the controversial original "Monastery Wall" scene and some of the other lines of text that had been trimmed from the 1831 edition. To justify his "restored" version of Boris Godunov, Annenkov called attention to the existence of a manuscript of Pushkin's Comedy in the poet's own handwriting and - significantly - the lack of any manuscript ending with the narod's silence. Annenkov was the first to openly suggest that in preparing his play for publication Pushkin acted under pressure or merely passively capitulated to the demands of tsarist censors. Annenkov briefly chronicled Pushkin's frustrated attempts to publish his Comedy, and he listed the differences between it and Boris Godunov. Annenkov's edition did much to rehabilitate Pushkin's reputation, and it enjoyed great success. Soon, other editors also began restoring the missing scenes to Boris Godunov. In 1859, for example, Grigory N. Gennadi published an edition of the play that, like Annenkov's, restored the "Maidens' Field" and "Maryna's Dressing Room" scenes to the text and included the "Monastery Wall" scene and many other omitted lines in an appendix. As we have seen, in 1872, Modest Musorgsky made use of the new "restored" text of Pushkin's Boris Godunov in composing the second version of his opera, Boris Godunov, incorporating material from the "Maidens' Field" scene and including a scene inspired by "Maryna's Dressing Room."
Pushkin's reputation as Russia's national poet underwent a dramatic change in the second half of the nineteenth century, thanks in part to the efforts of Annenkov and others to demonstrate that he had been a serious writer whose poetry and prose had "social content." Previously dismissed by Belinsky and many other critics as a brilliant but frivolous aristocrat, Pushkin came to be viewed as a fighter for freedom and greater rights for the Russian people and even as the "father of Russian liberalism." The highly successful Pushkin Celebration of 1880 did much to help restore the poet's reputation and to stir interest in his writings. During these festivities, Fyodor Dostoevsky gave the famous Pushkin speech in support of the poet's kinship with the narod and read a passage from Boris Godunov. (In his youth, Dostoevsky planned to write a play called Boris Godunov, of which no trace can be found.) Popular sympathy for Pushkin grew rapidly in response to the publication in the 1880s of documents revealing for the first time just how agonizing his struggle with imperial censors had been and just how much of his work had been withheld from publication during Pushkin's own lifetime. Several popular new editions of Pushkin's collected works were published in the late nineteenth century, and some of them restored all three omitted scenes to Boris Godunov and included the Comedy's alternate ending in a footnote.
One of the most successful new versions of Pushkin's collected works was published by Pyotr Morozov; it went through many editions by 1916. Morozov pointed out to his readers that Pushkin's Comedy had been enthusiastically received in 1826, and he detailed the poet's unsuccessful struggle to publish his original play. At first, Morozov was content merely to restore the omitted scenes to the play; he still called it Boris Godunov and let it end with the narod's silence. In later editions, however, Morozov boldly listed the play in his table of contents as Komediia o tsare Borise i o Grishke Otrep'eve and even restored the narod's final shout: "Long live Tsar Dimitry Ivanovich!" Although Morozov followed the then-customary practice of placing the controversial "Monastery Wall" scene in an appendix immediately following the final scene, he painstakingly restored to the text of the play a number of other lines that had been omitted from the 1831 edition. Thus, about seventy-five years after Pushkin wrote his Comedy, it finally came into print more or less in the form in which he originally intended to publish it.
As the tsarist regime became increasingly reactionary toward the end of the nineteenth century, the emergence of Alexander Pushkin as a popular symbol of liberalism and as a champion of the rights of the Russian people began to alarm persons close to Tsar Nicholas II (r. 1894-1917). Some politically conservative scholars decided to launch an all-out campaign to rescue "their Pushkin" from the radicals and to turn him into Russia's conservative national poet. The result was an aggressively promoted, officially sanctioned portrayal of Pushkin as a "favorite son" of Nicholas I and a staunch supporter of autocracy. The one hundredth anniversary of the poet's birth was declared "Pushkin Year" by Nicholas II; and, in planning the carefully scripted Pushkin Jubilee of 1899, many bureaucrats and professors went to extraordinary lengths to shape the image of Pushkin and his writings to suit the imperial government's purposes. To accomplish that task, however, they were forced to downplay (or even deny) Pushkin's struggle with the censors and to temporarily exile V. Ya. Yakushin, a leading scholar who had drawn attention to Pushkin's close ties with the Decembrists. With the approval of the tsar, conservatives "politically sterilized Pushkin" and "mercilessly smoothed out and simplified" his biography. (Continues...)
Excerpted from THE UNCENSORED Boris Godunov by Chester Dunning Caryl Emerson Sergei Fomichev Lidiia Lotman Antony Wood Copyright © 2006 by The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Excerpted by permission.
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