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Saturday, 27 October 2007

The Government Inspector, a play by legendary writer Nikolai Gogol adapted for two actors, is being staged at the Bell Shakespeare company. Tickets for the performance at the Sydney Opera House cost $30. Viewers of ABC TV's news program will be aware of the play, the name of the company, and the fact that only two actors play all the parts.

This is because, at the end of a program late last week, a reporter interviewed the actors. The story was, therefore, about the actors and the quick-change segues between scenes on-stage. Both actors remarked how frantic it was. Not only clothes but make-up need to be put on as fast as possible.

What struck me, however, is the complete lack of any mention of the author's name. The ABC reporter clearly thought that 'Bell Shakespeare' and 'only two actors' were sufficient inducement for some viewers to take the time and spend the money.

The reporter did mention, it is true, that the play was originally performed in the 1830s. And he did mention that is was written in Russian. But the fact is that Gogol was not Russian, but Ukrainian. Were I Ukrainian I would be shocked and scandalised that my country's most revered author was (a) not named and (b) not identified as a compatriot.

A genius, Gogol went to St Petersburg to participate in that city's blossoming artistic and commercial milieu. He met Pushkin five years before The Government Inspector was published. To participate in the era of the birth of modern Russian literature was, for Gogol, as though a Scotsman had journeyed to London during the reign of Elizabeth I and met Shakespeare. This of course never happened.

In his brilliant biography of Gogol, Nabokov begins thus:

Nikolai Gogol, the strangest prose-poet Russia ever produced, died Thursday morning, a little before eight, on the fourth of March, eighteen fifty-two, in Moscow. He was almost forty-three years old -- a reasonably ripe age for him, considering the ridiculously short span of life generally allotted to other great Russian writers of his miraculous generation.

It was a "miraculous" era. This is the most striking thing in the above passage. Not only did you see Russian poets writing in the vernacular (compare this statement from Wikipedia with the blossoming of literature following the introduction of the vernacular in Italy by Dante).

In addition, it was the great era of Romanticism. Using themes from such British writers as Richardson and Byron, the early Russian writers set about changing society. Compared to their English brothers, they had a lot to do.

Of course, the other thing striking about Nabokov's entree into the world of Gogol (a wonderfully eccentric work, first published, in 1959, by the legendary New Directions company in San Francisco) is that the man becomes "Russian". His genius compels Nabokov to adopt the Ukrainian from a small country town.

What greater accolade than to pretend confraternity, where none exists?

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