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Holding a Funhouse Mirror Up to Society

Vsevolod Meyerhold preparing for his role in The Seagull, 1898. Photographer unknown.

Over the years The Government Inspector has become a political Rorschach test, perhaps because it is sly in its political message. There is a universal quality to the humor; audiences roar with the recognition of their local bureaucratic mismanagement. But The Government Inspector stays off of the edge of pointed political satire. Originally performed for an audience that included Tsar Nicholas I, the play was never censored, despite Nicholas I’s proclivity for imposing restrictions on artists and the audience’s criticism. From the play’s genesis until today it has angered nearly as many as it has thrilled.

“If everyone praises your production, almost certainly it is rubbish. If everyone abuses it, then perhaps there is something in it. But if some praise and others abuse, if you can split the audience in half, then for sure it is a good production.” Vsevolod Meyerhold

In 1926 Moscow, Soviet director Vsevolod Meyerhold made the 1836 play speak to a changed society. Meyerhold’s theatre company was embracing experimentation along with a city of artists in the new post-revolution country. Beginning his career as an actor in the Moscow Art Theatre, Meyerhold played Treplev in the 1898 revival of Chekhov’s The Seagull under the direction of Konstantin Stanislavsky. His work at the theatre made him eager to find new systems for creating work and new voices to produce. Despite a rocky relationship with Stanislavsky he was given command of Theatre-Studio, the experimental wing of the Moscow Art Theatre.


Meyerhold in rehearsal.

After the Bolshevik revolution, Meyerhold founded his own theatre where he developed the biomechanics acting system, today considered to be the genesis of physical theatre training. Reviving The Government Inspector became the highlight of his directing career. He found in it the chance to explore new ideas.

Meyerhold writes about The Government Inspector:

“What is most amazing is that although it contains all the elements of…plays written before it…there can be no doubt—at least for me—that far from being the culmination of a tradition, it is the start of a new one.”

His dark and symbolist take on the play was indeed the start of something. The production ran for 11 years touring the U.S.S.R. and Europe. His macabre approach to the comedy was described by Harold Clurman, in his unpublished journal, as a “masterpiece, but somehow not, [a] warming one: it leaves one slightly uncomfortable.” The discomfort made Meyerhold’s production revolutionary. He took a well-known classic and brought it to life by stripping away the realism and allowing it to become a grotesque look at the world. The final performance took place the day the Stalinist government shut down his theatre. A little more than a year later Meyerhold was arrested, and in February of 1940 he was executed.

Adaptations have continually sprung up worldwide. The seeming universalism of government mockery has led to film and stage versions in locations as disparate as Indonesia, Italy, Mexico and Taiwan. In a 1994 interview, Irish adapter Marie Jones commented that the play perfectly matched the Irish experience: “All that Kow-towing, that paranoia, it’s what colonialism has done to the people of Ireland.”

More recently in Russia, following a performance in 2004, Sergei Ivanenko, the then-leader of the opposition Yabloko party, said: “There’s no doubt about it. It is not about 19th century Russia…It’s about our Russia. It is about Putin.” Here in Washington, D.C., how will viewers respond to Gogol’s play? Maybe some will feel our own city’s issues of mismanagement are being ridiculed while others will laugh at those outside of the beltway. Wherever the laughter is directed, it is clear there will be laughter. Writing about the play’s detractors, Gogol noted, “They rail at me and run off to the play; it’s impossible to get tickets.”

Hannah J. Hessel, STC’s Audience Enrichment Manager, is in her second season at STC and holds an MFA in Dramaturgy from Columbia University.

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