Woe from Wit by Alexander Griboedov
Translated by Betsy Hulick

Back in 2018, I reviewed a fascinating book for Shiny New Books called Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar by Yuri Tynianov. That book was a fictionalised retelling of the life of an intriguing Russian author Alexander Griboedov; a friend and contemporary of Pushkin, he’s probably best known for his play, “Woe from Wit”. So when I heard the that Columbia University Press were bringing out a shiny new translation in their wonderful Russian Library imprint, I was very keen to explore it! Reading plays is not something I do on a regular basis; however, this is the second in a fairly short space of time (as I loved my re-encounter with The Government Inspector back in November). Must be something to do with the Russians… ;D

Griboedov had a fascinating and ultimately dramatic life; as well as being an author and composer, he was also a diplomat. And it was in that role that he met an unpleasant end when the Russian Embassy in Persia (now Iran) was stormed and he (plus many others) were slaughtered. It’s his play he’s remembered for nowadays, and it’s about as far away from the story of his life as you can get!

She must be mad.
You’d better warn her she can lose her sight.
What good is there in books? The French ones keep
you up, the Russians make you sleep.
(Famusov on his daughter’s apparent wish to read all night)

Subtitled “A Verse Comedy in Four Acts”, “Woe from Wit” was written in 1823 but subject to all manner of censorship (as was common in Russia at the time) and not published in full until 1861, long after the author’s death. It’s a humorous and satirical work, taking a wry look at Moscow society of the period; and as it was such fun to read, I imagine it would be a joy to see on stage!

The central character is one Alexander Andreyevich Chatsky, an idealistic young man who has been away travelling in foreign climes and is now returning to visit the house of Pavel Famusov; here, he hopes to re-encounter his childhood sweetheart, the latter’s daughter, Sophia Pavlovna. An understanding of sorts had existed between the two young people and Chatsky looks forward to seeing his beloved Sophia again. However, from the very start of the play, it is clear that Sophia has been allowing her affections to wander elsewhere; she spends all night billing and cooing with Molchalin, her father’s live-in secretary, as well as having all manner of admirers. Sophia’s maid Liza spends much of her time covering her mistress’s back so that her father is not aware of what’s going on – so the arrival back of the prodigal Chatsky makes things even more complicated. Add in a ball, where all manner of very individual guests turn up, a rumour of Chatsky’s madness which takes hold rapidly, and Liza’s need to juggle the fact that Molchalin is making a play for her while planning on Sophia as a wife for the sake of duty, and you end up with a wonderful and entertaining comedy of manners.

And who is “everyone”? I ask you.
Decrepit brains, deplorable antiquities.
The enemies of free expression,
unearthing their ideas from an old stock of
faded headlines…
(Chatsky, about to go off on his major speech attacking the old regime…)

However, what makes “Woe from Wit” stand out is the subtext; which actually isn’t as sub as you might think! One of the reasons that it was hard to publish the play at the time is was written is because of the strong element of social critique; Chatsky is an ‘angry young man’, looking for change, and he views what he sees of Moscow society at the Famusov’s ball with horror. He cannot attempt to fit in, criticises the guests and the whole of society, and indeed expresses such strong views that the rumour of his madness is easily spread. Will Sophia want Chatsky back? Will she find out the truth about Molchalin? Does Chatsky actually want to *be* with Sophia and in her milieu? Well, you’ll have to read the play to find out.

Portrait of Griboedov via Wikimedia Commons (IILE / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

“Woe from Wit” is a wonderfully entertaining read, with laugh-out-loud lines and memorable set pieces; and as I said above, I’d love to see it performed. The Moscow of the period, after the Napoleonic Wars, was a place hidebound by social restrictions and niceties; and someone with the views of a Chatsky would never fit in with it. The translation reads wonderfully, and the book comes with an excellent introduction by Angela Brintlinger which puts the play and Griboedov himself into context. I have to say, too, that I think Betsy Hulick has done a wonderful job, as rendering a verse play into another language must be extremely tricky (although I couldn’t tell you how freely she’s had to treat the original!) Interestingly, it seems that many of the phrases used in the play have become everyday expressions in Russia, so Griboedov’s influence is obviously a long one. Reading his play was hugely entertaining but also very thought-provoking; its window into Russia’s past and the society of the time was a real eye-opener; and it just goes to prove that comedy is a marvellous vehicle to get your message across!

Review copy kindly provided by the publishers, for which many thanks!