Thursday, April 19, 2012


I got hold of the book Two Comedies of Catherine the Great and have read the first comedy, OH THESE TIMES!

Look out, this review contains spoilers.

Well, it's not the worst play I've read, and in any case I'm not a big fan of Restoration Comedies and this play is along those general lines, minus the bawdiness and double-entendres. But the cast list is in the standard name-signifier RC mode:
Mrs. Sanctimonious
Mrs. Tattler - sister of Mrs. Sanctimonious
Mrs. Marvel - friend of Sanctimonious and Tattler
Khristina - Sanctimonious’s granddaughter
Mavra - Sanctimonious’ s maidservant
Mr. Notshallow
Mr. Milksop
There are some amusing monologues and dialoges from the characters, some of them along the lines of attempts at social satire, as in this passage:
If I had a daughter, I’d have fewer cares. Why should a girl learn reading and writing; why does she need to? The fewer things a girl knows, the fewer lies she’ll tell. My mother forced me to swear I wouldn’t take pen in hand until I was 50 years old. What’s more, they say that these days in Petersburg even a girl can study anything - may they have good luck!

Catherine was very much in favor for education for girls - one of the reasons why she's a "the Great" - she founded the Smol'ny Institute, Russia's first girls' school, in 1769.

The characterizations of the three older women, Sanctimonious, Tattler and Marvel are vivid and entertaining in spite of - or because of - their general nastiness. The others, except Mavra, not so much. Khristina doesn't actually care, one way or the other if she marries Milkshop although she allows he's physically attractive. Milksop isn't especially Milksoppish, not in the way that I understand the word. And Mr. Notshallow isn't especially deep, he's rather more like the Basil Exposition of the play.

But C the G really drops the ball when it comes to plot, which is basically: Milksop wants to marry Khristina, Notshallow is trying to help him. When Milksop inadvertently laughs at the three older women's superstitions they turn against him and Notshallow and break off the engagement. Mavra helps patch things up by telling Mrs. Tattler that Milksop thinks she's pretty, so Tattler agrees to speak in favor of the marriage to Sanctimonious. After much extraneous speechifying, Sanctimonious agrees to allow the marriage. Then Mavra gives us the moral of the story:
Here’s how our century is going! We condemn, we judge, we mock. We speak in spite of everyone and everything. But what we don’t see is that we ourselves deserve laughter and condemnation. When our prejudices displace common sense, our own vices are hidden from us. Only the mistakes of another are visible. In the eye of a neighbor, we can see a speck of sawdust, but in our own eye we don’t see the plank.
The end.

In spite of Sanctimonious being first in the character list, Mavra is the heroine as well as the epilogue chorus, and a force for good in the play - it is revealed that she taught Khristina how to read and write, in secret, against the wishes of Mrs. Sanctimonious, and it's she who manages to get Khristina and Milksop together. Mavra claims that she does it out of love for Khristina, but since Khristina is so lukewarm about Milksop it hardly seems worthwhile.

Catherine could have given Mavra a motivation. I would say that maybe we're supposed to discern it from the plot itself, considering that in addition to her other nasty traits, Sanctimonious is a huge bitch to her servants, especially Mavra:
Once, she flung her prayerbook at me, and knocked my head so severely that I had to lie down for a week: and why? Only because I had come during Evensong to announce to her that a merchant was here after his money, money she’d borrowed from him at 6% and lent out for interest at 16%. “Accursed heathen,” she cried at me, “Coming at such a time? You are like Satan, tempting me with worldly vanities - now, when all my thoughts, removed from the cares of this world, are on repentance.” Then, screaming in a great rage, she threw the book at my temple. Look, there’s still a mark - I cover it up with a beauty spot. She’s a very strange person - I can’t get used to her ways.

So Mavra could clearly be motivated by the hope that if her friend Khristina is married and sets up her own household, she could have a chance to work as a servant for her instead of Sanctimonious. But she never says that. If this was a contemporary play I might believe that we're expected to infer this, but that would be too sub-textual and there is no sub-text whatsoever in this play. Everybody declaims exactly what they are thinking at all times.

It's interesting that a servant is the force for good in the play but maybe not so surprising - Catherine was well-acquainted with  servants - that's mostly who her friends were. But she actually didn't socialize with the members of the Russian bourgeoisie which is what Sanctimonious and company are.

The real shame is that Catherine almost had something good. We've already seen how "meh" Khristina is about Milksop, but then Mrs. Marvel (I think her name is a reference to her extreme superstition, it's definitely not about how marvelous she is) mentions how gorgeous her 18-year-old son Nikolashka is (Khristina is 15 and also gorgeous) and how he's barely literate - as is Khristina, having been tutored on the sly. What a perfect set-up for a plot twist - they have so much in common why couldn't Khristina and Nikolashka have met and fallen in love? It would have provided much clashing between Sanctimonious and Marvel, to start with.  And the play as-is is only about thirty minutes long, the new plot twist could have made it a respectable 2-hour full-length piece.

But no, she blew it - and in fact the whole section where Mrs. Marvel talks about her son and other aspects of her life does nothing at all to move the plot along, as the play stands. What a waste.

But as the Empress of Russian, Catherine could be sure that anything she wrote would be produced. It's good to be Queen.

Next up, one of these days, THE SIBERIAN SHAMAN.