This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 18. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 11-15.

Alexander Petrovitch Sumarokov was born at St. Petersburg, in 1718, and entered the cadet corps in his fourteenth year. His ambition was naturally excited by the special marks of favor with which his first productions had been received, and, on leaving school, in 1740, he commenced writing for the stage, taking the plays of Racine and Voltaire as his models. The first result of his labors was a tragedy entitled Khoreff, which was played by royal command at the palace in presence of the empress Elizabeth. Among the audience was the son of a Yarosloff tradesman, named Volkov, upon whom the performance produced such an effect that, on returning to his native town, he hired a coach-house, and, with the assistance of a few friends, gave a series of theatrical entertainments. The building was little better than a barn, the pieces played of no literary value, the scenery most meagre in quantity and kind, the actors inexperienced amateurs; but, happily, the audiences were not critical, and the undertaking proved so successful that within a few years a regular theatre was built, and Volkov appointed its director.

In 1756 a theatre was opened at St. Petersburg, under the management of Sumarokov, the principal actor being Volkov, who is described as "a man of good parts and liberal education." It is interesting to notice that among the plays produced were an adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which the original is very closely followed, and a prose translation of Julius Caesar, by an unknown writer. To judge from the complaints with which Sumarokov's letters are filled, the post of director was as laborious as it was thankless. On one occasion, for example, he piteously and comically remarks: "Many a man has been made a drunkard by good fortune; will it be astonishing if I am driven to drink by my troubles?" The majority, however, of his misfortunes must be attributed to his vain and domineering character, and to the exaggerated estimate which he formed of his own genius. Owing to the mean and petulant jealousy with which he regarded his more eminent contemporaries, he was at variance, during his whole life, with all who ventured to dispute his supremacy in the world of letters. These quarrels were not seldom characterized by a brutality of phrase that shows to what a degree he was envious of all celebrity which did not fall to his own share. "Thank God," he exlaimed, as he stood over the grave of Lomonosov--an indifferent dramatist, but the greatest lyric poet of the age--"the fool is quieted at last, and the cur will bark no more."

Sumarokov was at least impartial in his hatreds, for it would be difficult to mention the name of a single Russian writer of the period who was not at one time or another exposed to his abuse, and equally difficult to select one of his letters in which he does not complain of some one or something. He regarded himself as "the Racine of the North," did not wish any plays but his own to be put on the stage of his theatre, and pestered the court so persistently with his complaints about "neglected genius," that Catherine once exclaimed, with more truth than politeness, "the man is out of his mind, and will always be a conceited ass." Though the verdict may be harsh, it is more than justified by the extravagantly ludicrous praises which Sumarokov was pleased to lavish on himself. "Not alone in the drama," he boastingly exclaims, "but in every kind of poetry, I am the only author in Russia;" and along with some complimentary verses addressed to Catherine he sent a letter in which he complacently reminds her, "the reign of Augustus has found its Horace." Soon after he had ceased to be director of the theatre he removed to Moscow, where he composed his tragedy, Demetrius the Pretender, besides three comedies which were intended to "purify and reform the dissolute habits and the crass ignorance" of that city. "Alas! Moscow requires a hundred Molières, and I am alone," whines the poor comedian. But to all such whimperings his audiences might reasonably have replied, "Physician, heal thyself," for, tortured with the idea that his genius was not duly appreciated, harassed by domestic troubles and the abandonment of her home by his wife, and burdened with heavy debts, Sumarokov sought relief in deep potations; and intemperance, no doubt, hastened his death, which took place in 1777.


Sumarokov occupies the same position in the dramatic literature as Lomonosov in the lyric poetry of Russia. They were the first to accept the French classics as models of literary excellence; but while in the odes of Lomonosov there is genuine poetic feeling, there is an utter absence of inspiration in the dramas of Sumarokov. In spite of his slavish observance of the three unities, and all those other laws by which the pseudo-classicists had reduced poetry to a mere mechanical art, his imitation is at the best but a surface one. His tragedies represent one passion, never the whole character of a man in all its manifestations; they describe a feeling rather than show us human nature modified and influenced by the surrounding circumstances of individual life. As with Racine, love is the prevailing passion in the tragedies of the Russian dramatist. But while the love of Hermione has its subtle characteristics which distinguish and separate it from the love of Roxana, the heroines of Sumarokov, howsoever he may christen them, all love and express their love in one and the same stereotyped fashion. There is no individuality in their utterances; there is no reason, beyond the caprice of a poet, why the speeches of Olga should not be assigned to an Osnielda. Racine has often been reproached with turning his Romans and Greeks into Frenchmen. We cannot accuse Sumarokov of having transformed them into Russians. They have, it is true, Russian names; but there is nothing in their sentiments, their speech, or their actions, which cannot be brought into harmony either with the time in which they lived or with the people whom they are supposed to represent. Beyond their names, there is absolutely nothing Russian about them.

The success which Sumarokov's tragedies, with all their shortcomings, enjoyed for a long time, is due to the fact that, unlike those of Lomonosov, they are not simply didactic, but abound with situations that can scarcely fail to produce an effect upon the stage. The true integrity of the plot may not always be sustained; but there is at least action and movement in his plays. Most of them have two or three "farewell scenes," which, according to Karamsin, formed Sumarokov's strong point; and Catherine, in one of her letters to Voltaire, eulogizes their tenderness and pathos. Another reason for their temporary popularity is, perhaps, to be found in the thoroughness with which they reflect the ideas of the eighteenth century. Thus, in Demetrius the Pretender, we have a diatribe against the abuses of Papal power; while in another of his dramas, entitled Mstieslaff, the chief character is little more than the mouthpiece of Montesquieu, whose opinions on love, honor and education are almost literally reproduced.


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