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. 46-54.

Though only one of her plays was a decided success beyond the court circles, Catherine the Great wrote fourteen comedies, in addition to nine opera texts, seven proverbs or short plays, and other writings not in dramatic form. In a letter to Voltaire she speaks of her dramatic works as being weak in plot and ill-sustained in intrigue, but as natural and true in their characterization. Nor is this eulogy, though it proceeds from the authoress herself, altogether undeserved. Any deficiencies that they may exhibit as works of art are more than atoned for by the liveliness and judgment with which the manners of her epoch are portrayed. "In the composition of my comedies," she writes to a literary friend, "I have taken all my conceptions of character exclusively from my own country, and thus, without quitting home, have found in it alone materials for satire sufficiently abundant for a pen far more practiced than I can ever hope to weild." But thus adjuring the traditions of classicism, and by wisely confining the action of her comedies to her own age and land, she has increased, rather than diminished, their interest, and given us sketches of Russian life in the eighteenth century which for fidelity and completeness will bear comparison with the best productions of Von Viezin.


The first published of the plays of Catherine II, O Tempora, bears on its title page the words, "Composed at Yaroslaff during the terrible visitation of the plague." It was written in 1772. The plot is extremely simple and turns on the love of Milksop for Christina, the granddaughter of Mrs. Devout, whose opposition to a poor match is only overcome by the clever, though rather stagy, maneuvres of Milksop's friend, Sharp. The merit of the piece is in the delineation of its leading characters; Mrs. Devout, Mrs. Marvel and Mrs. Prattle, their Russian names here replaced by English equivalents, explaining, after the manner of old comedy, their particular foibles, hypocrisy, superstition, and love of gossip. Mrs. Devout must be admired as the most exemplary of women by all those who believe religion to consist in outward ceremonies and who indulge in long prayers, thinking they shall be heard for their much speaking. "She keeps the fast days strictly, goes to church every morning, takes care to place a taper before the image of her saint on each festival, will not touch a piece of meat all Lent, wears woolen dresses, but, you must know, it is from stinginess--and hates most heartily all who do not observe her rules of life." Nothing but the miraculous will do for Mrs. Marvel, who is especially indignant at the attempt made by modern thinkers to explain the government of the physical world by "laws of nature." "Just so," exclaims Mrs. Devout, as she makes the same complaint which theologians still repeat, "you believe in nothing now. Nature is all in all with you."

But the happiest hit is the adroit manner in which Mrs. Devout turns her long prayers to her own profit. Though of a good family, she is overwhelmed with debts, and accordingly, whenever a creditor is seen approaching, runs off to her private chapel, where, of course, she cannot be disturbed. Once, indeed, a well-timed bribe induced Martha, her maid, to proceed boldly into the chapel and announce the presence of the unwelcome guest, but her reception was not such as to justify a repetition of the rash experiment. "Thou godless imp," shrieked the religious lady, as she threw at Martha her heavily bound prayer-book, "couldst thou not choose a more fitting time? Must thou needs come, like Satan, to tempt me with earthly vanities when my thoughts are fixed on heavenly things and raised above the grovelling cares of this world?"

True to her mission as educational reformer, Catherine has made her comedy the vehicle of exposing the more prominent deficiencies in the then prevailing system of instruction. To teach a woman even the most elementary branches of learning was thought not only to be extravagant, but injurious. "What good is there," asks Mrs. Marvel, "in a girl knowing how to read and write? The less she knows, the less rubbish she will talk." And the worthy dame does not fail to thank God her mother made her promise never to take her pen or book in hand. It was against this stolid worship of ignorance that Russian writers of the eighteenth century had to strive, and any sameness that there may be in their satire must be attributed to the obstinacy with which the people clung to their old prejudices against "the new learning," and the reluctance with which they emerged from the dark ages of intellectual sloth.


But perhaps this ignorance, notwithstanding its grossness, was better than the fripperies which then passed current in the fashionable world for high breeding and good manners. In Mrs. Grumble's Birthday, written by Catherine in the same year as O Tempora, the affected habits and conversation of the educated classes are broadly caricatured. Olympia, who has just finished her schooling at an establishment where none but daughters of the best families are admitted, and Fierlyfyschoff--which may be translated Weathercock--a type of the dandy of the last century, speak a jargon of their own, half French, half Russian, the use of which has by no means desappeared even at the present day. In the fourth scene of the first act the latter pays a visit to Mrs. Grumble, and arriving late, according to his wont, expresses a fear to Priscilla, the pretty parlor maid, and Anthony, the lackey, that he has kept the dinner waiting. This gives opportunity for the carrying on of a very pretty dialogue:

FIERLYFYSCHOFF: I fear I am a little late. Mrs. Grumble is already at dinner.

PRISCILLA: Not yet, but they are just going to sit down to table.

FIERLYFYSCHOFF: Truly, this house is admirably managed; one is never late. Admirable, ma foi, admirable. Come when you will, you are always in time.

PRISCILLA: But what makes you so late? Where have you been? It is not business, I fancy, that has kept you.

FIERLYFYSCHOFF: Belle demande. Where have I been? A ma toilette, à ma toilette. Where else could one have been at this early hour? Yesterday I lost, the whole night, at cards. Then I went me coucher at six o'clock après minuit, got up at one, and have now such a migraine that I can scarcely tell you how ill I feel. Have you any eau de Luce? I fear I shall fall--I am so weak--hold me up.

PRISCILLA: Had you not better sit down? Here is a chair.

FIERLYFYSCHOFF: Sit down there, and I so weak? At least give me an easy chair.

PRISCILLA: Perhaps you would fancy a sofa, or shall I fetch a bed?

FIERLYFYSCHOFF: Ma foi! A good idea! Confoundingly stingy of madame not to have in each room at least one chaise longue. Can't die of fatigue here with anything like grace! Ah, mon Dieu, quel temps, quels gens!

ANTHONY: How, die? Are you, then, really ill?

PRISCILLA: Perhaps you have been too much shaken in the carriage.

ANTHONY: So, it would be much better for you to ride on horseback.

FIERLYFYSCHOFF: [Falling back in his seat.] What, I? Mon Dieu! I--to ride on horseback! The mere sight of a man riding fills me with alarm and surprise. How can people hazard their lives and trust their necks to a beast? Cela est bien ignoble! For my part, even when in a carriage, I never let them drive me over a bridge, for fear of an accident, but get out and cross on foot.

PRISCILLA: I am only surprised that in this cold weather you venture out at all.

FIERLYFYSCHOFF: True, the climate is detestable, pour nous autres. But every night before going to bed I use the best French pomade. But [Looking at PRISCILLA.] ah, diable! ah, ah, ah! you, a young girl, intelligent, too, in the service of a lady, dressed in that vulgar way, ah, ah, ah! fi donc, a light cotton in this horrible weather!

PRISCILLA: Well, what do you find ridiculous in my dress? I wear what is given to me. We are not aristocrats, and no one will give us credit; the tradesmen know well enough that we cannot afford such rich dresses as you nobles wear.

FIERLYFYSCHOFF: Ma foi, how naïve you are! Do you think, my little dove, I ever pay tradesmen? Never, mon coeur, never, on my honor. I never did pay, never do pay, and never shall pay. Enough for them if they have the honor of writing our names in their greasy books. D'ailleurs, it never has been the custom in our family to pay debts. My dear father never settled a debt in his life, and he lived to a good old age, and I, like a dutiful son, follow his example.

This frivolity and indifference to all the serious purposes of life, which resulted in many cases in a sullen discontent with the efforts made by the government to enlighten the people, is still more strongly exhibited in Mrs. Grumble herself. Foolish, vain and fickle, she believes any story, however absurd, provided only it be directed against the government. Two rakes are anxious to secure the hands of her daughters, Olympia and Christina, in order to repair their shattered fortunes. To win the good opinion of the mother, they are never at a loss in inventing some marvelous tale, designed to expose the nefarious character of the empress and her chief advisors. It is with this object they persuade her "that in a few months a law will be promulgated forbidding any marriage for a space of ten years." In despair, lest her daughters should be left on her hands, she readily gives her consent and is only anxious that the wedding should take place without delay. Of course, after the manner of comedies, all ends happily. The cheat is discovered, and the daughters are united to a worthy pair, whose love, for five acts, has been thwarted in every possible way.

The other dramatic works of Catherine need not be noticed at length. One of them, entitled A Pretty Basketful of Linen, is a translation, or rather an adaptation, of Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor. The personages all bear Russian names, and our old friend Falstaff is transformed into Polcadoff, or Haftun. The aim of the piece is to satirize that inordinate love of everything French, which then, as now, so widely prevailed among the upper classes of Russian society. Like Polcadoff, they live more abroad than they do at home; but their experiences of foreign life are mostly confined to acquaintance with actresses of very doubtful repute, and the sole result of their travels is that they are able to introduce at all times and on all occasions into their conversation references to how things are managed "chez nous à Paris."


Nor is this the only play in which Catherine has taken Shakespeare for her guide. The tragedy of Rurick, as its title page informs us, is "modelled on the historical plays of Shakespeare without observing the ordinary rules of the classical drama." Critics have pointed out how close a resemblance there is between the sentiments put in the mouth of Rurick and the maxims on education and government laid down by Catherine herself in the "Royal Instructions." The main purpose of the piece is to glorify Rurick, Russia's first grand-duke, to whom are ascribed all those virtues which were once supposed to be the inalienable attributes of kingship. Gostomysl, prince of Novgorod, feeling that his days were drawing to a close, and conscious of the perils that threaten the commonwealth, advises the elders of the people to choose Rurick, a Varangian chieftan, as his successor. This they do; but a few years later Vadim, the late prince's grandson, heads a revolt against the new ruler, by whom he is first conquered and then freely pardoned. But, spite of its wholesome morality, it must be confessed that the drama is dull; there is too much sermonizing and too little action, and the excellencies of the hero are enforced with such persistency and at such great length that we wish he had not been, on the stage at least, so faultless a character.


In the discussion of Catherine's plays it must have been observed that her place in dramatic literature is one of eminence, rather because she dared to do than because of the manner of doing. Herself eminent, there would naturally be an attractiveness, as well as importance, about her works over and above their intrinsic merits. She doubtless felt this and acted upon it. Seeking none the less to acquire and deserve literary distinction, striving nobly to disarm criticism, the real motive of her adventure must be sought, nevertheless, in the grand opportunity of place and time she found at her disposal. She knew thoroughly the need of her country for literary exaltation, how abject it was in its foreign imitations, how fruitless seemed the detached and spasmodic efforts of the mere individual writers. With an intuitive perception of real conditions, with a quick sympathy and popular instinct, with a national pride far deeper than throne or regal estate, she firmly grasped a desperate situation, and made herself such a part of it as to quite redeem it, or, at least, to set in active motion the forces needed for redemption. There was a daring, a sublimity, in her effort which merited the success that followed. Even if not a single play of her's had deserved survival, even if she had set no dramatic style, her people could not fail to hail that spirit of hardy determination which caused her, in their own behalf, to join with her mission of state that even higher and nobler mission of social and mental amelioration. Keeping this in view, the critic of Catherine's writings may safely overlook their defects and treat them as invaluable accessories of an ambition which gives her a grand historic footing.



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