This is my favorite Russian joke: If you ask a Frenchman, “What do you wish for your country?” the Frenchman will say, “I wish for my country the poetry of Rimbaud, the beauty of Paris, the majesty of Napoleon.” If you ask a German, “What do you wish for your country?” the German will say, “I wish for my country the greatness of Goethe, the grandeur of Wagner, the philosophical insights of Nietzsche.” If you ask a Russian, “What do you wish for your country?” the Russian will say, “I wish that my neighbor’s cow should die!”
There is more to Russia than that, of course—Tolstoy, Chekhov, the Sputnik dog—but it’s been argued that the reason Russia seems a bit backwards in comparison with its more sophisticated European counterparts is because the Renaissance and the Enlightenment skipped Russia completely. Nobody came by to give them the word. This tends to be blamed on the country’s vast expanses and terrible weather—destiny as defined by geography and mud.
This may explain why Russia, be it Tsarist, Soviet or Putinesque, has such lukewarm respect for civic standards, good government and the rule of law, and why the West has always looked down its nose at Russia, regardless of its achievements. A nation that has given us Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky and the Hermitage has reason to be proud, but put all that up against just one photograph of Mrs. Khruschev…
If Russia’s situation is so specific unto itself, why is The Government Inspector—surely the most Russian of Russian plays—so universal?
One reason is the play’s completely original idea. A hapless nobody is mistaken for a powerful government official by a gaggle of corrupt, small town officials. Another reason is that its characters are recognizable to anyone in any country of any age who has ever attended a city council meeting, met a contractor or had an inflated opinion of himself.
I first read The Government Inspector in college, back in the late 1970s. Our theatre department performed the version Peter Raby adapted for the Guthrie Theater. I played the Judge in that production, and as theatregoers know, there’s nothing more dramatically persuasive than an old man portrayed by a college kid with white gunk in his hair. But I knew at the first readthrough 30 years ago that in The Government Inspector, Gogol had come up with one of the great comic situations—on a level with those in Volpone, Tartuffe, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Man Who Came to Dinner and The Odd Couple.
When later I became a playwright and started writing adaptations, I often wished I could get a crack at doing a version of The Government Inspector. So having the chance to write this one for Artistic Director Joe Dowling’s 2008 Guthrie production was a real kick. That was an election year, as is this one, so I’m sure it will prompt some to ask, “Does The Government Inspector have contemporary significance?”
The answer is yes, of course. But that doesn’t mean the script has been updated and set in 2012. If I’d placed the story in, say, Washington and re-cast its characters as recognizable spoofs of John Boehner, Joe Biden and Michelle Bachman, its sell-by date would be November 12, if not sooner. Besides, audiences can see the contemporary versions of Gogol’s mayor and his cohorts every minute of the day on television. They will have no problem making the connection between an 1830s Russian backwater and a House of Representatives oversight committee.
One last thing: I have yet to visit Russia. I’ve always wanted to go, and I hope to see Moscow and St. Petersburg some day. But I grew up in Steubenville, Ohio, a town so corrupt, that on election night my father used to go downtown to watch the sheriff’s deputies dump ballot boxes into the Ohio River. “It was a tradition,” he explained.
So perhaps Gogol’s Russia isn’t so far away at all.
(With apologies to the entire Russian people. And their cows.)
Jeffrey Hatcher is a playwright and screenwriter. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife Lisa and son Evan.