Open main menu

(j) Drama of the Slav Peoples.

As to the history of the Slav drama, only a few hints can be here given. Its origins have not yet—at least in works accessible to Western students—been authoritatively traced. The Russian drama in its earliest or religious beginnings is stated to have been introduced from Poland early in the 12th century; and, again, it would seem that, when the influence of the Renaissance touched the east of Europe, the religious drama was cultivated in Poland in the 16th, but did not find its way into Russia till the 17th century. It is probable that the species was, like so many other elements of culture, imported into the Carpathian lands in the 15th or 16th century from Germany. How far indigenous growths, such as the Russian popular puppet-show called vertep, which about the middle of the 17th century began to treat secular and popular themes, helped to foster dramatic tendencies and tastes, cannot here be estimated. The regular drama of eastern Europe is to all intents and purposes of Western origin. Thus, the history of the Polish drama may be fairly dated as beginning with the reign of the last king of Poland, Stanislaus II. Augustus, who in 1765 solemnly opened a national Polish. theatre at Warsaw. This institution was carried on till the fatal year 1794, and saw the production of a considerable number of Polish plays, mostly translated or adapted, but in part original—as in the case of one or two of those from the active pen of the secretary to the educational commission, Zablonski. But it was not till after the last partition that, paradoxically though not wholly out of accordance with the history of the relations between political and literary history, the attempts of W. Bogulawski and J. N. Kaminski to establish and carry on a Polish national theatre were crowned with success. Its literary mainstay was a gifted Franco-Pole, Count Alexander Fredro (1793-1876), who in the period between the Napoleonic revival and the long exodus fathered a long-lived species of modern Polish comedy, French in origin (for Fredro was a true disciple of Molière), and wholly out of contact with the sentiment that survived in the ashes of a doomed nation.[1] His complaint as to the exiguity of the Polish literary public—a brace of theatres and a bookseller’s handcart—may have been premature; but a national drama was most certainly impossible in a denationalised and dismembered land, in whose historic capital the theatre in which Polish plays continued to be produced seemed garrisoned by Cossack officers.

Much in the same way, though with a characteristic difference, the Russian regular drama had its origin in the cadet corps at St Petersburg, a pupil of which, A. Sumarokov (1718-1777), has been regarded as the founder of the modern Russian. Russian theatre. As a tragic poet he seems to have imitated Racine and Voltaire, though treating themes from the national history, among others the famous dramatic subject of the False Demetrius. He also translated Hamlet. As a comic dramatist he is stated to have been less popular than as a tragedian; yet it is in comedy that he would seem to have had the most noteworthy successors. Among these it is impossible to pass by the empress Catherine II., whose comedies seem to have been satirical sketches of the follies and foibles of her subjects, and who in one comedy as well as in a tragedy had the courage to imitate Shakespeare. Comedy aiming at social satire long continued to temper the conditions of Russian society, and had representatives of mark in such writers as A. N. Ostrovsky of Moscow and Griboyedov, the author of Gore et uma.

In any survey of the Slav drama that of the Czech peoples, whose national consciousness has so fully reawakened, must not be overlooked. A Czech theatre was called into life at Prague as early as the 18th century; and in the 19th its demands, centring in a sense of nationality, were met by J. N. Stepinek (1783-1844), W. C. Klicpera (1792-1859) and J. C. Tyl (1808-1856); and later writers continued to make use of the stage for a propaganda of historical as well as political significance.

  1. Pan Jowialski; Oludki i Poeta (The Misanthrope and the Poet).