Poster for The Government Inspector by Alyssa Beccue (Westmont ‘20).

Poster for The Government Inspector by Alyssa Beccue (Westmont ‘20).

The Westmont College Theater department, Oct. 18-26, will be offering a new production of Nikolai Gogol‘s sly farce, The Government Inspector (1836), adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, starring Westmont students, and directed by Mitchell Thomas, Westmont theater arts professor.
 
In The Government Inspector — a.k.a. The Inspector General — the Governor [mayor] of a small town in the middle of European Russia learns from a friend in St. Petersburg that the town is to receive an incognito visit from a government inspector who will assess the level of civic corruption in the town and make the necessary changes in personnel.

Since the city fathers  Governor, prominent local land-owners, the Director of the local charity hospital, the Justice of the Peace, the Chief of Police, even the Postmaster — have all been running the town entirely for their personal profit and comfort, the news creates panic.

When one of the land-owners thinks he has discovered the inspector in the inn (actually, a well-born grifter, trying to keep ahead of his creditors), they all rush to ingratiate themselves with him, showering him with gifts and money. The complications spiral out of control.

Director Thomas says of the play, “It’s a classic farce, and one the funniest play in the canon. The comedy is relevant in any age, but we might feel the satire is especially on point in an era where the greed, corruption, and hubris of the characters feel unnervingly familiar.”
 
Of the four great writers who can be said to have founded Russian literature in the first half of the nineteenth century — Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837), Nikolai Gogol (1809-52), Ivan Goncharov (1812-91), and Mikhail Lermontov (1814-41) — it is Gogol who is generally credited with introducing a note of “realism.”

Now, for anyone who has read some of Gogol’s prose fiction — the novel, Dead Souls (1846), or the stories The Overcoat, The Nose, The Diary of a Madman — “realism” seems an odd word to choose.

Consider The Nose, in which a baker kneading bread one day, notices his nose has fallen off and leaves his bakery to search for it. When he locates his nose, it has become a government official. Confronting the official, the baker insists: “But, surely you must realize that you are my nose!” Stark realism, eh?

Even in the relatively naturalistic setting of the novel, Dead Souls, which involves, like The Government Inspector, a visit to a small provincial community by a mysterious stranger, the “realism,” if you will, is of a decidedly eccentric nature. The stranger drives into town:

“His arrival in the town created no sensation whatever and was not accompanied by anything remarkable. Only two Russian peasants standing at the door of the tavern facing the hotel made some observations, with reference, however, rather to the carriage than to its occupant. ‘My eye,’ said one to the other, ‘isn’t that a wheel! What do you think? Would that wheel, if so it chanced, get to Moscow or would it never get there?’ ‘It would,’ answered the other. ‘But to Kazan now, I don’t think it would get there?’ ‘It wouldn’t get to Kazan,’ answered the other. With that the conversation ended.”

I suppose, if realism is synonymous with exact reportage, then this is a kind of realism.

Applied to The Government Inspector, the word implies, in the theater, a straight evolutionary path from Gogol to Gorky (The Lower Depths, 1902). Yet, a more “realistic” timeline would start with Sebastian Brandt’s The Ship of Fools (1494), run forward through Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), and Gogol’s Government Inspector, and achieve its Russian apotheosis in Mikhail Bulgakov‘s The Master and Margarita (1928-40).
 
I think you take my point.
 
Those who call The Government Inspector a satire have a lot more on their side. What distinguishes Gogol’s satire from the more savage and biting kind is the gentleness of his caricatures.

In the preface to the printed play, the author provides a thoughtful profile of the main characters. He obviously doesn’t hate them, or think them bad or wicked people. His attitude is ironic and non-judgmental, and presents their gross venality in comic, rather than sinister, terms. Rather than monsters of inhuman greed, he views them as, in Nietzsche‘s phrase, “all zu mensch (all too human).”
 
And speaking of irony, it is poignant to observe, in the light of our present imbroglio, that Gogol, the putative father of the Russian novel (“We all grew up under Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’,” said Dostoyevsky), was, in fact, a Ukrainian, born in the Ukraine, and grew up speaking the language, as well as Russian.

The Government Inspector plays at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 18-19 and Oct. 24-26. Tickets are $15 general admission; $10 for seniors and students. For more information, call 805-565-7040. To buy tickets online, visit www.westmont.edu/boxoffice.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at gerald.carpenter@gmail.com. The opinions expressed are his own.