Ostrovsky, Alexander

[The source for the libretto of Kát'a Kabanová was the play The Storm, by Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky. The libretto was devised by the composer from a Czech translation of the play. The folloing article centers on Ostrovsky and his play. -NMR]

Although he is usually considered the greatest of all Russian playwrights, Alexander Ostrovsky's (1823-1886) works are little known outside of Russian-speaking countries. Only two are fairly well-known in the West and that is because they are sources for operas, namely Janacek's Katya Kabanova and Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow Maiden. This may seem strange because the works of his exact contemporaries Tolstoy (1828-1910, Dostoevsky (1821-1881), Turgenev (1818-1883) and the somewhat later Chekhov (1860-1904) are standards in every Western library. The answer lies in the people he portrayed. For example, Chekhov wrote of upper middle class families, Tolstoy, himself a noble, wrote of the westernized Russian nobility which was known in the west. Ostrovsky wrote of old Russia, especially the lower merchant class which was only a generation or two removed from serfdom. (The serfs were freed in 1861, two years after the first performance of The Storm.) This narrow, bigoted and rigid society was a mystery to westerners. A patriarchal society, it was ruled by tyrants such as Kabanicha and Dikoj who so intimidated the younger generation that they became tyrants themselves.

Alexander's grandfather owned a fine library and could converse in Latin. His father was also well educated and was a member of the civil service, being granted a hereditary nobility. Alexander, born April 12, 1823 was the third son; the first two died in infancy. In school he studied French, Greek and Latin and started to study law. However, he spent most of his time at the Maly Theatre and in coffee houses in conversations about literature. He became a law clerk and eventually served as such in the Moscow Commercial Court. There he became acquainted with the merchant class, obsessed with money, that he was later to portray so vividly. Of one of his early plays, The Bankrupt, the censors said: "All the characters in the play...are first rate villains. The dialogue is filthy. The entire play is an insult to the Russian merchant class". The play was banned from the stage, but Ostrovsky held readings in private houses, word spread, and it was published with overwhelming success. As a result, he lost his job, and Tsar Nicolas I had him placed under police surveillance. (Actually, he was allowed to 'resign' out of respect for his father.) He worked for a newspaper reading proof and writing reviews but, from then on, essentially became a full-time writer. While Ostrovsky never married, he had several relationships with women. The first lived with him for eighteen years and bore him four children before she died. At first they were desperately poor; he had no winter overcoat and no fuel for the fire. He met the married opera singer and actress, Lubov Pavlovna Kositskaya whose career he had been following, and he wrote parts for her in several of his plays. Her appearance in his play Stick to Your Own Sleigh has been hailed as a turning point of Russian theatre. While attending a funeral together in 1852, she commented on how, as a child, the sound of church-bells had always brought her joy. He never forgot. When she separated from her husband he was inspired to write The Storm and used her remarks in Katerina's monologue. He wrote passionate letters to her, but she replied cooly and urged him not to fall in love with her. Almost the same scenario was to be played out years later between the composer Janacek and Kamila Stösslova.

The Storm opened on November 15, 1859, done on a shoe string with bits and pieces of old costumes and sets. It was a sensation! It had to be moved from the Maly to the Bolshoi to accommodate the crowds clamoring to see it. Turgenev wrote: "A most amazing, a most wonderful work of art by a Russian of powerful gifts, which he has completely mastered". Still, an establishment critic called it immoral, said there was no such woman as Katerina, and respectable parents would never take their daughter to see it. However, half a dozen operas are based on this play.

Even when his plays started to be performed, they never paid him much. The rules stated that plays chosen by actors for a benefit performance (and that happened about once a week), became the property of the theatre. The actors were paid but the authors got nothing. But his plays, about fifty in all, were being performed everywhere, usually directed by himself. He wrote for the people's theatre, "cheap seats and a first rate company, rather than expensive seats and a third rate company". Most were for the Maly Theatre which became known as the house that Ostrovsky built. It had existed when he was young, but his works were instrumental in resurrecting the theatre after a period of relative decline.

Ostrovsky started "The Actors Circle", a sort of club. It was private and produced only classics and plays by contemporary Russian authors. From 1874 until his death, he was president of the Society of Russian Dramatic Authors. In 1884, he was made the artistic director the Moscow government theatres. Twelve years after his death, The Actors Circle was replaced by the Moscow Art Theatre. Ostrovsky's methods paved the way for the ground-breaking work of Stanislavsky.