The Convention of "Assumed Identities" in A.N. Ostrovskij's Drama

Anna Muza, University of California, Berkeley

The impact of European tradition on Ostrovskij's art has been largely overshadowed by the striking couleur local of his dramatic idiom. The flattering name of the Russian Shakespeare bestowed on Ostrovskij in his lifetime referred to the scope and variety of his work rather than its relation to classical theatre. In our century, scholars who have considered Ostrovskij's writings in a theatrical context (L. Lotman, V. Lakshin) emphasized the playwright's rejection of stereotypes and described some of his more obvious uses of melodrama as "stooping" to the popular taste of the time.

I wish to suggest that the playwright's treatment of the dramatic tradition, both in its 'high' and 'low' forms, is more elaborate and significant. A careful student and translator of classical and modern playwrights, Ostrovskij adapted and reinvented rather than negated dramatic patterns and conventions of European repertoire. An example of Ostrovskij's strategies can be found in his use of role-playing, the age-old 'trick' of assumed identities. Importantly, the seemingly trite technique is characteristic of Ostrovskij's mature rather than early drama, shaping the famous _Na vsjakogo mudreca dovol'no prostoty_ (1868) and prominent in Les (1870), Volki i ovcy (1875), Poslednjaja zhertva (1878), and Krasavec-muzhchina (1883). In these and other plays, role-playing gives perfect expression to Ostrovskij's fundamental themes of genuineness and falsehood, betrayal and loyalty, temptation and ambition. At the same time, this quintessentially theatrical device links Ostrovskij's representation of Russian life to the dramatic language of contemporary comedy and melodrama, Balzac and Augier, as well as Shakespeare, Moliere and Goldoni. Putting masks on a broad range of characters, male and female, worthy and dishonorable, Ostrovskij often redefines the conventions of an emploi or disrupts an expected denouement.

I will present a set of imposters and 'actors' in Ostrovskij's later plays, particularly in Les and Volki i ovcy; comment on explicit and implicit references to their predecessors and counterparts in European drama; and discuss Ostrovskij's thematic and formal uses of the classical convention.