The Lipetsk Spa: Placing the “Caustic Šaxovskoj” in Context

Julie A. Cassiday, Williams College

Widely acknowledged as one of the early nineteenth century’s most productive and influential playwrights, Prince Aleksandr Aleksandrovič Šaxovskoj was also the most important impresario in the Russian theater of his day. He distinguished himself as Russia’s first professional director of note, a brilliant theatrical administrator, and a discerning talent scout, who discovered and fostered the greatest acting talents of the era. In addition, Šaxovskoj claims responsibility for introducing vaudeville to the Russian stage and writing plays that comprised the bulk of the Russian theatrical repertoire during the 1810s and 1820s. In spite of his prolonged, prolific, and prominent career, Šaxovskoj has been largely overlooked by the critical establishment. The few studies of his life and works struggle primarily to return him to the limelight and succeed only in scratching the surface of his oeuvre of more than one hundred plays and numerous poetic and polemical works. In my paper, I hope not only to rectify, but also to explain, this oversight by examining Šaxovskoj’s most significant play, Urok koketam, ili Lipetskie vody (The Lipetsk Spa, 1815) and the cultural context in which the play was written, staged, and received.

Theater historians and literary scholars agree that The Lipetsk Spa hailed a new era in Russian drama and letters. The play’s innovative use of the genre of verse comedy, as well as its almost xenophobic denunciation of all things foreign, allowed Šaxovskoj to take part in the debate raging between Archaists and their opponents during the first decades of the nineteenth century. While creating a thoroughly innovative literary and theatrical language in The Lipetsk Spa, Šaxovskoj managed nonetheless to defend staunchly the cultural values of the Archaists. Much of the reluctance of theater historians and literary critics to examine Šaxovskoj’s work most probably arises from what Puškin described as the “noisy swarm” depicted in the comedies of “the caustic Šaxovskoj,” as illustrated by The Lipetsk Spa. (Evgenij Onegin, 1, XVIII) However, the playwright’s arch-conservative values apparently did not offend his spectators and critics during the early nineteenth century and, on the contrary, seem to have contributed to his play’s appeal. Placing The Lipetsk Spa in the context of its composition, staging, and reception during the early nineteenth century will begin the long overdue process of reconstructing the theatrical milieu created by Šaxovskoj, to which Puškin hearkened back with appreciation and affection.