Those Madcap Russians!

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Title: The Government Inspector

Rating: 3 Stars

The Government Inspector is an adaptation of a play by Gogol.

A completely corrupt mayor receives a note that a government inspector is coming to his town to visit. In a panic, all of his cronies gather to determine what to do. There is the judge that takes bribes for convictions. There is the hospital director that has overseen the construction of a useless hospital. There is the school principal who has built a number of gymnasiums but very few classrooms. And there is the postmaster, who thinks nothing of opening everyone’s mail.

As they discuss how to best present themselves to the inspector, two men (Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky), apparently twins (but not really), burst in to tell them that the inspector is already in town. The mayor and all of his cronies immediately set out to meet the inspector and try to conceal their corruption from him.

It’s a case of mistaken identity. In fact, the man (Khlestakov) that is mistaken for the government inspector is actually an unscrupulous conman that has lost all of his money and is preparing to kill himself.

When the officials burst in on Khlestakov, there is confusion on both sides. The officials are trying to determine if Khlestakov is susceptible to bribes while Khlestakov is trying to determine if they are there to arrest him for crimes that he’s committed.

Ultimately, much to Khlestakov’s relief, before he confesses he understands that they are trying to bribe him. From then on, he leads the officials on a merry journey of bribery, drunkenness, and seduction. The mayor’s wife, desperately lonely, throws herself at Khlestakov while the mayor, thinking that Khlestakov is a great match, is setting him up with his daughter.

It’s all a merry madcap of tomfoolery and confusion. By the end of the play, Khlestakov has taken off with all of their money and the officials now have to deal with the real government inspector, who had been infiltrated with them all along.

This play is reminiscent of Scapin and Comedy of Errors. It’s fascinating to me the universal nature of comedy. You have the 19th century Russian, the 17th century Frenchman, and the 16th century Englishman all writing plays that could easily have served as Beverly Hillbillies plots.

This is interesting to me because I’m re-reading Nesteroff’s history of comedians. One of his theses is that comedy does have a shelf life. Comedians funny to one generation are lost to the next. This is true of even the greats. Even though his show is still in syndication and he’s an acknowledged greatly skilled comedian, no one goes to Jerry Seinfeld for new comedy. He still tours and still does new material, but even so the people that attend do so primarily for nostalgic reasons. Plays seem to have a different shelf life than the more immediate art of the comedian.

In the world of plays, there seem to be plays / themes in the comedic world that are timeless. For instance, the Government Inspector hits on several themes that are not out of place even now:

  • Corrupt venal politicians
  • Mistaken identity
  • The smart employee getting the better of her employer
  • The rustic provincial

Speaking of Seinfeld, one tenet of his show was that would be no hugs, no tears, and no learning. His characters go through life, getting caught up in all kinds of situations, and it leaves them fundamentally unchanged. The same is here in this play. There is no true love romantic plot. There is no moral lesson. There are no sympathetic characters. There is not even a protagonist. It is a pure satire.

This is also a play that probably would not be a successful movie. The characters are too thin and predictable. It is as if you need to have live actors selling the action to a live audience to really make it work. If I wasn’t watching this with an audience rollicking with laughter, I wouldn’t have had nearly the same amount of enjoyment.

As with all such madcap, frenetic hi-jinks, the play starts off on fire but eventually runs out of steam. The pace of such a play can only be sustained for so long. There are a couple of hallucinogenic sequences that were completely over the top and altered the mood of the play for the worse.

I did enjoy the fact that as we walked out, they were playing a Gogol Bordello song.

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