Ostrovskii, Aleksandr

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Ostrovskii, Aleksandr Nikolaevich


Born Mar. 31 (Apr. 12), 1823, in Moscow; died June 2 (14), 1886, in Shchelykovo, in what is now Ostrovskoe Raion, Kostroma Oblast. Russian playwright. Son of a juridical official. Mother’s family from lower orders of the clergy.

Ostrovskii spent his childhood and early youth in Zamoskvorech’e—a unique section of Moscow with a traditional, petit bourgeois, merchant way of life. He attended the First Moscow Gymnasium from 1835 to 1840. From 1840 to 1843 he was a student in the faculty of law at Moscow University but did not take a degree. His service in the Moscow courts from 1843 to 1851 provided him with a great deal of subject matter for his writing.

Ostrovskii’s first literary efforts were marked by the influence of the “Natural School” (Notes of a Resident of Zamoskvorech’e, 1847). In 1847 the newspaper Moskovskii gorodskoi listok published his first dramatic work, Scenes of Family Happiness (entitled A Family Scene in later publications). Ostrovskii gained literary fame with the comedy It’s a Family Affair, We’ll Settle It Among Ourselves, published in 1850. Originally entitled The Bankrupt, this work became popular even before its publication through a reading by Ostrovskii and P. M. Sadovskii and evoked favorable comments from N. V. Gogol, I. A. Goncharov, and T. N. Granovskii. It was banned from stage presentation (it was produced for the first time only in 1861), and Ostrovskii was placed under police surveillance by the personal order of Nicholas I.

In his first works, Ostrovskii adhered to an approach he described as denunciatory, moral, and civic (Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 13, 1951, p. 141). He satirized the merchant milieu and especially its crude primitiveness and deceitfulness. Meticulous character development, accuracy of everyday scenes, humor and colorful language were the young Ostrovskii’s first achievements in realism. In his comedy The Poor Bride (1851), the playwright attempted to create a sociopsychological play drawn from the daily life of government officials.

Most of Ostrovkii’s early plays were published in the conservative journal Moskvitianin, on which Ostrovskii served both as an editor and a critic from 1850 to 1851. For some time he was part of the journal’s “young editorial staff,” and he formed close personal friendships with staff members. It was partly because of the influence of this circle and its chief ideologist, A. A. Grigor’ev, that Ostrovskii’s plays Don’t Get Into Another Man’s Sledge (1852), Poverty Is No Crime (1853), and You Can’t Always Live as You Like (1854) idealized the Russian patriarchal way of life and customs. These attitudes deadened Ostrovskii’s critical faculties. Nevertheless, the plays of this period revealed a search for positive elements in the life of the common people and introduced such original characters as Liubim Tortsov. Ostrovskii’s skills as a playwright also developed.

Ostrovskii’s plays rapidly won a place in the Russian repertoire after his comedy Don’t Get Into Another Man’s Sledge was produced in 1853 at the Bolshoi Theater by the Moscow Dramatic Troupe. For more than three decades, almost every season at Moscow’s Malyi Theater and St. Petersburg’s Aleksandrinskii Theater introduced a new Ostrovskii play.

From 1856, Ostrovskii regularly contributed to the journal Sovremennik and was friendly with the leaders of democratic Russian journals. During the years of social upsurge before the 1861 peasant reform, social criticism again became an important element in his work, and the dramatic quality of the conflicts intensified. In his comedy A Hangover at Someone Else’s Feast (1855), Ostrovskii not only created the impressive character Tit Titych Bruskov—an embodiment of the dark and crude force of domestic despotism—but also first used the word samodur (petty tyrant), which later was used to describe a whole gallery of Ostrovskii’s characters. The comedy A Profitable Post (1856) denounces bribe-taking among officials, a widely accepted practice. The Ward (1858) represents a poignant protest against the oppression of the individual. Ostrovskii’s accomplishments of this period were capped by his drama The Thunderstorm (1859), inspired by the author’s impressions gained from travels through the cities of the upper Volga region in 1856 and 1857.

In The Thunderstorm, Ostrovskii the satirist and “chronicler of daily life” depicts the stagnant atmosphere of a small provincial town with its coarseness, sanctimoniousness, and powerful rich and “elders.” Ostrovskii the dramatic poet allows the reader to experience the attractions of another world—the world of nature, the Volga, beauty, and tragic poetry—all of which permeates the character Katerina. The thunderstorm symbolizes the confusion in the heroine’s soul, conflicting emotions, and the moral elevation of tragic love. At the same time, it embodies the yoke of fear, under which people live. The “kingdom of darkness” is terrible not only because of the external force of Kabanikha’s and Dikoi’s oppression and persecution but also because of the inner weakness of submissive, weak-willed people, such as Boris and Tikhon. This kingdom of submissiveness and blind fear is undermined by two forces: on the one hand, reason, common sense, and education, embodied by Kuligin, and on the other, the pure soul of Katerina, which is alien to this world even though it is unconsciously and solely controlled by a sincere and untainted nature. In his essay “A Ray of Light in the Kingdom of Darkness” (1860), N. A. Dobroliubov highly praised the proud force and inner determination of The Thunderstorm’s heroine as a sign of the profound protest ripening throughout the country.

During the 1860’s, Ostrovskii remained faithful to his original theme, continuing to write true-to-life comedies and dramas; the plays showed as much talent as before, but they reinforced old motifs rather than mastering new ones (Difficult Times, 1863; The Jokers, 1864; and The Abyss, 1865). At this time Ostrovskii also turned to Russian history and patriotic themes. Based on his study of a wide range of sources, he wrote a cycle of historical plays: Koz’ma Zakhar’ich Minin-Sukhoruk (1861; 2nd ed., 1866), The Voevoda (The Military Governor, 1864; 2nd ed., 1885), The False Dmitrii and Vasilii Shuiskii (1866), and Tushino (1866).

Ostrovskii began a highly creative period in the late 1860’s, when themes and characters of the new, postreform Russia emerged in his dramas. Almost all his dramatic works of the 1870’s and early 1880’s were printed in the journal Otechestvennye zapiski. Ostrovskii debunked postreform illusions and created new character types from the new breed of businessmen, acquirers, emerging patriarchal “moneybags,” and “Europeanized” merchants in a brilliant cycle of satirical comedies including Even a Wise Man Stumbles (1868), Fiery Heart (1868), Easy Money (1869), The Forest (1870), and Wolves and Sheep (1875). During this period, he used devices of psychological satire sometimes akin to those used by M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin (Glumov in the comedy about “wise men” and Milonov and Bodaev in The Forest). The playwright’s moral ideal was epitomized by persons of unselfishly noble nature and purity of soul, embodied in his characters Parasha (Fiery Heart) and Aksiusha and the actor Neschastlivtsev (The Forest). His concepts of happiness, the meaning of life, and man’s duty are seen in the play Hard-earned Bread (1874) and—in the form of a poetic utopia—in the fairy tale The Snow Maiden (1873).

During the final years of his creative life, Ostrovskii wrote important sociopsychological dramas and comedies about the tragic fates of abundantly talented, highly sensitive women caught in a cynical and mercenary world (The Girl Without a Dowry, 1878; The Ultimate Sacrifice, 1878; and Talents and Admirers, 1882). In these plays he also developed new forms of dramatic expressiveness that in some aspects anticipated the plays of A. P. Chekhov. Retaining the characteristic traits of his dramaturgy, Ostrovskii attempted to embody “inner struggle” in an “intelligent, refined comedy” (A. N. Ostrovskii v vospominaniiakh sovremennikov, 1966, p. 294).

Ostrovskii’s 47 original plays, along with plays written in collaboration with the young dramatists N. Ia. Solov’ev and P. M. Nevezhin, and numerous translations and adaptations of foreign plays, formed an extensive repertoire for the Russian stage. Although national in traditions and sources, Ostrovskii’s dramas contain much that is profound and of universal significance. The playwright’s “moralizing” is closely linked with the democratic firmness of his moral ideal. Ostrovskii enriched drama with the experience of the social novel. He wrote what Dostoevsky called “novellas in roles” (“Neizdannyi Dostoevskii,” Literaturnoe nasledstvo, vol. 83, 1971, p. 608). Ostrovskii depicts everyday life in terms of living, human relations, thoughts, and language rather than merely describing the superficial characteristics of the merchant, petit bourgeois, or gentry milieu. His masterful dialogue and his skillful construction of plots give rise to a naturalness of action and speech and to dramatically taut or lyrically animated, colorful humor.

Exceptionally socially conscious, Ostrovskii struggled all his life for the establishment of a new type of realistic theater, a genuinely artistic national repertoire, and a new standard of ethics for actors. In 1865 he created the Moscow Arts Circle. He founded and headed the Society of Russian Playwrights (1870), and he sent numerous projects and notes on the need for reforms in the Russian theater to government officials. Six months before his death, Ostrovskii accepted a post as artistic director of Moscow’s theaters.

Ostrovskii’s dramas were a very important factor in the development of the Russian national theater. As a playwright and director, Ostrovskii contributed to the formation of a new school of realistic acting and to the development of a galaxy of actors, especially at Moscow’s Malyi Theater; which included the Sadovskii family, S. V. Vasil’ev, L. P. Kositskaia, and later G. N. Fedotova and M. N. Ermolova. Ostrovskii has been recognized as one of the great writers closest in spirit to Soviet theater.

A great deal of scholarly study of Ostrovskii’s work has been done in the Soviet Union, including much textual study. Scholarly collections and monographs on his dramaturgy as a whole, the stage renderings of individual plays, and his language and style have been published. The estate where Ostrovskii lived for many years, died, and was buried—Shchelykovo—has been a museum-preserve since 1948. At the Malyi Theater in Moscow there is a monument to Ostrovskii (bronze and granite, 1924–29, sculptor N. A. Andreev).


Poln. sobr. soch., vols. 1–12. (Edited by M. I. Pisarev.) St. Petersburg, 1904–09.
Poln. sobr. soch. vols. 1–16. Moscow, 1949–53.
Poln. sobr. soch. v 12 tt., vols. 1–2—. Moscow, 1973–74—.


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Nasledie A. N. Ostrovskogo i sovetskaia kul’tura. Moscow, 1974.
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Neizdannye pis’ma k A. N. Ostrovskomu. Moscow-Leningrad, 1932.
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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.