Thursday, May 02, 2013

238. The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol

Unlike novels, or even novellas, plays focus on a micro-theme or subject matter and treat it in a way as to make the observer (or reader) think and to effect a change, possibly. Again, unlike novels and novellas which are always originally meant to be read (but which have recently been adapted to the screens), plays are written for the stage and therefore their message is taken in as and when they unfold and the curtains furl and must therefore be short and precise and employing different theatrical devices grab the attention of listeners and deliver their messages. Thus, a play must dramatise events. And Nikolai Gogol's The Government Inspector (1836; translated and adapted by D. J. Campbell) meets these features excellently.

The Government Inspector is a satirical and comic representation of corruption in the public service of Tsarist Russia with cartoonish characters. Officials in a town, headed by a Mayor, receive information of the visit of a Government Inspector travelling incognito from Saint Petersburg, the seat of government, into their town, perhaps as monitoring exercises. This was the period where any minor offence or infringement could lead its perpetrator to Siberia. Located far away from Petersburg, this undercover visit comes as a surprise to the town's officials - the Charity Commissioner, the Postmaster, the Mayor, the Judge, and the School Superintendent; also because the town had almost never been officially visited by any such high-ranking official in a long while, things had been led to neglect and rot. When  two friends, Bob and Dob, came to inform the gathered officials in the Mayor's room that the Petersburg official they are expecting had arrived and staying at an inn (where he eats and sleeps without payment), the officials sought to visit him and, if possible, bribe him out of any negative report he might have prepared for the authorities. But each official also had a personal egoistic ambition to advance.

What was clear, as events unfold and the officials strategise on how to keep the Government Inspector in the dark about the true state of affairs, was that the town was in a dilapidated state; nothing seemed to work in the town. Corruption had become endemic and the Mayor held absolute power and did whatever he wanted. He robbed the traders of their wares, physically abused them; the streets were dirty and most of the buildings were crumbling. Yet, it was not as if these officials did not know what they were supposed to do. For to cover their actions and inactions, they sought to literally whitewash reality. Thus, what is right is psychologically ingrained in man. It is known by default. And therefore any departure from it is a personal decision or choice. The parallelism with current events show that corruption is a human condition and is therefore not specific to a country or continent. On the other hand, it also shows clearly the importance of leadership. The Mayor, being the head of the town, was the most corrupt official. He condoned and, in most cases, showed the people he contracted for government business the means to cheat the system; consequently, everybody became corrupt. 

But Hlestakov (or Ivan Alexandrovitch) was not an Inspector; he was a junior rank official passing through the town from Petersburg to his father's farm with his servant, Yosif. He was not paying for food not because he was a government officer but because he had run-out of money and genuinely wanted to borrow. Upon meeting the town officials, Hlestakov's first thought was that the inn-keeper had reported him for arrest. But when he began explaining himself stating emphatically that he would go nowhere with the officials, the town's officials who had come with the motive of bribing the Government Inspector took it as a smart move by a Government Inspector to throw them off-guard. They hardened their stance and within a short time had settled the bill (food and accommodation) and had requested that he accompanied them to inspect the public buildings and offices, which they had rehashed up. The Mayor wouldn't listen to Hlestakov's ignorant responses and statements; for him they were all an attempt by an Inspector to remain incognito. When word got round that the Government Inspector had arrived and staying at the Mayor's house, almost the entire townfolks, including the traders, would bribe him to do one thing or another for him. Though Hlestakov would not take the items, the townfolks had come to believe that they had to bribe him for him to save them from the Mayor's clutches of compulsory bribes. Thus, the endemicity of corruption had normalised bribery that they forced it upon Hlestakov. Hlestakov himself became a convert to corruption, having been influenced by the people, to the extent that he forcefully extorted the little amount of money Bob and Dob had on them, when they had not voluntarily offered it to him. This incident indicates the interrelationships and interactions between people and the environment they lived in. Why should a completely innocent man - a man who showed that he was not street-smart unlike his servant - be suddenly transformed to take advantage of his benefactors?

Again, man's belief in his fellow man as the key to his problems when the man himself may harbour doubts about himself, came to the fore. Hlestakov knew he had no such powers the people had attributed to him. He knew he could solve none of the problems he was being told. Yet, the people - traders, officials - had complete faith in him. They believed he was the only one who could solve their problems for them. This is most relevant today when people seemed to depend entirely on priests and supernatural powers, and not themselves, for their problems to be solved.

This series of comedic errors of stupendous proportions would reach its apogee when both the Mayor's wife and his daughter fell in love with and fought over this young twenty-three year old Petersburg official. And the Mayor himself, with smiles and enthusiasm, would engage his daughter to Hlestakov, when the latter - on bended knees and with teary eyes - asked for it. For him, moving to Petersburg was a dream come true. What was provincial life when one could dine with royalty? This clearly symbolises man quest and affinity for power. Most people would do everything to associate with power, no matter the source. But definitely, this becomes absurd when mother and daughter fights over a man young enough to be her daughter.

However, all these would come crushing into smithereens when a gendarme announced to a gathering of officials and townfolks, who had come to congratulate the Mayor upon the engagement of his daughter to the Inspector, that the Inspector-General appointed by Imperial decree had arrived from St. Petersburg. Prior to this ominous declaration, the Postmaster, who read every letter that passed through him, was informing the officials of Hlestakov's letter to his friend in Petersburg narrating his windfall increase in fortune in the town.

The Government Inspector may be a funny, even cartoonish, representation of provincial life in the nineteenth century, but stripped of all the comedy, of all the theatrical innuendos, it is the reality of many a country today. Today, politics and governance have become the fastest routes to economic and financial security. It is no longer a call to duty. In developing countries, the corruption is all clear to see. In developed countries, it is subtle and manifests itself when politicians leave office and become lobbyists for private companies. This is after the companies have sponsored their campaigns and they in turn have passed several policies that profited their companies. Like the provincial officials, it is not as if these politicians do not know what is right. They do. The question is whether they have the moral suasion to do what they know is right.

6 comments:

  1. You are right, if you change the names and a small number of other details, you could easily move this play to many other parts of the world.

    How I enjoy Bob and Dob.

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    Replies
    1. Shows the human condition is universal.

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  2. Nana, this is a brilliant review, as usual. I also like this new cool look of the blog

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks. I'm testing this look. If it looks okay, I will stick with it.

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  3. I am adapting this play to fit New Orleans, my adopted home doing some research I found this article. Your opening paragraph is exactly why I've decided to dedicate myself to theatre. Your observations are excellent and in many ways this play is eternal, corruption is as old as government. Anyway, now that if found your blog I’ll be sure to check back often seems like you have some interesting view points.

    ReplyDelete

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