The Inspector General
By Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol Translated by Thomas Seltzer
Published by LIbrivox.org
Performed by a full cast
According to the translator’s note, “The Inspector General,” (or simply “The Inspector”) and other reviewers is one of the great pieces of Russian literature, all the more amazing because it is a comedy. It has been performed and adapted numerous times since its original performance in 1836.
The story is about the people (especially the corrupt officials) of a small town in Russia during the reign of Nicholas I who, on learning an inspector will soon arrive from St. Petersburg, mistake a mere civil clerk (who by happenstance comes from St. Petersburg) for the soon-to-arrive inspector. The clerk, a wastrel of the first water, has lost all his money gambling and has been attempting to bully the landlord of the inn he is staying at into providing him free room and board. So when the local mayor comes to his room, the wastrel lies like a professional rug and brags about his highly placed contacts in St. Petersburg, which is exactly the sort of thing the mayor expects to hear.
Naturally the wastrel is able to extract “loans” from nearly everyone who believe they are merely bribing him in the usual manner. The local official bribe him to see them in a favorable light while the local merchants bribe him to send the mayor off to Siberia or some such. While there, the Mayor’s wife flirts with him even as he woos their daughter. Eventually, convinced by his valet, that it is too dangerous to stay in the town any longer, the wastrel leaves in a coach with the fastest horses in town. Meanwhile the Mayor uses what he thinks is his new prestige to bully the local merchants even as the local postmaster arrives with a letter written by the false inspector, mocking the whole town (yes, the postmaster opened supposedly personal mail of someone thought to be an Inspector. While everyone in the room is arguing at the very end, a message from the real inspector arrives, demanding to see them all.
I have to admit I originally downloaded this play to see how close it was to the Danny Kaye movie of the same name. The answer: the Danny Kaye movie is as loosely adapted as it can be without including at least some elements of the original. Kaye’s character is a bit of a schlep, but an inherently honest one who was kicked out a Gypsy band for not being dishonest enough and the movie’s story takes place in Napoleon’s empire, not Russia. Both, I think are enjoyable, but Gogol’s play is a fun and biting satire of corruption at every level of government and, sadly still applies today just as much or maybe even more so.
There is a note on the Librivox site that the play does include some anti-Semitism, which for the time it was written is not surprising, but frankly I find myself more insulted by Jules Verne’s Jewish character in Off on a Comet or Shakespeare’s Shylock.
An audio-only performance, by necessity is going to lose the entire visual aspect of a play, but they included a narrator to read the stage directions in the script as it went along. Some of the time it was hardly necessary, but most of the time it helped and I guess that is the sort of thing you either do none or all of.
So, all told, this really is a masterful play and the performance was enjoyable.