Plays by Nikolai Gogol

The Government Inspector

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector is a classic Russian satire of provincial bureaucracy, a comedy of errors that satirises small-town political corruption and human greed. It is arguably Gogol’s best known and most popular work. It was first performed at the Aleksandrinsky Imperial Theatre in St Petersburg on 19 April 1836 at the personal request of Tsar Nicholas I (who afterwards expressed his delight). It subsequently opened at the Maly Theatre, Moscow, on 25 May.

Stephen Mulrine, the author of this translation, describes what happens in the play in his introduction to the published edition: 'In all essentials, Gogol’s "case of mistaken identity" is a comic warhorse of some pedigree, reaching back to classical times and forward to our own day in seemingly inexhaustible variation. A penniless stranger arrives in a small provincial town, is mistaken for a VIP, treated like royalty by all and sundry, and eventually exposed – making his hosts look extremely foolish. [...] Detail is all-important in Gogol’s work, and The Government Inspector is no exception. Almost the whole of Act One, for example, is devoted to painting a picture of his nameless provincial mudhole, and its corrupt and self-serving administrators, long before the play’s eponymous "hero" makes his entrance, in the squalid inn which is the setting for Act Two.

'Khlestakov, the bogus inspector, is in fact a low-grade civil servant, travelling from St Petersburg to his family home – a young man living beyond his means, a follower of fashion, and inveterate card-player, temporarily holed up at the local inn, and unable to pay his bill. However, while Khlestakov and his manservant Osip debate where their next meal is to come from, the town mayor is at that moment reading out the contents of a letter to an urgently convened assembly of local officials and dignitaries.

'The letter warns of an impending visit by a government inspector, travelling incognito, and the anxious officials attempt to plan a strategy for keeping their various swindles under wraps, at least for the duration of the visit. The mayor himself might be described as bribe-taker in chief, preying on the local traders; the judge, obsessed with riding to hounds, treats his court as an extension of his tack-room; the postmaster diligently unseals the mail, and retails its contents as gossip; the charities warden, and a compliant workhouse physician maintain their charges on a régime of strict discipline and no expensive medicaments. Embezzlement is routine, the town is run for private profit, and the officials are further panicked when two local landowners, Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, burst in to announce that the government inspector, in the person of Khlestakov, is in their very midst!

'The mayor promptly leads a delegation to Khlestakov’s inn, settles the latter’s unpaid account, and arranges for his removal to more comfortable quarters, i.e., his own mansion, where Khlestakov, the sophisticated St Petersburg dandy, instantly becomes a focus for the amorous yearnings not only of the mayor’s daughter, but also of his wife. While Khlestakov is enjoying life at the mayor’s house, he receives a series of visits from the guilt-ridden officials, each more eager than the last to purchase his favour, with extravagant "loans".

'Word of the inspector’s presence has filtered down to the longsuffering citizenry, however, and a deputation of traders and artisans also arrives with a catalogue of grievances for Khlestakov, accusing the mayor. Siberian exile, at the very least, appears to beckon, but in a neat twist, Khlestakov is inveigled into proposing marriage to the mayor’s daughter. Overcome with relief, now that his position is secure, the mayor envisages a glittering career in St Petersburg. Khlestakov, meanwhile, has yielded to the urgings of his manservant Osip to quit while ahead, and is already miles away by the time the postmaster unseals his letter to a St Petersburg journalist crony, revealing all.

'Finally, just as it seems the nadir has been reached, with the townsfolk’s realisation that they have been willing dupes, a policeman enters with the news that a genuine government inspector has arrived, and is waiting for them at the inn. The mayor and his officials, his wife and daughter, their various guests, all freeze in a dumb show precisely described by Gogol, a literal monument to human greed and folly.'

Picture of Nikolai Gogol

Nikolai Gogol was born in 1809 in the market town of Sorochintsy. He moved to St Petersburg in 1828 where he self-published his romantic poem Hans Küchelgarten in the hope of beginning a literary career. However, after the critics derided these initial efforts Gogol fled to Germany and vowed never to write poetry again. He returned to St Petersburg in 1829 after obtaining a post in the civil service and shortly thereafter began his short-lived academic career when he was appointed to teach history at the Patriotic Institute, a young ladies’ college in 1831. Subsequently, he was made assistant Professor of History at St Petersburg University in 1834 but barely lasted a year in the job. Nevertheless, during this time he did fulfill his literary ambitions with the publication of Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, a collection of short stories. He published a number of works in 1835 including Arabesques, a volume of prose, Mirgorod, two more volumes of short stories and Taras Bulba, a historical novella, all of which were considerably better received than his poetry. His best-known play, The Government Inspector, received its first performance on the 19th April 1836 at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. It also played at the Maly Theatre in Moscow in May of the same year and began a tour of Europe that summer. Also in October of that year his satirical short story The Nose was published in Pushkin’s journal, The Contemporary. Gogol left Russia and settled in Rome in 1837 where he continued his literary career. He published the first volume of his novel, Dead Souls and would, in later years, destroy, revise, and destroy once more the manuscript for its second volume. In the meantime a volume of his Collected Works was published in 1843, which featured what would become his best-known story, The Overcoat and his plays Marriage and The Gamblers were also performed that year in Moscow. Gogol eventually returned to Russia in 1848 where he would spend the last years of life until his death in 1852.