The Government Inspector
The Government Inspector, also known as The Inspector General (original title: Russian: Ревизор, Revizor, literally: "Inspector"), is a satirical play by the Russian and Ukrainian dramatist and novelist Nikolai Gogol. Originally published in 1836, the play was revised for an 1842 edition. Based upon an anecdote allegedly recounted to Gogol by Pushkin, the play is a comedy of errors, satirizing human greed, stupidity, and the extensive political corruption of Imperial Russia.
According to D. S. Mirsky, the play "is not only supreme in character and dialogue – it is one of the few Russian plays constructed with unerring art from beginning to end. The great originality of its plan consisted in the absence of all love interest and of sympathetic characters. The latter feature was deeply resented by Gogol's enemies, and as a satire the play gained immensely from it. There is not a wrong word or intonation from beginning to end, and the comic tension is of a quality that even Gogol did not always have at his beck and call."
The dream-like scenes of the play, often mirroring each other, whirl in the endless vertigo of self-deception around the main character, Khlestakov, who personifies irresponsibility, light-mindedness, absence of measure. "He is full of meaningless movement and meaningless fermentation incarnate, on a foundation of placidly ambitious inferiority" (D.S. Mirsky). The publication of the play led to a great outcry in the reactionary press. It took the personal intervention of Tsar Nicholas I to have the play staged, with Mikhail Shchepkin taking the role of the Mayor.
Early in his career Gogol was best known for his short stories, which gained him the admiration of the Russian literary circle, including Alexander Pushkin. After establishing a reputation, Gogol began working on several plays. His first attempt to write a satirical play about imperial bureaucracy in 1832 was abandoned out of fear of censorship. In 1835, he sought inspiration for a new satirical play from Pushkin.
Do me a favour; send me some subject, comical or not, but an authentically Russian anecdote. My hand is itching to write a comedy... Give me a subject and I'll knock off a comedy in five acts — I promise, funnier than hell. For God's sake, do it. My mind and stomach are both famished.— Letter from Gogol to Pushkin, October 7, 1835
Pushkin had a storied background and was once mistaken for a government inspector in 1833. His notes alluded to an anecdote distinctly similar to what would become the basic story elements for The Government Inspector.
Krispin arrives in the Province ... to a fair – he is taken for [illegible] ... . The governor is an honest fool – the governor's wife flirts with him – Krispin woos the daughter.— Pushkin, Full collected works, volume 8, book 1
The corrupt officials of a small Russian town, headed by the Mayor, react with terror to the news that an incognito inspector (the revizor) will soon be arriving in their town to investigate them. The flurry of activity to cover up their considerable misdeeds is interrupted by the report that a suspicious person has arrived two weeks previously from Saint Petersburg and is staying at the inn. That person, however, is not an inspector; it is Khlestakov, a foppish civil servant with a wild imagination.
Having learned that Khlestakov has been charging his considerable hotel bill to the Crown, the Mayor and his crooked cronies are immediately certain that this upper class twit is the dreaded inspector. For quite some time, however, Khlestakov does not even realize that he has been mistaken for someone else. Meanwhile, he enjoys the officials' terrified deference and moves in as a guest in the Mayor's house. He also demands and receives massive "loans" from the Mayor and all of his associates. He also flirts outrageously with the Mayor's wife and daughter.
Sick and tired of the Mayor's ludicrous demands for bribes, the village's Jewish and Old Believer merchants arrive, begging Khlestakov to have him dismissed from his post. Stunned at the Mayor's rapacious corruption, Khlestakov states that he deserves to be exiled in chains to Siberia. Then, however, he pockets still more "loans" from the merchants, promising to comply with their request.
Terrified that he is now undone, the Mayor pleads with Khlestakov not to have him arrested, only to learn that the latter has become engaged to his daughter. At which point Khlestakov announces that he is returning to St. Petersburg, having been persuaded by his valet Osip that it is too dangerous to continue the charade any longer.
After Khlestakov and Osip depart on a coach driven by the village's fastest horses, the Mayor's friends all arrive to congratulate him. Certain that he now has the upper hand, he summons the merchants, boasting of his daughter's engagement and vowing to squeeze them for every kopeck they are worth. However, the Postmaster suddenly arrives carrying an intercepted letter which reveals Khlestakov's true identity—and his mocking opinion of them all.
The Mayor, after years of bamboozling Governors and shaking down criminals of every description, is enraged to have been thus humiliated. He screams at his cronies, stating that they, not himself, are to blame. While they continue arguing, a message arrives from the real Government Inspector, who is demanding to see the Mayor immediately.
In 1926, the expressionistic production of the comedy by Vsevolod Meyerhold "returned to this play its true surrealistic, dreamlike essence after a century of simplistically reducing it to mere photographic realism". Erast Garin interpreted Khlestakov as "an infernal, mysterious personage capable of constantly changing his appearance". Leonid Grossman recalls that Garin's Khlestakov was "a character from Hoffmann's tale, slender, clad in black with a stiff mannered gait, strange spectacles, a sinister old-fashioned tall hat, a rug and a cane, apparently tormented by some private vision".
Meyerhold wrote about the play: "What is most amazing about The Government Inspector is that although it contains all the elements of... plays written before it, although it was constructed according to various established dramatic premises, there can be no doubt — at least for me — that far from being the culmination of a tradition, it is the start of a new one. Although Gogol employs a number of familiar devices in the play, we suddenly realize that his treatment of them is new... The question arises of the nature of Gogol's comedy, which I would venture to describe as not so much 'comedy of the absurd' but rather as 'comedy of the absurd situation.'"
In the finale of Meyerhold's production, the actors were replaced with dolls, a device that Andrei Bely compared to the stroke "of the double Cretan ax that chops off heads," but a stroke entirely justified in this case since "the archaic, coarse grotesque is more subtle than subtle."
The first film based on the play was actually made in German, by Gustaf Gründgens in 1932; the German title was Eine Stadt steht Kopf, or A City Stands on Its Head. In 1933, the Czech actor Vlasta Burian played the inspector in the film Revizor by Martin Frič.
In 1949, a Hollywood musical comedy version was released, starring Danny Kaye. The film bears only passing resemblance to the original play. Kaye's version sets the story in Napoleon's empire, instead of Russia, and the main character presented to be the ersatz inspector general is not a haughty young government bureaucrat, but a down-and-out illiterate, run out of a gypsy's travelling medicine show for not being greedy and deceptive enough. This effectively destroys much of the foundation of Gogol's work by changing the relationship between the false inspector general and members of the town's upper class. This film was neither a critical nor box office success.
The 1955 Indonesian film Tamu Agung (The Exalted Guest), directed by Usmar Ismail, is a loose adaptation of Gogol's play. The story is set in a small village in the island of Java, shortly after the nation's independence. While not strictly a musical like its Hollywood counterpart, there are several musical numbers in the film.
In 1958 the British comedian Tony Hancock appeared as Khlestakov in a live BBC Television version (which survives), one of his few performances outside situation comedy.
In Italy, in 1962 Luigi Zampa directed the film Anni ruggenti (Roaring Years), starring Nino Manfredi, a free adaptation of the play, in which the story is transposed to a small town in South Italy, during the years of Fascism.
An episode of Fawlty Towers has a similar story line about mistaken identity when a guest shows up at the hotel and is thought by Basil Fawlty to be a hotel inspector but who is in fact a spoon company manager. At the end of the episode Basil cream pies the spoon manger but unfortunately in front of the actual hotel inspectors.
The play was filmed in the Soviet Union and Russia by Leonid Gaidai under the title Incognito from Petersburg (1977) and as Revizor (1996) with Nikita Mikhalkov playing the Mayor. Neither adaptation was deemed a critical or box-office success.
In the Netherlands, a movie version was released in 1982, De Boezemvriend (The Bosomfriend) starring André van Duin. This was a musical comedy, in which an initerant dentist in the French-occupied Netherlands is taken for a French tax inspector.
The 1981 Taiwanese/Hong Kong movie If I Were For Real is an adaptation of the Government Inspector set in the Cultural Revolution.
In 1992, Tony-winning Broadway director Daniel Sullivan collaborated with the Seattle Repertory Company to write the Gogol-inspired "Inspecting Carol", which the Western Washington Center for the Arts described as "A Christmas Carol meets Noises Off meets Waiting for Guffman. A man auditioning at a small theatre is mistaken for an informer for the National Endowment for the Arts. As the cast and crew cater to his every whim, they also turn the traditional tale of A Christmas Carol on its head."
In 2005, playwright David Farr wrote and directed a "freely adapted" version for London's National Theatre called The UN Inspector, which transposed the action to a modern-day ex-Soviet republic. Farr's adaptation has been translated into French by Nathalie Rivere de Carles and was performed in France in 2008.
In 2006, Greene Shoots Theatre performed an ensemble-style adaptation at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Directed by Steph Gunary (née Kirton), the acting used physical theatre, mime, and chorus work that underpinned the physical comedy. The application of Commedia dell'arte-style characterisation both heightened the grotesque and sharpened the satire.
In 2007, the integrated group of the Nottingham Youth Theatre presented a comedy version, in which there were modern songs, and the setting was Snottinggrad, a fictional Russian town. The show was revived for one night in May 2008.
In 2008, Jeffrey Hatcher adapted the play for a summer run at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. A slightly revised version of that adaptation plays at Milwaukee Repertory Theater in September 2009. St. Charles Preparatory School in Columbus, Ohio also staged a slightly revised version of Hatcher's adaptation in February 2010.
In 2010, Vivid Theatre Company performed a new adaptation of the play by Andrew Berriman and Colleen Campbell which toured the North East of England.
In 2011, London's Young Vic Theatre presents a new version adapted by David Harrower, directed by Richard Jones, starring The Mighty Boosh 's Julian Barratt and Smack the Pony 's Doon Mackichan and Kyle Soller.
In 2013 Acropol Theatre, Athens, staged the play in Greek.
Currently at the Yermolovoi Theater in Moscow there is a staging by Sergei Zimliansky without words. The show is advertised as a comedy, in which music, costumes, dance, and movement by the actors tells the story in the absence of words.
Karel Weis(s) (1862–1944): Der Revisor, 1907; probably an operetta.
Eugene (Jeno) Zádor (1894–1977): His The Inspector General was originally performed 1928; revised version first performed on 11 June 1971 by the Westcoast Opera Company at El Camino College in Los Angeles.
Amilcare Zanella (it) (1873–1949): His Il Revisore premiered in Trieste on 20 February 1940.
Krešimir Fribec (1908–1996): His Dolazi revisor was completed in 1965.
Also: Incidental Music by Mikhail Gnesin (1882–1957).
The play has been translated into all European languages and remains popular, inasmuch as it deals with the hypocrisies of everyday life along with the corruption perpetrated by the rich and privileged. In the Netherlands, for instance, André van Duin made his own Dutch version of the play called De Boezemvriend (meaning "bosom friend", "best buddy"); the 1982-filmed movie is set in the Netherlands during the Napoleonic era with Van Duin playing tooth-extractor Pasdupain aka Fred van der Zee (which actually translates as "Breadless" rather than "Painless").
In Marathi, P. L. Deshpande adapted this play as Ammaldar (literally "the Government Inspector") in the late 1950s, skillfully cladding it with all indigenous politico-cultural robe of Maharashtra, while maintaining the comic satire of the original.
The following plays utilize a dramaturgical structure similar to The Government Inspector:
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- Text of the play in Russian
- David Farr, The UN Inspector / L'inspecteur des Nations Unies, trad. & ed. Nathalie Rivere de Carles, Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 2008 N° ISBN 978-2-85816-990-0
- The Inspector-General at Project Gutenberg English translation by Thomas Seltzer
- Soviet 1952 cinema version, watchable online and downloadable with Esperanto subtitles
- Revizor (1952) on IMDb
- Revizor (1996) on IMDb