Fonvizin, Denis Ivanovich

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Fonvizin, Denis Ivanovich (1745-92): Russian Playwright.

A prominent Russian playwright of the eighteenth century, Denis Fonvizin is best known for his two satirical comedies- the Brigadier General and the Minor.

Fonvizin was born in Moscow on April 3, probably in 1745, to a middle class, landowning family of German descent. In 1755, he attended Moscow University’s gymnasium, learning Latin and German. In 1763, he moved to St. Petersburg, beginning a career with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a translator. Between 1762 – 1766, he also translated French and German literary works including Voltaire’s Alzire, and also achieved renown for his satiric poems. Around 1768, he wrote his first original play, The Brigadier, a love story and a social satire, not published until 1786. The play was popular, and in 1769, he read it to Catherine II, the Great, with enormous success.

By the 1770’s, Fonvizin was popular and respected, and in 1773, he was granted an estate. The following year he married Ekaterina Ivanovna Kholpova. In 1782, he wrote his masterpiece, The Minor, which is still in production in Russia. A satire condemning the gentry, at first the actors were reluctant to perform, afraid of offending the aristocracy. Calling for a restriction on a monarch’s power, the play had potential to offend even Catherine. It was eventually staged in St. Petersburg, and proved a tremendous success.

In 1785, Fonvizin suffered a stroke, resulting in paralysis. His condition gradually improved, but affected his health for the rest of his life. Blaming his poor health on his sins, he wrote, but never finished, Open Hearted Confession, expressing contrition for his sins. In 1791 he suffered several more strokes and died the following year on December 1.

Further Reading:

Dictionary of Literary Biography. Volume 150: "Early Modern Russian Writers, Late Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries." Edited by Marcus C.Levitt., 1995.

Sigrid Kelsey

Louisiana State University

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