Sumarokov, Aleksandr

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Sumarokov, Aleksandr (1717-77): Russian Playwright.

Aleksandr Petrovich Sumarokov founded native Russian classical drama and was one of the most important figures in eighteenth century Russian theater. A 1740 graduate of the Land Forces Cadet School in St. Petersburg, much of his early career is associated with this academy. His acknowledged best tragedy, Khorev (1747), was first played at the school under his direction, where he instructed an acting company from Yaroslavl led by Volkov, Fyodor, with whom Sumarokov would, after 1756, run the first permanent Russian professional stage, the Russian Patent Theatre.

Sumarokov was an enlightened noble and humanist, critical of abuses within the noble class, dedicated to the principle of noblesse oblique, and committed to the theater as an agent of social and moral education. Among Sumarokov’s tragedies is a version of Hamlet (1748) which transforms Shakespeare’s text into a sharply political tragedy involving a conspiracy against the lawful heir to the throne. Contemporaries could find in Sumarokov’s characters clear parallels to certain noble persons. His twelve comedies of character and situation, inspired by Moliere, criticize popular targets, such as legal corruption, idle and cruel landowners, and the abuses of serfdom.

Although his situations were largely borrowed and his characters underdeveloped, Sumarokov introduced native elements and cultured language into a vernacular drama which had previously been but translations and adaptations, adding a genuinely Russian flavor to the theater of 18th century Russia.

Further Reading:

Leach, Robert and Victor Borovsky, ed., A History of Russian Theatre, 1999.

Benjamin Fisler

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