Biographies Russian Writers Denis Fonvizin

Denis Fonvizin

Russian playwright Denis Fonvizin, author of The Minor and The Brigadier-General
Born: 1745, Moscow
Died: 1792, St Petersburg

Nikolai Gogol’s The Night before Christmas tells the story of Vakula, a village blacksmith, who flies to St Petersburg on the back of the devil. He enters the imperial palace and asks Catherine the Great for her slippers. After listening to his request, the empress turns to a “middle-aged man with a round, but slightly pale face” and says: “Here is a subject of your witty pen! ... I am still mad about your Brigadier-General, you read remarkably well!”

The person she was speaking to was the playwright Denis Fonvizin, who was indeed a brilliant reader of his own satirical comedies. Outwardly frail and unassuming, he underwent a transformation when he picked up the manuscript of one of his plays and began to read. He poked fun at famous personages, imitating their voices and mannerisms, and the listeners roared with laughter, recognising people that they knew.

Fonvizin was once asked to read The Brigadier-General to Catherine II and several of her courtiers, as they sat round the dinner table at the Hermitage in Peterhof. The pineapples and strawberries were followed by the playwright and his famous comedy, which evoked “extremely loud laughter.” That was the fate of many writers – to entertain the sovereign after dinner – and Fonvizin was no exception. Fussy and vain, he always awaited such command performances with thrill and trepidation. He later gave a memorable reading at the court of his other immortal comedy, The Minor.

Thousands of plays have been written in Russian, but only a dozen of them have found a permanent place in the nation’s heart. One of them is The Minor. Over two centuries have passed since it was written, the author has been dead for almost as long, yet the play lives on. What is the secret of its success? The Minor covers many fond features of the Russian national character and psyche. And, of course, there is the humour. To this day, despite its somewhat archaic language, people still laugh at The Minor.

When The Minor was staged in St Petersburg in 1782, it was greeted with the same rapturous delight as The Brigadier. Fonvizin was asked to read his play wherever he went, and basked in the warmth of its reception. Around this time, Prince Grigory Potemkin gave his famous advice to the author: “Denis, either die or stop writing! This play alone has immortalised your name!”

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