Corruption, Russia, and Bribery: The Perfect Upper School Play
In light of the ongoing FBI investigation about Russia’s collusion in the 2016 presidential election, Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 play The Government Inspector, a story set in Russia and filled with bribery, fraudulent characters, and general government corruption,is more pertinent now than ever. Ali Boag, the head of the Arts Department at Packer, has a history of picking plays for the Upper School that are especially topical, and this year’s fall play was no different.
After Ivan Khlestakov, a washed-up clerk from St. Petersburg, shows up in a provincial Russian town, the corrupt and suspicious townspeople mistake him for a government inspector sent by the Czar to evaluate the area. Under the impression that they must impress Khlestakov, the townspeople bribe him and treat him well so as to ensure that he will give the town a good evaluation. Before leaving, Khlestakov promises to marry the Governor’s daughter, gains over 1,000 rubles and a myriad of gifts.
In the 1830s, when the play was written, corruption ran deep in Imperial Russia. Gogol wrote this play as a commentary on the extensive corruption and intended for it to be a “comedy of errors.”
Ethan Paul (‘21), who played the Governor, said, “It speaks a lot about things we’re going through now; it’s a very biting political satire, especially in the way it comments on the role of Russia in the modern sphere… I feel that it’s really relevant, and I enjoy when theatre feels really relevant because then it feels as if it has a place.”
Zoe Gordon (‘20), playing the role of Marya, the Governor’s daughter, said, “It’s [about] how anybody can make themselves up to be someone really big. Not to name names or anything, but people can have no experience, no qualifications, but can treat themselves, and be treated, as if they’re the most experienced person in the world and I think it kind of relates to the current state of affairs in this country.”
Dylan Fineman, who plays Khlestakov, said that the play has a lot of smaller elements that are both meaningful and lighthearted, due to its comedic elements.
“I think it has a lot to do with class, and there’s this whole part at the end where he basically says Russia is going to make other countries stand aside,” Dylan explained. “As you know, [that is] pretty much what’s happening with our country right now.”
Mr. Boag said that he chose the play because he wanted a large cast play where the roles were flexible, and also wanted a production that was “essentially lighthearted.” He added, “though, most good comedies have something to say as well as just being frothy and funny.”
Mr. Boag also said that he enjoyed the play because he “like[s] the situation; it’s got some of the staple ingredients of comedy: disguise, mistaken identity, and foolishness. And it’s satirical in the sense that we’re always on the lookout for corruption, things going wrong, and hypocrisy.”
“But,” he added, “[while] the whole business of fake news and how to discern truth, and looking at people’s reactions to situations where they are being misled…is funny, in the real world, it is actually quite scary.”
In the end, though, Mr. Boag said, “I don’t want to make a huge case for it being about our times; it’s not. But it’s relevant because it’s a comic example of how easy it is to be misled, which is a human characteristic that we all have. And the great thing about the theatre is that by presenting us with a comic example of people being misled we are able to identify with those people, and, as the Governor says, ‘Who are you laughing at? You’re laughing at yourselves!’ It’s what satire does; it gives us the space to laugh at our own folly; our own foolishness.”
In this era of increasingly accessible fake news, it is easy to be misled and receive false information. This satirical play makes a comment on this idea of misinformation and how it affects the general public. It allows the audience to laugh at themselves while also being able to identify the corruption they may be currently contending with.