In the 1950s Mavor Moore, a leading figure in Canadian theatre, wrote The Man from Ottawa, a comedy about a little town in Manitoba where everyone from the mayor to the postman lives by petty corruption. One day they receive terrifying news: A Mountie, travelling incognito, has come to investigate their crimes. They shamelessly flatter and bribe a man they identify as the detective but then discover he's just a poor immigrant from England.
Moore, whose play was performed on stage and on CBC television, was working within an already established tradition, the free adaptation of the greatest comedy ever written in Russian, The Inspector General, by Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852). The core of the play, often reworked, has held the stage for an astonishing 170 years. This month it's back in Canada, titled The Government Inspector and chosen by the Soulpepper company as one of the plays to open its new theatre in Toronto's Distillery District.
Russians speak of The Inspector General as a key moment in theatre history, the play that brought a realistic sense of national identity into Russian literature. Dostoyevsky saw it that way, and later writers, such as Nabokov, have explained that Gogol was the first to tune literary Russian to the pitch of everyday speech.
As a play about government corruption, The Inspector General means as much in Russia now as it did when it was first produced in St. Petersburg in 1836. Bureaucracy has always been the blight of Russian communal life. It was a plague in Czarist days and a pestilence under the Soviets. Today, if we believe a recent sociological study, it's grown worse. Two million Russian bureaucrats have been inspired by the new market economy to sell their powers as commodities.
Gogol wrote his play in two months at the end of 1834, when he was just 25 but already the author of some much-admired stories. The idea came from his friend, mentor and cheerleader, Aleksandr Pushkin, who had once been mistaken for a government official when visiting a small town; he remembered having a little fun at the expense of the locals.
Since the agents of Czar Nicholas I censored plays, it seemed unlikely that a work about official corruption would get produced. But Nicholas, not usually the most genial of despots, read the script and liked it. At the opening he laughed heartily, and pronounced: "Everybody gets it, and I most of all." His bureaucrats were less generous. Nevertheless, the play went on again the following month in Moscow. Ever since, it's been part of the world's dramatic repertoire.
Vsevolod Meyerhold, a great Soviet director, created the most admired of 20th-century productions in 1926; his version ended with all the characters being suddenly replaced by mannequins.
The first production in England, in 1920, had the young Claude Rains as Khlestakov, a minor clerk who becomes a con man when he arouses the fears of the townspeople. In 1966, also in London, Paul Scofield played the part under Peter Hall's direction, and in 1994 Tony Randall played Khlestakov, without much success, in a New York production directed by Michael Langham.
At the Seattle Repertory in the 1990s, the company developed Inspecting Carol, about the arrival in a small midwestern town of someone who may be a National Endowment for the Arts evaluator with the power to cancel the grant of a struggling regional theatre company. It's still being performed in various places.
Last fall, at the National Theatre in London, David Farr reworked Gogol as The UN Inspector, set in a former Soviet republic run by old communist cabinet ministers. Their mysterious visitor, a minor real-estate agent, is mistaken for a man from the UN who has the power to withdraw the new nation's foreign aid. Naturally, he's taken to the presidential palace and offered a series of bribes. Every version, even when set in 19th-century Russia, reveals its own period; Toronto's adds a post-modern touch: Khlestakov, now an actor instead of a clerk, sneaks away and writes a play, which turns out to be the play we are watching.
The Inspector General casts a longer shadow than anything else written for the stage in the 19th century. It inspired, for instance, an episode called "Hotel Inspector" in John Cleese's Fawlty Towers. Sholom Aleichem, who created Tevye the milkman, the hero of Fiddler on the Roof, was a disciple of Gogol. Mel ("I have bad taste with a deep fount of intellectuality") Brooks has always proudly listed Gogol among his masters; traces of The Inspector General appear in Blazing Saddles.
Moviegoers have had many chances to know the story. The first film version came out of Germany in 1932. In 1933 the Czechs made a movie that was then banned in Nazi Germany. The Russians made movies in 1954 (a filming of the Moscow Art Players production) and again in 1996. When Warner Brothers got to it in 1949 they made the mysterious stranger, played by Danny Kaye, part of a travelling medicine show. They added songs by Sylvia Fine, Kaye's wife, in one of which Kaye sang, "What does an Inspector General do? Inspect generals?" Warners rewrote Gogol's pessimistic ending so that Kaye could emerge as a hero.
Unfortunately, the current Canadian production is probably the worst work that Soulpepper has given us. The performance I saw was interrupted several times by the sound of reputations crashing to the ground. Nancy Palk plays the mayor's wife as an unfunny screeching harridan; William Webster, the mayor, comes across as less funny and even screechier. Morris Panych, author of the adaptation, is poorly served by Morris Panych, the director, or maybe it's vice-versa. They both apparently believe that any kind of silly gawkiness is amusing if delivered by clumsy actors jumping around the stage in fur-encrusted costumes. The adapter thinks that Russian names are hilarious in themselves and for extra laughs inserts heavy-handed Canadian references to transfer payments and the heritage minister.
If you knew nothing about Panych except this production you would assume that he thinks comedy is easy. You might also guess that the word "timing" is not part of his artistic vocabulary. Our beloved Diego Matamoros, the clown prince of Soulpepper, gives a rich, ingenious and deeply funny performance as Khlestakov. He's so good, in fact, that he almost makes the show bearable. Almost.