Boris Godunov and the Little Tragedies

Borís Godunóv

Borís Godunóv is Alexander Pushkin’s only full-length drama and one with which he was particularly pleased.  It is a historical play, in the manner of the historical plays of Shakespeare, whom Pushkin greatly admired.    The play covers the reigns of the Russian tsar Borís Godunóv (1598-1605) and of his short-lived son Feódor.   It is a story of ambition, murder, remorse and retribution, charting the story of a leader, whose aim of founding a new dynasty was foiled by a guilty past, and whose failure ushered in a time of upheaval and bloodshed for Russia.

Pushkin completed work on Borís Godunóv in 1825.  The authorities withheld permission for its publication for several years, and Pushkin was only able to publish it in 1831 after making a number of changes to satisfy the imperial censorship.  This edition is one of the few to be based on the uncensored 1825 text, the version that seems to me best to represent Pushkin’s unconstrained aspiration for the play.

The play has rarely been performed outside Russia.  The only Borís Godunóv familiar to theatregoers in the West is the musical adaptation by Modést Músorgsky, first performed in St Petersburg in 1874; but in this version much is left out and much is rewritten.

Pushkin followed Shakespeare in composing Borís Godunóv for the most part in blank verse.  A few scenes and shorter passages are in prose.  My translation reproduces Pushkin’s metres (or their absence).  I have avoided trying to convert Pushkin’s text into an archaïc, sub-Shakespearian English. This would be quite misguided: Pushkin was writing for the people of his time in a mostly contemporary diction. I have therefore translated Pushkin, not into Shakespearean language, but into a diction that will I hope speak directly to 21st century readers and audiences.

Little Tragedies

Pushkin completed these four Little Tragedies – The Mean-spirited KnightMozart and SalieriThe Stone Guest; and A Feast during the Plague –  in 1830, four years after Borís Godunóv .  All are short, one-act plays, varying in length from one to four scenes.  The subject matter is varied, but all have a Western European setting and atmosphere.  Their common theme is a leading character’s driving obsession – with money, status, sex or risk-taking – and these obsessions’ destructive effects.  In each case the obsession is one of which Pushkin had himself had close experience.

Though we live in a society more protected than Pushkin’s from the threat of extreme passions and of sudden death, we can still recognise the destructive obsessions that he analyses in these plays, which therefore retain a strong and living interest for us.

Except for two songs in A Feast during the Plague, Pushkin wrote the Little Tragedies in a similar blank verse metre to that which he had used for Borís Godunóv.  I have adopted the same metre in this translation.

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