Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Thunder is sent to punish us, to make us think what we’re doing - Alexander Ostrovsky's Thunder

BARBARA.  I never knew you were so frightened of thunder.  I’m not.

CATHERINE.  What, girl!  Not frightened?  Everybody ought to be frightened.  The dreadful thing is not that it can kill you, but that death can come upon you suddenly, just as you are, with all your sins, with all your wicked thoughts. (Act I)

In the small-town Spain of Lorca’s cataclysmic The House of Bernarda Alba, the unmarried girls are trapped in the house with their horrible mother.  Only marriage allows the possibility of escape.  In the Volga River town of Alexander Ostrovsky’s Thunder, or The Storm, or The Thunderstorm (1859), the unmarried women are allowed to walk openly with men.  It’s the married women who are forced into seclusion, subject to the rule of their mothers-in-law.

If this sounds odd, not quite Russian, well, it’s not.  Alexander Ostrovsky, lawyer and successful playwright, while helping with an economic survey came across a town with these unusual customs.  They were poured directly into what has become his most famous play, the only Ostrovsky play I’ve read.

The plot is pleasantly melodramatic.  Between a single friend who is all too encouraging and fear of her mother-in-law (the husband seems nice enough), a married woman, Catherine, is almost pushed into a love affair.  The affair is passionate, but insubstantial.  Catherine’s guilt is all too real.  Guess the ending.

DIKÓY.  And what is thunder, in your opinion?  Eh?  Come on, tell us.

KULÍGIN.  Electricity.

DIK ÓY [stamping his foot].  What has ellistrixity to do with is?...  Thunder is sent to punish us, to make us think what we’re doing, and you, Lord forgive you, want to protect yourself with a lot of rods and stakes.  Are you a heathen, or what? (Act IV)

No, Catherine is not actually struck by lightning – that was my guess.  The thunder jolts the story to it’s tragic end, though, just as the anti-rationalist merchant above claims it will.

I haven’t written a word about the mother-in-law, a great comic monster with a heart of ice.  I say ice, because her role in the end causes chills.  The other characters are mostly types, but the heroine somehow turns into something else, something more substantially tragic.

CATHERINE.  What were the words that he spoke?  [Holds her head]  I can’t remember.  I’ve forgotten everything.  The nights, the nights are heavy on me!  They all go to bed, and I go too; it’s all right for them, but for me it’s like going to the grave.  I’m so frightened in the dark.  A sort of noise starts up and there’s singing as if it were someone’s funeral, only it’s so soft I can hardly hear it; it’s far away from me, far away. (Act V)

Great part for an actress, huh?  Even better for a soprano.  I can hardly believe that it took sixty years for someone to turn this into an opera – Thunder is the source of Leoš Janáček’s Katya Kabanová (1921).  Ostrovsky’s play should be an opera.  It feels like one.  I don’t know what that means.  No, I do.  Good melodrama on top of a meaningful but not quite coherent symbolic level that is probably easier to express with music than words.

Translation by Joshua Cooper, from The Government Inspector and Other Russian Plays, Penguin Classics, 1972.


  1. Thunder is sent to punish us, to make us think what we’re doing, and you, Lord forgive you, want to protect yourself with a lot of rods and stakes. Are you a heathen, or what?

    So reminiscent of "The Lightning-Rod Man"! Storms are, of course, a completely normal thing for literature to focus on, but I don't feel like I've seen so much where the characters explicitly discuss thunder and lightning, their effects, whether we should be subject to them, etc. Seems like the fixation should have come closer, historically, to the invention of lightning rods or something.

  2. I've been surprised by how non-up-to-date 19th century fiction writers are. They are almost all dealing directly with big social, scientific, and philosophical changes - from 20+ years before they are writing.

    Although, for all I know, Russian provincial towns were exactly like this and Ostrovsky was right on top of things.