The Government Inspector is one of the most famous Russian plays, renowned for its satirical portrayal of government officials and laced with apocalyptic, absurd overtones. Vladimir Nabokov praised the play, stating “The play begins with a blinding flash of lightning and ends in a thunderclap. In fact it is wholly placed in the tense gap between the flash and the crash.”
Just as he would go on to do with his novel Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol famously asked fellow writer Alexander Pushkin to give him a plot; he claimed he would turn it into a five-act play. He did not care if it was “amusing or not, so long as it is a purely Russian anecdote,” and he bragged that he would finish it “in one burst, and I swear it will be devilishly funny!” The reply to the letter does not exist; some scholars posit that perhaps Gogol already had a plot in mind, or that he simply took something from Pushkin without asking. Regardless of how Gogol devised the idea for The Government Inspector, also called The Inspector General, he took only two months to finish the text.
The first performance was held at the Alexandrinsky Theater stage in St. Petersburg. Opening night was the 19th of April, 1836, and Emperor Nicholas I himself was present at the performance. Gogol was despondent by what he saw, though: the comedy seemed not to be understood by actors, nor by the audience. He thought the actors were too “vaudeville” in their behavior; he felt the need to correct aspects of the text and further emphasize the way the mute scene at the end should be conducted.
In 1836, Gogol published his Collected Works, which included a corrected and altered text of The Government Inspector. Further changes would be made over subsequent years, especially to Act IV. Gogol issued a definitive edition in 1842, and a few slight changes were added to an 1851 edition.
Contemporary critics were divided. Some responded well to the play, while others described it as coarse, vulgar, plotless, and improbable. Gogol was distressed by the reaction and left the country, eventually settling in Italy for a number of years. He wrote his friend Shchepkin, “I am sick of the play and all the fussing over it. It produced a great noisy effect. All are against me...they abuse me and go to see it.” He also rued, “a prophet has no honor in his own country.”
Over the nearly two centuries since it first premiered, the play has been staged numerous times. There have been versions for television, opera, dance, and film.