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Written by Timothy Sexton
The play directly satirizes the complexity and mind-numbing inefficiency of 19th century Russian bureaucracy, but has been adapted to become a universal indictment of the hoops that must be jumped through to achieve any sort of satisfaction that requires visiting a government office. The infamous red tape that characterizes any bloated hierarchical system is transformed here into an allegorical commentary about the tyranny existing throughout Tsarist Russia as the petty bureaucrats purposely engage the machinery of delay and denial to reign like demi-gods over their localized domains.
The focus of the play’s satire is they petty corruption of petty bureaucrats, but within that focus is a much larger target. The bureaucratic system becomes a symbol of all systems which societies depend upon to meet their needs. That those needs must be met lends those who can meet them tremendous power and with the power to give always comes the power to corrupt. The intricacies of bureaucratic tyranny is thus extrapolated to apply even beyond the specific target of Russian society under the yoke of a corrupt Tsar. At heart, the play is not just satirizing, pointing out how those with the power to meet the needs of others who give into temptation to abuse that power suffer the worst type of moral corruption.
The Banality of Evil
The corruption and the tyranny demonstrated by all the characters is on a level far below any grand sort of evil. There are not truly evil bureaucrats pulling the strings of darkness, Gogol suggests, but rather an enormous collective exhibition of inexhaustible mediocrity that taken together creates a service of evil. One of the most unusual aspects of the play is that it doesn’t contain a villain nor does it contain anyone that might be characterized as a hero. The real villain of the piece is the complicity of those who accept that bureaucratic tyranny because without them, the tyranny not be sustained.
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