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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

Woe from Wit

Alexander Griboedov

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To purchase Woe from Wit

Title: Woe from Wit
Author: Alexander Griboedov
Genre: Play
Written: (1823) (Eng. 2020)
Length: 179 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Woe from Wit - US
Woe from Wit - UK
Woe from Wit - Canada
Le malheur d'avoir de l'esprit - France
Verstand schafft Leiden - Deutschland
  • A Verse Comedy in Four Acts
  • Russian title: Горе от ума
  • Translated by Betsy Hulick
  • With an Introduction by Angela Brintlinger
  • Previously translated as Gore ot Ouma by Nicholas Benardaky (1857), The Misfortune of Being Clever by S. W. Pring (1914), Wit Works Woe by Bernard Pares (1933), Chatsky (in Four Russian Plays) by Joshua Cooper (1972), The Woes of Wit by Alan Shaw (1992), Distress from Cleverness by Beatrice Yusem (1993), and Woe from Wit by Mary Hobson (2005)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : very good fun; lively if free translation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Rev. of Books . 23/3/2021 G.S.Morson
TLS . 23/7/2021 Boris Dralyuk

  From the Reviews:
  • "What makes Griboedov's drama great is its cleverness, its wit, and its linguistic play. Virtually every character is given well-turned aphorisms. The first question any good translator of a masterpiece should ask is: How can I best convey what makes this work so brilliant ? (...) No one has succeeded in conveying what makes Griboedov's play so quotable, and perhaps no one ever will, but that should be the goal. So far as possible, the rendition must sparkle with witty, quotable lines. Unfortunately, Betsy Hulick, like her predecessors Sir Bernard Pares, A.S. Vagapov, and Alan Shaw, chose to prioritize the rhyming of the play's verse. To do so, she resorts to long paraphrases. At times I could not tell how her lines corresponded to those in the original (.....) One recognizes verse, but there is no snap of wit. Hulick does produce some effective lines" - Gary Saul Morson, The New York Review of Books

  • "Confronted with the original's staggering impact on its source culture, what is a translator to do ? (...) Those who know and love the original might have wished to see more of their favourite maxims recreated, but this buoyant English version wasn't prepared with them in mind. It stands, and often takes to the air, on its own." - Boris Dralyuk, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Woe from Wit is a four-act play, covering a single day, from early morning to deep into the night. It is set in the Moscow household of Pavel Afanasyevich Famusov, an important government official, who has a seventeen-year-old daughter, Sophie; his wife -- Sophie's mother -- died when she was just a year old. Famusov's secretary, Aleksei Molchalin, also lives in the house with them -- and is Sophie's (secret) beau.
       The play begins in the morning, with Sophie's maid Liza standing watch in front of her mistress's room -- because Molchalin has spent the night there. It's not quite as shocking as it sounds (or as one might hope): as Sophie then explains to Liza, all that happened was that:

He took my hand and looked into my eyes
and now and then broke out in heartfelt sighs;
no word escaped him that could give offense,
but all was courtesy and diffidence;
and so we sat there with our hands entwined
till sunrise.                                   
       Still, it wouldn't do for Famusov to suspect that his daughter and secretary are even this close.
       Molchalin may be, as Sophie finds, "modest, self-effacing", but he also understands his position, and his future, and who might help him improve these. As Famusov quickly reminds him:
Without the help of my good offices
you'd still be drudging in the provinces.
       As it turns out, Molchalin's interest in Sophie isn't very deep: "She's for duty", he tells her maid, Liza -- the one he really lusts after.
       Also appearing on the scene early that morning is Chatsky. a childhood friend of Sophie's who has been absent for three years. He's no fan of the stultifying Russian ruling class and tired old high society, with no interest in pursuing the official-track career his family background could so easily facilitate, and he's not thrilled to be back in Moscow:
                             Can any man remain
in Moscow without softening of the brain,
incessantly attending suppers, dinners, balls ?
       Meanwhile, Famusov of course can't understand this cynical younger generation with completely wrong priorities -- counseling Chatsky:
First, I'd say: practice more civility.
And mind your property, it's been neglected.
And join the civil service: get connected.
       Chatsky can't see himself in this role -- but he does still yearn for Sophie, and is troubled to find she seems to have other suitors, Molchalin as well as another careerist, Colonel Skalozub. Chatsky tries to convince her of his passion for her, but she doesn't want to be convinced: as much fun as they had in childhood, she doesn't appreciate his sharp tongue -- his wit. But try as he might, Chatsky can't bite his tongue -- even if he wishes that he could at least pretend to be more like Molchalin:
Why can't I sometimes let my judgment go,
and be as brainless as that sycophant,
Molchalin ?                             
       Which is, of course, not exactly the best way to express that to Sophie .....
       In one of the play's best exchanges -- and there are many very good ones -- Sophie neatly sums up why she is leery of Chatsky, despite his passionate professions:
I'd go through fire for you !

But would you burn ? I doubt it.
       Culminating in a ball that evening, Chatsky continues to try to court his childhood love, even as he is disappointed in the other suitors (and her admiration for them) -- Molchalin priding himself on his: "Accuracy and moderation", traits that leave the dynamic Chatsky cold --, as well as this society in general. One old friend, Platon Mikhailovich, is now married and completely under the thumb of his wife -- sighingly admitting: "I'm not the man I was".
       Chatsky understands he is entirely out of place in this world:
But just suppose a young man should appear
who has no use for rank, or office, who prefers
to study, to engage with men long dead,
to learn the best of what's been thought and said,
or, more, is urged by promptings of the heart
to the creation of enduring art,
they raise the hue and cry: Help ! Fire !
He's a dreamer, dreams are dangerous !
Uniforms ! That's what they admire !
       In part it is generational -- "Youth ! / Always reading ! Nothing sets them straight !" Famusov complains -- but not solely, as representatives of Chatsky's generation such as Molchalin, Skalozub, and Platon have all bought into the system, and become part of it. Unsurprisingly, when the ball gets going a rumor is launched -- and readily spreads -- that Chatsky has actually lost his mind and is a lunatic: "Mad. The diagnosis fits".
       Sophie ultimately gets wise to Molchalin -- but will it matter ? Chatsky, for one, realizes that he has no place in this world, and doesn't want one, ready at the end to leave it once and for all, and good riddance.
       Woe from Wit is a very amusing play, and while woe may come from the wit on display here, it is some very fine wit indeed: even in translation, many of the lines sparkle. Even the broad comedy has a finer touch to it, too -- Griboedov may only be known for this one play (though he did write more than just this), but it is a mature work; indeed, it's easy to understand its lasting reputation as one of the great Russian comedies; really, the only surprise is why it isn't better-known (and more often played) abroad.
       Angela Brintlinger's helpful Introduction gives some sense of the continuing significance of the play in Russia, and especially the many lines that continue to be widely quoted ("Half the lines are destined to become aphorisms", Pushkin predicted, and doesn't seem to have been too far off). The centrality of language -- so also in the observations about the use of Russian, and of French, among the characters -- in the play is obvious, and the ways Griboedov works with this quite fascinating.
       Woe from Wit is a comedy in verse, and translator Betsy Hulick very much tries to capture the feel and lightness of the original -- including striving for rhymes where possible. As she points out in her Translator's Note: "English, unlike Russian, (...) is not a rhyme-ready language", and so she takes a much freer approach in the rhyme-schemes. The translation does read well -- capturing the lightness of the original -- and much of the humor easily comes across, but some of the (significant) language and language-play is lost along the way and quite a bit of the translation is very free (i.e. far from the literal); I couldn't help but wish for the Russian text facing the translation (as in, for example, Mary Hobson's translation), especially as Griboedov's Russian here is, at the basic level, not too daunting (i.e. neither too stylized nor highfalutin). But there's no doubt that great liberties have to be taken in any English rendering -- it's no wonder even Vladimir Nabokov was tempted to try his hand at this (though he never did) -- and Hulick's both captures the spirit of the original and reads (and presumably plays) very well.
       Enjoyable, clever, and very amusing, Woe from Wit deserves to be better-known and more widely performed beyond Russia.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 April 2020

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Woe from Wit: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Russian author Alexander Griboedov (А. С. Грибоедов) lived ca.1795 to 1829.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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