The Forest (Russian: Лес, Romanized as Les) is a play by Alexander Ostrovsky written in 1870 and first published in the January 1871 issue of Otechestvennye Zapiski magazine. It was premiered in Saint Petersburg’s Alexandrinsky Theatre on November 1, 1871, as a benefit for actor Fyodor Burdin. In Moscow’s Maly Theatre it was performed on November 26, 1871.
Ostrovsky started writing The Forest in the last days of summer 1870 in his Shchelykovo estate. „The end of it is near but I don’t think it would be worthwhile to try and have it staged this season,“ he informed his friend Fyodor Burdin in a letter on November 4. Initially The Forest was conceived as a family comedy but gradually the satirical line in it strengthened with Nestchastlivtsev, originally a marginal character, becoming the main hero.
Like many previous Ostrovsky’s plays, this one has been tried out at informal recitals in friends‘ literary parties. The first of such readings took place in Mikhail Ostrovsky’s home. Inspired by it success and following his brother’s advice, soon after its publication Ostrovsky nominated the play for the prestigious Uvarov Prize but hasn’t got it. The jury’s decision has been criticized by Pavel Annenkov who wrote: „Alexander Nikolayevich has been refused the Prize. Such was the decision of those walking suit-cases stuffed with quasi-scientific nonsense who sit in the [Academy’s] Department of the Russian literature, having… not a drop of taste or poetical feeling; not a trace of understanding what mastery is in literature,“ he wrote to Mikhail Ostrovsky.
On May 14, 1871 the play got the approval of the Theatre and Literature committee. It was premiered in Saint Petersburg’s Alexandrinsky Theatre as a benefit for Fyodor Burdin who played Neschastlivtsev. It also featured Maria Tchitau (as Gurmyzhskaya), Yelena Struyskaya (Aksyusha) and Platon Pronsky (Milonov). Ostrovsky was not in a position to control the process personally, tried to do it by means of letters addressed to Burdin. After the premiere the latter informed the author that the „play has been received very warmly“ but that his personal absence „did a lot of harm to the quality of the production.“ In reality things were quite different. The play flopped dismally, due, first and foremost to the inadequacy of Burdin who, according to one reviewer, „had not a modicum of a tragic actor in him.“ Tchitau’s performance (as Gurmyzhskaya) was found wanting too, in fact, only two actors, Zubrov (as Schastlivtsev) and Vasilyev the 2nd (Vosmibratov) have been mentioned by reviewers in the positive light.
In Moscow The Forest was performed on November 26, 1871, as a benefit for Sofia Akimova (who played Ulita). It also featured Nadezhda Medvedeva (Gurmyzhskaya), Glikeria Fedotova (Aksyusha), Ivan Samarin (Milonov), Vasily Zhivokini (Bodayev), Prov Sadovsky (Vosmibratov, Neschastlivstev), Sergey Shumsky (Schastivtsev).
Critics of the conservative camp reviewed the play negatively. Viktor Burenin saw The Forest as having no relevance whatsoever, arguing that the play was lacking serious content and was built upon the accidental sets of events and characters. Nikolai Strakhov, a Slavophile critic, had similar reservations, seeing the play as having no social significance and criticizing it’s humour as „Shchedrinian“ and a „low-brow“ type.
The play, on the other hand, was greeted warmly by the democratic press. It was praised by Nikolai Nekrasov (who called it ‚brilliant‘) and Ivan Turgenev: in a personal letter the latter told Ostrovsky that he thought the character of ‚a tragic‘ [actor Neschastlivtsev] to be one of his very best. Several years later Aleksey Pleshcheev, reviewing the Moscow Artist Club’s production of The Forest expressed indignation at the fact that such masterpiece has been ignored by the ‚official‘ Russian theatre. Positively ecstatic about the play was the actor Prov Sadovsky who made a personal request for his son Mikhail to feature in the role of the gymnasium student Bulanov which he did at the Moscow premier on November 26, 1871.