Northern Illinois University Press

The Play of Ideas in Russian Enlightenment Theater

Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter

"A work of meticulous scholarship.... Readers will attain a rare sense of emotional and moral engagement in the Russian society of the era."
—Richard Stites, Georgetown University

"A wonderfully conceived work of cultural history, well researched in its chosen primary sources, well structured, and well written."—James Cracraft, University of Illinois at Chicago

"A path-breaking and fascinating book from a prolific scholar."—Christine D. Worobec, author of Possessed

How did enlightened Russians of the eighteenth century understand society? And how did they reconcile their professed ideals of equality and justice with the authoritarian political structures in which they lived? Historian Elise Wirtschafter turns to literary plays to reconstruct the social thinking of the past and to discover how Enlightenment Russians understood themselves.

Opening with an illuminating discussion of the development of theater in eighteenth-century Russia, Wirtschafter goes on to explore dramatic representations of key social questions. Based on an examination of nearly 300 secular plays written during the last half of the century, she shows how dramas for the stage represented and debated important public issues—such as the nature of the common good, the structure of the patriarchal household, the duty of monarchs, and the role of the individual in society.

Wirtschafter presents a striking reconstruction of the way educated Russians conceptualized a society beyond the immediate spheres of household and locality. Seeking to highlight problems of "social consciousness," she asks what Enlightenment Russians thought about social experience—and how their ideas related to actual social relationships in a society organized around serfdom and absolute monarchy. She portrays Russian Enlightenment culture on its own terms, while at the same time shedding light on broader problems of social order and political authority in imperial Russia.

(2003) 311 pp.
ISBN: 978-0-87580-310-4
cloth $44.00

Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter is Professor of History at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. The recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship in 1998, she is the author of numerous articles and several books, including most recently Social Identity in Imperial Russia.

Table of Contents

1. Theater and Society
2. The Social Meaning of Plays
3. The Patriarchal Household
4. Civic Society
5. The Common Good
6. Moral Monarchy
Conclusion—The Individual in Society and Polity
Appendix—Biographies of Authors

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ISBN: 978-0-87580-310-4
cloth $44.00