Boris Godunov (Russian: Борис Годунов, Borís Godunóv; variant title: Драматическая повесть, Комедия o настоящей беде Московскому государству, o царе Борисе и о Гришке Отрепьеве, A Dramatic Tale, The Comedy of the Distress of the Muscovite State, of Tsar Boris, and of Grishka Otrepyev) is a closet play by Alexander Pushkin. It was written in 1825, published in 1831, but not approved for performance by the censor until 1866. Its subject is the Russian ruler Boris Godunov, who reigned as Tsar from 1598 to 1605. It consists of 25 scenes and is written predominantly in blank verse.
Modest Mussorgsky's opera, Boris Godunov (1874), is based on this play.
Having finished the play, Pushkin famously wrote to his friend Pyotr Vyazemsky: "What a Pushkin, what a son of a bitch!".
Pushkin wrote of the play:
The study of Shakespeare, Karamzin, and our old chronicles gave me the idea of clothing in dramatic forms one of the most dramatic epochs of our history. Not disturbed by any other influence, I imitated Shakespeare in his broad and free depictions of characters, in the simple and careless combination of plots; I followed Karamzin in the clear development of events; I tried to guess the way of thinking and the language of the time from the chronicles. Rich sources! Whether I was able to make the best use of them, I don't know – but at least my labors were zealous and conscientious.
The first performance took place on 17 September 1870 at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, given by the artists of the Aleksandrinsky Theatre. Production personnel included Aleksandr Yablochkin (regisseur), and Matvey Shishkov (scene designer). The cast included Leonid Leonidov (Boris), Vasiliy Samoylov (the False Dmitriy), Pyotr Grigoryev (Pimen), Yelena Struyskaya (Marina), and Pyotr Zubrov (Shuysky).
The Moscow premiere took place on 19 November 1880 at the Maliy Theatre. Production personnel included Sergey Chernevsky (regisseur). The cast included Nikolay Vilde (Boris), Aleksandr Lensky (the False Dmitriy), Ivan Samarin (Pimen), Maria Yermolova (Marina), Osip Pravdin (Shuysky), and Mikhail Lentovsky (Basmanov).
Vsevolod Meyerhold attempted a staging of the play in the 1930s. Meyerhold commissioned Sergei Prokofiev to write incidental music for his production, but when Meyerhold abandoned it under political pressure, the score was abandoned as well.
The original, uncensored play did not receive a première until April 12, 2007, at Princeton University in the United States, and then only in an English translation. This production was based on Meyerhold's design and featured Prokofiev's music, together with supplemental music by Peter Westergaard. Chester Dunning, Caryl Emerson, and Sergei Fomichev's The Uncensored Boris Godunov seeks to rescue Pushkin's play from obscurity.
The Royal Shakespeare Company staged the British premiere of the original 1825 edition at Stratford on Avon in the fall of 2012. The play had been translated into English by Adrian Mitchell.
A familiarity with the historical events surrounding the Time of Troubles – the interregnum period of relative anarchy following the end of the Rurik Dynasty (1598) and preceding the Romanov Dynasty (1613) – may facilitate an understanding of the play. Key events are as follows:
The culpability of Boris in the matter of Dmitriy's death can neither be proven nor disproved. Karamzin, the historian to whom the drama is dedicated, accepted it as fact and Pushkin himself assumed it was true, at least for the purpose of creating a tragedy in the mold of Shakespeare. Modern historians, however, tend to acquit Boris of the crime.
The following gallery depicts the scene designs created by Matvey Shishkov for the first performance of the drama in 1870 at the Mariinsky Theatre, Saint Petersburg, Russia.