The Choice of a Tutor by Denis Fonvizin

Denis Fonvizin 2

At the end of October 1915, in the British literary magazine The New Age, Carl Erich Bechhöfer continued with his regular column ‘Letters from Russia’, which he had been contributing from the turn of the year. His subject this time was Denis Ivanovich Fonvizin (1745-1792), the Russian playwright, whose name Bechhöfer renders as ‘von Vizin’, which had been the typical spelling in Russia until the middle of the nineteenth century.

Bechhöfer states that he has translated in full ‘a little farce’ by this ‘father of the Russian stage’, which ‘though almost unknown, is a miniature of his two bigger and famous comedies’. He gives its title as The Choice of a Tutor. Выбор гувернера in Russian, it was the last and the briefest of Fonvizin’s published plays, appearing in 1790.

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From 1907 until 1922 under the editorship of Alfred Richard Orage, The New Age helped to shape modern thought and literary Modernism. Styled as ‘A weekly review of politics, literature, and art’, when the magazine began to embrace guild socialism and diverge from some popular leftist causes, it made room for the foundation in 1913 of the New Statesman, headed by Sidney and Beatrice Webb and other members of the Fabian Society.

The New Age was printed in double columns, folio sized, with small type and prominent woodcut illustrations. In accordance with Orage’s interests, beyond the literature and politics of the day, it continued through the First World War to publish German poetry and philosophy, with an early abundance of articles on Friedrich Nietzsche. It was also one of the first magazines in Britain to discuss the ideas of Sigmund Freud. Contributors included Katherine Mansfield, Ezra Pound, T. E. Hulme, Beatrice Hastings, Walter Sickert, Marmaduke Pickthall, Herbert Read, Edwin Muir, and George Bernard Shaw, who provided initial financial support for both The New Age and the New Statesman.

In late October 1915, Bechhöfer was only twenty-one years old. Born and raised in London, he had studied the classics in Germany before embarking on a world tour which took him to India, China, and Russia, during which time he learnt Russian and began contributing to The New Age. In 1919 in Tbilisi, he met the spiritual leader George Ivanovich Gurdjieff.

Developing his own longstanding curiosity for Theosophy and other branches of mysticism, and becoming close to Gurdjieff’s pupil Peter D. Ouspensky, in 1924 Orage sold The New Age and went to work with Gurdjieff in France. He subsequently became one of Gurdjieff’s leading proponents in the United States, before a decisive break in 1930. In a diminished form after Orage’s departure, The New Age continued publication until 1938.

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Earlier in this issue of The New Age, Vol. XVII No. 26, Orage – writing under the initials R. H. C. – had roundly condemned Russian literature. After criticising Maxim Gorky and, by way of an aside, Jack London, suggesting that their work possesses intensity but lacks the quality of duration, Orage states:

‘We ought to be getting a tolerably complete view of Russian literature. Most of the publishers are producing translations of one degree of merit or another, and between them nothing much will be left to be discovered. How soon shall we be able to form a good general judgment upon it? Negatively it already begins to form itself in my mind. To begin with, its range is really very narrow, being confined to types on the edges rather than in the centre of civilisation. Of culture in the Western European sense – Italy, France, and England are its home – there is less in Russian literature than even in German literature. I scarcely remember a wit or a scholar in all the Russian books I have read. Then, too, the affairs of the world seem never to blow about the pages of Russian authors. They have none of the elevation of the great, good Europeans. Tchekov is the nearest approach to a cultured writer among them, and he was little more than a very talented provincial. France and England will have much to do to bring Russia into the Western mood. It will take a century at least. I should like to know that our classics are being translated and circulated in Russia, even more extensively than Russian works are being circulated here. Russia has more to learn of us than we of her. Can Mr. Bechhofer tell us?’

Bechhöfer’s immediate response is his translation of Fonvizin’s The Choice of a Tutor. Denis Fonvizin remains best known for his two comedies The Brigadier-General and The Minor. Highly valued by later critics from from Pyotr Vyazemsky to Vissarion Belinsky, these are uniformly considered the finest Russian plays until Alexander Griboyedov’s Woe from Wit more than forty years later. Alexander Pushkin especially admired Fonvizin’s humour, expressing the continuity between his drama and the literature of Nikolai Gogol. In D. S. Mirsky’s A History of Russian Literature, Mirsky writes:

‘Both comedies are plays of social satire with definite axes to grind. The Brigadier-General is a satire against the fashionable French semi-education of the “petits-maîtres.” It is full of excellent fun, and though less serious than The Minor, it is better constructed. But The Minor, though imperfect in its dramatic construction, is a more remarkable work and justly considered Fonvizin’s masterpiece. As is the rule with Russian classical comedies, it contains a pair of virtuous lovers, who are uninteresting and conventional. All the interest is concentrated in the Prostakov family and their surroundings.’

Though ‘surrounded by a galaxy of talented comic playwrights’, Mirsky concludes that Fonvizin was ‘superior to all his contemporaries in the art of drawing character and writing comical dialogue’, offering ‘a worthy introduction to the great portrait gallery of Russian fiction’.

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The Choice of a Tutor

By Denis Fonvizin (1790). Translated by Carl Erich Bechhöfer (1915).

Act I.

COUNTESS WEAKHEAD (looking at the time) : It has only just struck eight. Why have you risen so early, Count?

COUNT : In the country it is not a bad thing to get up a little early.

COUNTESS : Yes, but not for a count. Your highness ought to live like a count; we do not have to manage our affairs; thank God, we own three thousand souls, and it will last our time; and then I am not so educated as to be a good manager.

COUNT : True, Countess; and I do not know anyone of your father’s line who would be able to manage affairs. The line of Whirligigs is noble, I agree; but not one Whirligig can manage affairs.

COUNTESS : Certainly; I, although not a countess in my own right, am, however, of a good family of nobles, and I think that my line does no discredit to the line of the Counts Weakhead.

COUNT : Countess, friend, I rose early to-day because I am concerned for the education of our Count Basil. Everyone tells me that he should now have a tutor: where will you find one here in the country?

COUNTESS : It seems to me, it would not be a bad thing to discuss it with our marshal. Although he is not very nice to ladies, yet for Count Basil’s sake I am ready to speak to him; I only fear that he will give our son as instructor such a bear as himself. I mortally dislike serious faces.

COUNT : I doubt whether Mr. Wisely be capable to choose an instructor for the son of Count Weakhead and his countess, born a Whirligig.

COUNTESS : However it may be, I have already sent for him. I think that our Mr. Wisely will not be too proud to visit Count Weakhead. There, he has come already.

WISELY (enters) : You were pleased to send for me, and I supposed that you perhaps called me on some business, and did not delay to come to you.

COUNTESS : I beg you to take a seat and converse with us about a very important matter.

WISELY (sitting) : What can I do for you?

COUNT : We have a son of ten years; we wish to give him a tutor. You are our marshal; be so kind, advise us.

WISELY : The matter is important, certainly, when it concerns the education and consequently well-being of a young noble; but it is not such an affair that I need to have come to you.

COUNT : I feel that it was my duty to go to you myself, but my countess inconsiderately and without asking me sent for you; excuse the impatience of a countess.

WISELY : I am not at all offended; on the contrary, I am pleased that you would have come to me on this business. By my position I know all our nobles. Recently I made the acquaintance of a gentleman who not long ago bought a small village in our district-a Major Flatternot. If he were to consent to educate your son, would you be pleased?

COUNT (after a pause) : Countess, speak!

COUNTESS : A Russian tutor! I do not like that very much.

COUNT : Does he know French?

WISELY : Better than many of those Frenchmen whom you would be glad to receive in your house.

COUNT : What is his character?

WISELY : His name is Flatternot, and he is quite worthy of that name.

COUNTESS (sotto voce) : Some rude fellow, to be sure.

WISELY : Is it really to be rude not to flatter?

COUNTESS : Almost.

WISELY : Allow me to assure you that from the person I recommend as instructor for your son you will have neither rudeness nor flattery.

COUNT : We, on our side, will neglect nothing to show him our respect, and will always call him “Your Honour.”

WISELY : That is, you expect him every minute to call you “Your Highness.”

COUNTESS : It seems to me that everyone should be given his proper title.

WISELY : But you consent to call him “Your Honour” for another reason.

COUNT : Which?

WISELY : So that all should know that your son’s tutor is a major.

COUNTESS : And is that a great thing? My son is a count, and so it seems to me that a major is not humbling himself to undertake his education.

WISELY : Mr. Flatternot certainly will not consider it a particular honour to be tutor to your son; and if he does consent to undertake this position, it will be certainly only in order to be useful to a brother nobleman.

COUNTESS : I think, however, that rank is merit.

WISELY : The least of all human merits. To be born a count is not difficult, and one may by right of rank be called “Highness” without having high qualities, such as zealousness to be useful to one’s country. You, your highness! how have you served the country?

COUNT : I was a sub-lieutenant in the guard, with a captain’s grade on retirement.

WISELY : Do you not show yourself the vanity of your rank as count? I wager that your son, if he is taught by Mr. Flatternot, will have quite another sort of ideas, and will be worthy of the honour which the path of nature opens to him.

COUNT : I was unlucky in my service. I could not reach major, and am now obliged to nag about the country.

COUNTESS (sotto voce) : This man is irritating me! If Mr. Flatternot reached major, then, I think, he will teach my son to reach the same.

WISELY : Have no doubt of that; he will teach your son to receive promotion in the service of his country, and not by bowing in great gentlemen’s antechambers.

COUNTESS : Maid! Call Count Basil here.

MAID : He is not pleased to come.

COUNT : Ask him from us. (Enter the young count and nurses.)

NURSE : Come here, Count dear.

SECOND NURSE : Please come here, your highness!

THIRD NURSE : Your hand, please, your highness!

YOUNG COUNT (running up to her and giving his hand) : There, kiss it.

COUNTESS : Count Basil, friend, embrace me.

YOUNG COUNT (holding out his hand to her) : There, mother. (Holding out his hand to Wisely) : There.

WISELY : I, friend, do not intend to kiss your paw; give it to the Count, your father.

COUNT : And I don’t want to.

YOUNG COUNT : Why? You kissed it yesterday, father.

COUNT : Shame before a strange person.

COUNTESS : Shame to love one’s son!

WISELY : Shame to spoil one’s son.

COUNTESS : You see, sir, that we are educating our son as seems proper.

WISELY : I see only that you are driving everlastingly ‘‘Your Highness” into his head.

COUNTESS : And it is proper to call him what he is.

WISELY : He is a child.

COUNTESS : And of what line?

WISELY : A Weakhead.

COUNTESS : I hope that he has much of his father’s in him.

WISELY : That is the Weakheads.

COUNTESS : And of his mother’s? (The young Count turns away.)

WISELY : There, that is your line, the Whirligigs.

COUNTESS : Count Basil is very lovable, is he not?

WISELY : I do not know if he is lovable, but I see that he is much loved by you.

COUNT : I am curious to be acquainted with Mr. Flatternot. When could that be?

WISELY : Now, if you wish.

COUNTESS : You would much oblige us.

WISELY (going out) : I will drive to him at once.

COUNT : I think the marshal will soon bring us Mr. Flatternot.

COUNTESS : I can imagine no good from it, and would be furious with regret to hand over Count Basil into the hands of a Russian lout, like Flatternot, to be sure.

COUNT : It will be in our will to take Flatternot or not take him.

COUNTESS : Count, friend, let us go to our apartments, that our expected guests should await us half an hour and see that they have come to your highness.

COUNT : For Heaven’s sake, do not advise me that, if you do not wish to be a widow quickly.

COUNTESS : But why?

COUNT : Mr. Flatternot, as I see it, is a man of merit, and certainly, being a major, does not wish to wait in a captain’s anteroom; he will get furious and cut me up.

COUNTESS : He dares not do this before the marshal.

COUNT : Well, you see, madame, that to-day rank alone is not much respected, and people who value it highly are thought fools; then is Flatternot likely to contain himself for the marshal when Mr. Wisely said to me himself, ‘‘There’s no praying for fools.”

COUNTESS : I cherish the hope that we shall get through without Flatternot. I received a letter to-day from Countess Folliest. She recommends me a French tutor, a Mr. Pelican, and we shall engage him.

COUNT : But first we will have a look at Flatternot.

COUNTESS : Maybe; I consent.

SERVANT (entering) : I announce to your highness that the marshal has come with a strange gentleman.

COUNT : I’ll go to meet him; but you, Countess, receive them here.

Act II.

COUNT : Countess, this is Mr. Flatternot. Mr. Flatternot, my wife.

FLATTERNOT (kissing countess’s hand) : I recommend myself to your highnesses’ favour as a neighbour and nobleman of these parts.

COUNT : I beg you to be seated. Our respected marshal, no doubt, has already told you of our desire, just as we heard from him of your proposal to take charge of a young nobleman.

FL. : He has informed me of everything; but beforehand I ought to hear from you yourselves what education you intend to give your son : what you wish to teach him or to prepare him for which service?

COUNT : I wished to hear of this from you.

FL. : I would think to educate his mind as is fitting for a nobleman.

COUNTESS : Of the rank of count!

FL. : I do not understand; what difference do you find between the rank of nobleman and count?

COUNTESS : I find, sir, this difference, that a count should be more careful than a nobleman that no one should be lacking in respect to him.

COUNTESS : A count should be more delicate than a nobleman on the point of his honour.

(A page missing here in the original manuscript.)

COUNTESS : But I thought that nature and rank were the same thing.

WISELY : You hear, madame, that a natural count may be also a natural fool.

COUNTESS : And so Mr. Flatternot is not pleased that our son should know he is a count, and does not wish to give him the title of Highness.

FL. : I would not take upon myself the sin-do not be furious with me-to turn a little boy’s head, like your son’s, with fancies about his countship, Highness, and similar folly; but I will strive hard to set into his head and heart that he, as of noble birth, should possess, also, a noble mind.

COUNTESS : And that is not a bad thing. But what are you thinking about, Count?

COUNT : I am thinking of what I hear, and myself can think of nothing; but I know it’s dinner-time, and I beg you, therefore, marshal, and you, sir, to eat with me.

FL. : At your service.

SERVANT : Dinner is served.

COUNT : Come.

Act III.

COUNTESS (alone) : Thank Heaven that dinner is over! I have come here to rest from the conversation of the marshal and Flatternot; Heaven protect us from such fault-finders! At dinner I received a letter from Countess Folliest; I did not manage to read it; now I will read it at my leisure. (Reads.) “Dear Countess,–If you wish, you can take Mr. Pelican now as tutor for Count Basil. The Frenchman is full of abilities; he draws teeth expertly and cuts corns.” Oh, what luck! He is also a corn operator, and I so want one. “He will take a moderate price, and will call you Countess as well as the Count: votre altesse!” (Enter count.)

COUNTESS : Oh, my dear Count! Countess Folliest is doing us a great benefit; she has found a tutor for Count Basil who can also draw teeth and cut corns; and, what is most important of all, he will give us the title: votre altesse!

COUNT : What could be better? (Enter Wisely and Flatternot.)

COUNT : What would you wish to teach my son?

FL. : First of all, the principles of the faith in which he was born.

COUNTESS : And dancing?

FL. : You are pleased to joke.

COUNT : And what foreign languages?

FL. : I begin with Latin.

COUNTESS : But is he to be a priest?

FL. : But is Latin only fit for priests?

COUNT : I do not know what a count’s son should learn Latin for.

FL. : Because it is the root of many languages.

COUNTESS : Well, I never.

COUNT (to her) : Do not forget to send an answer quickly to Countess Folliest.

COUNTESS : At once. We will come back at once. Excuse us that we have to send off a postilion to our neighbour.

WISELY : At your service. (Exeunt Count and Countess.)

WISELY : Do you find the Count’s household as I described it to you?

FL. : Exactly. But it seems to me that I am already beginning to be a burden to them.

WISELY : Yes, and they do not seem to be very contented with me. (To servant.) Have my carriage got ready, friend. (To Fl.) We can go away at once.

COUNTESS (entering, to Count) : I have invited the Countess herself with Pelican; maybe Count Basil will have a tutor after our heart.

COUNT (aloud) : Here we are, gentlemen. We have hurried back to enjoy your conversation.

FL. : A great honour.

COUNTESS : I wanted to ask you, Mr. Wisely, do you think it would be good to send our son to France in ten years’ time?

WISELY : You are looking far ahead, madame. We do not know whether in ten years’ time there will be anyone to send or anyone to send him to.

FL. : And I say in addition that we cannot foresee whether in ten years’ time France itself will exist if the French gentlemen do not soon cease their ramblings.

WISELY : There is what a kingdom has come to, which all Europe so many years has wished to imitate in everything. When I read descriptions of the ruinous condition of France, I would like to know against which political rule do the French aim in establishing equality of condition.

COUNT : I do not understand it.

WISELY (to Fl.) : I have not happened to speak with you of this; I should like to know your opinion of it.

FL. : I do not undertake at all to decide your question; but I am ready to offer my opinion for your judgment. Here it is : nowhere and never have been or can be such laws as would make every individual man happy. It is indispensably necessary that one part of the subjects should sacrifice something for the sake of the whole kingdom; consequently there cannot be equality of position. That is the invention of the lying philosophers who by their eloquent intellectualisms have led the French to their present situation. They, desiring to avert the abuse of power, are endeavouring to destroy the form of government by which France has attained all her glory. For all this, however much the attempt may and will cost them, they will never attain an equality of situation, whatever laws they make; for one part of the subjects will always require the sacrifice of another. That is what I think of the present French legislation.

WISELY : But if there cannot be laws to make every individual man happy, then what sort of legislation is left?

FL. : It remains to calculate that the number of sacrifices should be proportionate to the number of those for whose happiness sacrifices are made.

WISELY : So the legislator ought to be a great calculator.

FL. : But these political calculations demand a far more excellent mind than is wanted for mathematical calculations. One can value a hundred Eulers for one Colbert and a thousand Colberts for one Montesquieu.

WISELY : But why?

FL. : Because in mathematics from one certainty one goes on to another mechanically, so to speak, and the mathematician has before him all the discoveries of his predecessors; he needs to have only patience and ability to use them; but previous discoveries do not lead the politician on the right path. The mathematician reckons with figures, the politician with passions; in a word, the political sense is and ought to be incomparably higher and is much more rarely met with than the mathematical.

WISELY : Oh, how blessed is that land where such a rare political sense sits upon the throne!

FL. : And how happy those who are citizens of such a land! (To the Count.) What are you thinking of, Count?

COUNT : I do not understand anything of what you both were talking about.

WISELY : And have you heard that there arc now no counts in France?

COUNTESS : That is almost incredible; I did hear something, but I could not believe it.

WISELY : Do you really not understand the French troubles?

COUNT : I believe that they are great when they put counts on the same level as other people.

FL. : When your son goes to France, he will not be a count.

COUNTESS : Then I will not send him there-not for anything!

SERVANT (enters) : Countess Folliest has been pleased to arrive, with a stranger.

COUNTESS : I go to meet the benefactress of our house. (Countess F. enters.)

Both COUNTESSES : Your highness!

COUNTESS F. : I present Mr. Pelican to you.

P. (grimacing) : Votre altesse!

COUNTESS F. : Here is a tutor for your son, dear Countess.

P. (grimacing) : Votre altesse!

WISELY : I know that ugly face.

P. (sees Wisely and runs away, shrieking) : I don’t want be here, I don’t!

COUNTESS F. : What has happened to him?

WISELY : I will solve the riddle for you. That emptyheaded Frenchman was a nurse’s assistant in some almshouse in France; he can draw teeth and cut corns-nothing else. He came to Russia, and I found him in another neighbourhood, where I have an estate, among the teachers of young noblemen. I considered it my duty to inform the Governor of this, and he, thinking such vagabonds harmful to the country, cleared him out on my representation, and therefore, when he saw me here, he ran away, fearing evidently that I shall clear him out by the neck again. However that may be, I shall see the Governor tomorrow and endeavour to remove him from our district in twenty-four hours.

COUNTESS : Marshal, moderate your strictness at our request.

WISELY : Countess, you are free to follow or not follow my advice as to the education of your son by the person I have introduced to you; but I, as marshal of the nobility, cannot endure that such a rascal should be in our midst to corrupt the heart and heads of young noblemen.

COUNTESS (to herself) : If I had thought, by sending for the marshal to find an instructor for our son, we would lose through him a competent tutor that would come into the room and give us our due at once by calling me and my husband, votre altesse!

COUNTESS F. : Why is the marshal at your house?

FL. : I came here on the invitation of the marshal, who is zealous for the advantage of noblemen; but now I shall not consent for anything in the world io be the instructor of a boy whose parents are infected entirely by fancies about rank.

WISELY (to Count and Countess) : Your humble servant! In advance, do not expect me again.

COUNT : As you wish.

COUNTESS : Countess, let us go to our apartments. (Exeunt Count and Countesses.)

FL. : Queer people! Tell me, what guides their thoughts and deeds?

WISELY : What guides them? Silly pride.