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Reuven Tsur

The End of Boris
(Work in Progress)

This essay explores certain dramatic effects in Boris Godunov—in Pushkin's tragedy and Mussorgsky's opera. I will compare certain issues in the play and the opera; and two different endings of the opera reflecting different versions. From the theoretical point of view, I will draw upon some of the classics of dramatic theory: Aristotle (Poetics), Wilson Knight (The Imperial Theme), Francis Fergusson (The Idea of a Theater), and Dorothea Crook (Elements of Tragedy); and upon the great classic of cognitive criticism, Barbara Herrnstein-Smith (Poetic Closure). Some Shakespearean analogies, too, will be invoked. I will argue that the opera Boris Godunov is an ironisation of ritual drama.

As we will see, Aristotle conceives of the tragic hero's nature in ethical terms. To the ethical problems I will adopt Wilson Knight's conception of "Imaginative Interpretation", and extend it from Shakespeare criticism to a handling of the opera medium: "Interpretation should be soaked in the dramatic and visual consciousness" (Knight, 1965: 20).

For in the theatre we are surely concerned rather with imaginative effects than ethical problems. We see things as light or dark, happy or sad, peaceful or turbulent. To such simplicities we there respond intuitively. So, if we are to find an intellectual meaning for any play or scene, we should, as far as possible, keep as close as we can to the visual or aural imagination (Knight, 1965: 21-22).

When one compares Rimsky-Korsakov's revision to Mussorgsky's own 1872 version of Boris Godounov, one becomes aware of an intriguing discrepancy. The former ends with Boris's death scene, preceded by the Kromy Forest scene; in the latter the scenes occur in a reverse order (the early 1869 version ends with Boris' death, and the Kromy Forest scene has no trace in it). To complicate things, in Pushkin's tragedy (whose text Mussorgsky followed to a considerable extent) there is a third, quite different ending. Richard Osbourne's essay in the brochure of the CD edition of Cluyten's recording gives us valuable information about the genesis of the opera. An early version of Mussorgsky's ends with the death scene, whereas the Kromy Forest scene has no trace in it. Mussorgsky later revised this version; and after Mussorgsky's death, Rimsky-Korsakov re-orchestrated and revised Boris Godunov "in a heroic endeavour to make the opera even more audience-friendly".

In the revised version, the Kromy Forest scene ends the opera, shifting the focus away from Boris and giving the opera a powerful new shape. As Richard Taruskin has pointed out, the opera's three great moving forces now appear in palindromic equilibrium: Crowd Boris Pretender Boris Pretender Boris Crowd. (The Rimsky-Korsakov version recorded here reverts to the original ending, a decision that can be overruled by playing CD3 tracks 16-22 before tracks 9-15.) (Osbourne, 2002: 13).

Why is one ending more "audience-friendly" than the other? And why do some contemporary musicians and audiences (and apparently Mussorgsky himself) prefer precisely the ending that is supposed to be less "audience-friendly"? I will argue that the key to an answer lies in the pair of notions propounded by Barbara Herrnstein-Smith as "closure" and "anti-closure". Furthermore, at some variance with the above paragraph, it appears to me that the different endings have, in Wilson Kinght's term, opposite imaginative effects; and that ending the sequence with "Crowd" fulfils a function that is much more significant than merely completing the "palindromic" pattern. I would even say that the function of the palindromic structure, if perceived at all, is to mitigate, or counteract a much more powerful effect of this ending (to introduce some stability into continuity).

To clarify these issues, I shall recapitulate here some of the common knowledge about classical tragedy. In the prototypical Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, social and cosmic order is violated by what Aristotle calls "deed of horror", and Dorothea Crook "act of shame or horror", which sets the tragic action in motion, and involves the hero in an unresolvable conflict. When, at the end of the tragedy, the hero dies or is expelled from the city, the conflict and disorder are resolved, order and equilibrium are restored to society and the universe. At the end of the typical Shakespearean tragedy, after the death of the tragic king, a new, resolute leader emerges, who inspires stability and firmness of purpose; or even explicitly promises a new, stable and just reign. In Hamlet, Fortinbras becomes the embodiment of the new order; in Julius Caesar, it is Octavius Caesar, who by his mere actions overrules the will of his partners in the triumvirate. In King Lear the Duke of Albany, in Richard III the victorious Richmond make their purpose explicit. Albany indicates the new era with only a few words:

[to Kent and Edgar]
                       Friends of my soul, you twain
Rule in this realm, and the gor'd state sustain.

Richmond sums up a longer speech (and the play) by the following couplet:

Now civil wounds are stopp 'd, peace lives again:
That she may long live here, God say amen!

In the last scene of Oedipus the King, the Leader of the chorus declares Creon to become the new ruler:

[Enter Creon]
Leader: No, here is Creon, at an opportune time for your requests, be they for action or advice; for he alone is left to guard the land in your place.

In the rest of the scene, Creon assumes control over the fate of Oedipus and his children, and becomes the commanding figure.

In Boris' death scene there is a significant twist in this pattern. In harmony with the established pattern, in his farewell speech he gives a few rules of thumb to his son as a lesson of good and righteous kingship.

Farewell, my son, I die.
Now thou shalt commence to reign
Ask not how my realm I gained.
Thou needst not know.
Thou shalt rule by right
as my heir, as my first-born son.
My son! My beloved child,
trust not the calumny of seditious boyars
watch keenly their secret dealings
with Lithuania,
punish treachery without mercy
and without favour,
sternly pursue the justice of the land,
justice incorruptible,
as a warrior guard the true faith,
sacredly honour God's holy saints.

The action of Boris concerns lawful succession, hereditary right. In his death scene Boris hands down his realm to his lawful heir, Fyodor. He emphasises the lawfulness of this succession. However, his deed of horror consists, precisely, in a brutal violation of hereditary right: he had a small child murdered, who also happened to be the rightful heir of tsardom. In his final speech, Boris himself cares to remind the audience of this ("Ask not how my realm I gained"). Thus the text makes it clear that the death of the protagonist will not, eventually, purify the state and the universe. This lawful succession merely perpetuates the state of usurpation. King Claudius in Hamlet was well aware of this problem:

                          since I am still possess'd
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
May one be pardon'd and retain the offence?
III. iii)

But Boris hopes to expiate his crime by his own death, and leave his innocent son in posession of the effects of his crime. Boris' crime is monstrous, indeed; and Pimen, and Shuisky, as well as some of the simple people in the play and the opera don't spare words and rhetoric to impress this monstrosity on the audience's mind. In his relentless manipulations to achieve the throne Boris is, as we shall see, a faithful pupil of Shakespeare's King Richard the Third; and like so many Tsars before and after him, he preserves his kingdom by relying on corrupt policemen and a system of informers. Notwithstanding, when he appears on stage, all we see of him is tender affection toward his children, genuine care for the welfare of his people, fear of God and penitence. In Pushkin's play, moreover, he shows determination to reform the state, elevating talented rather than wellborn people. Thus, paraphrasing Aristotle (Poetics: XIII), his change of fortune presented in his death scene is not the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity: nor that of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity; nor, again, the downfall of the utter villain; but rather the character between these two extremes—that of a man who is not eminently good and just, but one who has committed a monstrous crime; at the same time, arouses the audience's sympathy with some conspicuous acts and attitudes of genuine kindness.1

I have won power supreme.
Six years already have I reigned in peace.
Yet happiness resides
not in my tortured soul!
In vain did soothsayers foretell for me
long days of power unchallenged.
But neither life, nor power,
nor of glory the delusion,
nor the people's shouts
do bring me happiness!
In my own family
I looked to find some joy,
and for my daughter made
a merry wedding feast,
for my princess,
my pure white dove.
Then like a storm
death stole the groom away...
How heavy is the hand
of the almighty Judge,
how dread the sentence
on a guilty soul...
Around I see but dark
and gloom impenetrable!
If only there did glow
a ray of comfort!
With sorrow now my heart is filled,
and my tired soul
doth grieve and languish.
Some secret fear,
I wait for I know not what...
By fervent prayer
to God's saints,
I hoped to still
the torments of my soul...
I, blessed with great
and glorious power absolute,
ruler of Russia,
begged for tears of consolation.
And then, they tell me
of the boyars' plot,
intrigues in Lithuania,
secret machinations,
famine, and plague
and fear and devastation...
Like wild beasts the people roam,
stricken with disease:
and Russia groans
in hunger and poverty...
In this affliction dire,
sent down by God,
for all my grievous sins a punishment,
they name me cause
of all these evil things,
and curse the name
of Boris everywhere!
And even sleep doth flee,
and in the dark of night
the bloodstained child doth rise...
His eyes ablaze,
his hands pressed tight,
he begs for mercy...
But mercy there was none!
The fearful wound gapes wide!
I hear the shriek that heralds death...
O Lord, my God!

The last two scenes of the opera Boris Godunov, the death scene and the Kromy Forest scene, display opposite "imaginative effects". The former is in the high-mimetic, the latter in the low-mimetic mode. The former is characterised by majesty, "noble" feelings and acquiescence in death. In the latter, we witness a mob of vagabonds who get hold of one of Boris' boyars, deride him and threaten to tear him into pieces. They perform such mock-rituals as a mock-coronation, and a mock-wedding with the oldest woman in the mob. This scene is comic and extremely frightening at the same time—in one word, grotesque. The grotesque is the co-presence of the laughable and what is incompatible with it: in this case, terror as to the imminent fate of the boyar, and horror as to wedding a woman over one hundred years old. The second part of the scene is dominated by a pack of children who deride and abuse a "holy" simpleton. At the end of the secene, the simpleton remains alone on stage, wailing for the desolate Russian people.

Now it makes all the difference in the world if you end the opera with one scene or the other. If you end it with the death scene, it not merely conforms with the conventions of tragedy and opera. Rather, these conventions reflect psychological principles that render cessation as a proper ending, displaying a sense of finality. If this scene is preceded (rather than followed) by the grotesque, ludicrous scene, it may lead to a mood described by the chorus at the end of Milton's Samson Agonistes as follows:

His servants he, with new acquist
Of true experience from this great event,
With peace and consolation hath dismissed,
And calm of mind, all passion spent.
In this case, the ludicrous scene is perceived as a kind of "comic relief" foregrounding, by way of contrast, the last scene. Nevertheless, the frightening element in it forebodes the final catastrophe. If, however, the death scene is followed by the Kromy Forest scene, the grotesque impact would sabotage both the "calm of mind, all passion spent", and the sense of stability generated by the magnificent—in short: the sense of finality already achieved.

Barbara Herrnstein-Smith's notions of closure and anti-closure are relevant here. She summarises her introductory discussion of "closure" as follows:

Closure occurs when the concluding portion of a poem creates in the reader a sense of appropriate cessation. It announces and justifies the absence of further development; it reinforces the feeling of finality, completion, and composure which we value in all works of art; and it gives ultimate unity and coherence to the reader's experience of the poem by providing a point from which all the preceding elements may be viewed comprehensively and their relations grasped as part of a significant design (Herrnstein-Smith, 1968: 36).

Earlier she suggests: "That expectation of nothing, the sense of ultimate composure we apparently value in our experience of a work of art, is variously referred to as stability, resolution, or equilibrium" (ibid., 34). Herrnstein-Smith's main concern is devices of "structural closure". In the present instance, however, one powerful ingredient in this closural effect is what she calls "thematic closure", or "closural allusion". When a tragedy (or opera) ends with death, "it creates in the [audience] the expectation of nothing", "it announces and justifies the absence of further development"; it ends the great mental (and interpersonal) conflicts, generating a sense of "stability, resolution, or equilibrium". It inspires the audience not only with awe, but also with certitude. Likewise, going away typically ends a scene, even metaphorically alludes to death. "Partir c'est toujour un peu mourir".

When the death scene is followed by the Kromy Forest scene, the effect is very different. As I said, the majestic effect of Boris' death, and the sense of equilibrium generated (all passions spent), are sabotaged by the grotesque mob of vagabonds and pack of unbridled children. The audience is shaken out from the "calm of mind" achieved. Toward the end of this scene, the victorious pretender makes a short appearance and makes a royal statement, and then marches out of the stage, followed by the mob. This could, perhaps, serve as a second closure, compensating for the violation of the previous closure. But Mussorgsky sabotages this too. The simpleton alone remains on stage, ending the opera with a monotonous, wailing chant.

Listen to the Simpleton's wailing at the end of the opera

click here

Such an ending arouses a "sense of combined continuity and stability" (Herrnstein-Smith, 1968: 245)—closure and anti-cosure at the same time. Such anti-closure is felt to be very modern. Indeed, Herrnstein-Smith points out that anti-closure is prevalent in much modern poetry and music. But she also elaborates on a point wich suggests that the implications of such an ending reach much beyond the sense of modernism and the perceptual frustration generating it. This point may throw new light on the whole opera.

I will argue that Mussorgsky's opera reflects a quite different conception of tragedy from Pushkin's play. In his (Marxist) introduction to a Hungarian translation of Pushkin's Boris Godinov, Georg Lukács pointed at the affinity and difference between Pushkin's conception of Russian history, and that of the contemporary Decabrist movement, with whom Pushkin strongly sympathised. The Decabrists were an oppositionary group of intellectuals. Their view of the problems of Russia was abstract and detached from the masses. Pushkin's play, by contrast, was deeply rooted in the life and culture of the people. Boris' tragedy is not merely his individual tragedy, but affects the well-being of the entire people. I will argue that this characterisation of Pushkin's tragedy is valid of Mussorgsky's opera as well. But Mussorgsky widens the scope of its relevance far beyond that, to encompass a vision of a violation of the cosmic order. What is more, he does this in the grotesque mode. In our view, both Pushkin's and Mussorgsky's dramas are based on a conception of the play as the "imitation of an action"; but in practice, this imitation assumes different shapes. The greater part of Mussorgsky's libretto follows the events and even soliloquies and dialogues of Pushkin's play. But some of the deviations at least conspicuously serve the purpose of foregrounding these different dramatic conceptions.

Francis Fergusson (1955) puts forward an "idea of a theater" which is based on stressing its relationship to ritual drama. This drama offers an all-embracing vision of human existence. Like ritual itself, it attempts to capture the life of the individual, of the community and of the universe—as focussed upon a single action. His first four case studies are of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Racine's Bérénice, Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, and Shakespeare's Hamlet. Putting it in an oversimplified way, Racine's play represents "the action and theater of Reason", whereas Wagner's Singspiel represents "the theater and action of Passion". Sophocles' and Shakespeare's tragedies offer a "pre-rational" all-encompassing vision of human existence. "In Sophocles' [dramaturgy] the basic unit is the tragic rhythm, in which the mysterious human essence, never completely or finally realized, is manifested in successive and varied modes of action" (Fergusson, 1955: 63). "For the peculiar virtue of Sophocles' presentation of the myth is that it preserves the ultimate mystery by focusing upon the tragic human at a level beneath, or prior to any rationalization whatever. The plot is so arranged that we see the action, as it were, illumined from many sides at once" (ibid., 29).

I argue that quite a few of the changes Mussorgsky made in the libretto are meant to generate such "a wonderfully unified dramatic form". The following paragraph may be illuminating both with reference to Sophocles and Mussorgsky:

Mr. William Troy suggests that "what is possibly most in order at the moment is a thoroughgoing refurbishment of the medieval fourfold method of interpretation, which was first developed, it will be recalled, for just such a purpose—to make at least partially available to the reason that complex of human problems which are embedded, deep and imponderable, in the Myth." It appears that Sophocles, in his play, succeeded in preserving the suggestive mystery of the Oedipus myth, while presenting it in a wonderfully unified dramatic form; and this drama has all the dimensions which the fourfold method was intended to explore (Fergusson, 1955: 28).

There is, then, a "complex of human problems" soaked with "suggestive mystery". The fourfold method of interpretation makes it "at least partially available to the reason", serving as a prism, to separate it like white light into a spectrum of colors; or, in Kenneth Burke's favourite metaphor, the chord is turned into an arpeggio. Sophocles and Mussorgsky, by contrast, aim at an immediate perception of that white light, of the chord—to perceive "the suggestive mystery" in a single intuition.

In terms of Wilson Knight's conception of "Imaginative Interpretation", the successive scenes of majestic death and grotesque mob in Boris Godunov constitute, "in the dramatic and visual consciousness", a simple contrast of order and disorder, of stability and chaos, closure and anti-closure. Such an ending of successive closure and anti-closure allows the audience to perceive the wide spectrum of human existence, ranging from the individual to the cosmos, in an immediate vision. To suggest the rationale of this, we must return to Barbara Herrnstein-Smith's notion of anti-closure in modern music and poetry. This musical and poetic practice is part of a "new aesthetics" which, in turn, reflects a particular view of human life. I have quoted Herrnstein-Smith saying that closure "gives ultimate unity and coherence to the reader's experience of the poem by providing a point from which alI the preceding elements may be viewed comprehensively and their relations grasped as part of a significant design". Cosequently, owing to its lack of closure, the opera leaves us with a sense of forsaken significance, a sense of "no goal toward which to move". It is illuminating to contrast this "New Philosophy" to Aristotle's conception of tragedy. Tragedy's typical "effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident" (Aristotle: "Poetics", Part IX). The philosophy of the new aesthetics, by contrast, is summarized by Meyer as follows: "The denial of the reality of relationships and the relevance of purpose [...] and the assertion that predictions and goals depend not upon an order existing in nature, but upon the accumulated habits and preconceptions of men—all these rest upon a less explicit but even more fundamental denial: a denial of the reality of cause and effect" (Herrnstein-Smith, 1968: 178). Tragedy, with its closure indicated by death, as conceived by Aristotle, reflects a meaningful universe governed by a logic of cause and effect; modern music and poetry, with their anti-closure, reflect an incoherent universe, in which the logic of cause and effect does not hold. This characterisation of the universe is not conveyed by some verbal message, but by presenting to immediate perception a structural failure comprising verbal, visual and musical elements simultaneously.

Where conviction is seen as self-delusion and all last words are lies, the only resolution may be in the affirmation of irresolution, and conclusiveness may be seen as not only less honest but less stable than inconclusiveness (Herrnstein-Smith, 1968: 240241).

Such anti-closure does not tell about irresolution; it shows irresolution. Hamlet, Donne, and Yeats used words to convey a certain world feeling of disorientation: "The world is out of joint"; "Tis all in peeces, all cohaerance gone"; and

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world ...

One cannot put on stage such a state of affairs concerning the world. "The dramatic and visual consciousness" cannot grasp such a state of affairs in a single act of immediate perception. The Kromy Forest scene does, perhaps, dramatise the statement "Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world". But it does much more than that: the grotesque on the one hand, anti-closure on the other, arouse what Thomson (1972) calls "a sense of confusion and emotional disorientation". This sense interacts with the closing words uttered by the Simpleton.

(Jumps up, looks around, then sits down on his
stone and sings, rocking to and fro)

Flow, flow, O bitter tears,
weep, O Christian soul,
soon the enemy will come
and darkness will fall,
darkness, terrible darkness.
Woe unto Russia,
weep, weep, O Russian people.
Hungry people!
(Offstage the dull toll of the alarm continues.
Seeing the light from the conflagration the
Simpleton shudders.)

Imitation of an Action

The Plot is the imitation of the action—for by plot I here mean the arrangement of the incidents. [...] But most important of all is the structure of the incidents. For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality (Aristotle: "Poetics", Part VI).

Unity of plot does not, as some persons think, consist in the unity of the hero. For infinitely various are the incidents in one man's life which cannot be reduced to unity; and so, too, there are many actions of one man out of which we cannot make one action (Aristotle: "Poetics", Part VIII).

Both Pushkin's and Mussorgsky's plots are imitations of an action. Aristotle (and Fergusson) distinguish between "plot" and "action". Aristotle defines "plot" as "the arrangement of the incidents". He does not, however, provide a workable definition of "action". "For this purpose practical rules may be devised, notably that of the Moscow Art Theater. They say that the action of a character or a play must be indicated by an infinitive phrase, e.g., in the play Oedipus, 'to find the culprit'" (Fergusson, 1955: 244). By analogy, the action of Boris Godunov is "to sustain lawful succession, hereditary right". Both Pushkin's and Mussorgsky's drama begin at a time when the tsar is dead and Boris, the late tsar's brother-in-law, refuses to accept the crown. There is no other heir, because the lawful tsarevitch was murdered. Both plays end with Boris' death, the nomination of his son as the next tsar, and the pretender (who has assumed the dead tsarevitch's identity) asserting his "hereditary rights". Anarchy in the Kromy Forest scene, as a straightforward opposite of the purpose of this action, is an organic part of it. Not as in Shakespearean tragedy, at the end of which stability and order are re-established by the most lawful person available, in Boris Godunov, both the tragedy and the music drama, Boris' reign is finally replaced by a pretender's. In Pushkin's play, this is not merely an abstract knowledge that the new ruler is a pretender; it is conveyed with "dramatic and visual consciousness". The death of Boris' children in the last scene is not a thematic closure, but rather a warning sign of the pretender's future course as a ruler. — — — — — — — — — —

Pushkin uses a quite unique device to indicate two different (even opposite) aspects of his plot. Four times in course of the tragedy, he provides the exact dates of certain historical events: February 20, 1598; anno 1603; October 16, 1604; December 21, 1604. This suggests, on the one hand, that there is a selection in the construction of the plot. Pimen's chronicle, written in his monastery cell, aspires to a full presentation of historical events, whereas Pushkin's plot centers around four crucial dates, and a few intervening functional events. The author has at his disposal the historical sequence of events in the time span of almost seven years. But he selects only those crucial events which are relevant to the purpose of the action: "to sustain lawful succession, hereditary right", so as to conform with "the proper magnitude [of the plot, which] is comprised within such limits, that the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity, will admit of a change from bad fortune to good, or from good fortune to bad" (Aristotle: "Poetics", Part VII). In the present instance, the tragedy begins with the masses at the Red Square imploring Boris to accept the crown; and ends not only with Boris' death, but also the loss of his tsardom to the pretender, and the brutal murder of his beloved children. On the other hand, these dates suggest that we are confronted with something that is historical reality, not mere fiction. This suggestion reinforces one of the conspicuous effects of anti-closure:

As we observed in chapter 1, one of the functions or effects of poetic form is to "frame" the poetic utterance: to maintain its identity as distinct from that of ordinary discourse, to draw an enclosing line, in other words, that marks the boundary between "art" and "reality." Now, it is clear that to the extent that the propriety of that boundary line itself is questioned, so also will be the propriety of its closural effects (Herrnstein-Smith, 1968: 234).

Tragedy is the imitation of an action; and an action implies personal agents, who necessarily possess certain distinctive qualities both of character and thought; for it is by these that we qualify actions themselves, and these—thought and character—are the two natural causes from which actions spring (Aristotle: "Poetics", Part VI).

Boris' downfall is effected not by divine punishment external to the plot, but by his character and thought. "The unraveling of the plot [...] must arise out of the plot itself" ("Poetics", Part XV). It has psychological rather than physical motivation, generating a "sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity". Victory (or defeat) on the battle field depends too much on the relative strengths of the armies, rather than on character. As to the fortunes at the battle field, we see the pretender mourning for his dead horse, and Pushkin—one of his followers—commenting in an aside "He is mourning for his horse, at a time when our army is wholly destroyed". What defeats Boris is not the physical strength of the enemy's army, but Dimitry's mere name (that is, his own conscience), and the masses' wish to see Dimitry resuscitated and restored to power.

The holy monk Pimen and the runaway drunken monks Varlaam and Missail make one impressive appearence near the beginning of Pushkin's play, never to reappear. Mussorgsky makes them reappear in the last two scenes, the former in Boris' death scene, the latter in the Kromy Forest scene, thereby rendering the structure of the plot more closely knit. Their reappearance is most significant, tilting the balance of the plot in the cosmic, transcendental direction. This change is in harmony with the general conceptions of the two authors. Pushkin's play has strong overtones of criticising the political establishment of the boyars. Mussorgsky tones down these overtones and foregrounds those elements that have affinity with ritual drama (but, as we shall see, with a twist).

The runaway monk Gregory has assumed the identity of the murdered tsarevitch Dimitry, claiming his tsardom. The Russian people believe he is genuine; and the Lithuanians and Poles have political interest to believe that he is genuine: he provides them with a pretext to invade Russia. The Roman Catholic Church hopes to convert with his aid the Pravoslav Russians. So, he receives all the support in the world. Now there goes a story about an old blind shepherd to whom the murdered Dimitry appeared in his dream, and was eventually healed at Dimitry's grave. This story proves beyond doubt that Dimitry is dead and buried and the claimant to the throne must be a false pretender. But by the same token it also suggests that God considers Dimitry's murder particularly foul, and made him one of his saints. This story is told in Pushkin's play as a malapropos advice by the Patriarch to the king suggesting that it could be used to expose the pretender. His suggestion makes the boyars feel embarrassed, and the tsar sweat. In the opera we get the same story, almost word by word, with only minor omissions. Nevertheless, it undergoes very significant changes. First, in Pushkin, it occurs in mid-plot, as one of several emabarrassing incidents, whereas in Mussorgsky it occurs at the end, in Boris's death scene, becoming the immediate cause of Boris' fatal heart attack. Secondly, instead of a Patriarch lacking political commonsense, it is told by Pimen, who becomes a prophetic figure. Pimen is introduced by Shuisky as follows:

Here, at the Grand Porch
a humble pilgrim doth await assent
to present himself to your illustrious vision.
A man of justice and good counsel,
a man of reproachless living,
a great secret would he relate.

Pimen's ensuing story about the miraculous heeling of the blind shepherd is "beyond good and evil". There is no indication whether it is meant as admonition or consolation; it is "a great secret", focusing upon "the tragic human at a level beneath, or prior to any rationalization".


1. "[T]he change of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither pity nor fear; it merely shocks us. Nor, again, that of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity: for nothing can be more alien to the spirit of Tragedy; it possesses no single tragic quality; it neither satisfies the moral sense nor calls forth pity or fear. Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves. Such an event, therefore, will be neither pitiful nor terrible. There remains, then, the character between these two —that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous—a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families" (Aristotle, Poetics: XIII). [Back]

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