Among the problematic works of great writers, Pushkin's Boris Godunov occupies a special place. This strange hybrid of history, drama, narrative poetry, and prose Pushkin called a “romantic tragedy,” and he considered it his masterpiece. Yet the play's publication in 1831 was met with surprise and dismay. By consensus of a baffled public, Boris Godunov was a failure—neither romantic, nor feasible on the tragic stage.
Since that time, generations of critics, playwrights, and producers have tried to come to terms with this troublesome text. Tolstoi's famous comment—that all great nineteenth-century Russian works defy clear generic classification1—has been invoked in defense of many irregular texts, but not this one. Boris remains stubbornly, inexplicably “undramatic.” Criticism has in fact tended to redefine the play rather than to investigate it. Boundaries are routinely blurred between the historical Tsar Boris, the historical period when his tale is retold, and the world of the fictional creation itself.