According to D.S. Mirsky, the play "is not only supreme in character and dialogue — it is one of the few Russian plays constructed with unerring art from beginning to end. The great originality of its plan consisted in the absence of all love interest and of sympathetic characters. The latter feature was deeply resented by Gogol's enemies, and as a satire the play gained immensely from it. There is not a wrong word or intonation from beginning to end, and the comic tension is of a quality that even Gogol did not always have at his beck and call.
The dream-like scenes of the play, often mirroring each other, whirl in the endless vertigo of self-deception around the main character, Khlestakov, who personifies irresponsibility, light-mindedness, absence of measure. "He is full of meaningless movement and meaningless fermentation incarnate, on a foundation of placidly ambitious inferiority" (D.S. Mirsky). The publication of the play led to a great outcry in the reactionary press. It took the personal interference of Tsar Nicholas I to have the play staged, with Mikhail Shchepkin taking the role of the Mayor.
Pushkin had a storied background and was once mistaken for a government inspector in 1833. His notes alluded to an anecdote distinctly similar to what would become the basic story elements for Revizor.
The top officials of a small provincial town, headed by the Mayor, react with terror to the rumors of an incognito inspector (the revizor) to be sent to their town for an undercover inspection. The flurry of activity to cover up the various misdeeds and clean up the town is interrupted by the report that a suspicious person from Saint Petersburg (at that time, the capital of Russia) has already arrived two weeks ago and is staying at the inn. That person, however, is not an inspector; it is Khlestakov, a young light-headed and ambitious office clerk from the capital who is travelling to his parents' estate and remains in the hotel simply because he ran out of money.
Blinded by their fear, unclean consciences, and deeply embedded servility, the Mayor and his retinue do not hesitate to mistake this comically insignificant dandy for the dreadful inspector. For quite some time, the pseudo-inspector does not even realize that he is mistaken for someone else; he enjoys the officials' servility, dines with them, extracts huge bribes from them, and ends up engaged to the Mayor's daughter.
Luckily for him, upon advice from his more sober servant, he flees the town (promising but not intending to return) just before the town's high society is astonished by the discovery (from an intercepted letter) of his true identity. The Mayor himself speaks to the audience, announcing that they are only laughing at themselves. While we hear the officials arguing, the play is ended with the message that the real Government Inspector has arrived and wants to see the Mayor immediately, upon which the characters freeze on stage.
In 1926, the expressionistic production of the comedy by Vsevolod Meyerhold "returned to this play its true surrealistic, dreamlike essence after a century of simplistically reducing it to mere photographic realism". Erast Garin interpreted Khlestakov as "an infernal, mysterious personage capable of constantly changing his appearance". Leonid Grossman recalls that Garin's Khlestakov was "a character from Hoffmann's tale, slender, clad in black with a stiff mannered gait, strange spectacles, a sinister old-fashioned tall hat, a rug and a cane, apparently tormented by some private vision".
Meyerhold wrote about the play: "What is most amazing about The Government Inspector is that although it contains all the elements of... plays written before it, although it was constructed according to various established dramatic premises, there can be no doubt — at least for me — that far from being the culmination of a tradition, it is the start of a new one. Although Gogol employs a number of familiar devices in the play, we suddenly realize that his treatment of them is new... The question arises of the nature of Gogol's comedy, which I would venture to describe as not so much "comedy of the absurd" but rather as "comedy of the absurd situation".
In the finale of Meyerhold's production, the actors were replaced with dolls, a device that Andrei Bely compared to the stroke "of the double Cretan ax that chops off heads", but entirely justified as in this case "the archaic, coarse grotesque is more subtle than subtle".
The play was repeatedly filmed in the Soviet Union and Russia, first in 1977 by Leonid Gaidai under the title Incognito from Petersburg and most recently in 1996 with Nikita Mikhalkov playing the Mayor. Neither adaptation was deemed a critical or box-office success.
In 1949, a Hollywood musical comedy version was released, starring Danny Kaye. As is typical of Hollywood adaptations, the film bears only passing resemblance to the original play. Kaye's version sets the story in Napolean's empire, instead of Russia, and the main character presented to be the ersatz IG is not a haughty young government bureaucrat, but a down-and-out illiterate run out of a Gypsie's travelling medicine show for not being greedy and deceptive enough. This effectively destroys much of the foundation of Gogol's work by changing the relationship between the false Inspector General and members of the town's upper class.
In 1958 the comedian Tony Hancock appeared in a live TV version on BBC Television in the part of Khlestakov, one of his only performances outside situation comedy. This was recorded at the time on movie film but has not been made available for public showing.
In Italy, in 1962 Luigi Zampa directed the film Anni ruggenti (starring Nino Manfredi), a free adaptation of the play, in which the story is transposed to a small town of South Italy, during the years of Fascism.
In México, in 1974 Alfonso Arau directed and co-wrote an adaptation in film called Calzonzin Inspector, using the political cartoonist/writer Rius's characters.
In 1992, Tony-winning Broadway director Daniel Sullivan collaborated with the Seattle Repertory Company to write the Gogol-inspired "Inspecting Carol", which the Western Washington Center for the Arts describes as "A Christmas Carol meets Noises Off meets Waiting for Guffman. A man auditioning at a small theatre is mistaken for an informer for the National Endowment for the Arts. As the cast and crew cater to his every whim, they also turn the traditional tale of A Christmas Carol on its head."
The children's TV show Wishbone adapted the story for an episode.
In 2005, playwright David Farr wrote and directed a "freely adapted" version for London's National Theatre called "The UN Inspector," which transposed the action to a modern-day ex-Soviet republic.
In 2006, Greene Shoots Theatre performed an ensemble-style adaptation at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Directed by Steph Kirton, the acting used physical theatre, mime and chorus work which under-pinned the physical comedy. The application of Commedia dell'Arte-style characterisation also heightened the grotesque as well as sharpening the satire.
In 2007, the integrated group of the Nottingham Youth Theatre presented a comedy version, in which there were modern songs, and the setting was Snottinggrad, a fictional Russian town. The show was revived for one night in May 2008.
Karel Weis(s) (1862–1944): Der Revisor, 1907; probably an operetta.
Eugene (Jeno) Zádor (1894–1977): His The Inspector General was originally performed 1928; revised version first performed on 11 June 1971 by the Westcoast Opera Company at El Camino College in Los Angeles.
Krešimir Fribec (1908–1996): His Dolazi revisor was completed in 1965.
Also: Incidental Music by Mikhail Gnesin (1882–1957).
The play has been translated into all European languages and remains popular, inasmuch as it deals with the hypocrisies of everyday life along with the corruption perpetrated by the rich and privileged. In the Netherlands, for instance, André van Duin made his own Dutch version of the play called De Boezemvriend (meaning "bosom friend", "best buddy"); it is set in the Netherlands during the Napoleonic era.
In Marathi, P. L. Deshpande adapted this play as "Ammaldar" (literally 'the Government Inspector') in the late 1950s, skillfully cladding it with all indigenous politico-cultural robe of Maharashtra, while maintaining the comic satire of the original.