Thursday, March 31, 2016

It’s like living in Australia - Chekhov's Ivanov

Last night I read Anton Chekhov’s Ivanov, the first of his major plays.  The most minor of his major plays.  His only minor major play.

It was written in two weeks in 1887 and performed three weeks later.  I like that pace.  Chekhov rewrote the play from scratch in 1888, made major revisions in 1889, and tinkered with it occasionally thereafter.  I read the final version, I think.  Whatever is in the Norton Critical Edition, tr. Laurence Senelick.

Chekhov was beginning his great period about this time, with “A Dreary Story” and “The Steppe” and so on.  He did not write a play as good as his best stories on his first try.  He still depends on some stagey stuff that he will squelch soon enough, although some of the stagey stuff is pretty funny.  This is how the play begins:

IVANOV is sitting at a table, reading a book.  BORKIN, wearing heavy boots and carrying a rifle, appears at the bottom of the garden; he is tipsy; after he spots IVANOV, he tiptoes up to him and, when he has come alongside him, aims the gun in his face.  (I.1.)

You can tell that Chekhov is a beginner, because he has not yet formulated his famous “Chekhov’s gun” principle. This rifle, introduced in the first act, never goes off!  It is a different gun that is fired in the last act.  But not this one.  Totally different thing.

Maybe this opening does not look so funny, but the play is in tone a comedy, even if some of the events are pretty grim.  It is Chekhov, is what I am saying.

A Superfluous Man has fallen out of love with his wife, who is dying of tuberculosis, something she only learns when her husband blurts it out at the end of Act III.  The wife’s doctor is in love with her.  Chekhov’s doctors are always questionable figures.  A young neighbor is in love with the husband, making a love rectangle.  Aside from her feelings for the protagonist, she is the only sensible person in the play.

The comic supporting cast is excellent , like the young neighbor’s mother, a wealthy miser who resents her guests:

The Count didn’t finish his tea.  A waste of perfectly good sugar.  (II, 5)

Or the tax collector whose only subject is old games of whist, a classic bore:

KOSYKH: And suddenly, of all the bad luck, the ace of spades was trumped first round.

SHABELSKY (Grabs a revolver off the desk.[okay, this is the gun that goes off an act later])  Get out of here or I’ll shoot!

KOSYKH (Waves his hand in dismissal.)  What the hell…  Can’t a man even talk to people?  It’s like living in Australia: no common interests, no solidarity… Every man lives on his own…  (III, 3, all ellipses in original)

From the movie Country Life (1994), which is Uncle Vanya moved to Australia, I know that Kosykh is right, even though he is an idiot.  Everyone is bored, bored, bored, and it’s their own fault.


  1. Boredom is so often a motif in Chekhov. Reading about boredom in Chekhov, however, as something of a paradox, is not boring. And that is the sum and substance of my Chekhovian observations for today. But I should further note that I have just downloaded a Kindle collection of Chekhov. So, I have you to thank for giving me the nudge in that direction. Now, I think I will read a bit about boredom among Chekhov's creations. Onward!

  2. I had heard that this first play was a little more "stagey" than the later ones, so I was not expecting the boredom theme to be present. But it is just as strong as in Uncle Vanya.

    It is not boring, quite the opposite. Little changes and minor events becomes highly interesting. I become like one of Chekhov's characters.

  3. "Ivanov" has always struck me as being very much in the vein of Turgenev. It's funny how Chekhov's plays work a lot of the same territory as Turgenev's novels. In "The Seagull," the writer character even complains about how he'll always be known as "clever, but no Turgenev."

    There are unfired guns all through Chekhov's stories! There are two or three guns in "The Cherry Orchard," his final play, that are never fired.

    What's amazing about Chekhov is how quickly he wrote. He revised carefully, but even that was done quickly. In a letter to Gorky, Chekhov advises him to spend six weeks watching plays, and then take a couple of weeks to write one of his own, as if it was all that simple.

  4. Ivanov has some resemblance to Turgenev's A Month in the Country (1855), which is clever, but no Chekhov.

    The whole "Chekhov's Gun" idea strikes me as some kind of joke on posterity.

  5. "Chekhov's gun" is a neat bit of stagecraft in itself. You wonder which gun will go off and when, so Chekhov can bamboozle you with the things you didn't expect to happen.

  6. Yes, good point. The writer will mess with the audience expectations whatever they are.