An Interview with Ivanov Director Austin Pendleton

You once acted in Ivanov.  Can you talk about the production and your role, and what insights you have on the play from that experience?

I played Lebedev, the part that Louis Zorich is now playing, almost twenty-two years ago at the Yale Rep. The director was Olag Eframov, who was the Artistic Director at the Moscow Art Theater. He had directed a highly-acclaimed production of IVANOV and was invited over to do the American play – and Oleg didn’t speak a word of English. He was among the most charming people I’ve ever met and utterly brilliant, and he had that Slavic “I’ve seen-it-all” quality. It would take an awful lot to upset him. If he didn’t like what you were doing he would say, “Niet, Niet” and then he would speak to the translator in Russian, who would then translate to us. He was very autocratic – but he was so sweet about it, that you decided to just roll over like a puppy and do what he wanted. He would do a whole speech for you in Russian – and you would say to yourself, “Ok, he seemed to get loud in the middle of it and then he got softer.” So I’d get loud in the middle and then I’d get soft…there was not in the literal sense any communication at all. But there was a profound communication.

How is IVANOV different from the Chekhov we know in his later plays?

When we were [working on] THREE SISTERS and UNCLE VANYA, we spent a long time around the table just reading the play and breaking it down, line by line, saying “Here I think what happens is this” although the character isn’t saying it directly…they ask this and somebody answers them with something that isn’t what they wanted. So the whole task was to find out how every moment in the play actually moves that along so the audience can feel that. After two and a half days at the table [with IVANOV] I thought, they mean exactly what they’re saying, there’s no point in spending any more time at the table. We have to start to find the behavior on our feet. There are repetitions in it. They feel like they need to keep explaining themselves to each other, over and over. When you’re in a relationship with a depressive—Ivanov is a very agitated, active depressive, but he’s a depressive—conversations that you have with a depressive go in circles. That’s part of the nature of the affliction and how it affects the people around the affliction. You keep saying the same things to each other. Because the question “why are you behaving like this?” is finally unanswerable. And so they explain why they’re behaving like that. Then they come back the next day and say, “If you would just do this” and they say, “I can’t do this” and you say “Why?” and they explain. And the next day they say “Well, maybe if you do this?” and then “I can’t do this” and so on. It just goes in circles. The way the play builds is that just gets more raw as the play goes on. Whereas other Chekhov plays move out of the circular path. Also, unlike the other Chekhov plays there is a main character. UNCLE VANYA is called UNCLE VANYA but there are four or five leading roles, almost any of whom could be called the protagonist. Here there’s no question who is the protagonist.
What are the challenges associated with playing the role of Ivanov?

You don’t want to drive the audience mad – that’s one challenge. And you do want to drive the audience mad – which is the other challenge. That takes a really brave actor. Ethan is one of our major actors. I acted with him twenty years ago and I felt “Here it is!” Ethan reaches out. I think it’s very important for Ivanov. He reaches out. He wants out of this. He doesn’t understand it. Chekhov perfectly understood this. Chekhov was a doctor. A lot of the evidence in Chekhov biographies, particularly recent ones, you feel maybe he was no stranger to this affliction himself. Although that is speculation. But in any event, he was a doctor. He’d treat people that were afflicted with depression. He probably had some early insights into that.

Would you say that’s Ivanov’s main problem, his affliction with depression?

Oh yeah, he’s in the grip of depression. William Styron, who wrote SOPHIE’S CHOICE, and LIE DOWN IN DARKNESS, wrote a book quite late in his life, a very brief little book, about his depression. He said people think of depression as the blues, and he described it more as a “howling of the brain.” That’s what this play is like. And Chekhov treated that a lot. Not as a psychiatrist, but as a physician. I mean, he observed that a lot. I don’t know how he could treat it. It was pre-meds. It was pre-electro-shock therapy. What do you do? There was a play written about it three hundred years before that called HAMLET. In Elizabethan times, as in the times of the late nineteenth century in Russia, people would watch the best and the brightest of them being swallowed up in front of their eyes by some invisible animal—all their will, all their excitement, all their optimism—just being devoured in front of their eyes and everybody looks helpless. The person themselves know their being eaten up, but they can’t see or feel the animal. This was before people began to say “there must be a way to treat this.” Nobody knew what to do about it. And everybody would think, often the depressive themselves, would think, “Oh, I’m going through a bad period.” For a while Ivanov says, and for a while Hamlet thinks, “Ok, I’m really just going through a bad time right now.” But then it just starts to stretch out, and the realization sets in “Oh my God, what if this never ever lifts?” And the person, in the case of Ivanov, gets more and more frantic. Hamlet does, too. Hamlet goes to England – and he thinks that’ll do it. Then he comes back and he just goes “whatever.” He virtually allows himself to die. In IVANOV, he actively brings that about. It afflicts everyone around them. Both characters, Hamlet and Ivanov, drive everyone around them literally mad, because they don’t know what to do about it either. Everyone in this play keeps trying! Including Ivanov himself. But they can’t find the button to make it stop, I guess. But they’re frantically pushing buttons all the time.

You’ve worked with a number of actors in this production before. Can you talk about the benefits of having a mixed company of past and new collaborators? How do you go about getting everyone on the same page?

I’ve had that experience all my life—almost every show I’ve done—where there’s some people you’ve never worked with before but you’ve known, some you’ve never heard of at all, some you’ve worked with – and that’s been true of almost every show I’ve ever directed and that’s thrilling. You don’t try to pull them together. You try to let everybody bring what they’re gonna bring and you just stir. One of the best stories about directing I’ve ever heard – it may be apocryphal, but it’s true – have you ever seen the movie of Streetcar Named Desire with Vivian Leigh and Marlon Brando? Well, you can’t imagine two actors coming from more completely different traditions. If you’ve seen that movie, often they’re in the same shot a lot of the time that they play together. And Kazan would apparently say to Brando, “Oh Marlon, you know you wanna have sex with her. You’re hot, you’re sweaty, you’re territorial…” And then to Vivian: “Perhaps an upward inflection?” I think that’s the best single story about direction I’ve ever heard. They’re both playing on their strength and you see in the movie that they’re electric together. There’s none of this “now we have to agree on a way to work” which means you’re going to compromise somebody. You don’t have to be on the same boat. You shouldn’t be on the same boat, actually. And so that’s what is exciting to do or to try to do, particularly with this cast. All the actors are so willing that it’s easy to do that even though they have different histories as actors; they’re all just so open.

Carol Rocamora Interview

Can you tell us about Chekhov’s early life and work? What makes Ivanov different from his four major plays?

Chekhov’s life is very organized and it divides really into four acts. He had the Taganrog act when he was a young boy growing up for the first nineteen years of his life. IVANOV was written during act two: the Moscow years. Ten years he lived in Moscow. He got there in 1879, and went to medical school, but he had written, already, two full-length plays. One he had written when he was seventeen back in Taganrog called FATHERLESSNESS. We don’t know anything about that because the script is lost. But we have the title. The second play he wrote, PLATONOV, we have a script, but no title. We made up the title PLATANOV. It was a sprawling 7-hour work with twenty characters, but with all the seminal themes and the setting of Chekhov’s later plays. All of Chekhov’s plays are set on estates. All of Chekhov’s plays deal with the same themes of the decline of the landed gentry. They all deal with love and Russia and nature and the passage of time. Now we get to IVANOV–it’s now 1887. Chekhov has graduated from medical school in 1884. He has already had his first lung hemorrhage. So his health is starting to get a little iffy, but at the same time his work is starting to reach it’s peak. By 1887 he had already written 400 short stories, already published in two collections. He was the toast of Moscow, but as a short story writer. The year after he wrote IVANOV he wins the Pushkin Prize, which is our equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. But ever since Chekhov was a young man, he always wanted to make his mark as a dramatist. His skill was really in funny short stories, and I really believe had he not contracted a terminal illness at such an early age, he would be the Neil Simon of Russia and not the Chekhov of Russia! He was really a funny guy in a slowly dying body…but when he wrote IVANOV, neither of the two other plays had been produced – so he calls it in his letters his ‘first play’, he was so proud. Because he got a commission from a commercial theater to write whatever he wanted. And of course, everyone anticipated he would write a funny play because he wrote funny short stories, but he said in his letters to his brother and friends – “I want to write something original and I want to create a type of literary significance.” I.e. he wanted to write the Russian HAMLET. I mean – very specifically. You have the references in the text over and over to Hamlet, and in his letters over and over. And in fact some of the lines in the play – are direct references to Hamlet. So, to answer the question, in this play you have one central character and then an ensemble surrounding him. Whereas in the later, more mature plays, where his craft really developed, then you have the ensemble. So that’s the major difference. Number two – this is a very melodramatic play. You have a character who shoots himself on stage at the end of the fourth act. I mean, even Treplev has the good sense to shoot himself off-stage. You have a very melodramatic play, a bi-polar play about a depressed man, really. I mean you have wildly funny scenes, wildly melodramatic scenes.

How would describe Chekhov’s dramatic language? How does his use of Russian compare to other writers such as Turgenev or Dostoevsky?

This is why I feel that it’s useful for an audience to hear a translation of Chekhov’s plays rather than an adaptation, particularly from a translator that knows the language. Chekhov’s language is lyrical. It’s musical and alliterative. And it’s specific to the characters that are speaking. For example, some say Ivanov is so pretentious – and I say “Well, he’s a pretentious guy!” Sasha is straightforward; she’s a straightforward young woman. The language is lyrical, musical, alliterative. It’s sometimes razgovorny, which means colloquial, but it’s also knizhny, which is very literary. I feel modern directors tend to like more adaptations, because they’re easier for the actor. But that’s like taking Shakespeare and paraphrasing him. Most adaptors do not know the Russian and work off of transliterated texts from Russian speakers. And they tend to adapt so it sounds like David Mamet or Tom Stoppard – all of whom are wonderful – or Richard Nelson or David Hare. Those are the notable, very fine contemporary writers who have adapted Chekhov, but they’re not giving you his language. It’s highly musical and it’s repetitive. For example, in rehearsal, the repetition is driving Ethan crazy. I feel my job is to just translate what Chekhov wrote and also to translate the musicality and the specificity of the language. Not change it to make it comfortable for actors. Ethan says, “Oh my God, he uses the word cazca,” which can be translated as ennui, melancholy. He uses it four times in two sentences – I say “yeah.” So we finally cut one of them, but those are the decisions that get made when you put up Chekhov before contemporary public. Chekhov is not at all like Dostoyevsky – he’s more like Turgenyev. But he’s much more light, his language is androgynous. He’s not terse and muscular. His sentences are not long. He repeats himself. For example, he doesn’t say “I love the Russian countryside.” He’ll say – “You know, I really – how shall I say it? Let me put it this way, I love the Russian…countryside.”

Can you tell us about Chekhov’s career as a playwright before THE SEAGULL. What was his development as an artist?

So now IVANOV is the second play. It opens and there are hilarious letters about fistfights in the buffet, people yelling and screaming, wildly divergent responses. People either loved it or hated it. The problem centered around that main character, they didn’t understand why he did what he did, how he behaved as he behaved. So in terms of Chekhov’s development as a playwright, if you look at his letters between the time the play opened and then over the next eighteen months when he was rewriting it over and over again for the St Petersburg opening, because it opened in Moscow, he’s intensely frustrated – over and over he says two things: It’s too early for me to be writing plays. I’m frustrated that they don’t understand my Ivanov- that’s because it’s too early for me…. He knew what he wanted to say, but he felt he didn’t have the craft. So in a way, Treplev is a new incarnation of Ivanov, if you want to put it that way. But IVANOV is straight from HAMLET. I mean, it’s the Russian HAMLET.