Something of a Scandal


It started out innocently enough, Chekhov recounts that in early September of 1887 he was approach by the Korsh Theatre in Moscow and “implored” to write a play for them.  “The actors claim,” he wrote to a friend, “that I would make a good job of it because I really know how to play on people’s nerves.”  A month later we find Chekhov reporting to another friend that he wrote the play that would become IVANOV, “more or less by chance.  I went to bed, had an idea and wrote.  It took two weeks, or rather ten days, as I took some days off to write other things.”  Little did he know that this “whim” of his would lead to something of a scandal.  Here’s how Chekhov describes the impact of his IVANOV on the opening night audience: “You’ll never believe what happened…this play…this wretched piece of crap—it’s got completely out of hand.  The first performance saw more excitement in the audience and off-stage than the prompter had ever known in his thirty two years in the theatre.  There was a fearful racket, what with clapping, hissing and people nearly coming to blows.  The students in the gallery wanted to chuck someone out and the police removed two of them.  Everyone was worked up. My sister nearly fainted…” This was not the mere exaggeration of a sensitive novice playwright, for it seems that a reviewer from The Novoye Vrenya (New Times) concurred:  “No author of recent times has made his bow to such a hotch-potch of praise and protest.”  

It is somewhat tricky, from the distance of almost a century and a half, to identify just what exactly so incited IVANOV’S opening night audience to near riot.  Chekhov wrote that his strategy for this play was the same as for his short stories, “conducting each act quietly and peacefully, but with a punch in the nose for the audience at the end.”  One might initially think it was these “punches in the nose” , these certain melodramatic ticks  (the discovery of potential infidelity just at the moment of its consummation, the sudden fainting and the notorious gunshot) that provoked the audience.  But, ironically, it was more likely the “quiet and peaceful” passages that confounded an audience who had little dramatic precedent for such a more quotidian approach to the way things unfold in life.  This is perhaps most noticeable in the seemingly non-dramatic progression of Ivanov’s propensity toward depression that he finds so difficult to shake.  A condition that Chekhov captures with an unnerving clinical eye, understanding that such human dispositions refuse to conform to the demands of “the well made play” and can remain stubbornly static.  In this respect the play itself becomes an inadvertent battle between two dramatic impulses:  the melodramatic and a new conception of theatre that will ultimately lead to revelations of Chekhov’s THREE SISTERS and THE CHERRY ORCHARD.  A new type of drama where, on the surface, very little seems to happen but underneath there are soul-altering repercussions.  Here in IVANOV, Chekhov is still struggling with how to bring this aspect of life to the stage.

The controversy did not die down after the first performance but rather continued to dog the play’s early production history.  Chekhov writes that he was besieged by anonymous letters attacking the play, with one “socialist (obviously) waxing indignant in his unsigned letter that after my play, one young man died, that my play is dangerously harmful… a small spark can start a conflagration. From a mere bagatelle, for some reason or other, has arisen a strange, barely comprehensible apocalypse.”  All of this would suggest there is more at work here than just a quibble over form, something else is also “playing on the nerves” of Chekhov’s audiences.   Again we must return to the character of Ivanov who, for Chekhov, is more than just a “psychological type” but also a critique of a particular “Russian sensibility.”  Chekhov in another letter confesses:

“I wanted to be original:  to produce not a single villain, or angel (although I couldn’t help creating a jester), to accuse nobody, justify nobody…Ivanov is a member of nobility, university educated, in no way remarkable; he is an emotional man by nature, easily aroused, passionate, honest and upright, as are the majority of the educated nobility.  His past was wonderful, of course, like that of most Russian Intellectuals.  There isn’t one, or badly a single Russian nobleman, or university type, who doesn’t brag about his past.  The present is always inferior to the past.  Why?  Because our Russian enthusiasm has a peculiar property:  it’s swiftly usurped by exhaustion.   Such a man burns with fervor, has scarcely leapt up from the school bench before he assumes a burden beyond his strength, instantly dedicates himself to building schools, the cause of peasantry, rational agriculture…makes speeches, writes to ministers, battles against evil and proclaims the good…and hardly has he reached thirty-five years of age and he is worn-out and boredom sets in.  The Ivanov’s of the world then set themselves up as ‘superfluous men’ or village Hamlets, and take comfort in that.  Men like Ivanov no longer solve problems, they sink under their weight, feel lost, spread their arms, shrug and join the ranks of the ‘misunderstood.’  They search for the reasons for these changes and find only a vague feeling of guilt.  This very Russian feeling.  These are Ivanov’s characteristics and the word ‘Russian’ features heavily.  Don’t get angry about that.”

It may very well be that Chekhov’s first audiences did indeed lose their temper with this rather unflattering portrait of themselves.  Like many geniuses, Chekhov has the gift of making the regional become universal.  Ivanov’s “problem” still feels like our “problem.”  His fate seems to still rhyme with the fate of many progressive individuals at the end of the late 20th and early 21st Century.  It is not a pretty picture and although Chekhov labored to rewrite the play to make it somewhat more palatable for audiences, it remains the black sheep of Chekhov’s dramatic family, a genealogy which includes the now almost universally beloved:  SEAGULL, VANYA, THREE SISTERS and CHERRY ORCHARD.  There is a ferociousness in IVANOV that startles. It is a ferociousness that exists in all the plays of Chekhov but with each successive work, he seems to bury it deeper and deeper into the subtextual life of the characters that it seems to vanish.  But it is still there, secretly motoring all the plays.  In IVANOV, Chekhov can not yet submerge these feelings; they are there, out in the open, let loose and running wild.  It is a rare opportunity to see what Chekhov would later repress in his subsequent masterpieces, as though we were given special access to their subconscious.  Although IVANOV has not yet become as integral a part of the world repertory as its dramatic brothers and sisters, this prodigal play, when it does return, does so with a vengeance.  Even after almost a century and a half, the play still has all its teeth intact, they can still bite and, as you will see, they still draw blood.

Brian Kulick