“A Month in the Country” by Ivan Turgenev

I’ve long had a theory – which will, I am sure, be quite exploded in the comments section of this post by people better read than myself – that while the novel was establishing itself in the nineteenth century as perhaps the most important literary form of the age, drama lagged significantly behind. While prose drama was seen primarily as suitable for comedy ( Sheridan, Gogol, the prose plays of Molière, etc.), tragic works were still seen to require a dignity and nobility that only verse could provide. Further, drama, unlike prose fiction, had either to be tragic or comic: there was nothing between Racine on the one hand, and Molière on the other. And while the comic could (and indeed did) accommodate figures from all walks of life, the tragic had to deal with kings and queens, nobles and bishops, princes and princesses; and, with people now reading about Emma Woodhouse or Emma Bovary, kings and queens and nobles and bishops delivering high-flown blank verse were, perhaps, starting to seem a bit old hat. So, while the novel flowered as a literary form (Austen, Stendhal, Balzac, Dickens, Hawthorne, Melville, and so on), drama, in contrast, remained relatively static, and, indeed, stultified, until some time in the late nineteenth century when Ibsen and Chekhov (and I guess I should add Strindberg, although, personally, I have never really understood his work) rescued the form by raising it to the heights that the novel, at its best, had already attained.

I suppose it would be easy enough to find exceptions to this (Büchner, for instance, although his remarkable plays weren’t know about till much later); but, whatever the reason, as a vehicle of literary expression, the drama did indeed, I think, lag behind the novel for much of the nineteenth century. But one very notable exception is a play Ivan Turgenev wrote in 1850, A Month in the Country.

At this stage in his career, Turgenev had written some wonderful short stories and sketches, but had not yet embarked on the novels on which his fame now primarily rests. A Month in the Country is not too often performed these days (at least, I cannot remember a single performance of it in London in the last few decades), but, reading it, it seems a remarkably assured work, and leaves one wondering what Turgenev might have gone on to achieve in the field of drama had he not decided to turn instead to the novel. Not that A Month in the Country is not a fine work in itself. But it also seems, in the context especially of the times, a sort of harbinger, indicating directions of development in the drama that were only really taken up by Chekhov some fifty years afterwards.

The scene should be familiar to anyone who knows Chekhov’s plays: a country estate populated by its owners (landed gentry naturally), and various hangers on (wards, ageing parents, “companions” – i.e. those who would have been destitute were it not for the landowners’ charity); tutors and governors, maids and servants; and the occasional country doctor or neighbouring landowner stopping off. It is, in short, an ensemble piece, as are all of Chekhov’s dramas. And the mode is neither comic (although there are a few jokes in it), nor explicitly tragic: it is pitched – once again, as Chekhov’s plays are – between the two extreme poles, depicting with the utmost seriousness and sensitivity the unfulfilled longings and the pains of disillusion of its principal characters, while yet placing them in a wider context in which we may see such things as, perhaps, less than cataclysmic. The register, as in Turgenev’s novels, is of a gentle sadness.

At the centre of this group is Natalya Petrovna, the lady of the house. Although she is married, she is loved by Rakitin, described in the list of characters as a “friend of the family”. The love is not returned: Natalya Petrovna is not an adulterous wife. Nonetheless, and despite knowing what Rakitin feels for her, she is on friendly terms with him, and often confides in him. This scenario would recur in Turgenev’s later novel, Smoke, with Irina and Potugin; and, as was well-known even at the time, Turgenev himself was in just such a position, in love with the famed opera singer Pauline Viardot, and hanging around hopelessly with the Viardot household. It does seem a somewhat humiliating situation to be in, and it seems surprising that Turgenev, knowing this to be his own situation, and knowing, further, that this situation was no secret, should so draw attention to it by depicting it in his own work.

In Smoke, the husband had been a pretty nondescript character. Here, the husband is off-stage for most of the play, but when he does emerge in the final acts, the way Turgenev presents his is arresting: he knows full well how his friend Rakitin feels about his wife, but has such confidence both in his wife and in his friend, he firmly believes that neither would betray him. This is quite remarkable, especially in a drama, in which an Othello-like jealousy would have created a far greater theatrical impact; and that Turgenev was prepared to forgo such a immediate theatrical impact for the sake of greater subtlety of characterisation is an indication of how seriously he took the artistic potential of what he must have known was a new kind of drama – neither broadly comic, nor yet aiming for the intensity of high tragedy.

But arresting though this situation is, Turgenev keeps it mainly in the background till the final two acts. Of greater impact in the earlier part of the play is the passion Natalya Petrovna feels for her son’s tutor, a young man barely out of childhood himself, and who is utterly taken aback when he discovers the intensity of the passion he has unwittingly unleashed. And here, although Turgenev is not aiming to write high tragedy, he is surely harking back to Racine’s Phèdre, or even to Euripides’ Hippolytus. Racine’s focus had been the older woman, and Euripides’ the younger man, but since Turgenev’s play is an ensemble piece, he can focus equally on both. The young tutor, Belyaev, finds himself having to grow up quickly, and come to some kind of understanding of the endless complexities of adult human emotions; and Natalya Petrovna, having regarded lightly Rakitin’s passion for herself, has now to understand, and, if she can, come to terms with her own unfulfilled passion, and its destructive power. And this proud lady has to cope also with the humiliation of becoming a rival to her own teenage ward.

One may, of course, read this as Turgenev “getting his own back” on Pauline Viardot, but that would seem to me a shallow reading. Quite apart from the inadvisability of interpreting a work based on what we know of the author’s own life, advancing such an interpretation is to overlook the gentle compassion with which Natalya Petrovna is depicted. If there is any sense of triumph on the author’s part, I, for one, could not detect it. The theme here is unfulfilled desire, and, however humilating it may be, either in Rakitin or in Natalya Petrovna, or, for that matter, in the teenage ward Vera, Turgenev’s treatment of this theme evinces a gentle sadness. There is no catharsis at the end. Turgenev was not writing high tragedy: people here do not die of unhappiness, but have to go on living, bearing their burdens as best they can.

The play is not, perhaps, flawless. Ibsen had once said of one of Tolstoy’s plays that there were “too many conversations and not enough scenes”: sadly, he did not go on to explain what he regarded as the distinction between the two, but we may, perhaps, guess at it: in a “conversation”, only what is explicitly said is important, whereas in a “scene”, what is said is invested with various overtones and resonances in such a way as to communicate more than what is explicitly said. That, at least, is my understanding. And here, too, I think Ibsen might have made the same criticism as he had made of Tolstoy’s plays – “too many conversations, not enough scenes”. But Ibsen himself had worked for decades to master the art of creating scenes rather than mere conversations; and while it is true that much of this play consists merely of conversations (at least by the definition I have proposed above), these conversations are never less than interesting, and are often compelling; and the “scenes”, when they come, are magnificent.

There are cases, admittedly, when characters express their thoughts through long monologues. I suppose that in a modern production, realism can be dispensed with altogether at such points, and stage time frozen as the character steps up to the footlights to deliver what we would now describe as “stream of consciousness”. Or better still, such monologues may be cut altogether: audiences are more used now to picking up subtleties of internal thought purely from what the characters say on stage.

And little passages such as this may also be cut:

ISLAEV: I’m not used to altercations of this sort. I hope they won’t often be repeated. I’ve a strong constitution, God knows, but I can’t bear this.

To our modern ears, this sounds very much like a novelist writing a play. We can easily imagine a passage such as this in a novel – for instance:

Physically, Islaev had a strong constitution, but he had been throughout his life so free of all worry, and so unused to conflict, that confrontations of all kinds upset his natural equilibrium.

But in a play, such lines seem out of place. We are asked to believe that Islaev, in a state of mental perturbation, could nonetheless analyse himself accurately, and articulate clearly the fruits of his analysis for the audience’s benefit. But these were early days for realistic drama: one can easily find such passages also in early Ibsen or in early Chekhov.

A Month in the Country was Turgenev’s last play: he had written a few earlier – mainly in a comic, Gogolian mode – but none of them are anywhere near the class of this. After this, he turned to the novel. But it’s hard not to speculate how the drama might have developed had he decided otherwise. A Month in the Country very clearly points forward to Chekhov, but even when seen purely in its own light, it seems to me a remarkable achievement.

(The translation I read and quoted from above is by Stephen Mulrine, published by Oberon Books)

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14 responses to this post.

  1. I have thought a lot about Turgenev’s love for Pauline Viardot. Perhaps he was not at all (clearly, since he followed her around everywhere) embarrassed about it because she was so perfect (in his eyes at least) that it would have been impossible not to love her, and because he was a nobleman and could do as he pleased and many gentlemen had an actress or singer or dancer they admired openly. I absolutely agree that he would never be so shallow as to revenge himself on her in a play. Unfulfilled desire will always remain a poetic ideal, whereas fulfilled desire becomes mundane after a while.

    Reply

    • Indeed, it seems highly unlikely that Turgenev would have revenged himself on her in such a manner. I think you know more about Turgenev the man than I do, but from what I gather from his writings, he did seem to have a very romantic sensibility, and unfulfilled desire is certainly a recurrent theme in his works.
      I have certainly been enjoying my journey through Turgenev’s works (the ones that have been translated, at any rate), and I think I still have his last novel, “Virgin Soil”, awaiting me.

      Reply

      • Turgenev had a horrible mother, and during another argument of his parents, little Ivan decided that he would never get married. He came close once, but he got cold feel. First Love suggests that he already before Pauline fell in love with women that he knew he couldn’t have. But he wasn’t unhappy, he was considered part of the Viardot family, and the years he spent with them in Paris were happy. They were the centre of quite an intellectual circle there. Louis collected art, Pauline sang and Ivan wrote. Their friends included people like Georges Sand, Flaubert and Tchaikovsky. And his unfulfilled desire inspired him to write. I don’t remember reading Virgin Soil either, enjoy!

  2. All right, how much work do you really want to do on that opening paragraph?

    Have you read – or seen, you see a lot more of these plays than I ever will – Ostrovksy, by the way, “The Storm” in particular?

    The idea that Turgenev is lightly folding-high-tragic models into his more domestic drama is quite interesting.

    Reply

    • Ha ha! I somehow knew you’d be ripping that opening paragraph to bits!

      Yes, I’ve read Ostrovsky’s play. It’s a wonderful work, and used to be included in a now out-of-print volume published by Penguin Classics called “Four Russian Plays” (translated by Joshua Cooper). The other plays in that volume were “The Infant” by Fonvizin, “Woe from Wit” by Gribodeyev, and Gogol’s “Government Inspector”. It’s a quite indispensable volume, and I have fond memories of reading it in my students’ hall when I should really have been revising for my exams!

      Janáček’s opera “Katya Kabanova”, based on Ostrovsky’s play, is also quite wonderful. I have seen a production of the opera, but sadly, not if the play, which certainly deserves to be revived.

      Reply

      • PS A good friend of mine, who has been an avid theatre-goer for over 60 years now (I’d guess), just informed me that the first time he saw this play (note: “first time”) Natalya and Rakitin were played by Ingrid Bergman and Michael Redgrave…

      • From the point of view of a Russian theater-goer, there were no dark ages between Griboedov (Woe from Wit, 1825) and/or Gogol (The Government Inspector, 1836) – and Chekhov (Ivanov, 1889). That was the age of Ostrovsky and Sukhovo-Kobylin. Ostrovsky wrote four dozen plays, of which a dozen have remained in the Russian theatrical repertoire. Picking out some of his best, one can fill this time gap pretty easily: It’s a Family Affair – We’ll Settle It Ourselves (1849-50), The Thunderstorm (1859-60), Enough Stupidity in Every Wise Man (1868), The Snow Maiden (1873), Without a Dowry (1878-79). One could argue that Ostrovsky is too Russian to translate easily, but some of his plots are centered around legal and/or commercial disputes and the key characters are lawyers and/or merchants, which shouldn’t be hard to understand. Sukhovo-Kobylin’s trilogy is a class in itself.

        By the way, every other Russian hates The Thuderstorm because it’s force-fed to kids as part of the high school curriculum and the approved approach to the play goes back to Dobrolyubov’s article, A Ray of Light in the Realm of Darkness. I only realized the greatness of Act 3 (the tryst in the “dell” by the Volga) when I saw Andrey Moguchy’s production in St. Petersburg last February (with Alexander Manotskov as the composer and Vera Martynov as the set designer). Apollon Grigoriev praised that scene effusively in a 1860 article (subtitled “from letters to Ivan S. Turgenev”) but I was ignorant of his criticism, as opposed to Dobrolyubov’s positivist angle.

        One more thing: Pushkin referred to Boris Godunov as “my tragedy” but called the first version of the play “a comedy on the veritable ruin to the Moscow realm, Tsar Boris and Grishka Otrepiev.” He was probably inspired by Shakespeare’s chronicles.

      • Thank you very much for this, this is fascinating. I think you and Tom have quite comprehensively destroyed my comments on 19th century plays. Not that I have quite given up on the ideas, but they certainly need a rethink.

        There used to be a Penguin Classics volume called “Four Russian Plays”, which included “the Infant” by Fonvizin,”Woe From Wt” by Griboedov, “Government Inspector” by Gogol, and “The Storm” by Ostrovsky. It is no longer in print, sadly, and, “Government Inspector” aside, I’m not sure any of these plays are currently available. I’d certainly like to read more by Ostrovsky: I thought “the Storm” was quite superb.

    • Wow, Bergman and Redgrave!

      I’m only touching that opening to the extent that you’re interested. Suggested starting points: Lessing; the “well-made play.”

      Reply

      • Thanks, I’ll follow that up. My hypotheses concerning this may all be wrong, but my observation is still that while any of us may reel off from the top of our heads any number of great novels from the 19th century, we need to think quite hard to come up with the great nineteenth century plays before that Russo-Scandinavian triumvirate of IbsenChekhovStrindberg.

        Many years ago now, I embarked on a study of the plays of Ibsen, and it struck me how long and how hard he had worked on his apprenticeship. His earlier plays are mostly all forgotten now: it’s very difficult even to find English translations of such plays as “Catiline”,”The Warrior’s Barrow”, “The Viking’s at Helgeland”, and so on. His first indisputable masterpieces came when he turned back to verse, and wrote plays that were not even intended for the theatre (Brand and Peer Gynt, which have strong claims to be the last great plays in verse). And, having got these two plays off his chest, as it were, (and also that curious two-part historic drama “Emperor and Galilean”), Ibsen then moved into what was, for him at any rate, an entirely new direction – realistic plays, in prose (and not even a stylised prose – but rather, in a style that his audiences would have spoken in), and with content that was either tragic, or had tragic potential. And Ibsen really had to work at developing this. In the earliest of these plays – “The League Of Youth”, “The Pillars Of the Community”, and even “A Doll’s House” – he was still experimenting. But why? The kind of thing he was trying to achieve on stage – dramas involving people from ordinary walks of life, speaking in everyday prose, and with tragic content – had already been established many decades earlier in novels. I find it hard to escape the impression that drama, as a form, was lagging behind. Either that, or Ibsen was slow on the uptake.

        Sure, there are a few exceptions – Turgenev’s “A Month in the Country”, Ostrovsky’s “The Storm”. But there aren’t really that many, are there?

        I find the whole area intriguing, and I don’t claim to know the answers to the questions I am posing. But the questions seem to me important: why are there so many great novels in the nineteenth century, but so few great plays? Why did verse drama die so conspicuous a death? Where are the Emma Woodhouses and Emma Bovarys of nineteenth century drama? Why did Ibsen have to expend so much effort in pioneering the kind of drama for stage that had already been so well established in novels? I honestly don’t know, but I would be keen to find out.

      • Oh, “great”! Well that is a whole ‘nother question than “there was nothing between Racine on the one hand, and Molière on the other.”

        You’re not going to find anything you think is “great” in the works of Scribe or Augier, but “lagging behind” is purely the Whig version of theater history. These French playwrights were Academy members. They were writing great plays. Everyone knew that, until at some point we got sick of them. But post-Napoleonic French theater was lively, innovative – “static”! “stultified”! – and full of plays “involving people from ordinary walks of life, speaking in everyday prose, and with tragic content.”

        Germans and Austrians would simply deny your premise about the lack of great plays in the 19th century, although their fiction at the time is so weird that the whole frame of comparison is different. Anyway, Lessing, after reading Richardson, created, more or less, the prose domestic drama in German in 1755 with “Miss Sara Sampson” – that is the title in German!

        Some of your claims would be closer to true if the phrases “in English” and “in England” were sprinkled liberally. But all of that “in between Racine and Molière” stuff existed in London, too, some of it enormously popular. The stage adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for example. And then English theater was rescued from stultification not by grim Scandinavians but by Gilbert and Sullivan!

      • Ok, a lot to respond to there.

        I did, I realise, use “whiggish” language there, implying very strongly (indeed, more than implying) that there is such a thing as “progress” in the arts. Mea culpa. But on the question of “greatness”, I don’t think it’s merely a question of what I, personally, think is “great”. We all know that literature is not a competitive sport, but unless one were to subscribe to the idea that nothing can be better than anything else, then, inevitably, certain works must be classed as “better”, or as “greater”, than others. This leads us into very tricky waters, I admit, but the only possible measure I can think of is the judgement of Time. And the judgement of Time has not been very kind to 19th century drama: there is very little that has lasted. I don’t merely mean in terms of performance: sadly, a great many plays of considerable artistic merit are rarely if ever revived nowadays. But I can still go into bookshops and find plays by Corneille & Molière, Schiller & Pushkin, Büchner & Gogol. In contrast, I’d possibly need to find specialist scholarly outlets to find the plays of Scribe & Augier. Why is this? Why did people, as you put it, “get sick of them”, when so many novels of that time have lasted triumphantly?

        As for my comment on Molière and Racine, I think I stand by that. Plays from that era (and, once again, I am speaking of those plays that have lasted: that may not be an infallible criterion of literary merit, but I doubt there’s any other), virtually all plays can be classified as tragedy or as comedy. Phèdre is a tragedy, L’Avare a comedy. Boris Godunov is a tragedy, The Government Inspector a comedy. Where are the plays that straddle a course between these poles? Novels did: we don’t even think of wondering whether, say, “Persuasion” or “La Chartreuse de Parme” or “Illusions Perdues” are tragic novels, or comic novels. But when it comes to plays, we do. Turgenev’s play stands out *because* it cannot be classed as either. Other plays may have existed as well that steer a course between these two poles, but once again, they have largely fallen by the wayside, and it is worth asking why these plays have not lasted when novels from that era have.

        On German and Austrian literature of that era, I must plead ignorance, I’m afraid. If 19th century plays in German have indeed lasted as well as novels have done, I’ll certainly be forced to rethink, and either withdraw or rephrase my contentions. I am willing to be educated.

        But my contention does remain, I think (and I am trying to phrase this as best I can):

        Until the emergence of Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov towards the end of the 19th century, there are very few plays that have lasted the Test of Time as well as novels of that era have done.

        And I can’t help wondering why.

  3. Posted by Trad on December 8, 2017 at 7:10 am

    “A Month in the Country is not too often performed these days (at least, I cannot remember a single performance of it in London in the last few decades)”

    Umm…Month in the Country was performed in a new version ‘Three Days in the country’ at London’s National a couple of years ago…

    And thanks for your post

    Reply

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