Thursday, 8 February 2001

Ivan Turgenev: A Month in the Country (1850)

Translation: Isaiah Berlin, 1981 (Buy from Amazon)
Edition: Penguin, 1981
Review number: 748

One of the most important plays of the nineteenth century, A Month in the Country is a precursor of the work of Chekhov, and brings to the theatre the psychological interests of Turgenev's novels (which also influenced the writers who followed him). Surprisingly, Turgenev had little confidence in the play, and certainly didn't expect it to be staged. He was modest about his writing in general, and meekly accepted the verdict of literary friends that he was no dramatist. It is possible to see why these critics did not respond positively to the play. It is immensely long; without cuts, a performance would last over five hours. It is not a romantic melodrama, though it has a theme, doomed love, which has melodramatic potential. (Melodramas were the staple of the nineteenth century stage.) Its author describes A Month in the Country as a "comedy", but it is an extremely puzzling generic attribution. It has political and sexual undercurrents which caused trouble with the official censor, leading to its original publication in a drastically cut version. (This translation, like all modern ones, is of the restored full text.)

The plot of A Month in the Country is pretty much a mirror image of that of Turgenev's novel First Love, in which a young man discovers that his rival for the affections of the woman he considers a goddess is his own father. Verochka is a seventeen year old orphan who lives with Natalya Petrovna, her guardian Natalya has recently appointed a new tutor for her own son, the student Belyaev, and Verochka develops a crush on him as Natalya desires to make him her lover. The mainspring of the play is Natalya's attempts to manipulate those around her to get her desires, and this includes trying to arrange a marriage between her ward and their neighbour, an unprepossessing, unromantic man in his late forties. Her machinations eventually cause the destruction of the lives around her.

Turgenev reasonably enough regarded Natalya as the central character in the play, though it is possible to produce it to make the naive Verochka almost as important. The tutor, unaware of the passions he has created, is a fairly empty part. The other men are more interesting. Islyaev, Natalya's husband, is fairly peripheral to the action; always wanting to believe the best of everyone, he sees very little of what is going on around him. The censor wanted to change his and Natalya's relationship, on the grounds that it wasn't decent to portray a woman with a living husband chasing another man. Islyaev's best friend, Rakitin, has been hopelessly in love with Natalya for years, and his unrequited passion could almost provide the basis for a play of its own. Then there is the local doctor, Schpiegelsky, who is a cynical outsider (as a man from a poor background, he is of the wrong class to be fully accepted). His is perhaps the most forward looking role in the play, the observer of the follies of mankind having become quite a staple character in modern literature.

The length of the play gives Turgenev the space to develop the characters in an almost novelistic manner, and this is how he initially regarded it, as something he wrote to be read rather than performed. It does, in fact, work well on the stage, with judicious cutting; far more so than many plays not intended for performance.

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