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Note from A Month in the Country Artistic Director Brian Kulick
There is a somewhat apocryphal story that when the Moscow Art Theatre asked to do Chekhov’s The Seagull, his immediate response was, “Why don’t you do Turgenev’s A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY. It’s so much better.” This became, legend has it, his standard line that continued throughout his association with the theatre. Whatever play the Moscow Art requested, whether it was Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, or The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov would always demur and recommend A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY. Several years after Chekhov passed away, the Moscow Art finally relented and decided to take his advice. They produced A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY and low and behold, Chekhov was right, it became one of the Moscow Art’s greatest triumphs. Having had the great opportunity to produce the five major Chekhov plays over the past six years, we decided to follow Chekhov’s advice and mount this masterful work that was written in the 1850’s, a time when according to Vladimir Nabokov:
“Russia in those days was one huge dream: the masses slept – figuratively; the intellectuals spent sleepless nights -literally- sitting up and talking about things, or just meditating until five in the morning and then going out for a walk. There was a lot of flinging-oneself-down-on-one’s-bed-without-undressing-and-sinking-into-a-heavy-slumber stuff, or jumping into their crinolines, sprinkling their faces with cold water, and running out, as fresh as roses, into the garden, where the inevitable meeting takes place in a bower.”
It was out of this milieu that Turgenev, the son of a wealthy squire, emerged. Nabokov, in his lively Lectures on Russian Literature, tells us that “In his early youth Turgenev produced some half-baked poems mostly imitative of Lermontov. Only in 1847, when he turned to prose did he come into his own as a writer.” Nabokov cites Turgenev’s “plastic musical flowing prose” and his detailed psychological understanding of the serfs as the great revelation of his early writing. It would be this fluid handling of prose, his psychological acuity and his penchant to grapple with the issues of the day (masters, serfs, the eve of a new era) that would become the hallmark of all his major work, as well as an ineffable “feel” that would become the prototype of the 19th Century Russian novel, the critic V.S.Pritcett characterizes this feeling as:
“(a) freedom from our kind of didacticism and our plots. The character of our (English) novels, from Fielding to Forster, get up in the morning, wash, dress, and are then drilled for their roles. They are propelled to some practical issue in morality, psychology or Fortune before the book is done. In 19th Century Russia there is more room to breathe, to let the will drift, and the disparate impulses have their ancient solitary reign…we seem to hear a voice saying, ‘The meaning of life? One day, that will be revealed to us–probably on Thursday.’ And the day, not the insistence of plot or purpose, is the melodic bar. We see life again, as we indeed know it, as something written in days; its dramas not directed by the superior foreknowledge of the writer, but seeming to ebb and flow among the climaxes, the anti-climaxes, the yawning of hours … and in seeing people in terms of their anonymous days, the Russians achieved, by paradox, a sense of timelessness in their books.”
Turgenev is one of the first of the Russian 19th Century writers to achieve this and we can see it further developed in the next generation of writers like Gorky and Chekhov. Gorky would take Turgenev’s naturalistic and psychological observations, while Chekhov would take on Turgenev’s poetic undercurrent, what Pritcett calls, the works “profound sense of presence” which lurks at the edges of Turgenev’s prose. Again, it is instructive to listen to Pritcett, tease out this dynamic:
“The day is a convention like any other. What gives the day its power, and these persons their gift of moving us, is something which comes from a profound sense of a presence haunting the day. There lies on those persons, even the most trivial, the shadow of a fate more richly definitive than the fate of any individual being. Their fate is corporate. It is the fate of Russia itself…which sometimes (we) mystically identify with the fate of humanity itself.”
A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY was written during the years of 1848-50, simultaneous with Turgenev first great prose collection, A Sportsman’s Sketches. The latter work would make Turgenev instantaneously famous, it would take two more decades before A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY would reach a similar level of recognition. It was first hobbled by the censors who forced the central character, Natalya Petrovna, to be a widow rather than a married lady. This was an attempt to lessen the already potential scandalous nature of an older woman falling in love with a younger man. Also excised would be the great speeches of the Dr. Shpigelsky both of which criticize the ineffectualness of the landed gentry. In short: the censors emasculated the play’s two most powerful currents. It also didn’t help that the first production in 1872 was a resounding failure. The play was saved from total obscurity by a production in 1879 with the well known actress Maria Gavrilovna Savina playing the role of Natalya Petrovna. This version was a huge success, but many still believed that it was merely the star power of Maria Gavrilovna that make the play work. The 1909 Moscow Art production put all doubts to rest, the play was realized for the masterpiece that it is and it has, subsequently, entered the theatrical repertory in every part of the world, becoming one of the most admired and frequently performed plays of the 19th Century.
The work has been celebrated for its acute psychological portrayal of Natalya Petrovna. Here, as in his later, equally celebrated Fathers and Sons, Turgenev anticipates Freud’s concepts of the unconscious. In this case, Natalya’s unconscious desire for Belyaev, the young tutor, leads to such devastating consequences destroying the delicate equilibrium of her otherwise peaceful estate and forever altering the lives of Vera, her young ward and Rakitin, the one man who actually understands her and is secretly, hopelessly in love with her. Here we see Turgenev in his element, the master of each slight fluctuation of the heart. A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY can be enjoyed purely on this emotional, psychological level; but, as Isaiah Berlin reminds us, “At the same time, like all other Russian writers of any stature, Turgenev was profoundly concerned with the condition of his country, and this work, like his novels, made their impact on the Russian public as much by their social context as by their artistic quality.” Berlin outlines the other, equally compelling political reading of the play which is traditionally viewed as:
“the confrontation between two social groups: on the one side the tired, decadent, feckless, morally bankrupt class of the declining gentry– represented by Natalya Petrovna, Rakitin, Anna Semyonovna, Boshintsov — the last relics of a collapsing semi-feudal regime, whose fate is sealed, doomed as they are to destruction by the forces of history; and on the other side, Belyaev, Vera, the servant girl Katya, even Matvei, who are positive, healthy, capable, industrious, made for life and work and happiness … embodiments of the forces of social progress — they alone will inherit the earth and will deserve to do so.”
Between these two worlds stands the doctor, Shpigelsky, who has sold himself to the landed gentry. Berlin calls him, “a resentful casualty of the class struggle: he is aware of the stupidity and viciousness of his masters, and is a sharp-eyed witness of the process of their decay which he notes with vindictive pleasure.” No member of a Russian theatrical audience in the 19th Century, would have missed this bitter indictment. It is a view that Rakitin, the prototypical Turgenev hero, will come to share late in the play when he self-exiles himself from Natalya Petrovna’s charmed circle, which has begun to resemble some lost circle in Dante’s Hell. His last famous speech is an equally damning denunciation of conventional social ethics of this disaffected world.
Isaiah Berlin suggests that both the psychological and the political readings are what give the play its ultimate ballast. This would be true for almost all of Turgenev’s subsequent work which made him hugely successful but also somewhat politically controversial. His work touched and confounded all classes of people. Berlin wryly notes, “On 9 October 1883 Turgenev was buried as he had wished in St. Petersburg…The burial service took place in the presence of representatives of the imperial government, the intelligentsia and the workers organizations, perhaps the first and last occasion on which these groups peacefully met in Russia.”