5 March 2014

Russian Pressure

Ivanoff: A play by Anton Chekhov (1887)

This review contains spoilers. Massive spoilers.

Anton Chekhov was a Russian playwright. He lived from 1860 to 1904. In that short time he wrote many plays and short stories--the success of which continued after his death. He is hailed as a dramatic genius. His work is a catalyst for criticism and debate. I use this review as an opportunity to evaluate the way Chekhov ended Acts to propel narratives in his plays.

1. Introduction

Ivanoff, the scrutinised play, is in four Acts. The protagonist, Nicholas Ivanoff, is a no-longer wealthy man, fallen by his inept financial sense and youthful misplaced energies. His depression worsens to catastrophic consequence. Ivanoff is surrounded by an interfering doctor and troublemaking friends. The characters have tenuous but correlative relationships. The result is a story with many dramatic threads that weave together without exasperating the reader.

The play unmasks a subtle xenophobia in the confidence derived from faith and class against a dramatic romantic background. Contemporary pressures are encapsulated in the plot but, like other great plays,* a sparsity of detail makes this one suitable for many settings. Neither time nor geography limit the story’s emotive force.

This review comments on each act's ending and explores how this helps build the story's tempo and the characters' stakes. The chronology may seem awkward but it is purposeful: understanding how Chekhov's characters make big choices makes it easier to discover and define their smaller choices--which all contribute drama.

2. The Acts

2.1 Act I

Act I ends when Ivanoff's wife, Anna (later called by her birth name, Sarah), chooses to disobey Ivanoff’s order to stay at home one evening. He orders her thus because he does not want her illness to kill her sooner than it otherwise would. Ivanoff and Lvoff, the doctor, know her illness is so serious, but Anna does not.

The illness darkens Ivanoff's perspective. Through the gloom he makes rash, poor decisions. He cannot take the misery at home so he visits friends instead. This causes a rift, encouraging Anna to rebel. The Act shows Ivanoff's behaviour is determined by a wish to protect his wife. This is later misinterpreted by Lvoff. For now, it causes Anna to react, which later causes another conflict.

During Act I Ivanoff’s companion, Borkin, shows his roguery: he suggests Ivanoff buy land on the opposite riverbank and threaten the miller and factory downstream with a dam to extort them. When others gossip in later Acts and accuse Borkin of mischief, the audience knows it is true.

Lvoff threaten's to resign because Anna ignores his medical advice. He is a tedious man who tells others their faults and acclaims his own honesty. Unlike Borkin, who is called dastardly and behaves accordingly, Lvoff calls himself honourable but behaves otherwise. His honesty is not only cutting, but of a peculiar type. He is only honest to make himself appear superior. The others see through his claims and dislike him.

2.2 Act II

The second Act ends when Anna catches her husband kissing Sasha. Ivanoff is only in the situation to avoid the depression at home. Sasha offers him respite. He succumbs to her kindliness.

Sasha believes Ivanoff is a suitable match for her. Sasha's father, Lebedieff, disagrees, even though they are all old friends. Sasha ignores her father's advice.

The kiss is a surprise because Sasha’s feelings until then are restrained. The action is not, however, beyond the personality she displays beforehand. The kiss is genuine. This authenticity is evident to the characters and so hurts Anna all the more when she glimpses it.

During Act II, Borkin again evidences his deceitfulness. He sets up an engagement and attempts to profit from the marriage. He offers a wealthy woman an impoverished man's title (Ivanoff's uncle, Count Shabelski), and the man the woman's money. His idea is to borrow money from Shabelski that he will gain from the marriage. Borkin wants the money to bribe--on his own--the miller and factory owner. Later, Ivanoff accuses Borkin of iniquity and this sets up that claim's truth and the audiences empathy with Ivanoff in this regard.

2.3 Act III

Act III ends when Ivanoff tells Anna the illness will kill her. He does not want to. He regrets it. Events escalate in the third Act because Anna now mistrusts Ivanoff. Sasha one day visits Ivanoff in his and Anna’s matrimonial home. Anna gets angry.

Ivanoff rejects Borkin for a while, after Lebedieff explains that Borkin makes his reputation suffer.

Lvoff berates Ivanoff for meeting Sasha in Anna's house. But Ivanoff did not invite her. She just turns up. Though Ivanoff is polite he asks her to leave.

All these events set up the final Act's new relationships.

2.4 Act IV

A year elapses between the third and last Acts. Anna died during that time. Ivanoff is wracked with guilt. Lvoff plays the I-told-you-so and annoys everyone at the same time.

At Ivanoff and Sasha's wedding, before the vows, Ivanoff shoots himself. This ends the fourth Act and the play. It is caused and justified by events and behaviours that all lead to Ivanoff's choice. The story is therefore coherent, however surprising the end is. The outcome is therefore not contrived.

Lebedieff tells Sasha she should not marry Ivanoff. Lvoff thinks the same. Lebedieff does not declare Ivanoff a scoundrel as Lvoff implies, but he nonetheless agrees the marriage would be a poor one. Ivanoff agrees with the assessment too.

Ivanoff is angry at Lvoff for his pestering honesty. Ivanoff only wants Sasha to be happy. He tells her so. She insists on marriage. He sees one way out--suicide.

The action builds rapidly in this Act. Duals are mentioned, which feels a little alien to the rest of the play's theme. But in the end that does not matter. The idea of duelling seems to be introduced so that when Ivanoff pulls his gun the audience will assume he will shoot one of his antagonists. This makes his turning the gun on himself a bigger surprise; still, though, it is a surprise that maintains his character.

3. Conclusions

The play portrays several moral themes. It warns against debt--Ivanoff’s woes spiral from his inability to repay loans. The play warns against superiority--Lvoff must know this trait in him is partly to blame for Ivanoff’s suicide, which means Lvoff must feel guilt. The play contrasts the dangers of blind love with heroism--Ivanoff would rather die than ruin Sasha’s life. The play also warns against corruptive friendships but demonstrates that such bonds are difficult to break, even through turmoil and betrayal.

The play is well-paced and well-structured. I imagine I would enjoy this on stage. Until an opportunity arises, I will just have to use my imagination. Still, the play is an enjoyable read.

* See Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, set in a modern day with cars and guns in a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Created: 13 February 2014. Version 1.0.

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