Ivan Turgenev wrote his ten plays between 1842 and 1852, before the publication of his first major prose work, A Sportsman’s Sketches, and before the publication of his first novel, Rudin. Four of his plays, however, were not performed or published until several years after they were written. For example, The Family Charge, written in 1849, was banned by the censors because it was critical of the nobility and was not published until 1857.
Like many other dramatists of his time, Turgenev often patterned his dramas after the vaudevilles imported from France. The vaudevilles were light comedies, focusing on domestic situations, which were popular with audiences. They usually escaped censorship because of their innocuous subject matter and because their humor was based on witty dialogue rather than on social satire. In contrast, the humor in Turgenev’s comedies often comes from the devastating irony in his characterizations of the ruling class, which reveal an implicit criticism beneath the sentimental plots.
As does his entire canon, Turgenev’s plays reflect the movement in Russian literature away from the dominant forces of the mid-nineteenth century, including Romanticism and the theater of Nikolai Gogol, toward the naturalism that would dominate European and Russian literature during the late nineteenth century. His first play, Carelessness, is typically Romantic in its exotic setting, stock Romantic characters, and flowery language, and the influence of Gogol’s comic theater is clear in Turgenev’s second play, A Poor Gentleman. Yet in his efforts to portray realistically the characters and characteristics of his society, Turgenev inevitably moved toward naturalism, although his lyricism and sentimental plots precluded the grimmer naturalism of the French writerÉmile Zola.
In the course of his dramatic development, Turgenev delineated the techniques, major character types, and themes that would shape his later fiction. In his playwriting, he depended on dialogue rather than on description or narration to define his characters, and this technique carried over into his fiction, as did the main character types that he portrayed. His heroes usually fell into one of two categories, which he described in the essay “Gamlet i Don Kikhot” (“Hamlet and Don Quixote,” 1930), first presented in a public lecture in 1860. Turgenev described the Hamlet character type as cold and aloof, a man who intellectualizes life and who is motivated only by irony directed at himself. His constant self-analysis results in paralysis of the will. The hero of Where It Is Thin, There It Breaks is an example of the Hamlet type. The Quixote character type is spontaneous and exuberant, directing his energies toward an external goal that is usually beyond his grasp. Vasilij Kuzovkin in The Family Charge, Mikhail Moskin in The Bachelor, and Rakitin in A Month in the Country exemplify the Quixote type. These character types, which recur in his drama and fiction, offer both universal insights into human nature and criticism of the ineffectual intellectuals among the nobility, who dreamed and talked of reform endlessly but who accomplished very little. Turgenev perceived both these character types as incomplete human beings. In his plays, such heroes usually fail to accomplish their goals. Turgenev’s heroines, on the other hand, are often strong-willed women who know what they want, and sometimes manage to obtain it. Darja in the comedy A Provincial Lady is one such heroine. She uses her feminine charms to climb the social ladder by beguiling a childhood friend, Count Valerian Nikolaevic Lubin, who, flattered by her feigned affection, promises to obtain for her a husband with a position in the city.
While social criticism, subtly revealed through ironic characterization, is present in much of Turgenev’s work, the themes of his plays also derive from his personal experiences. The recurrence of love triangles throughout his work can be ascribed largely to the central relationship of his own life, his love for the married Pauline Viardot. Turgenev’s adult life before receiving his inheritance was often marked by the need to subsist on his wit and charm, depending on affluent friends to support him, and this experience is reflected in his superfluous men—both Hamlets and Quixotes—who are often long-term houseguests and who often lack the iron will of their female counterparts. The domineering figure of his mother and the assertive personality of Pauline Viardot are reflected in his many decisive heroines. Finally, Turgenev’s hatred of the injustices of serfdom was first aroused during the periods when he lived with his mother on her provincial estate, an estate that is similar to the setting of Turgenev’s masterpiece, A Month in the Country.
Although Turgenev’s plays were usually well received by audiences when he managed to get them produced, they were not outstanding successes, and the critics often reacted coolly. Time has proved the critics of Turgenev’s age correct regarding most of his plays. His plays are significant primarily because they demonstrate the development of his literary concerns and abilities, which he would later employ in his fiction, and because they presage his important play A Month in the Country.
Turgenev’s first play, Carelessness, is a short comedy that was published in the periodical Annals of the Fatherland in 1843. It did not receive positive reviews and was not produced. It is significant, however, as an example of Turgenev’s early movement away from Romanticism and of his developing use of irony. The plot recalls the love triangle so typical of Romanticism as well as of Turgenev’s own style: A bold, handsome young hero, Don Rafael de Luna, scales the walls of a country house at night to woo the beautiful, dark-eyed Dona Dolores, who pines away in a melancholy trance, longing for some heroic warrior to save her from the boredom of her mismatched marriage to a wealthy Spanish nobleman twice her age, Don Balthazar d’Esturiz.
It is clear from the beginning of the play that, even in this early work, Turgenev is gently mocking the conventions of Romanticism. For example, the image of the pure, young heroine, trying to resist certain “sinful desires,” is comically deflated by her wistful but somewhat ludicrous attempt to imagine her fat, balding, and boring husband as a nonexistent hero, fashionably dressed with a white, feathered hat, a velvet mantle, spurs, and a sword. This mock-heroic portrayal of Don Balthazar is only one of the many humorous moments in the play that illustrate Turgenev’s love of subtle irony. The multiplicity of tones characteristic of Rafael’s speech is another. When addressing Dona Dolores, Rafael plays the role of artful, passionate courtier, reciting flowery bits of poetry and song, which he constantly undercuts with biting, sarcastic asides to himself and the audience. In the same vein, while he feigns extraordinary courage in the face of possible discovery, he makes certain that no one is around before he in fact descends into the shadows of Dona Dolores’s garden. His true cowardly nature is revealed by his very unheroic retreat on discovery in her bedroom.
Don Pablo Sangrè, Balthazar’s close and trusted friend, is typical of a later stage of Romanticism. He has grown to middle age brooding in silent disenchantment, his hopes and beliefs long ago shattered. Don Pablo cynically mocks the sentimentality and eloquent phrases of his young rival, Don Rafael de Luna, whose very name (Luna) suggests the romantic realm of night and dreams. The manipulative and self-possessed Don Pablo has himself long been nurturing a secret passion for his good friend’s young bride. Unlike his effusive, enamored young competitor, he has stood apart in “eloquent silence” in order to analyze his love, which, he quite openly recognizes, is only a desire to control a proud young woman whom he has not been able to influence.
In turn, Dona Dolores shows unusual perception and understanding of human nature as she sees through Don Pablo’s declaration of love. She deflates his exaggerated heroic stance, ironically mocking his speech: “Two years of eloquent silence. . . . ‘Eloquent!’ I like that word.” When she refuses to submit to his embraces, Don Pablo kills her without remorse because she has seen him in a moment of weakness, in his “tears and feelings.”...
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