Ivan Turgenev

Start Free Trial

Ivan Turgenev Drama Analysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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...

(This entire section contains 3500 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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.” Cold-hearted egoism, which causes only pain and suffering for others, had already become a dominant character trait for the Russian literary hero before the writings of Turgenev and was to become a dominant motif in the later works of this author.

Turgenev abruptly ends his play with a brief epilogue stating that Don Pablo has gone on to secure a position in “the office of an important official.” This final cryptic note dispels any illusion of idealism or Romanticism, signaling Turgenev’s own gradual disassociation from his earlier dreams of the “sublime and the beautiful.” Although Carelessness is a charming and witty work, it also offers a sad commentary on the wasted and misguided strength of the younger generation, which once channeled its talents and energies in quest of golden dreams but which ultimately turned to a self-centered, mundane pursuit of power and material wealth.

A Poor Gentleman

Turgenev’s second one-act comedy, A Poor Gentleman, represents a marked shift from the sentimentality of a balmy evening in Spain in Carelessness to the mundane reality of contemporary Russian life. This most Gogolian work by Turgenev recalls several scenes in Gogol’s Revizor (pr., pb. 1836; The Inspector General, 1890), in which a young, pampered nobleman lies idly around, verbally abusing his old and devout servant. Like the nobleman in The Inspector General, the central figure in Turgenev’s plays, Timofei Petrovic Zazikov, has squandered all of his money on frivolous living and can no longer afford the items indispensable for his self-respect, such as tea and firewood. He hurls a steady stream of invective at Matvei, his servant, blaming him for his predicament. Quoting from Alexander Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin (1825-1832, 1833; Eugene Onegin, 1881), Zazikov bemoans his lost youth and tries to set himself down to some serious work, which amounts to merely opening up a French book at random or singing before a mirror.

Like Gogol, Turgenev presents a whole sector of the lower classes in the figures of the creditors coming for their money—a shoemaker, a merchant, a sixteen-year-old girl who works for a washerwoman, and a driver. Although Turgenev offers only brief sketches of these types, the overall effect of their appearance colors the play with a certain sense of realism. The language of these common people is down-to-earth, colloquial, and truncated. Characterized by crude insults and folk humor, their speech is sharply distinguished from the flowery, romantic language of Turgenev’s first play and indicates his swing toward naturalism in this period.

In A Poor Gentleman, Turgenev satirizes the strange combination of affection and abuse inherent in the strained relationship between Russian master and servant. Zazikov’s servant, Matvei, is compassionately and positively depicted: He shows great concern for his master’s well-being and possesses a certain intuitive wisdom that allows him to see the proximate cause of Zazikov’s ruin: his exodus from the countryside (where he could have led a productive and useful life) to the empty whirlwind of city society. This positive characterization is qualified by Matvei’s submissive acceptance of his master’s verbal thrashings. Ultimately, Matvei’s concern has little effect on Zazikov, who does not possess the strength of character to take an active, responsible role in life. Instead, Zazikov is enticed by a wealthy, protective friend back into the empty social life of St. Petersburg, attending balls, plays, and restaurants and continuing his pampered, indolent lifestyle. The play ends with the forlorn words of Matvei as he laments the demise of the nobility: “Gone are the good days. How changed is the nobility.” Fifty-eight years later, Chekhov concluded his masterpiece Vishnyovy sad (pr., pb. 1904; The Cherry Orchard, 1908) in a similar fashion, with the melancholy monologue of the old servant Firs, who sees himself as a discarded remnant of a bygone age.

Where It Is Thin, There It Breaks

Turgenev’s one-act comedy Where It Is Thin, There It Breaks was written in 1851, at the end of his Romantic period. In this play, Turgenev adapts the image of the “superfluous” hero to a setting that reflects Turgenev’s own environment: the estate of a wealthy female Russian landowner in France. In spite of this location, the play portrays Russian, not French, country life. Paving the way for the subsequent full-length plays, the number of the characters in this short play has increased, and the nature of their interaction is much more complex. As in Carelessness, the nexus of the story lines is a love triangle in which Turgenev’s two types of heroes are pitted against each other in a competition for the hand of the landowner’s nineteen-year-old daughter, Vera Nikolaevan Libanova.

The dominant male protagonist bears the first name of Pushkin’s classic hero—Evgeny Andreevi Gorsky—and represents Turgenev’s Hamlet type. He has the reputation of being “a strange, cold-blooded man,” who calculatingly treats his pursuit of Vera as a fencing match to be either won or lost. Deriving from the root “bitter,” the name “Gorsky” suggests the pose of an alienated man who stands back skeptically, calculating his every step, never giving in to his emotions.

Central to this play are Gorsky’s frequent monologues on the merits of personal freedom and the practicality of realism. He negates the euphoric states of love and fantasy, stating that for him, “a lobster or an oak tree is more meaningful than imagination or the tales of Hoffmann.” Ironically, Gorsky’s rival, Stanitsyn, arrives on stage at the moment when Gorsky is about to seal his fate by proposing to Vera. Stanitsyn’s timely appearance prevents Gorsky from uttering such decisive words.

Finding himself in such a precarious position, Gorsky compares himself to Podkolyosin in Gogol’s play Zhenit’ba (wr. 1835, pr., pb. 1842; Marriage: A Quite Incredible Incident, 1926), who, when faced with the certainty of marriage, throws himself comically from a “not so high window.” Despite Gorsky’s attempt not to follow in Podkolyosin’s cowardly footsteps, he commits the equally unheroic act of “running,” not walking, away from the scene. By contrast, Stanitsyn’s straightforward declaration of his intentions seems to solicit the audience’s approval, but his excessive naïveté and simplicity make him an equally easy target for mockery.

A Conversation on the Highway

The action of A Conversation on the Highway, consisting of only one scene, centers on one of the most popular images in nineteenth century literature (particularly in the works of Gogol)—the carriage on an open road, which has been interpreted as a symbol for a not only personal but also historical state of flux. In the style of the naturalists, Turgenev prefaces his comic scene with a detailed description of the physiognomy of the three characters riding in the carriage: a young landowner, his serf driver, and a rural officer of low rank. The depiction of individual negative features such as “pudgy fatness,” “piggish eyes,” and “heavy” asthmatic breathing recalls similar details in character descriptions by Gogol. Here, more than in any other Turgenev play, the author calls attention to facial expressions, body dynamics, and peculiarities of speech. The use of many pauses and silences, interspersed throughout the scene, mimes the excruciatingly slow pace of the horses, suggesting the stagnancy of all provincial Russia. As in Turgenev’s other works, the serf driver, Efrem, shows the greatest vitality and strength of character. Efrem chatters away almost nonstop, expanding his views of life, which take the scrambled form of superstitions mixed with a certain simple, intuitive wisdom. His dream of traveling along a hilly, vacant highway without purpose or direction underscores the slumbering mood of his environment. In the end, only Efrem’s voice can be heard, singing a folk song with a healthy, “high voice.”

An Evening in Sorrento

Turgenev’s last play, An Evening in Sorrento, satirizes members of the Russian nobility living abroad in Europe, where they are entertained in their hotels by a series of second-rate artists, musicians, and singers who flock to them for their money. The relationship between the two main characters, the middle-aged Sergey Plantonovic Avakov and the younger widow, Nadezda Pavlovna Eleckaja, bears a resemblance to the long and at times difficult relationship between Pauline Viardot and Turgenev. In this play, however, it is portrayed without the earlier romantic overtones so apparent in Turgenev’s earlier plays. Dreaming of his distant homeland, a sleepy, stodgy Avakov awakens in disgust to find himself in these foreign surroundings, where he patiently endures Nadezda Pavlovna’s quick temper, mocking laughter, and coquettish flirtations with her young entourage of artists. In the end, it is the seasoned, middle-aged Avakov, rather than the flamboyant, dashing Belsky, who proves to be Nadezda’s true and devoted friend. It is apparent in this last experiment in theater that in his decade of writing plays, Turgenev had succeeded in drastically pruning his work; in place of his earlier excessive sentimentality, he had established ironic understatement as his chief comic device.

A Month in the Country

Turgenev’s one outstanding drama, A Month in the Country, was written in 1850, toward the end of his brief playwriting career. It was immediately banned and was not published until 1855; it was not produced until 1872. On its first publication and performance, it was not recognized as the significant work that later critics have realized it to be. It was not until 1909, when the great Soviet director Konstantin Stanislavsky realized its importance and staged it at the Moscow Art Theatre, that it attained a permanent place in Soviet dramatic repertoire.

Stanislavsky, as well as other critics of his day, recognized that in A Month in the Country were the roots of the dramaturgy of Anton Chekhov, particularly the principle of “undercurrent action,” in which the flow of everyday life merges with the subtle disclosure of the characters’ emotions. Turgenev’s concentration on the tone of this play also links it with Chekhov’s sober country dramas.

A Month in the Country displays a far greater psychological depth than do Turgenev’s earlier works; the characters who would populate Turgenev’s major novels appear more clearly delineated in this play, and, as noted above, the portrayal of the inertia of rural life in nineteenth century Russia equals that found in Chekhov’s Dyadya Vanya (pb. 1897; Uncle Vanya, 1914) or The Cherry Orchard. Like Chekhov’s plays, A Month in the Country is a psychological drama with universal appeal. The inevitable love triangle is more complex in this play. Natalya Petrovna is loved by her husband and by her devoted and doting friend Rakitin, but she falls in love with her son’s young tutor, Belsky. Natalya’s teenage ward, Vera, also falls in love with the tutor. Two less serious courtships also complicate the plot, that of the doctor and that of the servant. Natalya first vents her feelings by abusing her longtime admirer Rakitin, then tries to marry Vera off to a middle-aged neighbor. Natalya relents and does not press the match, but she cannot resist trying to humiliate Vera by informing Belsky of Vera’s love. Vera retaliates by telling the tutor of Natalya’s feelings. The tutor is rather astonished, although gratified, by all this adoration. Before the situation can progress further, however, Natalya’s husband discovers her in the arms of Rakitin, who is comforting her in her lovesick state. Rakitin explains that he is merely comforting his friend’s wife, but it is suggested that perhaps he should leave the estate. He does so, but before he goes, he manages to convince the young tutor that he should leave as well. Vera has become both embittered and matured in her first foray into the world of adult emotions, and she decides to marry the middle-aged neighbor in order to escape Natalya’s household. At the end of the play, Natalya is left alone with her husband, whom she does not love.

In A Month in the Country, Turgenev abandoned Romanticism and Gogolian farce to depict as realistically as possible the life that he lived and the social class to which he belonged. There are obvious echoes of Turgenev’s own often unhappy relationship with Pauline Viardot in this play, and perhaps it was in personal rather than in social concerns that Turgenev excelled as a dramatist. Turgenev wrote only three more plays after A Month in the Country before turning to the novels and short stories that would earn for him the standing of a major figure in Russian literature. His plays were, in a way, his apprenticeship. Yet in these early works, he transcended mid-century Romanticism and the dominating influence of Gogol to pave the way for the Chekhovian drama of the future, and he created one play that is still being performed more than a century after it was first produced. A Month in the Country remains one of the major plays of nineteenth century Russian literature.


Ivan Turgenev Short Fiction Analysis