Ivan Turgenev was one of the first Russian writers to win fame outside Russia. Although best known as a novelist, Turgenev also was a poet, journalist, and dramatist. The plays—he wrote about a dozen—came relatively early in his writing career, between 1843 and 1852. Of them, A Month in the Country, written in 1850, is generally considered the best, even though The Lady from the Provinces (1851) makes a better stage production. A Month in the Country was a great favorite of the Moscow Art Theater and its eminent director, Konstantin Stanislavsky. The enduring popularity of the play, however, is less important than its historical position in the evolution of the Russian theater, since Turgenev’s contribution anticipated the psychological realism and rather actionless plots of Anton Chekhov’s later dramas.
Two of Turgenev’s strong points are especially related to what has come to be known as the Chekhovian ambience. One is style; the other is characterization. Because Turgenev was a poet, his residual poetic talents later manifested themselves in the lyrical style that marks both his prose and his drama. The delicate grace of his style in treating nature and love—the incident in the raspberry patch, for instance—anticipates such typically Chekhovian settings as are found in Dyadya Vanya (pb. 1897, pr. 1899; Uncle Vanya, 1914) and Vishnyovy sad (pr., pb. 1904; The Cherry Orchard, 1908). Likewise, in characterization, Turgenev was a trailblazer. He shaped his characters not by asking “How do they look?” or “What are they doing?” but by searching for “What do the characters think and feel?” As a consequence of this method of characterization, the action of the play becomes internalized as mental and emotional events. Physical action, as it is usually understood, is reduced to a minimum. These circumstances were ideal for depicting strong female characters for which Turgenev has rightly been acclaimed. In addition, this technique of characterization was adopted and polished by Chekhov until it became the hallmark of his dramas.
A Month in the Country is a complex play, although the plot merely revolves around a simple love triangle. The theme is also easily stated but more difficult to explain; it is frustration. All of the major characters are frustrated. Their needs and desires are unmet; their attempts at gaining satisfaction are thwarted by the indifference or the insensitivity of second parties, while they, in turn, ignore similar entreaties of third parties. They do not work at cross-purposes; rather, they work along parallel lines that never meet.
The interaction, the human relationships of which the plot is made, constitutes an emotional and intellectual pattern best described as undulating, after the manner of ocean waves: High crests are separated by wide troughs. Beneath those wide troughs, life seethes with repression, suppression, and unmet needs that occasionally boil up to the crest of a breaker only to subside again, thwarted by the immutable pattern of frustration, until the next cresting of a breaker signals another emotional crisis. The pattern repeats itself with unremitting regularity. By the end of the play, the reader is emotionally bludgeoned into a resigned submission not unlike that of Natalya or Vera. For a play whose action is psychological rather than physical, A Month in the Country has a remarkable impact—and a lasting one, as Belyayev learns from his brief month in the country.