Ivanov (1887, 1889 revised)
by Anton Chekhov
Suicide as a way to end a play is overdone and usually unsatisfying. It's often a deus ex machina to extricate the writer from the pretzel of plot he or she has created. At the same time, I did quite enjoy reading this play. It’s clearly Chekhov writing: the characters have all the hallmark traits of depth, conflicted feelings, opacity, joy and sorrow mixed. This is a work of a great playwright in the making if not a great work.
By 1887, Chekhov was already becoming famous as a short story writer, but this was his first major work for the stage and a first foray into a new dramatic aesthetic. Early performances brought some enthusiasm, some criticism and some bewilderment. Chekhov felt the plot was unprecedented with characters that avoided the melodramatic categories of hero and villain. To our eyes, it seems more of a transition piece. As Laurence Senelick mentions in his introduction to the play, the plot is conventional and melodramatic and does not serve Chekhov’s purposes well, at least at the turning points—e.g., the suicide ending, the artificial decline and death of Sarra, and the discovery of Ivanov and Sasha kissing.
Still, the workmanship around character and dialogue is lovely. The speeches are longish and the central character is complicated if ultimately opaque. Chekhov makes numerous allusions to Hamlet meaning to draw comparisons between his hero and Shakespeare's. The difference, however, is that the character Hamlet was placed in an understandably impossible crisis and so we feel his guts being torn here and there, whereas Ivanov speechifies endlessly about his spiritual malaise with no clear direction in which he should act. Chekhov’s four major plays—The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard—overcome this plotting issue and maintain and diversify the character complexity.