A Month in the Country (1850)
by Ivan Turgenev
Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883) was better known for his fiction, both novels and short stories, than his plays. He was perhaps most famous outside of Russia for the novel Fathers and Sons (1862) and for Sportsman’s Sketches (1847-1852) inside of it. Like most of the writers of his age, he was of the landowning class, but he spent much of his life abroad in France. French culture and literature was strongly influential. A Month in the Country, considered his dramatic masterpiece, is modeled on a French melodrama The Stepmother (La Marâtre) by Honoré de Balzac.
The story is of a wealthy Russian woman and the several men in her life. There is her husband and her young son, her longtime lover who is also a friend of the husband, and her son’s new tutor, for whom she develops an uncontrollable crush. This last love interest upsets the balance of the longstanding love triangle, causing or requiring all concerned to act. The household is disrupted and the many dependents are poised to scatter.
The cast list here could easily be substituted for a Chekhov play. There is the wife of the rich landowner, her mostly absent husband, the family friend/lover, the young tutor, the son, the wife’s 17 year old ward, the mother-in-law, a middle-aged companion, a German tutor, a middle-aged suitor who is a neighbor, and a country doctor. Then again, if you look at European or American melodramas from the 19th Century, they tend to have similar cast make-ups and to cluster around estates. Here the estate is threatened not because of societal or economic disruption—the trend in later plays, but because of uncontrolled passion—the trend of Classical plays.
The play is thankfully not a melodrama, but what one might label a “drama of manners.” G.R. Noyes calls it a “domestic comedy,” not because it’s funny, but because it ends with a “rather forced return of the erring wife to the path of virtue” [Masterpieces, 9] and not the double-suicide Balzac has in store. The play is well-crafted, with characters displaying intelligence and perceptiveness as they comment on and process their changing relationships. The characters show a considerable degree of restraint in negotiating their own emotions and behavior. They are full of emotion, but they also keep in mind their responsibility and care for their relations.
Compare this to the similar, if more incestuous, scenario of Racine’s masterpiece, Phaedra (Phèdre). In that neoclassical tragedy, the infatuated stepmother pursues her prudish stepson, and all fall victim to the dismal neoclassical fate of pursuing passion. It’s a cautionary tale, like most tragedies, but it doesn’t show the way out of such passions. Turgenev, however, does seem to do so, as he dramatizes ethical dilemmas and characters that can and do rise above their drives. He therefore provides a model here of a realistic and moral style of playwriting.
If that sounds dry, it’s not. At least, that aspect is not dry. The play is long-winded like most plays of its time. In fact, Turgenev appears to have considered it more of a closet drama, and it was not performed until 1872. A Month in the Country would mark Turgenev’s departure from playwriting as he turned his attention to other literary genres. It remains a milestone in Russian playwriting and Russian Realism, despite its adopted French form. You easily see how Ostrovsky and Chekhov would pick up from here.
That said, there is a decidedly patriarchal bent to Turgenev's writing. It is mainly the men who make rational and successful choices. The women, while not irrational, do not have a similar control in their destiny but are shown to be at the mercy of the choices of men.