The Katona József Theatre’s rendition of Chekhov’s first full-length play, Ivanov, opened on Tuesday, 7 July, opening day of the 2009 Lincoln Center Festival of international performances. It was presented at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, 10th Avenue and 58th Street. Directed in Hungarian by Tamás Ascher, the production is reset in the Hungary of the 1960s and ‘70s--post-uprising, but decidedly within the grim, grey period of Soviet domination of not only Eastern Europe’s politics but its culture as well. To my eye, this resetting had several repercussions, mostly beneficial to this difficult play, which Chekhov saw as a bleak comedy. (As I mentioned to my friend Diana as we were reading through the program before the curtain, this kind of dark, ironic humor is a societal characteristic of the Russian character--the Russian soul, if you will. When I was studying Russian, especially at the Defense language school where our teachers were all native-born Russians, I learned several Russian jokes and read some literary humor. Both before and during the Communist era, Russian humor was rife with this bleak, dour, pessimistic sense of resignation.) The Katona’s production ramped up the comedy--there was copious laughter from the audience--without really losing the bleakness of the world of the play.
First, let me utter a discouraging word. I hate supertitles. I think I’ve complained about this technique before, and my attitude hasn’t changed with further exposure. I understand that it’s cheaper and more portable than the former practice of having actors reading the English translation over a PA system transmitted to earphones. And there were certainly drawbacks to that method of providing translations for foreign-language productions, the chief one of which was probably that the spectator can’t hear what the actors on stage are actually saying, but that was a partially soluble problem and the earphones allowed me to keep my eyes on the stage full time. (I learned to lower the volume of the earphones so I could just hear the readers while I could still listen to the tone and expression of the voices of actors on stage.) Supertitles, almost always high above the actors’ heads, force me to shuttle back and forth between the text and the stage, usually missing one or the other at a crucial moment. In addition, sometimes, too often for my wishes, the translation disappears too quickly for me to catch it and, if I’m seated far enough back, the writing is too small for me to read at all. It drives me batty and sometimes really ruins what might otherwise be a nice theater experience. I really do hate this technology. (I’ve mentioned a production I saw back in ’86 at the Theatre of Nations, a Russian play performed in Bulgarian, that didn’t provide a translation at all, just a synopsis of the plot. The company, the Ivan Vasov National Theatre of Sofia, were such excellent practitioners of Stanislavsky Realism that the truthfulness of the performances and the consistency of the characterizations managed to come through clearly enough to obviate the need for a translation. That’s extremely rare, I would image though.) I've suffered with my supertitle problem in many productions, though because of the set-up, the Ivanov was toughest for me at the LCF shows I've seen so far this year. I can’t be sure how much I missed--though I know I missed several of the laugh lines.
One thing the transposition of the production from 19th-century Russia to mid-20th-century Hungary accomplished was to allow the set designer (Zsolt Khell, for those of you who follow international theater tech) and director Ascher to convey the dismal, depressing world Nikolai Ivanov inhabits very vividly (if that’s not oxymoronic) without stressing it in the acting, which could sabotage the comedy Ascher obviously wanted to bring forth. “Chekhov viewed the world with a certain black humor, even if the most important characteristic of his protagonist is self-pity,” wrote Ascher in a program note. “I think that the performance cannot aim at the enlargement of this self-pity, but on the contrary, it should show this self-pity in a sarcastic way.” The director further explains, “With this production I am trying to create a very strong atmosphere which has nothing to do with the traditional, nostalgic Chekhovian atmosphere that we are used to seeing. My Ivanov is played in a cold, depressing world, very familiar to” audiences who experienced the era. Anyone who’s been to any of the Eastern Bloc countries in the ‘60s or ‘70s--and I visited Poland, Russia, and the Ukraine in 1965 and lived in West Berlin, a stone’s throw from the GDR, in the early ‘70s--knows how grey and cheerless much of that world was. Anything built after the end of World War II was characterless; it gave new meaning to the term “classless society”! (For those who never saw even a representation of the Stalinist/Socialist decor, take any institutional facility--a public school, a government office, a union meeting hall--and take away all the remaining grace notes and personality.) Nikolai is depressed--but if he weren’t already, this existence would make him so.
It may not have been part of Ascher’s plan, but one element of this atmosphere is derived not from anything he put on the stage but from associations spectators with some recollection of world history might add. First, the period of the Katona’s Ivanov is only a relatively short time after the abortive anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary in 1956. All but the youngest characters in the play would have remembered that short-lived reach for freedom that was so brutally put down by Russian tanks. Further back in history, though, was another world entirely. As part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Budapest was one of the sophisticated, glittering capitals of Europe; Hungary was a cultural power producing theater (Molnar), music (Lehar), and cuisine (Sachertorte, strudel) all of Europe sought out. World War I ended the empire and Hungary became an independent nation and its significance in the world receded between the wars, but the residual panache, the fading luster, hung around for a generation. What was left after World War II was erased by the Soviet Union. As disheartening as life in mid-century Hungary must have been, the contrast to what it had been and what it might have regained in 1956 made the play’s present time all the more joyless. (I have no evidence that Ascher even considered any of this, but I thought of it while I was watching the play. I didn’t bring it up to Diana, so I also have no idea if anyone else in the audience flashed on it. I may have been the only one. Wouldn’t be the first time!)
Another result of the temporal relocation was a reinforcement of the spareness of the lives of Nikolai and the other characters. In a traditional setting for a Chekhov play of the late 19th century--Ivanov was written in 1887 and revised two years later--there are all kinds of objects on the set, objects actors can use to occupy themselves and anchor themselves and their characters to the place. There are samovars, glasses of tea, liquor decanters, books, and chotchkes of all kinds that provide actors with activities and business. In the spartan world of the socialist ‘60s and ‘70s, there’s almost nothing around but bare walls. Now, it may well have been that Ascher didn’t want his characters busy, and even in a czarist setting he may have denied his cast any objects--but the lack of any decor not only looked empty, but enhanced the sense that the lives of these people are themselves empty. These people have nothing to do with themselves because there’s nothing to do it with.
The difficulty with these effects, though, is that they do leave the actors bereft of activity. As someone or other once said of Chekhov’s plays, You can write a play about boredom, but it can’t be boring. Plays about having nothing to do (actually, Ivanov isn’t exactly about having nothing to do--that’s just what’s going on in this world) are in danger if there’s actually nothing to do on stage. Okay, I’m exaggerating a little--there are objects on stage, but only the bare minimum for what Ascher wants his characters to do; they play with the tacky furniture a lot. But the danger is there, and as I remarked with Mary Stuart recently, a play with no action or even activity becomes all about the words. (Remember, I have a difficulty here with the text, so this problem would be exacerbated.) Thanks to Ascher, however, and the excellence of his company’s acting--like those Bulgarians, these folks are masters--whenever I could watch them, they filled the stage with animation, even if it was only inner animation. (That’s not a backhanded compliment: some actors can do with stillness what others can only accomplish through behavior. Their bodies become animated because of what’s happening inside.)
I guess I’ve been talking around this production an awful lot; I sort of started in the middle somewhat. Let me back up a few steps. Ivanov isn’t as well known as Chekhov’s four major plays. (Only Platonov and The Wood Demon are probably less familiar. Ivanov does get played more often than those two.) The play tells the story of Nikolai Ivanov, a landowner who farms a large estate. For the past five years, he has been married to Anna Petrovna who is suffering from tuberculosis. Nikolai's estate is run by a distant relative, Misha Borkin, who constantly advises people on how he can help them make money. Doctor Lvov, an honest man as he frequently reminds everyone, informs Nikolai that Anna needs rest in the Crimea. Unfortunately, Nikolai is unable to afford that, since he owes Lebedev's wife, Zhinaida, 9000 rubles. Nikolai’s friends admonish him for spending time at Pasha Lebedev's house instead of being with his sick wife. At the end of Act One, Nikolai departs to visit Lebedev and is followed by Anna and Lvov. Act Two opens with a party at Lebedev's where many of the guests gossip about Nikolai. According to them, Nikolai’s only motive for marrying Anna was the large dowry; however when Anna married him, she converted from Judaism to Russian Orthodoxy and her father disowned her. The Lebedevs have a daughter, Sasha, with whom Nikolai seems to be flirting. The act concludes with the two kissing. Anna sees them and faints. Act Three features a number of conversations between Nikolai and other characters, including talks with Lebedev about money and Lvov about the way Nikolai treats Anna. The scene ends with Anna bursting in on Nikolai and Sasha, who are simply talking, resulting in Nikolai's telling Anna she is dying, a fact she previously has not known. The last act takes place a year later. Anna has died and Nikolai and Sasha are preparing to marry. As the wedding is about to begin, Lvov appears and exposes Nikolai's intentions simply to marry Sasha for her dowry. Nikolai draws a gun, but Sasha intervenes. Nikolai shoots himself in front of the wedding guests. (In the original version, the suicide takes place off stage. This is really the only major change in the script Ascher made.)
The acting, as I have already hinted, was superb. Nikolai (Ernö Fekete) is clearly the lead character in the play because he’s the focus of not only the plot, but the theme. As we dramaturgs like to put it: the play happens to him. But the production was a fine example of ensemble playing. Fekete got more stage time than anyone else, but each of the others forged not just a character that belonged in this milieu, but a person who rubbed up against Nikolai in just the right way to add to the oppression that drives him. Even the gang of acquaintances, as opposed to the close friends and associates like Pasha (Zoltán Bezerédi), Misha (Ervin Nagy), or Lvov (Zoltán Rajkai), formed a very specific group, a kind of malevolent chorus or a pack of malicious Eumenides who created the atmosphere of gossip, rumor, and rebuke in which Nikolai must live. In other words, while Nikolai was at its center, the Katona company constituted a world that was self-contained (even, perhaps, hermetically sealed, like a ghastly snow globe).
Ivanov treats several different themes, the main one of which is Nikolai’s loss of taste for life. Most of Chekhov’s plays paint this picture in at least one of their characters, though Ivanov is the only one in which the sufferer is the central figure and the only one who analyzes his own malady. (Remember that Chekhov was trained as a doctor and that such figures as Pavlov, Vladimir Bekhterev, Théodule-Armand Ribot--the inspiration for Stanislavsky--and Freud were making medical history at the time.) The play says, for instance, that Nikolai had “fallen out of love” with Anna, but I think this was just a symptom of the malaise that Chekhov was exploring, the “Russian sickness” that he believed infected the Russian soul. It was a common belief at the end of the 19th century that moral decay was manifested in physical illness; Ibsen demonstrated this in many of his characters, most prominently Oswald Alving in Ghosts and Dr. Rank in Doll House. (It is this medical belief in part which makes Nora leave her children behind: she’s afraid of infecting them with the consequences of her moral lapse.) In Ivanov, Nikolai’s spiritual deficiency, his selfishness, his lack of compassion and empathy, are rewarded with depression, lassitude, and failure to thrive. He isn’t so much out of love with his wife as he is out of love with life altogether. (It’s little wonder, I guess, that, as Jason Zinoman pointed out in his New York Times review of the production, many well-known stage Hamlets have also gone on to play Nikolai: Branagh, Kline, Fiennes. Chekhov even refers to Shakespeare’s character in Ivanov.) At the same time, he’s beset from all sides, by his scheming estate manager, Misha; his idle uncle, Matvei; the self-righteous Lvov; not to mention Anna, Sasha, Zhinaida, and Lebedev.
Not, of course, that he’s an innocent victim. He married Anna, née Sarah Abramson, and then made her leave her faith, thus cutting her off from her family and community. He married her for her dowry--which he didn’t get in the end--and then plans to marry again after Anna’s death for the same reason. Like Nora’s having forged her father’s signature on bank papers, Nikolai’s moral failings have returned to haunt him. He may have even infected Anna. Is Nikaolai the cause of her tuberculosis? (TB, or consumption as it was called in the 19th century, was believed to have a spiritual component. Thomas Mann treats this contention extensively in The Magic Mountain.) But Anna isn’t entirely free of moral weakness herself: she’s suspicious, jealous, and obsessive. Maybe she helped cause her own disease.
There is a wide streak of anti-Semitism in the play. Ivanov’s neighbors gloat over Anna’s rejection by her family and, after he married Anna in the face of his society’s prejudice against Jews, Nikolai abandons her even in illness. When Anna confronts him with Sasha, Nikolai shouts at his fatally-ill wife, “Shut up, you Jew!” (Zinoman makes a small point of this translation, noting that David Hare rendered the line as “dirty Jew.” Another translation has “Jewess,” a slightly archaic-sounding epithet. The original Russian, however, goes further than any of these, calling Anna zhidovka, “you little Yid.” I can’t speak for what the actors said in Magyar.) In other words, as bold a face as he puts on when he marries Anna, he’s really still contaminated with his society’s prejudice. It is part of his moral illness.
(To increase the sense of Anna’s suffering, when she is near death and calls on her father to come see her, he refuses. On the surface, this just seems a cruel additional abandonment, cold-hearted punishment for her conversion to Christianity. Though Chekhov doesn’t say so, audiences familiar with Jewish practice might recognize this as traditional, if harsh, Jewish custom. When a child leaves the faith, most often by marrying a non-Jew, he or she is expelled from the community and ostracized. A son is mourned as if he died; a daughter is simply treated as if she never existed. If you remember Fiddler, this is what happens to Chava when she elopes with Fyedka. When she returns to plead with Tevye, he refuses to speak with her and admonishes the village to shun her. It may be severe, but it’s imposed on the faithful by convention. It is more an indictment of the culture than the man.)
It’s been a long time since I spent so much of a report on the script of a play as opposed to the production--not since Valle-Inclán’s Divine Words two years ago at another Lincoln Center Festival, I don’t think. This is partly because the play is so little known compared to Chekhov’s other main works, but it’s also because the production, as difficult as it was to follow sometimes because of the supertitles and my split focus, brought out much of this very palpably. (Some came to me as I watched or later thought about the play, and probably would have occurred to me no matter what production I saw, or even if I had just read the script. I’m not so good at literary interp, but occasionally things dawn on me.) In the case of the Katona’s Ivanov, the resetting in the Soviet era of the ‘60s and ‘70s and the visual stimulus of the institutional set drove some of this home, and so did the playing style of Ascher’s cast.
One of the repercussions of the resetting was that none of the characters, especially Nikolai, were in any way aristocratic or privileged. They were the most ordinary of ordinary men and women. Their clothes (costumes were by Györgyi Szakács) were pitch-perfect reproductions of what Soviet-bloc Eastern Europeans wore at the time--frumpy, ill-fitting approximations of western dress, no sense of style or taste. The women, especially, were overdressed in bold patterns and colors, with white go-go boots or clunky high heels, too much make-up and badly dyed hair. They looked like some of the people I saw walking the streets in Moscow or Kiev in ’65, and against the drab yellow plaster walls of the single-room set, resembling a sort of community hall in some provincial town somewhere, made them seem all the more garish and sad. The actors, who made their characters all seem desperate to find some respite from the grimness in which they lived, pushed the festiveness of the party scenes or, in Anna’s case, the compulsion for loving contact from her husband to extremes. Not over-the-top, farcical extremes, but the extremes of people in a frenzy for a life they can’t find. Even Lvov’s vaunted honesty was just the wrong side of uncompromising. The vocal and physical fluency of the cast made it possible for them to convey these changing states--they reacted to stimuli the way primitive organisms in petri dishes do: instantly--making my problem with the text often irrelevant (when I could watch what was happening on stage without concerning myself with the dialogue). Fekete, who looks like a man in advancing middle age who was once handsome, and Nagy had several moments of almost mercurial changes of temperament which they managed with complete credibility.
Credible, yes, but funny. These characters, in Ascher’s interpretation, were figures of fun. They were ridiculous and outré (though not far removed from the reality I remember from the same milieu or thereabouts!). One reviewer called Nagy’s Misha a clown, and perhaps he was to an extent. But this wasn’t a clown show. They weren’t Estragon and Vladimir. Clowns are subhuman; these characters were supremely human, just in extremis. That made them funny--as long as they aren’t you! It comes back to that Russian black humor, exacerbated by transposing the play to Soviet-era Hungary. You laugh at how silly and petty these people were, but then you see how shabby and empty their lives were. More than one reviewer compared Ascher’s approach to Ivanov as Chekhov-cum-Beckett; maybe that’s right, though I saw less absurdity as horrific contrast--more Chekhov-cum-Kafka. Consider The Trial, for instance. I think that explains the laughter in the face of all the grimness better.