Many times a great artist's first creation is his worst, Ivanov was Chekhov's first full length drama, and the author himself realized that it was filled with weaknesses. The play has seldom been performed in Europe, and the Brattle Company showed courage to give Ivanov its American premier. As a play Ivanov is poorly constructed. Some of the scenes approach melodrama; many of the lines are weak; and Chekhov had not yet mastered the subtleties of characterization that heightened the realism of his later works.
But what makes Ivanov interesting is that it contains the germ of Chekhov's genius and carries with it a certain power that with a good production can transcend some of its weaknesses. The Brattle Group, aided by Robert O'Hearn's excellent period settings, has done about the best possible job with such a difficult piece.
The tragedy of wasted lives is Chekhov's all-embracing idea. The unbearable pressures of a decadent society and man's inability to face them, a world peopled with figures who can not understand themselves or each other--these are the themes from which emerge the writer's major works. Chekhov's later plays show some optimism, but when he wrote Ivanov, he was still the struggling young writer who felt himself up against insurmountable odds. Hence the complete pessimism of this play.
Nicolai Ivanov was a man who was happily married, wealthy, vigorous, and respected. He had everything to live for. But now his world has tumbled down about him. He is not only unable to pick himself up from the ruins, he does not even know quite what the ruins are. He feels "guilty," "lost in despair," but he cannot understand why. He turns on his tubercular wife who had renounced her family and her Jewish faith for the love of him, and he cannot fathom the reason for the disappearance of his own passionate devotion to her. He just feels "empty" and runs to the company of the Lebedevs, who are themselves living superficial existences and are unable to understand one another. It is interesting that the only person who can temporarily awake these creatures from their lethargy is Misha, a worthless schemer, admirably played in the Brattle production by Paul Sparer.
For Chekhov's characters "the world is black and white." They themselves are all gray, but they cannot accept their own grayness. One of the most vivid figures is young Dr. Lvov, portrayed by Bryant Haliday, whose well-controlled rigidity conveys an intense honesty based on blind judgement.
Chekhov's characters, because of the conflicts in their personalities, are difficult to portray and the people in Ivanov are not so finely drawn as the author's later creations. But for the most part the Brattle cast surmounted the weaknesses in their roles. Cavada Humphrey made a sensitive and pitiful Anna, while Jan Farrand was convincingly naive and noble as the other woman in Ivanov's life. Jerry Kilty and Earl Montgomery turned in fine performances considering the complexity of their roles as washed-out old men. But John Beal, the imported leading man, lacked inspiration. The part of Ivanov requires a certain intensity which must reveal itself immediately and grow with the development of Ivanov's character. Beal reached the proper emotional level only in his long third act soliloquy. For the remainder of the performance, he vacillated between over and underplaying and failed to give unity to his characterization. However, considering the weaknesses of the play, director Henry Weinstein made the most of the difficult characterizations and situations.
Admittedly this is not Chekhov's masterpiece, but the Brattle has given Ivanov about as interesting and meaningful a treatment as it could command. The show is worth seeing, both for the points of fine theatre that are brought out and for the unusual opportunity it offers to see the groundwork in the development of a great playwright.