A Thought from Ivanov

The money quote (for me) from Chekhov’s Ivanov* was “To you it’s all psychological and intellectual, to me it’s just bad behavior.” After suffering through Ivanov’s melancholy and mood swings the entire play (he laconically refers to himself as a “hand-me-down Hamlet”), this accusation of Ivanov by his friend Lebedev seemed to provide the audience an outlet for pent-up frustration resulting from witnessing Ivanov’s inner conflict. Any sense of righteous indignation elicited by Lebedev’s rebuke, however, is itself frustrated by Ivanov’s suicide only minutes later as his solution to his inner crisis.

Ivanov is spiraling toward this inevitable end for the duration of the play. As one reviewer observed, “One side of [Branagh’s] Ivanov watches his own decline with appalled scientific curiosity; another chokes with hectic sobs as though in losing his earlier better self he were like a child suddenly bereaved of its parent.” Although he is universally described by the other characters as being a good man, he is hounded by the one man who declares himself “honest” while jumping to unwarranted conclusions in judging Ivanov. Ivanov claims that Dr. Lvov’s accusations — that he only married his wife for her dowry but when she converted from Judaism to marry him and her parents disowned her and deprived her of her dowry, he no longer loved her — are not true and says so numerous times but Lvov’s judgments add to the emotional trauma that Ivanov has to deal with in his crisis. Ivanov is genuinely outraged that the dishonest schemes of his estate manager have ruined his reputation far and wide. But more pressing, aware that his inner crisis has indirectly led to his wife’s death of tuberculosis, Ivanov is tormented by his inability to control this apathy, which also contributes to his passive acceptance of his economic ruin.

When Ivanov pulled the trigger at the end of the play, I reflected on how Ivanov’s struggles aren’t that uncommon. It’s all too easy to dismiss another’s crisis as “bad behavior” — and perhaps it often is. Still, Ivanov rejected all bids to help him in his struggles. Some people are like that, I suppose. Still, despite any irritation caused by Ivanov’s behavior throughout the play, I was shocked at his suicide (the loud gunshot contributed to that). More importantly, I regretted the righteous indignation I felt when Lebedev lectured him about his bad behavior. I realized that in all but very few cases, it seems, the natural companion of (what we believe to be) righteous indignation is usually regret.

* Tom Stoppard’s adaptation staged at London’s Wyndham Theatre starring Kenneth Branagh, September — November 2008.


  1. Steve Evans says:

    Colour me jealous that someone gets to take in the London theatre.

  2. What’s that hymn about inclined to censure? what a potent hymn.

  3. Thomas Parkin says:

    I’ve experienced a healthy dose of your last sentence in the last 24 hours. Thanks for this – in my current state of mind it was instructive. ~

  4. So true. It’s always easy and satisfying to criticize instead of mourning. We really have no clue what a heavy load those around us are carrying.

  5. The Right Trousers says:

    Heck, we’re barely aware of the real relative heaviness of our own loads. I’ve only ever been *me*, you know? I can only assume it’s the same for everyone else. ;)

  6. Great post. If I remember the play correctly, Lebedev (and most of us) overestimate the ability to choose and don’t see that spiral that hopelessness brings: Ivanov has discovered that he has little control over his life, and so finds himself infuriatingly indifferent to the outcome of that life. I don’t think this implies that we lack total control, but more, as you said, that we need to look at that despair with compassion and understanding instead of scorn.