ASK PLAYBILL.COM: A Question About Adapting Anton Chekhov's Ivanov

By Robert Simonson
November 14, 2012

Russian master Anton Chekhov rewrote and revised Ivanov over the years. When a producer revives it, which draft are we getting?



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Question: Playbill has reported that Anton Chekhov's Ivanov was much-revised in the author's lifetime. For the new Off-Broadway production by Classic Stage Company, how do they go about choosing the primary script, and do they borrow from various versions from over the years? —M. Collins, New York, NY

With every Chekhov production given in the United States, the producing theatre and director must settle on one vital question: What adaptation to use? It's a matter that every country in the world, save Russia, must contend with. As each of Chekhov's major plays are more than a century old, there are a lot of English adaptations out there to choose from. Very often, a theatre company will opt to create its own new adaptation, hiring a playwright to pen it.

Classic Stage Company has staged a Chekhov play in each of the last five seasons. This fall, it has mounted Ivanov, the earlier and least known of the playwright's major plays. Ethan Hawke plays the title role. For this question, we went straight to the source: Carol Rocamora, who translated and adapted the work. Rocamora also adapted CSC's 2009 production of Uncle Vanya.

Carol Rocamora

Rocamora said Chekhov wrote the first draft of Ivanov on commission for the Korsh Theatre in Moscow, where it premiered in 1887. "The reviews and audience response were sharply mixed," she stated. "Chekhov's goal was to write the Russian Hamlet, and he was frustrated that his protagonist was so misunderstood. He did a second rewrite for the second production, in St. Petersburg, in 1889, but his heart wasn't in it, and he lost confidence in his abilities to write serious drama. 'It's too early for me to be writing plays,' he wrote his publisher. As you know, his next play — the flawed romantic comedy The Wood Demon in 1889 — failed miserably."

It wasn't until seven years later, in 1895, that Chekhov returned to serious playwriting and wrote his four mature masterpieces: The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard.

For the Ivanov production as CSC, said Rocamora, "I translated the St. Petersburg production script (the one Chekhov approved for his complete collected works) directly from the Russian. So what you heard on the stage is 'author-approved,' so to speak!"

The most recent major production of Ivanov, produced at Lincoln Center Theater in 1997 with Kevin Kline in the lead part, used an adaptation by English playwright David Hare. Other recent adaptations have been by David Harrower, Sheldon Patinkin and Tom Stoppard. A 1966 Broadway production was adapted by John Gielgud himself.