YESTERDAY’S PLAYS TOMORROW
You’re Young, You’re the Future
There’s this story about two women who are in love with the same man. In one version of the story, it is a mother and her step-daughter. This is the plot-line that the French novelist Honoré de Balzac came up with in The Step-Mother, which opened in Paris in 1848.
It only ran for six performances because that was the year of revolutions. When civil unrest broke out, the producer closed the show sharpish and fled with the cast across the channel to England.
Also in Paris that year was the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev. It’s not known if he managed to catch one of those six nights – he would almost certainly have known the play was on – but seven years later he wrote his own version of two women falling in love with the same man.
He set his version on a country estate in Russia in the early 1840s. One of the women is 29, the other is 17. The young man is a student who has come to the grand house during the summer holidays to teach the 10-year-old boy.
The first title that Turgenev chose for the play was The Student. After that, he changed the title to Two Women. After that, he changed the title to A Month in the Country.
A movie version of the play, starring Ralph Fiennes — as a guest in the house, not as the young tutor — was called Two Women (2014). A recent, more condensed, version of the play was called Three Days in the Country (2015).
But The Student comes closest to suggesting what is of most interest when re-reading the play today — in an age of climate change. It’s easy to see that Russian society as it existed at that time could not possibly carry on: in political and economic terms, it favoured a tiny minority at the expense of a great majority. Then, as now, the student represents the direction where things will go. The older woman in love with him states this in the plainest terms, “You are young. You have a future.”
We know we’re meant to be paying close attention to the student because other characters talk about him before he makes his first entrance. Only two pages in, the mother of the 10-year-old boy tells her…