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Anton Chekhov's Plays Pivot on New Relationships, Not Grand Narratives 

On his death anniversary, a reminder that Chekhov sought, as he said himself, to “get the theatre out of the hands of the grocer and into literary hands”.

The Seagull’s premiere at St Petersburg’s Alexandrinsky Theatre on October 29, 1896 was a disaster. The audience booed and laughed uproariously, driving Anton Chekhov to the back of the stage and so scaring the lead actress that she lost her voice.

As Chekhov fled the theatre – and the city – he vowed never again to write a play, nor allow any of his existing plays to go on stage again. When one of the first-night spectators wrote to him to say she had liked the production, Chekhov thought it was to ‘pour healing balsam’ on his wounds, for, he said, “What I did see was vague, dingy, dreary, and wooden”.

It took Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, co-founder with Konstantin Stanislavski, of the fledgling Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) and a friend of Chekhov’s, all of his persuasive skills to convince Chekhov that the production had failed because of directorial incompetence and sloppy acting, and that a more imaginative – and scrupulous – presentation could show The Seagull in far better light.

Reluctantly, Chekhov agreed to MAT staging the play afresh, though he remained sceptical of its success – one reason why he stayed away from Moscow during the new premiere. In his memoirs Stanislavski, who directed the drama, writes how they went into the production of The Seagull with great trepidation, wondering almost till the last minute if they should not put it off.

Also read: Living Under the Shadow of Death, Chekhov Spun Tales Around the Theme

But, finally, on January 29, 1898, the play went on stage once again. 

This was the MAT’s first major venture, and the opening night looked to the entire crew as their make-or-break moment. The highly-wrought actors had all chosen to be mildly tranquilised for the occasion.

As they went through their parts, all of them thought the audience was responding coldly to the production. As the curtains went down, there was deathly stillness in the hall, prompting the whole cast and the stage hands to huddle together fearfully backstage, there to wait breathlessly for the audience to give them some sign of how it had gone.

Someone from the crew started crying.

And then, just when the silence had become unbearable, the audience erupted in stormy applause, which continued to sweep over the hall for a half hour. Nemirovich-Danchenko thought a dam had burst somewhere. Everybody was embracing one another, including complete strangers who had rushed on to the stage to greet the actors.

Scenes like these had never been seen in a theatre-hall before – nor have they been seen again since. At the end of the evening, the audience demanded that a congratulatory telegram be sent to Chekhov in Yalta. 

Statues of Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko near Moscow’s Theatre District. Photo: Anjan Basu

The bond that The Seagull forged between Chekhov and the MAT strengthened steadily in the following years. Each of his last three great plays – Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard – ran to full houses every time the MAT staged it and was considered by critics a triumph of theatrical production.

Across Europe and the Americas – and also in Asia, including in India – these plays are revived every now and then in many different languages even today, and they seldom fail to generate enthusiasm in audiences and reviewers alike. (Indeed, among major dramatists, only Shakespeare continues to command comparable critical attention to Chekhov.)

Playwrights from Samuel Beckett to Tennessee Williams have acknowledged their great debt to the Chekhovian theatre. The question, therefore, is moot: why did his mature, ‘serious’ plays – I am not talking here of the dramas Chekhov formally designated as ‘farce’ or ‘jest’ – fail to appeal to his audiences in the beginning? (This cannot be put down to directorial misinterpretation alone, because even many discerning readers – Leo Tolstoy, who admired Chekhov’s stories, was one of them – thought rather poorly of them at that point.)

It is a compelling question, because the Chekhov at whom the audience jeered on that fateful night in the Alexandrinski Theatre in St Petersburg was by then one of Russia’s most celebrated writers: masterpieces such as Ward No 6, My Life, Gooseberries, The Man in a Case, About Love and The Steppe had placed him among the greats of Russian literature already. 

What was it in Chekhov’s plays that readers and audiences found it hard to come to terms with? To answer this question, one needs to look at the state of the Russian theatre before Chekhov. Russia really had had no secular dramatic tradition worth the name, unlike Western Europe, and only Pushkin and Gogol – each of whom wrote just one full-length play – made a beginning in the 19th century.

Also read: A Day at Chekhov’s Melikhovo

But both these gifted men were primarily non-dramatists, Pushkin a great poet and Gogol an accomplished satiric fantasist in fiction. Talented Continental and British playwrights like Ibsen, Strindberg, Maeterlinck, Hauptmann or Oscar Wilde were not entirely unknown in Russia, but their influence on the local stage was inconsiderable.

Standard Russian dramatic fare was melodramatic in content and florid in style, acting invariably declamatory, theatre directing as an art barely known or even recognised, and stage-craft was uninspired at best. Chekhov was greatly attracted to the theatre, but his discomfort with the native product was overpowering.

So, when he wrote to Aleksandr Suvorin, his publisher, “We must get the theatre out of the hands of the grocer and into literary hands…”, he meant every word of it. Ever willing to put his nose to the grindstone in a good cause, he took upon himself the job of easing Russian drama out of the grocer’s hands.

         

A still from Moscow Art Theatre’s 1901 production of ‘Three Sisters.’ Photo: Public domain

The way Chekhov went about his task was by breaking free of nearly every dramaturgical convention in vogue till then.

First, he abandoned the convention of the well-ordered narrative, the dramatic plot crafted out of a clear and often linear story leading eventually to its high point, the denouement. In Chekhov’s hands, the linear story made way for several sub-plots, none seemingly more or less salient than the others, with several strands of meaning – the playwright’s ‘message’ – rearing their head and demanding the reader’s/viewer’s attention in equal measure. With the plot went nearly all ‘direct’ action – one of the stage’s basic tenets till then – and all, or at any rate, most ‘action’ now became ‘indirect’ action, or echoes of direct action.

Treplev in The Seagull kills himself while Baron Tusenbach in Three Sisters is killed in a duel, but in both cases the ‘action’ happens off the stage, not on it, and only somewhat distant echoes of the shots reach us. Again, in The Seagull, the key elements of Nina’s story – her disastrous affair with Trigorin, his abuse and desertion of her – have all been moved offstage.

Richard Gilman makes a perceptive point about why Chekhov preferred this ‘loose’ dramatic structure over the conventional plot-based edifice:

“Plot – the twists and turns of the drama’s tale, its suspensefulness and surprises, its outcome, its very body or physicality – tends to crowd out consciousness, leaving less room for awareness, insight, perception, contemplation – the basic instruments of our experience of art.” 

The ‘strong’ plot, bound to or embedded in physical action, often acquires a dynamic of its own, thus becoming a potential source of melodrama, or dramatic action that does not help the reader’s/viewer’s  consciousness along, but bogs it down. And since Chekhov valued consciousness, sensitivity above everything else, he eschewed the rigid plot and opted for the discursive movement of the story instead.

A rich tapestry is woven out of small little stories – some seemingly inconsequential to some of the others – and the process of weaving itself, quite as important as the finished product, etches into our sensibility as the artistic experience. The whole, then, is often not a dominant narrative moving inexorably to  resolution, or disaster, but a melange of several different flavours and colours, much as man’s life on earth essentially is like.

There is a lot of the banal, the trivial, and even the absurd about how these characters speak or go about their lives, but in nearly each of them you discover unsuspected depths of feeling and complexity. There are scarcely any heroes here, or villains, for that matter. The plays are built around many characters, some stronger or weaker than the rest, but all drawn with care and sympathy, without prejudice or malice, or even overt approbation. The closest Chekhov ever comes to portraying a ‘villain’ is the character of Natasha in ‘Three Sister’, but even she is not denied her moments of sobriety and common human decency.

The Seagull’s Arkadina at times comes across as utterly self-centred, even heartless, but there also is the redeeming picture of her residual humanity: she once brought medicines and solace to a wounded washerwoman and bathed her young children with loving care in a tub.

In The Cherry Orchard, both Ranevskaya and her brother Gusev cling unreasoningly and passionately to a past that they should have recognised is dead and gone; they are seen as shallow, maybe even scatter-brained, but their essential humanity is beyond question till the very end. Chekhov, ever a realist, refuses to be judgemental. 

Two stills from Moscow Art Theatre’s 1904 production of The Cherry Orchard.

It is this multiplicity of layers at which a mature Chekhov play exists, this complete rejection of both tradition and convention in the structure and conception of these plays that makes it so hard for first-timers to get into the spirit of Chekhov’s theatre. What creates additional difficulties is the way Chekhov categorised his plays. He called The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard comedies, Three Sisters ‘drama’, and Uncle Vanya, with something like extreme flatness, ‘Scenes from Country Life’.

The Chekhovian nomenclature has been widely misunderstood and misinterpreted, with even as accomplished a theatre person as G. Tovstonogov – who directed the Leningrad Gorky Theatre in the 1960s and 19070s with distinction and presented a couple of Chekhov plays himself– once apodictically commenting that calling The Seagull a comedy was a serious mistake on Chekhov’s part. Even the great Stanislavski himself disagreed with Chekhov’s characterisation of The Cherry Orchard as comedy, presenting it instead as a ‘heavy, lugubrious near-tragedy’ – as a critic described his production – no doubt by fastening on and blowing up the theme of the passing of an epoch and the advent of a ‘soulless’ new era, the era of capitalism. (Chekhov was so upset by this interpretation of the play that he called it a ‘weepy’ drama that he could barely recognise as his own.)

Clearly both Tovstonogov and Stanislavski were looking for, and were dismayed not to find, ‘comic’ or ‘happy’ elements in these two plays. Indeed, both seem to have treated The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard as tales of sadness, of the evanescence of beauty, missing Chekhov’s nuanced narrative style, his delicate and understated handling of the characters. (We will come to that in a minute.) If sensitive and experienced theatre professionals – both of whom admired Chekhov’s work greatly – could so grossly misread his plays, surely it was to be expected that The Seagull’s first-night audience in the Alexandrinski Theatre would be sorely disappointed not to be treated to an amusing play, one full of laughs?

The main reason why both The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard are misread as quasi-tragedies is that neither corresponds to our accepted tenets of a ‘comic’ or a ‘happy’ play. Also, we tend to look at Kostya Treplev and Lyubov Ranevskaya as the ‘main’ characters through whom Chekhov is supposed to be speaking to us, or giving his ‘message’. The fact, though, is that both these expectations and readings are ill-informed.

Chekhov was not using the word ‘comedy’ to mean amusing or funny, or even ‘happy’ in the usual sense, but in the sense of providing us with, to quote Richard Gilman once again, “comedy’s truest actions: to liberate, to relieve, to heal”. The ruling idea of The Seagull is tied up not with Kostya, but with Nina, in particular with her ability to grow, to suffer, ultimately to find the key to a productive life shorn of all illusions, an ability sharply contrasted with Kostya’s well-meaning but somewhat wishy-washy romanticism.

Likewise, Anya’s maturing wisdom in The Cherry Orchard – her realisation that the orchard’s beauty is no longer enough justification for her family’s suffocating love for it, that hanging on to it would merely block their way to a new life – helps keep hope alive. The message seems to be that clinging on to memory is not merely pointless, it is counter-productive, and salvation is possible once this simple truth is grasped.

“It’s only fools and charlatans who know everything and understand everything,” Chekhov remarked once. I think the sensible way to approach Chekhov’s plays is to keep this in mind at all times. If there are things in these plays that elude us, it may help to tell ourselves that maybe Chekhov himself wanted it that way. In any case, let us not look in his plays for things that we expect to find, like the audience in the Alexandrinsky had done on that fateful night.

Let us keep our eyes open, and our ears, and receive gratefully what these wonderful plays can give us. 

Anjan Basu can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com.

Note: The dates the author has used all follow the Gregorian calendar system introduced in Russia in 1918. In many books and on the internet, the dates are a jumbled mass of the old and the new systems. Russia used the Byzantine calendar up to 1700, the Julian calendar between 1700 and 1918, and the Gregorian calendar since 1918.