Poet of Hopelessness


by Anton Chekhov, translated by David Magarshack
Hill & Wang, 195 pp., $1.75 (paper)

Chekhov and Other Essays

by Leon Shestov, with a new Introduction by Sidney Monas
Ann Arbor Paperbacks, 205 pp., $1.95

Chekhov and His Prose

by Thomas Winner
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 263 pp., $5.00

Chekhov: A Biographical and Critical Study

by Ronald Hingley
Barnes & Noble, 262 pp., $1.50 (paper)

Anton Chekhov
Anton Chekhov; drawing by David Levine

The four-act play, Platonov, was found among Chekhov’s papers after his death in a heavily corrected manuscript of which the title page was missing. It was first published in the USSR as “A Play Without a Title,” and was translated into English in 1964 by David Magarshack and broadcast on the BBC in a shortened version. (The present edition indicates in brackets the parts that were omitted in this production.) Written at the very beginning of Chekhov’s career, when he was a student at the University of Moscow, twenty or twenty-one years old, it is a very long and awkward play, “almost as long,” Mr. Magarshack remarks, “as his last three plays put together,” We know from a letter of his brother Michael that Chekhov had hoped to have it staged, and that “he even took it to the well-known actress M. N. Ermolova.” But Mr. Hingley is doubtless right is saying that “Chekhov left it among his papers and probably forgot about it; its defects are so obvious that he would certainly have been horrified to know that it has been published posthumously.” Nevertheless, a great author’s early attempts, however unsuccessful, are always interesting and usually, as in this case, by no means without intrinsic merit.

Platonov is a tragi-comedy centering about a personage who is something like a mixture of Don Juan, Hamlet, and Tartuffe, a handsome, vain, egotistic, indecisive, shallow individual with whom women are always falling in love and whom men respect for what they suppose to be his intelligence and idealism. He wins people over by eloquence and a show of passion, in a way that reminds one of Turgenev’s Rudin, that outstanding example of the so-called “superfluous man” of Russian literature, a type defined by Mr. Winner as “a sensitive individual, alienated from, and bored by society and incapable of decisive action,” who is much in evidence in Chekhov’s later stories and plays. Platonov seems to me, however, to be a parody of the prototypes of the Superfluous Man, of Turgenev’s Rudin, Lermontov’s Pechorin, or the earliest of them, Griboyedov’s Chatsky, who is mentioned in this play. For though, like these, Platonov is bored and incapable of action (and they are all bored and incapable of action for different reasons), he lacks the moral qualities that make the others tragic figures and remarkable men. Platonov is not sensitive, nor “alienated” except in his own, unwarranted feeling of superiority. He is totally uninspired by the kind of interest in humanity or in human beings as individuals that had animated his unfortunate predecessors, so that against the background of Russian thought and literature, Chekhov’s play looks like an intellectual farce, a parody of popular and traditional concepts. This is all the more likely since Chekhov was much given to parody, as Mr. Winner has admirably shown, and, especially in this early period, was amusing himself with it quite…

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