In Chekhov’s Spell

The Three Sisters

by Anton Chekhov. The Acting Company, directed by Boris Tumarin


by Tom Stoppard, directed by Peter Wood


by Scott Joplin, directed by Frank Corsara

Anton Chekhov
Anton Chekhov; drawing by David Levine

One of the odd aspects of Chekhov’s career is that he began as a writer of stories that were fluent “as a lark’s song,” then later he became famous for creating characters who have trouble completing even a simple sentence. And this—no less—on the stage. A typical moment in one of his dramas is silence interspersed with an uncontrollable outburst, the characters complaining that they do not know what they are saying or what they are doing, that their thoughts are “in a tangle,” that they cannot remember a face or a line from a poem. Of course these vagaries, though beautifully done, are also a little misleading, because eventually the characters manage to compose themselves quite strikingly. And if the arias that follow are rationed, they are arias nonetheless.

Chekhov wrote for the human voice the way a musician writes for the piano or tuba or violin—always masterfully accenting the particular tone or style appropriate to the particular instrument. (And you feel this even in humdrum translations or performances—as one certainly felt it watching the rather uneven production of The Three Sisters which the Acting Company presented in New York last November.) But the matter-of-fact felicity of the youthful stories is not in the plays. Chekhov deliberately turned away from a concentrated mood, his privileged “single mood,” in order to stress a diffuse or expanded one. Lawrence thought that he was writing “at the end” of something, the nullish era before the Revolution, the 1880s and the 1890s, when the Russian gentry no longer knew what was what, though the old decorum went on. And in Uncle Vanya, and elsewhere, Chekhov underscores the impasse: “Almost everything has been destroyed already, but nothing as yet has been created to take its place.”

So he elongated the peculiarly stultifying atmosphere (his plays are often incredibly fussy in props, rhythms, movements), the bright eye of the beginner shrewdly replaced by the meditative eye of the practiced artist determined not to miss a thing. Or a trick. While his use of repetition, which he always favored, no longer resembled the repeated notes of an overture but was much more like the motifs of opera, or the rising and sinking of an augmented vocal line. These strategies were meant to do more than break up the traditional symmetry; they isolated the characters one from another, though always, nevertheless, keeping them in touch—for at heart they are a gregarious bunch, demonstrate in fact the misery and mercy of family life.

With the result that in the plays while nothing is ever really in focus, while the fragments are always being sharpened and then dulled, or allowed to drift airily through the twilight coming in from the veranda, there’s a subterranean flow that carries the disparate elements along with it—the errors, complaints, whims, angers, frustrations. And this is the centralization, the sum of the various sensibilities, which…

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