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In Chekhov’s Spell

The Three Sisters

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

Travesties

by Tom Stoppard, directed by Peter Wood

Treemonisha

by Scott Joplin, directed by Frank Corsara

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 Chekhov uses in place of “point of view.” Nowadays we call it consciousness, and like to think that his characters are symbolic figures, that they represent an interior life as opposed to an active one. But what it really means, I’d say, is that Chekhov always saw a sense of continuity in the muddled climate of his provincial landscapes, that he viewed his flyblown characters as figures deeply rooted in these settings, and that no matter how isolated or haphazard they may seem or may become they would always be part of a larger portrait—even the flutteriness or irresolution would be like trees bent or swaying in the wind.

That’s why it’s unwise to compare him to Beckett, a current practice, since what Beckett has done is to take the Chekhovian type out of the landscape, radically alter his gait, make him the repository of the solitary consciousness caught in its own cell. (And it doesn’t matter that there’s more than one character in Beckett; each exists in his or her own little nest egg—or garbage pail.) Beckett’s is consciousness as an exercise in cosmic futility. He’s an entirely modernist writer. But there are no cosmic wheels turning in Chekhov. He’s an unalarmed fatalist, of the old school. As he kept insisting, again and again.

Another odd trait is his own attitude to his characters—genial yet perhaps “vengeful.” These characters never leave their imprint on life (certainly not in the sense that Tolstoy’s or Dostoevsky’s characters do), and he sees to it that this is so. Dilettantes, amateurs, “superfluous men,” bohemians, military men, boors, poseurs—for his hideaway people experience is always being forced in on them. There are the usual bits of bravado, duels, suicides, a fire in the village, one or two mysterious forces, one or two exasperatingly honest confrontations (though in general the confrontations in his plays never really decimate anyone). But typically Chekhov does not bother to embellish the dramatic resources available to him. Not even with the servants, the sentinels of stability, their reliable home remedies: “A cup of lime-flower water, or raspberry tea, and it will pass….” He honors the horse sense, and then lets that too pass.

And if his characters philosophize they do so with the aimlessness of a fly buzzing about a windowpane. If they represent spring at one moment, talking about cranes and guitars and a lone poplar on a hill, at the next they are suddenly adult and old and resigned, readying for winter, burying themselves deeper in their assorted disguises or disillusionments. (“Nothing turns out as we would have it”—a familiar dirge.) Not a few are quite witty. “Why do you always wear black?” the young Masha is asked in The Sea Gull. “Because I am in mourning for my life,” she replies. Usually, though, questions go unanswered, and revelations or confessions rebound on deaf, if loving, ears.

Yet how curious he allows his characters to be about themselves and each other (Masha, in The Three Sisters, on why she has fallen so desperately in love with the plaintive Vershinin: “At first I thought him odd…then I was sorry for him…then I came to love him…to love him with his voice, his words, his misfortunes, his two little girls”): how perfectly he lets the indolent surface of their existence express the chasms beneath where they are “boiling here inside”; how absorbingly he manipulates the two voices, carrying them across the silences that are threatening to engulf them, and which do engulf them. One is the voice of conscience and poetry, celebrating some mythical future, the marriage of “industry and culture,” or yearning for the day when men will be men and life will be “gentle and sweet as a caress”; the other a voice almost at the point of suffocation—like actors in fear of the dread dry mouth—which breaks forth either in bursts of chatter or spite (the turbulent scene between Treplev and his mother in The Sea Gull, or the one that follows between the mother and Trigorin) or gathers unsuspected resonance, startling perceptions where “trifles,” the phenomenology of “little things suddenly à propos of nothing acquire importance in life!”

This is of course the paradoxical modesty Chekhov sought: heady romanticism in the grip of inertia. And then relaxing the grip, letting Uncle Vanya, say, cry out that he’s been wasting his life, obligingly and laboriously copying the manuscripts of another man’s when he should have been creating his own. “If I had had a normal life, I might have been a Schopenhauer, a Dostoevsky!…” Of course he knows that what he’s saying is wrong, but he feels that it is right, knows that his dream is ridiculous because it has no basis in fact, but feels that because it is his own and because there is such great longing behind it, these then make it true.

Uncle Vanya, like most of Chekhov’s malcontents, is in despair. But despair in Chekhov is essentially diminutive, almost, at times, endearing. Chekhov creates an ordinary looking world but incongruously tints it with the lyric abruptness of high points in a dream of strangely fills it with the sardonic, tantalizing wistfulness of an old song. His characters are certainly given no great drive to endure, but they endure nonetheless. And even when they are destroyed it happens—famously—off stage; the explosive end of a bit of fiction the other characters don’t hear. Treplev’s suicide in The Sea Gull is like the last line of a poem he’s been writing about himself; and in The Three Sisters the staid little Baltic baron, Lt. Tusenbach, before going off to his fateful encounter with Solyony, murmurs: “What beautiful trees, and really, how beautiful life ought to be under them!”

In Chekhov these situations and sentiments work not only because he doesn’t overdo them (which is a technical grace), but also because he’s too much a doctor, too constant a perceiver, not to be aware of the insubstantiality of all essences, including the dramatic ones (which, I suppose, might resemble a spiritual grace). He knows, too, the effectiveness of an impromptuact that can upset his characters’ animal placidity or frivolous gloom. Though his plays are often full of bewildering advances and tremulous hesitations, their texture, both physically and emotionally, is astonishingly vivid, and at no time more so than when we sense the laziness and blur at the heart of the protagonists who are so contradictorily a part of it.

These characters suffer and then the suffering enters the environment, colors their lives forever, like the berries of the mulberry tree in the Greek fable which turn from white to red when the roots drink the blood of the dead lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe. Except with Chekhov the color is his celebrated gray—the “gray area,” as the doctors call it, where there’s no pro or contra, no yes or no. “Once you philosophize,” he wrote in one of his many letters, “your brain starts whirling.” So in general he tended to leave speculation “in God’s hands,” content to accept that the mystery in life is an “open secret,” and that was that.

Now of course in Chekhov there’s nothing that approaches the terrifying bluntness of Dostoevsky where existence is an open wound; and nothing like the age-old laws of nature on the edge of chaos that you sometimes get in Tolstoy. Yet Prince Andrew, certainly as melancholy a fellow as any in Chekhov, still can smile with “the egoism of joy” as they never can. And this absence of the mercurial, of spiritual outlaws or gamblers, bothers some. Lawrence thought Chekhov a “willy wet-leg,” and Meyerhold as a young man was dismayed by Chekhovian “apathy,” which he linked to the earlier dramas of Turgenev, full of “neglected alleyways” and “painterly vignettes” and “the lacework of long dialogues without action.” And even in Proust, where disillusionment is inveterate, as much a part of the salon as of the brothel, though you surely don’t ever realize what you desire, at least you accomplish the next best thing, in time your desires change, you go on to something else.

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