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In Chekhov’s Spell

In Chekhov, though, towns and characters never change, the old way is the only way. Occasionally “progress” may destroy an orchard, a nasty in-law may destroy a household, but gradually everything is as it was before. The disappointed brother in The Three Sisters, the cuckolded husband of the nasty in-law, puts Chekhovian “eternity” in a nutshell. (It is a famous speech—mysteriously cut, by the way, in the Acting Company version.)

Why on the very threshold of life do we become dull, grey, uninteresting, lazy, indifferent, useless, unhappy?…Our town has been going on for two hundred years—there are a hundred thousand people living in it; and there is not one who is not like the rest, not one saint in the past, or the present, not one man of learning, not one artist, not one man in the least remarkable who could inspire envy or a passionate desire to imitate him…. They only eat, drink, sleep, and then die…others are born, and they also eat and drink and sleep, and not to be bored to stupefaction they vary their lives by nasty gossip, vodka, cards, litigation; and the wives deceive their husbands, and the husbands tell lies and pretend that they see and hear nothing, and an overwhelmingly vulgar influence weighs upon the children, and the divine spark is quenched in them and they become the same sort of pitiful dead creatures, all exactly alike, as their fathers and mothers….

But why was Chekhov fascinated by so grim a picture? And why did he keep repeating it from play to play? One reason, I suppose, is that he always had his own cautionary version of romanticism, believed that there was something deeper in man than glamorous intensity. And that deeper something was procrastination, idleness, boredom—or “something sour.” We tire of our keenest moments. They wear us out, and they wear others out too. Boredom results—not Kierkegaardian boredom which is an invitation to an irritable aestheticism, but boredom, rather, that comes to us as a kind of balm or protection. The inertia of the spirit in Chekhov is there as blessing as well as curse: it not only fits the figures to the landscape, or helps mute the undertone of panic creeping around them, but, more important, it makes the real world, and not the ideal one, accessible to them—and to us. With Chekhov you just can’t take “greatness” (and the word always has to be in quotes) as a steady diet—not even your own—because at heart it’s simply a phantasm.

That’s why there are no stars in his dramaturgy. His ensemble groupings forbid it. You cannot be a star, mustn’t be. Treplev, in The Sea Gull, wears his crown of thorns, and that, to Chekhov, is his problem He wants to be heroic, but he’s not heroic, no one is. Treplev is the young artist manqué—“pretension without talent,” as his actress mother says. He has glowing eyes, a pale face, a mournful voice, he has “the gestures of a poet”—still, he’s not a poet.

What Treplev represents is the spirit of the outsider, and one of the very few, indeed, that Chekhov has created. For though most of the characters in his plays are forever talking about an exit from life, they’ve nevertheless found some entry into it. Treplev has not. Throughout The Sea Gull it is presumed that he’s being defiant in the wrong way, sulkily withdrawing from an “unworthy” world, not allowing that world to test his mettle. But Treplev’s contrariness might more properly be understood as an implicit denial of the assumptions that rule Chekhov’s landscape, assumptions which his detractors have often found so alienating or constraining.

Treplev’s troubles, it seems to me, do not really revolve around his mother, or his art or lack of art, or even Nina, the girl he loves who’s seduced by Trigorin. He’s not, as the two customary interpretations depict, either a spoiled darling who wishes to cut off his nose to spite his face or a suicidal type with an unresolved Oedipal conflict. Treplev’s torture, rather, is not psychological at all, but philosophical. It would, for example, be difficult to find a starker contrast than that between the figure of Treplev with his misty words about a “world soul” and a “Cosmic Will” and the disenchanted figure of Trigorin, the amiably skeptical writer, acting out a little tale he’d been concocting in his head—a man, “having nothing better to do,” casually destroys the life of a young girl as easily as he might destroy a sea gull. Freud says that he “cured the miseries of the neurotic only to open up to him the normal misery of life.” But it is precisely “the normal misery of life” that Treplev would reject.

Treplev is a young man who cannot find his “path,” who’s forever “floating in a chaos of dreams and images,” in thoughts of revolutionary tomorrows. With Treplev, the dream has become all there is, he refuses anything else or anything less, so cannot settle for the unreliability of human relations as ultimately the other characters do. And though he still wants to be saved, the sort of salvation he’s seeking is perforce not part of Chekhov’s landscape. For if Chekhov is an optimist in that he demands that we accept the limits of our nature and our situation, and thereby observe who and where we are, he’s also fundamentally a pessimist in that he insists that these limits are our only fullness.

In the plays of Chekhov, after a certain point, things are as good or as bad as they are ever going to be. And what’s bad is that you don’t get the helpmate you want or the career you want or perform the great deeds you thought you were put on earth to perform. What’s good, however, is that in spite of that you learn to endure, and you endure not to uphold an ideal as Treplev might have it, you endure simply because there’s “no help for it” or for you otherwise. Perseverance is the deus ex machina that animates your way of life. You’re like the cranes in The Three Sisters that keep flying because that’s what they’ve been programmed to do—“and whatever ideas, great or small, stray through their minds, they will still go on flying just the same without knowing where or why.”

This is, of course, a rueful portrait, despite the elegant touches of irony and pity that frame it, nor is it made more bearable by Chekhov’s consoling belief in “faith, patience, work”—a belief, moreover, which he’s often subtly undercutting.* The really interesting thing about Treplev, then, is that he’s the only character in the mature plays who ever consciously rebels against that belief. With Treplev the question is not whether you’re equal to what life’s asking of you, but whether life’s equal to what you’re asking of it. He decides that it is not and so in despair goes out with a pistol. That, no doubt, must seem a sophomoric conclusion, the epitome of what Goethe calls the sickliness of romanticism.

Still, the philosophic dilemma that Treplev suggests is one that Chekhov did not know how to answer, other than to imply, from work to work, that life is simply not interested in solving such a dilemma. Nor did he know what to do with the reflective temperament of Treplev as he conceived it, either in The Sea Gull or elsewhere. Earlier in his career Treplev had been prefigured in the “prematurely exhausted” protagonist of Ivanov, while later he is caricatured, I believe, in the amusing layabout Epihodov in The Cherry Orchard or made to appear malevolent in the nihilistic person of Solyony in The Three Sisters.

Tolstoy once remarked that Chekhov lacked the “real nerve of a dramatist,” and Chekhov in his letters often felt that he lived largely without passion and that his own works, as well as those of the other Russians of his generation, did not possess “the kick that would make us drunk”—the sort of kick you got, he thought, from Anna Karenina or Onegin. And if we look at a scene from War and Peace, perhaps we can sense a certain narrowness of response inherent in Chekhov’s sensibility, a slight failure of imaginative daring. This is the scene between Prince Andrew and Pierre on the ferry boat, where Pierre is expatiating on the wonders of God’s awful ways (“We must live, we must love, and we must believe that we live not only today on this scrap of earth, but have lived and shall live forever, there, in the Whole”), and Prince Andrew, fresh from battle, from meeting Napoleon, is resisting his friend’s evangelical promptings, insisting instead that “when you go hand in hand with someone and all at once that person vanishes there, into nowhere, and you yourself are left facing the abyss, and look in”—that’s what matters. But then something wonderful, and utterly simple, occurs:

Prince Andrew stood leaning on the railing of the raft listening to Pierre, and he gazed with his eyes fixed on the red reflection of the sun gleaming on the blue waters. There was perfect stillness. Pierre became silent. The raft had long since stopped and only the waves of the current beat softly against it below. Prince Andrew felt as if the sound of the waves kept up a refrain to Pierre’s words, whispering:

It is true, believe it.”

He sighed, and glanced with a radiant, childlike, tender look at Pierre’s face, flushed and rapturous, yet shy before his superior friend.

Yes, if it only were so,” said Prince Andrew. “However, it is time to go,” he added, and, stepping off the raft, he looked up at the sky to which Pierre had pointed, and for the first time since Austerlitz saw that high, everlasting sky he had seen while lying on that battlefield; and something that had long been slumbering, something that was best within him, suddenly awoke, joyful and youthful, in his soul. It vanished as soon as he returned to the customary conditions of his life, but he knew that this feeling which he did not know how to develop existed within him. His meeting with Pierre formed an epoch in Prince Andrew’s life. Though outwardly he continued to live in the same old way, inwardly he began a new life.

But of course in Chekhov there’s never a real possibility of a “new life,” either outwardly or inwardly. In his plays visions do not save you and wishes change nothing. Visions are just disguised fantasies, and wishes—your own wishes—are always in conflict with another’s. So often in Chekhov neither the great themes of philosophy nor the grand schemes of novels prepare one for problems in actuality. Once these hit you don’t know how to respond, and you can’t calculate beforehand, you have to “settle things” by yourself, haphazardly and inconclusively, just as the three “overeducated” sisters are forced to do once their plans come to nought.

The sense of continuity that’s so beautifully pervasive in the plays is founded on the supposition that we all go down the same road, but on that road no one ever breaks the spell of an “unlived life.” Strategies for survival are generally indecipherable, one’s journeys are either occluded or are illusory pursuits, followed, as Mary McCarthy says, bemusedly or abstractly, like “the mirage seen in the desert that dazzles the eye of the thirsty traveler till he loses his bearings and no longer remembers what his real destination was.” Yet Chekhov also felt that in the works of “real” genius things were different. There “each line is saturated with the consciousness of its goal,” there “you feel life as it should be in addition to life as it is, and you are captivated by it.” And that is the pressure that drives one forward, on that road adventures begin….

Still, as hardly needs saying, Chekhov was himself a writer of genius. The plays, the stories, the letters, these have—whatever the valetudinarian air that might be hovering about them—the singularity and attractiveness of imperishable things. From the beginning moreover, Chekhov pointedly eschewed the proverbial Russian obsessions, those of demonism and fanaticism, so that neither the messianic energy of Dostoevsky nor Tolstoy universalizing the struggle of a people could ever really be part of his creative concerns. Instead his splendid gifts lay elsewhere. In the wry suppleness, the farcical stalemates, the poetic shrewdness he added to the theater of Ostrovsky or Turgenev, in the radiant tact that illumines his landscapes, above all in the famous compassion with which he observes a person, a forest, a thunderstorm, a house; a compassion which may, at times, seem perversely inhibiting or merely oblique, but which, in the last analysis, is what preserves his characters from embitterment, if not regret.

This compassion is also of a strangely evolutionary sort. One day people will know what to do with their emotions, their dreams; one day perhaps we will be able to free the future of the ignorance that is stifling the present—but not now. At the moment of history that Chekhov was writing, the climactic touch had to be always against the grain. The endings of his plays, therefore, are as stoical as they are musical, and a little unearthly, too, in the complexity of resignation they impart, as in the magical finale of The cherry Orchard where, just before the famous axes strike, “a sound is heard that seems to come from the sky, like a breaking harp-string, dying away mournfully.”

Travesties, by Tom Stoppard, is a harlequinade on historical themes, or the fortuitous collision of art and revolution, in which an improbable trio—the Dadaist Tristan Tzara, as a cherubic imp, Joyce as a barroom pedant, and Lenin as a darksome librarian who looks like a butcher—engage in a frothy aesthetical debate, with Lenin decrying bourgeois art (“Down with the literary superman!”), Joyce decrying bourgeois art (Up with the literary superman!), and Tzara, probably the sanest of the lot, decrying everything and everybody, glorying instead in the art of doing nothing and doing it thoroughly (“It takes courage to sit down and be counted”). The play’s physical locale is Zurich in 1917, its mental locale the burlesqued reminiscences of one Henry Carr, a pestiferous clerk in the British consulate who also serves as a sort of master of ceremonies or referee during the antic proceedings; but the actual locale, I’d say, is the British theater itself, where the cardinal rule is to abhor the bore and improvise like mad. Which rule Stoppard follows to the hilt.

He also follows Tzara’s amusing “Manifesto on Feeble Love and Bitter Love” where the poet advises a fledgling student that if he wants to create a poem he should get a pair of scissors, cut out an article in a newspaper, drop the words from the article into a paper bag, shuffle the bag gently, and then draw out the words one by one—and he too will be a genius. This is excellent advice and makes for a brilliant opening scene, with Stoppard even improving upon Tzara’s paper bag by substituting a shiny top hat. Later Joyce has a shiny top hat out of which he pops a live white rabbit. After that, though, there are just too many hats.

Stoppard’s theme is ingenious enough but, intellectually speaking, I think he does absolutely nothing with it. Lenin’s ethic of revolution was predicated on the bankruptcy of capitalism, Tzara’s ethic of nihilism on the bankruptcy of culture, Joyce’s religion of art on the bankruptcy of art’s traditional forms. Of these various defaults and the responses to them the only real survivor was of course Joyce. Since the Sixties, though, Ulysses, and the other collagist masterpieces like The Waste Land or the Cantos, have been the inspirational force behind a good deal of the pop avant garde, Travesties itself being the latest epigonistic example. But Travesties, while in perpetual agitation, seems to have no reverberations whatever. So maybe Joyce’s religion of art is part of the ash heap too.

The acting I thought exceptionally good, especially Tim Curry as the bouncy Tzara, May Wynn Owen as Carr’s slightly nutsy sister, and John Wood as Carr himself, delivering his monologues with extraordinary velocity, fidgeting like Danny Kaye, looking like John Lindsay, and rattling on, at times, in the deep throwaway tones of Tallulah Bankhead in Private Lives. In the end, as in the beginning, we learn that the spirit of history is really just an old humbug in a long gray coat whose “art belongs to DADA because DADA treats it so well”—an apt enough summary but tiresome also because we’re aware of it daily reading the newspapers, listening to the radio, watching the tube, or for that matter going to the theater.

Stoppard’s real muse here is decadence, but he treats her a bit too indulgently—indeed parasitically, continuously exploiting highbrow concepts, as well as virtuosic highbrow language, for middlebrow consumption. The various incursions re Lenin’s speeches, Joyce’s limericks, Shakespeare’s sonnets, The Importance of Being Earnest (parodied, quoted, misquoted), the dance-hall routines, vaudeville turns, illustrated lectures, crashing tea cups, and finally the slow movement from the “Appassionata” played by Carr on a ramshackle piano: these combinations and recombinations are certainly funny—at least the audience laughed. But the verbal missiles that accompany them, if you listen closely, go off with a hollow bang. Eventually the rising expectations of the early part of the evening topple into the gaudy expectorations of what’s left, as the witty Tristan Tzara might say, and perhaps did say. Nixon had a mother who always kept telling him, “You must try to be good at everything,” and we know what happened to her boy. Tom Stoppard also tries to be good at everything, and succeeds, poor fellow, in the same Pyrrhic fashion.

Treemonisha, Scott Joplin’s ragtime opera, which he published at his own expense as long ago as 1911, a few years before his death—it had its premiere, I believe, at Atlanta in 1972 and, until recently, had been packing them in at the Palace—finally emerged as a big bubbly circus show, set in the “Texas-Arkansas country” of the 1880s, the inspirational adventures oddly resembling the perils of a Saint Pauline, though in a voodoo guise. Its athletic, optimistic, schoolmarmish heroine (“Wrong is never right, and wrong you shouldn’t do”) battled scarecrows, nests of wasps, sacred trees, the “goofer dus’ man,” rose aloft on wings of All-American uplift, naïvely towering as “the leader” of her people, as efficacious and progressive a figure as any Lenin or Ben Franklin might have wished.

As an opera, I’m afraid Treemonisha wasn’t much. The style was nomadic (and not at all helped by Frank Corsaro’s patchy staging) and the melodies, for the most part, were pallid—a little like Virgil Thomson’s though without Thomson’s ease and finesse. The choreography by Louis Johnson, however, seemed to me a knockout. Then the street level excitement was intense, the dancers tore up the floor, the singers the ceiling, and at those moments—totaling about thirty minutes—the communal whoopee was a delight.

  1. *

    For instance, the old actor in “Swan Song,” alone on a deserted stage, looking out at an empty house, seeing in it nothing but “a black hole” that has swallowed up forty-five years of his life.

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