Sunday, December 09, 2012

Reading Chekhov's plays

Anton Chekhov (Anton Tshehov): Neljä näytelmää [Four Plays]. Helsinki: WSOY, 1960. Foreword: Eino Kalima. RU
    Чайка. Комедия в четырех действиях / Chaika / Tshaika / Lokki / The Seagull. 1896. Translated by Jalo Kalima.
    Дядя Ваня. Сцены из деревенской жизни в четырех действиях / Djadja Vanja / Dyadya Vanya / Vanja-eno. Kuvia maalaiselämästä. Neljä näytöstä. / Uncle Vanya. 1897. Translated by Eino Kalima.
    Три сестры. Драма в четырех действиях / Tri sestry / Kolme sisarta. Nelinäytöksinen näytelmä / Three Sisters. 1901. Translated by Eino and Jalo Kalima.
    Вишневый сад. Комедия в 4-х действиях / Vishnovyi sad / Vishnevoy sad / Kirsikkapuisto. Nelinäytöksinen komedia / The Cherry Orchard. 1903. Translated by Eino Kalima.

My old notes from: Sophie Laffitte: Anton Tshehov (Anton Tchekhov par lui-même, FR 1955). Helsinki: Weilin+Göös, 1963. Translated by Jaakko Ahokas.

Ilya Ehrenburg (Ilja Ehrenburg): Tshehovia lukiessa (Перечитывая Чехова [Rereading Chekhov], SU 1960. Helsinki: Otava, 1977. Translated by Martti Anhava.

Martti Anhava: "Hulluutta vailla" ["Without Madness"]. In Parnasso 6-7/2012, published on 5 Dec 2012. An essay on Черный монах / The Black Monk, and Палата No 6 / Ward No. 6.

"Critic's Notebook" by Ben Brantley, republished by International Herald Tribune 1-2 Dec 2012, is dedicated to the current wave of Anton Chekhov revivals on the stages of New York and London. "I can't remember a year in the theater as crowded with productions of Chekhov's chronicles of lonely lives as 2012 has been", he writes. There have been five very different interpretations of Uncle Vanya, for instance, and also various new reflections on the "despair master" who "managed to redefine the nature of theater with a mere five plays". But "more often the guiding spirit seems to be a desire to get as close as possible to Chekhov". "There's something about the clarity in Chekhov's ambiguity - his quiet insistence that life is comic and tragic at once in a world without heroes or villains - that is making today's artists identify with him with a new, illuminating fierceness".

"You can understand an affinity by young writers today for characters who have the energy of youth and no means of channeling it", writes Ben Brantley. "Chekhov may resonate most piercingly in an era of transition, when ideologies are in flux and the notion of a secure family home is under siege."

"The idleness of unemployment; the sense that the old forms of expression are outmoded (but no consoling sense of new forms to come); the friction that comes from generations of families being crowded together, by necessity, under one roof; a distrust of ready-made ideologies: These are all as characteristic of our own time as they were of Chekhov's provincial pre-revolutionary Russia".

Chekhov has been very much present on English-speaking stages since the beginning, "he has been nearly as abiding a part of the Western repertory as Shakespeare. In 1995 I marveled in The New York Times that Chekhov's plays were regularly 'being taken apart and reassembled like Lincoln Log houses in a kindergarten' by avantgarde artists."

"Such productions were, by and large, distancing intellectual exercises, suitable to an age when deconstruction had yet to become a dirty word. More earnest, straightforward (and often star-studded) presentations of Chekhov that showed up in the succeeding years often felt almost as alienating, though for the different reason that the performers seemed to have arrived from clashing schools of acting." "Desperately updated versions" "simply registered as strained". Such liberties were routinely taken with Shakespeare, but Chekhov's plays "in my opinion the greatest since Shakespeare (and before Beckett) in their balancing of life's contradictions - are less able to withstand the assaults of bad or misguided acting."

"With Shakespeare the poetry can rise above the clutter of all manner of conceptual layering". "Chekhov, no matter how adept the translation, needs to exist in a specifically felt present in which all the performers share."

"I had pretty much concluded, in a fitting mood of Chekhovian resignation, that my richest experiences of him would be limited to quiet tête-à-têtes with Anton on the page" Ben Brantley confesses. "The possibility of there being in my lifetime a fully staged Seagull or Three Sisters that effortlessly integrated comedy and tragedy (and vice versa) felt about as remote as those sisters ever making it to Moscow". Yet during the last decade he has seen performances that have become his gold standard for acting Chekhov.

The director Sam Gold had reportedly told his cast that "Chekhov is never more thrilling than sitting in your living room, reading it aloud. But when it goes to performance, it somehow loses that. So how can we recreate the experience of people just living the play?"

According to Ben Brantley, "'just living the play' is perhaps hardest when a play is closest to real life". Chekhov "cuts so close to the bone that performers may instinctively try to distance themselves from their characters through actorly exaggeration".

His comment on Chekhov's despair: "There's exhilaration whenever an artist achieves the kind of clarity of vision that Chekhov does, when you look up at a stage and see a brighter mirror than you've ever found on a wall".

When I was bitten by a big Chekhov bug in the spring I first read as many of his short stories and great tales as I could find in Finnish translation. Now I have also read his four great plays, the ones that changed the history of the theatre. They are marvellous to read, but they are really meant to be staged, and Chekhov was a genius as a playwright because he understood the intensity that can be created with rhythm, with waiting, with silence. He wrote his plays in defiance of the currently popular "well-made plays" with their clever plot mechanisms, and also in defiance of the entire Aristotelean tradition of tragedy. There is a tremendous tension in his great plays - they are about life and death - but they are largely based on a special understanding of latent force fields. They are about the calm before the storm.

I am not a theatre-goer, and not proud about that, but I'm happy that as a schoolboy I had the chance to see a production of Uncle Vanya directed by Eino Kalima (1882-1972) who had studied in Moscow and in St. Petersburg in 1904-1908 and brought with him a first-hand knowledge of the way Chekhov was originally produced. He and his brother Jalo Kalima were also the translators of the first Finnish-language edition of the four great plays in book form.

The four great plays are on the surface about disappointment, disillusionment, and humiliation. Yet there is also a sense of life, love, hope, energy, talent, and passion without outlet. Classical tragedy is about greatness of spirit gone horribly wrong due to a fatal flaw in the character. Chekhov refuses to follow the rules of classical tragedy, but there is at the bottom a parallel sense of greatness with which we can identify, and his unique contribution is "the sublime of the disappointment" because we realize what a huge loss is involved when the young poet puts a bullet through his brain in The Seagull, Uncle Vanya toils all his life for the sake of a worthless professor, the three sisters never get to Moscow, and the cherry orchard is ruined. Riffing with Ben Brantley's formulations above, it's the lucidity of the insight which makes his works so rewarding.

In my current Chekhov enthusiasm I have even re-read my schoolboy notes of Sophie Laffitte's fine study Tchekhov par lui-même. It was a good introduction and summary before Martti Anhava published in Finnish extended editions of Chekhov's letters and notebooks. Ilya Ehrenburg read Laffitte's book, too, and wrote a very nice book of his own, Rereading Chekhov, as a riposte. Ehrenburg has fine pages on Chekhov's social conscience which he sees as a key to his character. (Laffitte took for granted Chekhov's remarks of his personal coldness ignoring the fact that Chekhov was notorious for his exaggerated modesty.) For Ehrenburg, Chekhov is a painter of hushed, muted, and mixed colours in earth tones (in Finnish murretut värit; there seems to be no translation). He has good observations on Chekhov as an innovator in literary forms. Chekhov's brevity was of a new kind, entirely different from Maupassant. Yet Chekhov's brevity was not a matter of confinement: it was essential for Chekhov to spread his wings as widely and freely as possible.

And that is one reason why Chekhov's tales of madness (Ward Number Six and The Black Monk) are frightening in a unique way. The sober attitude of a doctor and the matter-of-fact approach to the world of nightmares are in contrast to the Edgar Allan Poe tradition. In the new issue of Parnasso the leading Finnish literary magazine Martti Anhava reflects on the intriguing case of Anton Chekhov, "the paragon of common sense" being fascinated in psychopathology.

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