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Chekhov’s Tears

(Quadrant, October 2007)

Don’t go to the theatre. Don’t even go out. Just find a chair, stop the music, and read Chekhov. For some reason he’s better on the page than on the stage—probably because the Russian playwright was greatly gifted, while most directors and actors are not. So don’t go out: stay home where Chekhov belongs.

In town not long ago there was a Russian production of Uncle Vanya with a haystack hanging in midair. The director was evidently of the Why Not? theatrical school.

A: Do you think we could have a flying haystack?
B: Where?
A: Up there in the sky!
B: Sure—why not?

After which the director suspended a bundle of straw over the stage, the sort of thing donkeys would go for if donkeys could fly, where it floated above Serebryakov and Vanya et al to let us know we were out in the country. Where of course straw dirigibles are everywhere.

Then there was Vanya himself. A man expected to deliver his lines soberly in the shadow of a flying haystack may be forgiven many things. Even so, it’s a mistake to play him as permanently tipsy. My point being that Vanya sober is no dummy, and his critique of Serebryakov, the elderly academic despot who plans to sell the estate they all depend on for their existence, offers more than the insight of a lachrymosiacal lush.

Actors and directors

Are most actors and directors uncomprehending dolts? Surely not. Yet even the great Stanislavsky himself couldn’t get Chekhov right. In My Life in Art he described how his company prepared an actor for the role of Vanya, a man who manages the estate and is a member of the landed gentry of the day. To Stanislavsky the role seemed clearly a matter of status and dress: “The costume and the general appearance of a landed gentleman are known to all, high boots, a cap, sometimes a horse-whip…. That’s how we painted him to ourselves. But Chekhov was terribly indignant.

‘Listen,’ he said in great excitement, ‘everything is said there. You didn’t read the play… Here it is, written down!’

Chekhov tried to persuade us. We were amazed. ‘What is written down? A silk tie?’

‘Of course’, he replied, ‘Listen, he has a wonderful tie; he is an elegant, cultured man…’”

Fair enough. If in fact that’s all there was, just an allusion to an elegant tie (the relevant passage in Act 1 doesn’t provide much more to work with) and Stanislavsky was being asked to deduce an entire intellectual configuration from one singular piece of neckwear, perhaps the playwright was asking a lot. But it isn’t all there was, and Chekhov was only asking that his director think a bit harder about the character. In the stagnant isolation of the estate Vanya has grown desperate with the passing years, and drinks; in his cups he talks grandly about being “a Schopenhauer, a Dostoievski” manqué; but he nonetheless talks like an educated man, and in the final act there’s an explicit statement by Astroff, a doctor, that “in the whole district there were only two decent, cultured men: you and I.”

So, pace Stanislavsky, a costumed cliché with high boots and a horsewhip obviously isn’t enough.

Yet even Chekhov’s companion and very belated wife-to-be, the actress Olga Knipper, couldn’t grasp what the playwright wanted. There’s a scene of parting in the final act: playing Yelena in the original Moscow Arts Theater production of Uncle Vanya in 1899 Knipper had written to Chekhov for advice about the character. Young, attractive, and naturally flirtatious, inseparably yoked to an ageing and gouty professor, but at the same time comfortable with the marital trade-off involved while enjoying the attentions of younger, poorer, men, Yelena breaks with the sentimental Astroff, a provincial doctor who had entertained idle hopes. But it seems Ms Knipper understood things no better than Stanislavsky. Chekhov’s letter in reply to her inquiry reads:

You write that Astrov behaves towards Yelena in this scene like the most passionate lover ‘clutching at feeling like a drowning man at a straw’. But this is absolutely and totally wrong! Astrov loves Yelena, she captivates him with her beauty, but in the last act he already knows that nothing will come of this, that Yelena is disappearing for ever as far as he is concerned—and he talks to her in this scene in the same tone as he speaks of the heat in Africa, and kisses her quite simply for want of anything better to do. If Astrov conducts this scene in a violent fashion then the whole quiet and listless mood of Act 4 will be lost.

The Cherry Orchard

It was even worse with the original production of The Cherry Orchard in 1904. The two co-directors were the same—Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko, and in a telegram to the latter Chekhov remonstrates:

Anya doesn’t cry once and never speaks in a tearful voice. She has tears in her eyes in Act 2 but her tone is happy and lively. Why do you talk in your telegram of all the crybabies in the play? Where are they? There’s only one—Varya—and she is tearful by nature but her tears mustn’t arouse a depressing feeling in the spectator. You’ll come across the indication ‘through tears’ in my stage directions but this is only an indication of the character’s mood not one of tearfulness.

When the play was in rehearsal he could still control Stanislavsky, who also played Gayev (“He wants to bring in a train in Act 2, but I think it would be better to restrain him”) but once The Cherry Orchard had opened, the full realisation of what had been done to his work came home. In a letter to Olga Knipper, who was playing Ranevskaya, he wrote that two of her relations had seen the production, and

both say that Stanislavsky acts revoltingly in Act 4, that he drags everything out painfully. How terrible! An act which should last a maximum of twelve minutes lasts forty in your production. I can only say one thing: Stanislavsky has ruined my play.

How much crying really is there in The Cherry Orchard? For the sake of Chekhov’s veracity and Nemirovich-Danchenko’s honour this needs to be cleared up, so let’s set the record straight. A 1997 biography of Chekhov by Donald Rayfield (Anton Chekhov: a Life), one that Michael Frayn calls “definitive” and that Arthur Miller suggested might never be surpassed, blandly repeats Chekhov’s claim that there’s only one crybaby in the play. Rayfield’s full-length 1994 study of the play throws no more light on the matter. On page 16 of The Cherry Orchard: Catastrophe and Comedy, he writes of “an extravagant telegram” from Nemirovich-Danchenko claiming that the playwright had “overdone the tears”, but says nothing more. Looking into the play, however, one soon finds a good deal more lachrymosity than the author admits to.

Chekhov’s tears

As Chekhov says, Varya’s a real weeper who regularly “sobs quietly” or “is crying softly.” But the notion that she’s the only one wiping her eyes is nonsense, and Nemirovich-Danchenko was more than justified in raising the matter. The plain fact is that in Stark Young’s 1950 translation, right at the start of Act 1, the feckless heroine of the play, Mme Ranevskaya, who returns from Paris to find her estate about to be auctioned and her cherry trees about to be axed, no sooner appears than she breaks down. It’s seeing the nursery in the old family home that does it:

The nursery, my dear beautiful room—I slept here when I was little (Crying)—and now I am like a child…

Let’s be fair. We shall accommodate Chekhov’s request not to count words and phrases like “tearfully”,  “through tears”, and “with tears in her eyes”. In all such cases, and there are many, charity requires that both the author and Mme Ranevskaya be given the benefit of the doubt, so let us accept that Chekhov was only indicating the character’s mood—not actual tears. Though I do feel if Mme Ranevskaya reports some crying episode, even if she’s not actually weeping when she talks about it, this should be treated as a legitimate tear-stat entry. For example, in Act 1 she recalls the train journey home and says “I couldn’t look out of the car window, I just kept crying. (Tearfully) However, I must drink my coffee. Thank you, Fiers, thank you, my dear old friend. I’m so glad you’re still alive.”

But Fiers, alas, is only just alive, for the ancient servant expires on stage at the final curtain. As loyal retainers supposedly once did, the old man cries appreciatively when Mme Ranevksaya reappears from Paris—he is said to be “crying for joy”—but Chekhov spares us the ordeal of hearing him cry as he dies, something Fiers might well have done after being abandoned alone and sick in an empty house.

That said, what are the other occasions on which Mme Ranevskaya cries? There’s another scene in Act 1 (the Act with the highest tear-count) where she meets again the young man who tutored her boy before he was drowned. Petya Trofimov is an eternally unemployed “student”, but he has changed since Mme Ranevskaya went away and she no longer recognises him. They’re both mortified, so this too becomes an occasion for tears:

Trofimov:       Have I changed so? (she embraces
him, crying softly)
Gayev:           There, there.
Varya:            (Crying) Petya, I told you to wait
till tomorrow.
Trofimov:        (In a low voice, tearfully) There, there.
Ranevskaya:    (Weeping softly) My boy was lost,
drowned — Why? Why, my friend?

But since ordinary readers without a clinical interest in psychopathology will have had more than enough by now, I rest my case, feeling that it was not unreasonable for Nemirovich-Danchenko to raise this matter with the author on the eve of production. And also, perhaps, not unreasonable for today’s players to be unsure where the emotional emphasis should fall.

Comedy, satire, or farce?

Tragedy or comedy, satire or farce? In 1911 Arnold Bennett wrote that The Cherry Orchard was “one of the most savage and convincing satires on a whole society that was ever seen in the theatre.” Satire—yes.  Savage? Hardly. There’s too much nostalgia for a world Chekhov does not despise, too much sympathy for human frailty, too much sense of fate. Graham Greene praised a production by Tyrone Guthrie in 1941, again using the word “savage” and warning that:

Too much nostalgia is the danger that threatens every producer of The Cherry Orchard if the savage critical core of Chekhov’s work is ignored: between the lovely opening when Mme Ranevskya and her daughter Anya return just before dawn to the old family house after their long railway journey… and the last departure with the dust-sheets on the furniture, the shrouded rocking-horse, the old servant forgotten, and the sound of the cherry trees falling under the axe… Chekhov’s work is not for the young: it is as old as the strange land from which it emerged: it is bleached with the doctor’s memory of cholera, of interminably suffering peasants…

But Bennett and Greene show little feeling for the peculiarities of language and narrative that make Chekhov a test for players and directors alike. Greene tells us that in The Cherry Orchard he wrote a play that has a lovely opening, a savage critical core, and that closes when a melancholy final curtain shrouds a strange and stricken land. That’s it. A play like many others. Virginia Woolf on the other hand (writing in the New Statesman in 1920) is hearing something else—

The strange dislocated sentences, each so erratic and yet cutting out the shape so firmly, of the realism, of the humour, of the artistic unity… Chekhov has contrived to shed over us a luminous vapour in which life appears as it is, without veils, transparent and visible to the depths… “I have no proper passport. I don’t know how old I am; I always feel I am still young”—how the whole play resounds with such sentences, which reverberate, melt into each other, and pass far away out beyond everything!

Introspection and soliloquy

A trifle ecstatic, perhaps, with the luminous fading into the numinous. But she’s onto something. There are passages that exist uncertainly between dialogue and soliloquy and disembodied thoughts floating free in the air. Observations are made—about life, about fate—and they require no response since the speaker is self-absorbed, is privately ruminating in a confessional way, is beached on the sands of time and knows it will be for ever. Woolf quotes Charlotta’s utterance at the beginning of Act 2; and there are others.

Some, like Gayev’s appeal to Nature, are on the borderline of prayer: “Oh, Nature, wonderful, you gleam with eternal radiance, beautiful and indifferent, you whom we call Mother, combine in yourself both life and death…” Some are mystically poetic, as Trofimov’s “Yes, the moon is rising. (Pause) Here is happiness, here it comes, comes always nearer and nearer, I hear its footsteps now. And if we shall not see it, shall not come to know it, what does that matter? Others will see it!”

In a number of places in The Cherry Orchard character does not emerge in action—it is remembered, described, regretted, mourned. Lopahin: “This life of ours is idiotic. (Pause) My father was a peasant, an idiot, he understood nothing, he taught me nothing, he just beat me in his drunken fits and always with a stick.” Fiers: “I’ve lived a long time. When the serfs were freed I was already the head footman. I didn’t want to be freed then, I stayed with the masters… (Pause) And I remember everybody was happy, but what they were happy about they didn’t know themselves.” Mme Ranevskaya: “Oh, my sins—I’ve always thrown money around like mad, recklessly, and I married a man who accumulated nothing but debts and died of drink… I fell in love again and we went abroad—went away for good, never to return… In Paris he robbed me of everything and took up with another woman; I tried to poison myself… Lord, Lord, have mercy…”

Like circles formed by raindrops on a pool, these utterances stand alone, largely untouched by the world around them, taking you into the speaker’s heart. The pattern of autographic miniatures is more mosaic than linear and it might not matter very much in what order they appeared. As with the “strange dislocated sentences” Woolf refers to, these introspective sketches create scenes where “life appears as it is, without veils, transparent and visible to the depths.” It is in one of the longer pauses between them that “a distant sound is heard, as if from the sky, like the sound of a snapped string, dying away, mournful.” Both this and the monologue-like reminiscences require complete and utter silence — and silence in the theatre is something increasingly rare.

Note In Chekhov’s “A Dreary Story” the narrator, a hypochondriac widely regarded as autobiographical, has this to say about plays, actors, and the theatre: “I never shared Katya’s enthusiasm for the theatre. If a play’s any good, one can gain a true impression without troubling actors, I think—one only needs to read it. And if the play’s bad, no acting will make it good.” As for the suggestion that Chekhov may often be better on the page than the stage, I find that the third sentence of Michael Frayn’s Introduction to his translation of eight plays in 1988 reads as follows: “The page, not the stage, was his element.”

Posted in Arts and Letters, Theatre, Notes.

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