For me, Chekhov is second only to Shakespeare. His plays move me, excite me, bowl me over, delight me. And so it is regretful that I rarely see his plays done well.
Now, I say that, and I realize it sounds very college-boy snobby. But that is not the sentiment at all. When I say “regretful,” I mean it. When I go to see Chekhov, I want it to transport me as I know it can. I want the director, actors, designers, and technicians to succeed. And yet I have to admit that I am often disappointed. I have only seen two productions that I felt succeeded.
Why is that? Can a playwright really be great if his plays are rarely done well? Obviously I believe the answer to that is yes. So is it about education? Do you have to be a literary person who has studied writing and plays to really get it? Absolutely not. Boo. Rubbish. No. I have seen people who rarely ever go to plays and who don’t give a two dollar damn about “great writers” like Chekhov moved to laughter and tears by his plays. So what is it?
Here’s what I think: it’s about understanding how our capacity to feel works. We have been taught to separate tragedy and comedy. If one is present, the other is absent. Now, this is not how we experience our own tragedy and comedy, it’s just how we have been taught to think about it. Chekhov saw that tragedy and comedy are intrinsically connected. He realized that as we open ourselves to comedy, we, at the same time, open ourselves to tragedy––the more we are able to laugh, the more we are able to cry. This is what is meant by “Chekhovian.” (Incidentally, this is exactly the way Beckett works. Beckett was hugely influenced by Chekhov.)
Directors often miss the mark with Chekhov, because they get caught up in the beautiful, profound, deep tragedy of it all. They neglect the comedy, because they so want the audience to get all that other stuff. But, ironically, by neglecting the comedy they make it impossible for the audience to completely experience the tragedy. With Chekhov (and with Beckett), you cannot sound the depths of the tragedy without immersing yourself in the comedy. The comedy is the path to the tragedy. What is brutal and sad in Chekhov is also––at the very same moment––hilarious.
Happy birthday to Anton Chekhov.
While they are talking, Arkadina and Polina are setting up a card table in the middle of the room.
TRIGORIN: Not a very nice welcome from the weather. You couldn’t fish in this wind. If it dies down by morning, I’ll go out to the lake. Incidentally, I want to take a look at that place in the garden––where you had your play. I’ve got a new story and I want to refresh my memory of the scene.
MASHA: Father, can you let Semion have a horse, he has to get home.
SHAMRAEV: A horse? Get home? See for yourself, they’ve only just been to the station. I can’t send them out again.
MASHA: They aren’t the only horses. Talking to you is like…
MEDVEDENKO: I’ll walk, Masha, really…
POLINA: Walk, in this weather… Come along, then, everyone who’s playing.
MEDVEDENKO: It’s only a few miles. Goodbye. (Kisses Masha’s hand.) Goodbye, Mother.
Polina reluctantly holds out her hand for him to kiss.
MEDVEDENKO: I wouldn’t have wanted to be a nuisance, but the baby… Well… goodbye. (He bows to everyone and goes out apologetically.)
SHAMRAEV: He’ll make it alright.
(from a version by Tom Stoppard)