Eric Bentley (essay date 1958)
SOURCE: "Apologia," in The Brute and Other Farces, by Anton Chekhov, edited by Eric Bentley, translated by Eric Bentley and Theodore Hoffman, Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 1958, pp. i-vii.
[In the following excerpt, Bentley discusses Chekhov's short comic plays and declares that the writer's "greatest plays have a farcical component, and his slightest farces have something in them of the seriousness, pathos, and even subtlety of the greatest plays. "]
Except for some later revisions in the dialogue, Chekhov's seven one-act farces belong to the years 1886-1891, which immediately precede the 'major phase' when the famous full-length plays were written. Like the funny stories which he signed 'Chekhonte' because he was a little self-conscious about them, these little plays are admittedly 'minor Chekhov,' though one makes the admission with a sinking heart in an age which makes a cult of the 'major'—the notion of the major, anyway—in order to excuse its lazy reluctance to read any man's collected works. One would not deny that 'The Best Plays of Chekhov' contains just what it says it does, but one might assert that a reader should no more be content to sit down with that book than a parent should be content to sit down to dinner with only his best children.
It is never wise for an author to give a modest account of himself: the critics accept it. The lighthearted Chekhonte was discounted long ago. Anton Chekhov is played on Broadway and in the West End in a vein of soulful somnolence. The adjective 'Chekhovian' can convey any shade of mournful emotionality from the wistful to the lugubrious; it never suggests the sunny, the zany, the skittish, the wildly destructive, though Chekhov in fact was famous for these qualities even before the others showed themselves.
In a recent collection designed to modify and correct the prevailing view of Chekhov, Mr. Edmund Wilson finds 'his true weight and point' in his last, most sombre, and most sociological works. It is high time, I conclude, to protest against the tendency of modern critics to overlook the obvious. Mr. Wilson did exactly the same thing in his study of Dickens years ago. His new Dickens was to interest us as a man involved in psychoneurotic conflict.
And today there is a fairly widespread assumption that a writer of funny stories—or melodramatic ones—is scarcely worth a critic's attention. Farce and melodrama have come to be valued, if at all, as embellishments of more earnest and more tortured books. One critic makes a favourite of Hard Times, ostensibly because of its superior (that is, more Jamesian) structure. One cannot resist the conclusion, however, that he prefers dark moods to more frivolous ones as more becoming to the serious business of Literature, not to mention Criticism. This is to be seduced by l'esprit sérieux. The Pickwick Papers may be incommensurable with Hard Times, but surely is no more inferior to it than Don Quixote is inferior to Madame Bovary?
Even in the most serious works of Chekhov, as of Dickens, farce and melodrama are not embellishments added later to a structure of more 'literal' substance. One might plausibly maintain, on the contrary, that the structure itself is farcical and melodramatic and that it is the seriousness which is superadded. But at this point the notion of addition is itself misleading, for, in a fully realized masterpiece, nothing is merely stuck on; all is, finally, of a piece. At any rate, once we see that the role of farce in certain non-farcical masterpieces—from Moliére and Dickens to Shaw and Chekhov—is a large and reputable one, we are free at last to view farce in its pure state as a large and reputable phenomenon.
Not that its state often is pure. Labiche has kept French schoolteachers busy for a long time now distinguishing between his 'true farces' and his 'comedies of character'. The poor man himself seems to have been terribly confused on the point. And Chekhov takes no greater pains to stay within boundaries staked out by pedagogues. In the latest of the plays printed, here, "The Celebration," he is taking his leave of farce forever and launching out, as we sense in reading it, towards his masterworks....
(The entire section is 1787 words.)
Vera Gottlieb (essay date 1982)
SOURCE: "The Farce-Vaudevilles," in Chekhov and the Vaudeville: A Study of Chekhov's One-Act Plays, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 46-109.
[In the essay below, Gottlieb closely examines several of Chekhov's short comic plays, including "The Bear, " "The Proposal, " and "The Anniversary, " uncovering dramatic techniques similar to those employed in the author's full-length works.]
Chekhov's language is as precise as 'Hullo!' and as simple as 'Give me a glass of tea'. In his method of expressing the idea of a compact little story, the urgent cry of the future is felt: 'Economy!'
It is these new forms of expressing an idea, this true approach to art's real tasks, that gives us the right to speak of Chekhov as a master of verbal art.
Behind the familiar Chekhovian image created by the Philistines, that of a grumbler displeased with everything, the defender of 'ridiculous people' against society, behind Chekhov the twilight bard we discern the outlines of the other Chekhov: the joyous and powerful master of the art of literature.1
Vladimir Mayakovsky, The Two Chekhovs (1914)
On 12 December 1900, Tolstoy was present at a rehearsal of a 'Chekhov evening' arranged by the Society for Art and Literature. Not wishing to be stared at in the auditorium, Tolstoy asked the producer, Nikolai Arbatov, to seat him somewhere in the wings. The vaudevilles The Bear and The Wedding were being performed and, as an eyewitness reports, 'Tolstoy watched, and all the time a pleased, joyful smile never left his face. At times he roared with laughter as he listened to the incredibly funny lines.' During the interval Tolstoy talked to the actors, and expressed his enthusiasm and amazement over Chekhov's humour: 'After Gogol,' he is reported to have said, 'we don't have such a brilliant, powerful humorist as Chekhov. Sound and powerful humour is absolutely necessary for us. And Chekhov's stories are pearls of beauty.'
It is, of course, scarcely surprising that Tolstoy immediately responded to the social value of Chekhov's one-act comedies, but, in addition, Tolstoy was apparently fully aware of the innovatory nature of Chekhov's dramatic form. After the performance, he went to see Arbatov and began to talk enthusiastically about the virtues of the Russian vaudeville: 'I love the vaudeville, and I think a real Russian vaudeville—and the best I know—is Chekhov's Wedding.' Valuing Chekhov's 'dramatic jokes' highly (though none of the full-length plays),2 Tolstoy noted the way they differed from the traditional vaudeville, and he pointed out the 'causal' comedy which motivated the action and served as the main driving force of the plays. In addition, Tolstoy praised The Proposal for the absence in it of what he called 'the French nonsensical surprises'.3
Implicit in Tolstory's reported remark about the lack of 'the French nonsensical surprises' is an awareness of the different nature of action and plot in Chekhov's one-act plays, a difference which, in turn, opens up further inno vatory features. Tolstoy recognised and valued a characteristic of Chekhov's vaudevilles which was significantly lacking in the conventional vaudevilles: 'realism'. This 'realism' relates to the depiction of a milieu and to the credibility of Chekhov's characters, to a particular comic characterisation which prompted Vakhtangov to talk not of caricature but of 'broader realism'.4 It is to this 'broader realism' that Tolstoy's remark about Gogol and Chekhov may be related: the 'realism' of Chekhov's oneact plays has room for the grotesque and the exaggerated, elements which were heightened to varying degrees by both Vakhtangov in his production of The Wedding (1920), and Meyerhold in his programme composed of The Bear, The Proposal and The Anniversary which he called 33 Swoons (1935). 'Realism' was substantially lacking in the traditional vaudevilles given that the con-tent was dictated by the conventions of the genre, whereas in Chekhov's vaudevilles the content demands and dictates a new form.
This new form manifests itself in all of the one-act plays, whether in the farce-vaudevilles The Bear (1888), The Proposal (1888-9), A Tragic Role (1889), The Anniversary (1891), or the unfinished Night before the Trial (1890s); in the 'dramatic studies' On the High Road (1885), Swan Song (1887) or Tatyana Repina (1889); in the one-act play The Wedding (1889-90), or the one-act monologue Smoking is Bad for You (1886-1903). All of these short plays are often referred to as 'vaudevilles', but it is important to note that Chekhov gave each of the plays a precise subtitle indicating the form and, up to a point, the mood, a practice he was to follow in his full-length plays.…
The Bear (1888)
In a letter to Yakov Polonsky on 22 February 1888, Chekhov wrote: 'Just to while away the time, I wrote a trivial little vaudeville in the French manner, called The Bear … Alas! when they find out on New Times that I write vaudevilles they will excommunicate me. What am I to do? I plan something worthwhile—and—it is all tra-la-la! In spite of all my attempts at being serious the result is nothing; with me the serious always alternates with the trivial'.
According to Magarshack,5 Chekhov had, in fact, followed the practice of so many of his predecessors and his contemporaries in 'borrowing' a French play as the source for The Bear: Les Jirons de Cadillac by Pierre Berton. The version Chekhov may have seen at Korsh's Theatre, however, had already been adapted from a French to a Rus-sian vaudeville and was performed under the title of Conquerors are Above Criticism by a friend of Chekhov's, Solovstov, the actor to whom Chekhov dedicated The Bear and who subsequently played the part of Smirnov, Chekhov's 'bear'. The part of Popova was taken by Natalya Rybehinskaya, the actress with whom Solovstov had appeared in Conquerors are Above Criticism. Both the French original and the Russian adaptation are conventional comedies of situation: a beautiful society woman tames a vulgar but good-natured sea-dog. The situation is funny, but the characters are stereotypes, and the 'transitions' as unlikejy and incredible as those of so many vaudevilles. The only similarity, in fact, between the plot of the original and that of Chekhov's The Bear is in the idea of the 'bear' himself, since it is debatable whether Popova does 'tame' Smirnov; she is certainly not a beautiful society woman, and Smirnov is nothing as exotic as a seaman, but simply (and this follows a convention) a rival landowner. Chekhov does, however, replace one convention with another: Popova, though not a society lady, and not a beautiful woman, is a young widow—our first image of her is as she sits 'in deep mourning'—but (and this is crucial to an understanding of Chekhov's technique) she has 'dimpled checks'. Chekhov thus immediately sets up the apparently conventional image of a young grieving widow, and simultaneously raises a question as to either the depth and sincerity of her grief, or the 'naturalness' of it. In other words, he is, in a sense, 'under-cutting' his own image.
At first glance, however, this one-act 'joke' appears little other than an extremely funny conventional vaudeville of situation or, in terms of the vaudevilles of the 1880s, 'a comedy-joke': a cast list of three characters composed of a widowed landowner called Popova, a landowner called Smirnov who is in early middle age, and an old manservant who is called Luka. The names of the characters are common Russian names. Thus Chekhov's audience might well have expected a conventional amorous vaudeville: a man, a woman, a servant who might be there as a source of intrigue and obstacle, and the resulting tangle. Moreover, there are obstacles in the play: the woman is in mourning for her husband, and has shut herself off from life, while the man has come to claim his debts, and has no respect for the grieving widow. The play reaches a climax in which a duel is nearly fought, but suddenly Smirnov and Popova are in love and the play appears to end happily.
But even when considering the play on the level of plot, a discordant note is sounded: the duel. A duel on-stage was a completely conventional climactic device and source of tension, and invariably involved the rival lovers fighting over the hand of a woman; in The Bear, however, the convention of a duel is maintained by Chekhov, but only to be turned inside out given that the participants are Smirnov and Popova herself. Popova's acceptance of Smirnov's furious challenge, and subsequent insistence on fighting are both a reversal of the convention and a parody. As a result, the woman over whom men convention-ally fought a duel is no longer the conventionally romantic, passive figure in the background of the action but an active participant in the action. In addition, Chekhov 'plays' with a further device which is implicit in the stock situation of a duel: a love triangle. Here, if there is a 'triangle' at all, it is between Smirnov, Popova and her dead hus-band, Nikolai. However, any rivalry offered by the dead Nikolai decreases in the course of the play, is in itself a source of irony, and in any case only exists in the mind of Popova; there is, therefore, no impediment to the action of the play except the characters themselves, and no source of action except their attitudes and behaviour. Thus Luka, instead of furthering or impeding the action, cannot, in fact, cope with the clash of characters and becomes an impotent, though sometimes sensible, witness. In the conventional 'comedy-joke' the servant was often at the source of the play's comic structure, and also used to supply exposition for the audience; in The Bear, however, Chekhov makes Luka not so much a structural part of the comic action as a witness of the comedy, who thus serves more as a 'norm' or 'touchstone' for the audience. Again, Chekhov's technique is to set up a 'tone' which is then commented on by someone or something within the same structure. But what in the last four full-length plays be-comes a complex use of juxtaposition and counterpoint, may, in the early plays, be seen working very simply: Luka, in The Bear, provides a sense of proportion.
This 'sense of proportion' is evident at the very beginning of the play, in that what Luka says to Popova is juxta-posed with what the audience sees in the opening tableau: Popova, 'in deep mourning, with her eyes fixed on a snapshot', forms an exaggerated visual statement of 'grief. An audience has no sooner accepted this tableau than Luka provides both exposition and exposure:
This won't do, madam, you're just making your life a misery. Cook's out with the maid picking fruit, every living creature's happy and even our cat knows how to enjoy herself—she's parading round the yard trying to pick up a bird or two. But here you are cooped up inside all day like you was in a convent cell—you never have a good time. Yes, it's true. Nigh on twelve months it is since you last set foot outdoors.
With the opening lines of the play, Luka simultaneously sets up the situation, and exposes the ridiculous: he com-pares Popova, unfavourably, with the cat. Thus, just as Popova's 'dimpled cheeks' work against her mourning dress, so Luka's opening words work against the opening visual statement. Luka does, therefore, serve his traditional purpose in explaining matters to the audience weather, time of day, off-stage dramatic world, and so on; but on an innovatory level, Chekhov uses him to indicate to the audience exactly how ludicrous the situation is, an indication which works implicitly through contrasts. The effect, though comic, is immediately three-dimensional, since the ludicrous aspect of the situation rests entirely on Popova's attitude and behaviour: the cat lives normally, but Popova gazes soulfully at a snapshot—not, significantly, a large, dominating oil-painting of the dead husband, but a little snapshot which, in turn, makes its own 'proportional' comment. Popova has abdicated from life: 'My life's finished. He lies in his grave, I've buried myself inside these four walls. We're both dead.' She, to paraphrase Masha in The Seagull, is 'in mourning for her life': 6 both Popova and Masha are young women, both are 'role-playing' and self-dramatising, but whereas Popova drops her romantic image and thus remains a comic character, Masha increasingly lives out her role until, with the frustration and pointlessness of her own unrealised, even ill-defined, aspirations, she becomes a tragicomic figure. Masha never recognises her own initially ridiculous stance, whereas Popova, even before meeting Smirnov, is able to appraise her self-imposed role as the grief-stricken widow, and its value:
Luka: … You're young, and pretty as a picture with that peaches-and-cream look, so make the most of it. Them looks won't last for ever, you know. If you wait another ten years to come out of your shell and lead them officers a dance, you'll find it's too late.
Popova: (decisively) Never talk to me like that again, please. When Nicholas died my life lost all meaning, as you know. You may think I'm alive, but I'm not really. I swore to wear this mourning and shun society till my dying day, do you hear? Let his departed spirit see how I love him!
But then Popova explodes her own romantic image as she continues:
Yes, I realize you know what went on—that he was often mean to me, cruel and, er, unfaithful even, but I'll be true to the grave and show him how much I can love. And he'll find me in the next world just as I was before he died.
In this way, Popova, through self-revelation, deflates her own romantic act, but the pattern of meaning is complex and, correspondingly, psychologically accurate: partly because Nikolai was unfaithful, Popova is determined to play the grieving widow to the hilt, but her realisation of her own role-playing and of the true nature of relations between herself and her dead husband makes her ripe for deflation by the outside world. The situation is therefore set up in which Popova must be exposed; with the arrival of Smirnov the clash between romanticism and vulgarity begins. But this need for 'deflation' also places the situation clearly in the world of comedy. If, in the course of the play, Popova had been led to the realisation of Nikolai's infidelity the play would, at the very least, have been a drama, not a comedy. As it is, Chekhov presents Popova as playing out a drama in a play which is resolutely a comedy. Popova is one of many characters in Chekhov's plays who, intent on playing out a drama, find themselves in a comedy of their own making.
This feature of the play was clearly brought out by Meyerhold's interpretation of The Bear in his production: 33 Swoons. The actress Zinaida Raikh played Popova, a performance described by Yuzovsky:
Recently we saw her in The Lady of the Camellias. The dramatic character of Marguerite Gautier which had been revealed by her lyrically—all those halfshades, pauses, the sad play of glances, the voice full of feeling, the hidden feelings—the more hidden, the dearer they were to her. And lo and behold!—maybe it is a risky comparison—but there appeared Marguerite's younger sister. The very same lyricism: halfshades, pauses, play of glances, hidden feelings. But only within the plane of a comedy. It is as if the younger sister were teasing the older one. And the similarity is intensified also because they are both Frenchwomen. Popova-Raikh is, of course, a Frenchwoman—or wants to resemble a Frenchwoman. Everything that there is of a French element, of a Maupassant element, of 'winking', of the slyly ironical in the words 'young widow' opens up in the presentation of Popova. 'The young widow!' … this is a whole culture … a real social type … She hides [vice], but she hides it gracefully, which means she is hiding and showing it, and in this is the whole art: to hide so that it can be seen, otherwise there is no play. What kind of young widow is she? She is also a hypocrite, but hypocrisy is here playing with open cards, that is to say—the revealing of the method. 7
Meyerhold did not distort the play in casting and interpreting Popova in this way, as a younger sister to Marguerite Gautier. Instead, he heightened the parody in the play, and made a total interpretation which was justified also by Smirnov's realisation of Popova's 'act':
Popova: … I've buried myself alive inside these four walls and I shall go round in these widow's weeds till my dying day.
Smirnov: (with a contemptuous laugh) Widow's weeds! Who do you take me for? As if I didn't know why you wear this fancy dress and bury yourself indoors! Why, it sticks out a mile! Mysterious and romantic, isn't it? Some army cadet or hack poet may pass by your garden, look up at your window and think: 'There dwells Tamara, the mysterious princess, the one who buried herself alive from love of her husband.' Who do you think you're fooling?
Popova: (flaring up) What! You dare to take that line with me!
Smirnov: Buries herself alive—but doesn't forget to powder her nose!
Smirnov, a man who 'calls a spade a spade', sees through Popova, and considers himself wise to all feminine wiles. But if Popova must be brought down to earth and shocked out of her 'romanticism', Smirnov must be tamed. No intrigue, no 'misunderstandings', are required: the source of the action lies in the characters and the clash of characters; equally, the source of the comedy lies in the clash between Popova's 'refinement' and Smirnov's 'vulgarity'. The worse he behaves, the greater her air of refinement, and vice versa. The exaggeration of these characteristic features was not Meyerhold's distortion of the play, but Chekhov's method of characterisation. The effect, though exaggerated, is nonetheless three-dimensional. Thus, although the conflict is set in motion by the fact that Popova is 'in no fit state to discuss money', while Smirnov, if he does not get the money, 'will be in a fit state to go bust with a capital B', the psychological motivation for the conflict arises exactly because of Popova's 'state' and Smirnov's use, so to speak, of 'capitals'.
Smirnov is, in fact, almost disarmingly aware of his own character: whereas Popova is full of guile, Smirnov is blunt to the point of rudeness, but, again, Chekhov allows the characters to reveal themselves. There is no exposition, in the conventional sense, of Smirnov's character—only self-revelation:
And people expect me to be cool and collected! I met the local excise man on my way here just now. 'My dear Smirnov,' says he, 'why are you always losing your temper?' But how can I help it, I ask you? I'm in desperate need of money! Yesterday morning I left home at crack of dawn. I call on everyone who owes me money, but not a soul forks out. I'm dog-tired. I spend the night in some God-awful place—by the vodka barrel in a Jewish pot-house. Then I fetch up here, fifty miles from home, hoping to see the colour of my money, only to be fobbed off with this 'no fit state' stuff! How can I keep my temper?
Following the same tack in a monologue in Scene V, Smirnov also helps to create the off-stage dramatic world and the milieu of the play, and continues, comically, to reveal himself. The monologue itself, with Popova hurrying out to leave Smirnov on his own, is credibly motivated by the inevitable explosion of Smirnov's temper, but the relationship with the audience at this point is multifaceted. Chekhov's use of the artificial device of the monologue is interesting: on the one hand, an element of confidentiality with the audience is very much present in Smirnov's movement, attitude, and sometimes rhetorical questions; on the other hand, this outburst seems both natural and inevitable, given Smirnov's character and behaviour; but, in addition, Smirnov seems initially to continue his conversation with the absent Popova:
Well, what price that! 'In no fit state'! Her husband died seven months ago, if you please! Now have I got my interest to pay or not? I want a straight answer—yes or no? All right, your husband's dead, you're in no fit state and so on and so forth, and your blasted manager's hopped it. But what am I supposed to do? Fly away from my creditors by balloon, I take it! Or go and bash the old brain-box against a brick-wall? I call on Gruzdev 8—not at home. Yaroshevich is in hiding. I have a real old slanging-match with Kuritsyn and almost chuck him out of the window. Mazutov has the belly-ache, and this creature's 'in no fit state'. Not one of the swine will pay. This is what comes of being too nice to them and behaving like some snivelling no-hoper or old woman. It doesn't pay to wear kid gloves with this lot! All right, just you wait—I'll give you something to remember me by! You don't make a monkey out of me, blast you! I'm staying here—going to stick around till she coughs up. Pah! I feel well and truly riled today. I'm shaking like a leaf, I'm so furious—choking I am. Phew, my God, I really think I'm going to pass out!
It is the physical manifestation of the characters' emotional state in the farce-vaudevilles which gave Meyerhold his title: 33 Swoons. In The Bear, in The Proposal and The Anniversary there are, in total, 33 occasions in which one character or another 'swoons'; situations, other people, or emotions cause a physical reaction which, invariably, is out of all proportion to cause. The discrepancy between the extreme physical reaction and the situation causing it, is a source of farce and slapstick but, as always with Chekhov, it too makes its own ironic point: the very discrepancy between cause and effect heightens the ridiculous in character and situation. This, too, relates to the 'hiding of the method—and showing it'. The audience thus accepts the straight farce (and correspondingly increased rhythm and tempo) of what is witnessed, but simultaneously recognises the ridiculous. In The Bear, Chekhov uses a 'swoon' to make unconventional the servant's reaction to the climactic mood around him:
Smirnov: (jumping up). You hold your tongue! Who do you think you're talking to? I'll carve you up in little pieces.
Luka: (clutching at his heart). Heavens and saints above us! (falls into an armchair) Oh, I feel something terrible—fair took my breath away, it did.
and, as the tension builds:
I feel faint. Fetch water.
In this way, the 'heroes' are made thoroughly unheroic, and the servant as human in his physical reactions as his masters. In the one-act plays this extreme physical reaction is primarily farcial, but in Ivanov or in the four last full-length plays, the physical state of many of the characters expresses a deeper psychological and sociological malaise. Thus, in The Three Sisters, for example, Andrey says to Chebutykin: 'I shan't play cards tonight, I'll just sit and watch. I feel a bit unwell. I get so out of breath, is there anything I can do for it, Doctor?'9 The cure would be a different life-style and attitude. In Uncle Vanya the constant physical malaise of the characters says much about the way of life and the characters' ability or inability to cope with life. And, at other times, Chekhov conveys a character's inability to cope with reality not only by means of a physical reaction but also by an action expressive of an inner malaise: in The Seagull, for instance, Masha takes snuff and secret drinks as 'drugs' to insulate herself from reality; and similarly, in The Cherry Orchard, Gaev comforts and distracts himself with sweets and imaginary games of billiards. But where Chekhov retains an extreme physical reaction from his characters, it is not only to show a character's lack of a sense of proportion but develops in the later plays into a means of showing a character's inability to cope, and the effect is thus no longer necessarily farcial. In The Three Sisters, Olga feels faint and has to have a drink of water after Natasha has shouted at Anfisa; Olga cannot cope with unpleasantness, and reacts physically. Serious, or tragi-comic, techniques of the later plays may be seen as initially farcical in the earlier one-act plays.
This may be seen in The Bear where Smirnov's reaction to women expresses itself physically:
Talk to a woman—why, I'd rather sit on top of a powder magazine! Pah! It makes my flesh creep, I'm so fed up with her, her and that great trailing dress! Poetic creatures they call 'em! Why, the very sight of one gives me cramp in both legs, I get so aggravated.
Thus the constant request for water or vodka, the complaints of headaches, cramps, pains in the heart, and a rage which makes Smirnov feel ill, all serve as a farcical 'running-gag' throughout the action of the play, but also relate to an extremity of behaviour and thinking which will have to be reversed: significantly, at the very moment when Smirnov stops feeling angry and becomes enamoured of Popova, all aches and pains are forgotten, and Popova's fury makes her completely forgetful of her role as the grieving widow. The characters' interaction first intensifies and then modifies their behaviour.
There are, therefore, two sources of fury in Smirnov (and of comedy in the play): his money and women. And the moment at which the one takes over from the other is psychologically accurate—Popova tries to use her sex as a means of getting rid of Smirnov:
Popova: Kindly don't raise your voice at me, sir—we're not in the stables.
Smirnov: I'm not discussing stables, I'm asking whether my interest falls due tomorrow. Yes or no?
Popova: You don't know how to treat a lady.
It is this—one of many challenges which Popova issues to Smirnov—which starts to increase the rhythm which climaxes in the duel, and which provokes Smirnov into exposing Popova's role-playing, into tearing down her pretence at refinement, and into exploding with fury against women. And the climax of Smirnov's outburst against women expresses itself in the most physical and farcical stage action: he 'clutches the back of a chair, which cracks and breaks'. This same stage action is repeated by Smirnov when he has reached the height of emotional confusion after refusing to fight the duel:
Smirnov: … (Shouts.) Anyway, can I help it if I like you? (Clutches the back of a chair, which cracks and breaks.) Damn fragile stuff, furniture! I like you! Do you understand? I, er, I'm almost in love.
This, the kind of physical stage action accepted in slapstick and farce is, however, in keeping with Smirnov as a character—behaviour which is to be expected, and accepted, of a 'bear'.
The progression from comedy of situation to comedy of character is seen very clearly when Popova accuses Smirnov of not knowing how to treat a lady: what started as a situational Comedy in which Smirnov simply wanted his money, increasingly develops into a clash between a man who is driven mad by women and considers them faithless, and a woman who is determined to remain faithful even in the face of her dead husband's infidelity. The conflict broadens out to generalise about men and women, and then focuses on one man, Smirnov, and one woman, Popova. In this way, Chekhov presents a shifting perspective which increases the audience's objective response to what is witnessed.
The form which Smirnov's outburst takes, however, is almost that of a dance: Smirnov starts by mimicking Popova, and proceeds to mimic and parody romantic love in general, but in such terms as vividly to suggest the accompanying movement:
'Silly, not very clever.' I don't know how to treat a lady, don't I? Madam, I've seen more women in my time that you have house-sparrows. I've fought three duels over women. There have been twenty-one women in my life. Twelve times it was me broke it off, the other nine got in first. Oh yes! Time was I made an ass of myself, slobbered, mooned around, bowed and scraped and practically crawled on my belly. I loved, I suffered, I sighed at the moon, I languished, I melted, I grew cold. I loved passionately, madly, in every conceivable fashion, damn me, burbling nineteen to the dozen about women's emancipation and wasting half my substance on the tender passion. But now—no thank you very much! I can't be fooled any more, I've had enough. Black eyes, passionate looks, crimson lips, dimpled checks, moonlight, 'Whispers, passion's bated breathing'—I don't give a tinker's cuss for the lot now, lady. Present company excepted, all women, large or small, are simpering, mincing, gossipy creatures. They're great haters. They're eyebrow-deep in lies. They're futile, they're trivial, they're cruel.
In the midst of this tirade Smirnov, dancing about, breaks a chair, an action of which he seems totally unaware. And he ends up with a challenge to Popova:
You must know what women are like, seeing you've the rotten luck to be one. Tell me frankly, did you ever see a sincere, faithful, true woman? You know you didn't. Only the old and ugly ones are true and faithful. You'll never find a constant woman, not in a month of Sundays you won't, not once in a blue moon!
Popova picks up the challenge immediately—she proves men's infidelity by telling Smirnov about Nikolai's deceit, and refutes the argument against women by telling of her own constancy. It is this which Smirnov explodes, with the result that after the two 'set speeches' by Smirnov and Popova, the situation and the clash of characters and attitudes reach an apparent impasse:
Popova: Just to be awkward, you won't get one single copeck. And you can leave me alone.
Smirnov: Not having the pleasure of being your husband or fiancć, I'll trouble you not to make a scene. (Sits down.) I don't like it!
Popova: (choking with rage) Do I see you sitting down?
Again, it is psychologically accurate that the clash should take on a renewed force after each has revealed much to the other about attitudes, previous experiences, and views of the opposite sex, but it is now that the insults and the tempo build, until Smirnov can bear the insults no longer:
Smirnov: Just because you look all romantic, you can get away with anything—is that your idea? This is duelling talk!
Luka: Heavens and saints above us! Water!
Smirnov: Pistols at dawn!
Popova: Just because you have big fists and the lungs of an ox you needn't think I'm scared, see? …
Smirnov: We'll shoot it out! No one calls me names and gets away with it, weaker sex or no weaker sex.
Popova: (trying to shout him down). You coarse lout!
Smirnov: Why should it only be us men who answer for our insults? It's high time we dropped that silly idea. If women want equality, let them damn well have equality! I challenge you, madam!
Popova: Want to shoot it out, eh? Very well.
Smirnov: This very instant!
Popova: Most certainly! My husband left some pistols. I'll fetch them instantly (Moves hurriedly off and comes back.) I'll enjoy putting a bullet through that thick skull, damn your infernal cheek! (Goes out.)
Smirnov: I'll pot her like a sitting bird. I'm not one of your sentimental young puppies. She'll get no chivalry from me!
Ironically, in the heat of her fury, Popova is able to talk of her husband's pistols and the use she will make of them without a thought for the dead Nikolai, whereas at the beginning of the play the mere mention of Toby the horse brought tearful associations and the corresponding sentimentality which ensured that at every reference to Toby, Popova requested an extra bag of oats for the horse—oats provided, again ironically, by Smirnov. This was the cause of the debt. But by this time Popova has completely discarded her role as the grieving widow, and in the same moment Smirnov discovers the gentleman in himself. Smirnov starts to behave like a gentleman because Popova stops behaving like a lady:
Smirnov: There's a regular woman for you, something I do appreciate! A proper woman—not some nambypamby, wishy-washy female, but a really red-hot bit of stuff, a regular pistol-packing little spitfire. A pity to kill her, really.
By the time Popova returns with the pistols, the situation has changed to that of dramatic irony: Popova does not know that Smirnov no longer wants to fight; that her acceptance of his challenge has made him reverse his opinion of her completely. This reversal of roles relates very clearly to the Chekhovian parody and reversal of dramatic conventions: first, a man and a woman fighting a duel; second, a duellist (Popova) who does not even know how to use a gun; and third, the eventual refusal by Smirnov to accept the challenge even in the face of insults from Popova when she accuses him of having 'cold feet' and having the 'wind up', insults which, if made by a man, would traditionally result in a fight to the death.
But in the interim, Smirnov has had to show Popova how to use her husband's 'Smith and Wessons, triple action with extractor, centre-fired',10 and in the course of showing her, he no doubt has to have his arms round her, and becomes, as does the audience, fully aware of her physical proximity: 'Now, you hold a revolver like this. (Aside.) What eyes, what eyes! She's hot stuff all right!' This comic visual picture begins to prepare for the subsequent dénouement, but, both unconventionally and ironically, Popova does not acknowledge that she is in the arms of the man she hates; and the ostensible reason for being there is, in any case, to ensure equal ability to kill each other. There is a comic discrepancy between the nature and ostensible motive for the stage action done by Smirnov and the feelings which he brings to this stage action: a discrepancy between action and thought which, in turn, relates to the use of the aside and, ultimately, to subtext. The subtext becomes clear because of the dramatic irony. Irony, however, is increased by the very nature of that particular stage action: Smirnov, at home at last in a subject he understands as a man and as a retired lieutenant of artillery, can afford to be expansive as he shows 'the little woman' how a gun works. He achieves dominance by virtue of being a man in this situation, but, equally, is made vulnerable and susceptible by his proximity to Popova.
It is, however, still as a 'bear' that Smirnov proposes to Popova: he clutches her hand so violently that she shrieks with pain (while she is also still holding the revolver), and his words are the complete opposite of romantic:
Smirnov: (going up to her). I'm so fed up with myself! Falling in love like a schoolboy! Kneeling down! It's enough to give you the willies! (Rudely.) I love you! Oh, it's just what the doctor ordered, this is! There's my interest due in tomorrow, haymaking's upon us—and you have to come along! (Takes her by the waist.) I'll never forgive myself.
Popova: Go away! You take your hands off me! I, er, hate you! We'll sh-shoot it out! (A prolonged kiss.)
In a conventional vaudeville, the curtain would have descended after the 'prolonged kiss', the dénouement has taken place, and everything has been happily resolved, but Chekhov's ending of the play is quite different. He parodies the convention of the 'interrupted love scene' to end the play unconventionally with both an anti-climatic 'proportional statement' and a psychological curtain-line. The 'proportional statement' is made by the prepared and motivated entry of Luka with an axe, the gardener with a rake, the coachman with a pitchfork, and some workmen with sundry sticks and staves; this 'army' is no longer required, but it makes its own comment in contrast to the embracing couple, a comment which is enhanced by the physical debris around them from two broken chairs. Thus the visual makes its own superbly comic statement. But Chekhov, having slowed the tempo with the 'prolonged kiss', ensures a slow ending—the true dénouement, so to speak, which is also psychologically accurate and much more indicative of the real Popova:
Luka: (seeing the couple kissing) Mercy on us! (Pause.)
Popova: (lowering her eyes) Luka, tell them in the stables—Toby gets no oats today.
Reality asserts itself.
The duel as such does not take place; yet, nonetheless, Smirnov and Popova fight a duel throughout the whole play. This becomes evident when looking at the structure of the play: it moves through a complex succession of movements which could be compared to the 'parry' and 'riposte' of a fencing match; or, equally, the structure could be compared to a dance in which, in turn, Popova or Smirnov advances and retreats. That the movement must be choreographed is made evident, for example, towards the end of the play:
Smirnov: … Take it or leave it. (Gets up and hurries to the door.)
Popova: Just a moment.
Smirnov: (stops) What is it?
Popova: Oh, never mind, just go away. But wait. No, go, go away. I hate you. Or no—don't go away. Oh, if you knew how furious I am! (Throws the revolver on the table.) My fingers are numb from holding this beastly thing. (Tears a handkerchief in her anger.) Why are you hanging about? Clear out!
Popova: Yes, yes, go away! (Shouts.) Where are you going? Stop. Oh, go away then …
The rhythm and movement of the play are farcial, but farce never detracts from the psychological validity of the characters. Thus, although the situation of the duel may be seen as improbable, the reality of it is such that the appearance of the revolvers after the challenge is inevitable. The entrances and exits also indicate the farcical nature of the stage movement: does Luka, for example, always come from the same place? These must be 'geographically' accurate given the dramatic world and milieu which Chekhov creates, but the use made of entrances and exits, of furniture, of the window in the room, all indicate the farcical nature of stage business, and also extend their functional use to make a credible dramatic world. Equally, the climax of a conventional vaudeville, namely the 'prolonged kiss', is made anticlimatic by Chekhov's very characteristic psychological curtain-line. Much is implied about the future life of Smirnov and Popova in Popova's last line. Throughout the play, in fact, the rhythm builds to a climax only to become anti-climactic, as is evident in the number of times Smirnov sits down, refusing to budge, or the number of times the argument reaches an apparent impasse:
Popova: You'll get your money the day after tomorrow.
Smirnov: I don't want it the day after tomorrow, I want it now.
Popova: I can't pay you now, sorry.
Smirnov: And I can't wait till the day after tomorrow.
Popova: Can I help it if I've no money today?
Smirnov: So you can't pay then?
Smirnov: I see. And that's your last word, is it?
Popova: It is.
Smirnov: Your last word? You really mean it?
Popova: I do.
Thus, to sum up, the play is an amorous 'comedy-joke' similar in a number of crucial respects to the conventional farce-vaudevilles of the 1880s: a small cast, amorous entertainment (with a sudden transition), tension, brisk tempo, a happy ending, monologues, asides, running gags, a duel, a love triangle (of a kind), the observance of the unities, the division of the play into scenes according to the entrances and exits of each character,11 and the use of farce and slapstick. But it is essentially a comedy of three-dimensional characters—without 'intrigue', without heroes and heroines, with the surprising appearing natural, with tension arising organically from the characters—and not the plot or intrigue, and with the use of comic techniques and forms ranging from pure slapstick to parody and irony. The inter-relationship of the visual with the verbal is equally complex.
This was the play, however, which was regarded by some critics on its first performance in 1888 as 'trivial', and to which the dramatic censor initially gave an adverse report:
The unfavourable impression produced by this highly peculiar theme is increased by the coarseness and impropriety of the tone throughout the play, so that I would have thought it quite unsuitable for performance on the stage. 12
The Proposal (1888-1889)
The Proposal, written only a few months after The Bear, may at first glance seem a more conventional farce-vaudeville than its predecessor: there are more farcical scenes than in any other play by Chekhov, the situation of the play is suggested by its title, the cast size is small (a landowner, his daughter, and a neighbouring landowner), and the play ends with an engagement of marriage. Given the title and the list of characters, it would be a natural assumption for Chekhov's contemporary audience that the play must be an amorous vaudeville with a 'stock' situation and 'stock' characters. The 'stock' situation does not, however, materialise; Chekhov seems to extend the idea of The Bear in which the duel does not finally take place although the whole play is a duel, so that in The Proposal, Lomov, who has come to propose to Natasha, never actually does so, although at the end of the play the couple are engaged. In this way, Chekhov denies the event which belongs to the convention and presents instead the characters who themselves impede the event. In The Proposal it is, once again, evident that the characters of Chekhov's farce-vaudevilles are not created by or for the situation but create a situation simply by being themselves. The engagement of Lomov and Natasha starts off by design and ends, as it were, by accident, almost incidentally.
As in The Bear, it is possible to see where comedy of character takes over from comedy of situation or, to put it another way, where innovation takes over from convention: Lomov comes to propose, receives support (unimpeded by the usual obstacles) from his prospective father-in-law, and is left alone with Natasha. In his struggle to get the proposal off his chest, he mentions, fatally, an adjoining property: Oxpen Field. It is at this point that character takes over decisively from situation, and the clash begins:
Lomov: I'll try to cut it short. Miss Chubukov, you are aware that I have long been privileged to know your family—since I was a boy, in fact. My dear departed aunt and her husband—from whom, as you are cognizant, I inherited the estate—always entertained the deepest respect for your father and dear departed mother. We Lomovs and Chubukovs have always been on the friendliest terms—you might say we've been pretty thick. And what's more, as you are also aware, we own closely adjoining properties. You may recall that my land at Oxpen Field is right next to your birch copse.
Natasha: Sorry to butt in, but you refer to Oxpen Field as 'yours'? Surely you're not serious!
Lomov: I am, madam.
Natasha: Well, I like that! Oxpen Field is ours, it isn't yours.
Lomov: You're wrong, my dear Miss Chubukov, that's my land.
Oxpen Field, and the comparative merits and demerits of the dogs Tracker and Rover, both serve as the ostensible cause of the clash between Lomov and Natasha, but the real reason for the clash lies in the personality of the two characters: their respective personalities take over from the 'plot' of the proposal, and consistently thwart the very situation in which they are participants. But Chekhov also makes use of dramatic irony: Natasha does not know that Lomov has come to propose. Thus the audience's knowledge of a situation as yet unknown to Natasha allows of a degree of objectivity which throws the emphasis on behaviour, rather than on mystery of plot. By understanding the situation immediately, an audience is able to observe the characters' inter-relationship, and, implicitly, draw conclusions about the suitability of a match which in any case consistently fails to take place.
The title of the play is therefore the first of many 'ironies' in the play: 'the proposal' does not form the action of the play, whereas all the impediments to the proposal are central to the action; an amorous vaudeville, dependent on intrigue, does not take place—yet much of the play is an amorous vaudeville, dependent on a comic misunderstanding (namely, Natasha's ignorance of Lomov's intentions). There is, in fact, a crucial contradiction between the characters and their situation: a discrepancy between behaviour and intention which makes The Proposal by title, by structure, by situation, and by conventional criteria, comically ironic. And the irony is achieved by Chekhov's particular use of the conventional, a use which relates to parody on the one hand and, on the other, to what Tolstoy called 'the lack of French nonsensical surprises'.
Thus the play does not move, as would a traditional vaudeville, from 'complication' to 'unravelling', with intrigue preceding a dénouement; it is not structured through a series of incredible twists of plot—it is motivated, in a sense credibly, by the characters. As Chekhov wrote in a letter in the same year: 'One has to write nonsense in oneact plays—that is their strength. Go on in such a way that the wife in earnest wants to run away—she has become bored and wants new sensations; he—in earnest—threatens to make a cuckold of her second husband."13 From one point of view, it is incredible that a 'hefty and well-nourished' man should collapse as frequently as does Lomov but Ivan Lomov is a 'hypochondriac', and this characteristic of Lomov's makes his collapses, or swoons, both natural and inevitable. Thus, even in the list of characters preceding the play, Chekhov indicates the main feature of Lomov an indication which suggests the apparent contradiction in Lomov between his physique and his temperament, a discrepancy between his physical appearance and his nervous disposition: 'hefty and well-nourished, but a hypochondriac'. The same technique may be found in The Bear, in which Popova's widow's weeds contrast with her 'dimpled cheeks', and the effect is much the same: an audience need have no real fear of danger to Lomov's health; his hefty physique constantly makes a visual comment on his hypochondriacal behaviour, and keeps even the most extreme of 'swoons' in proportion, and well within the bounds of comedy.
This method of characterising—through apparent contradictions—may be seen, albeit in a more subtle form, in much of Chekhov's later dramatic work: in The Seagull, Trigorin is a famous and successful writer but, in Chekhov's view, 'he wears check trousers and his shoes are in holes … and he does not even know how to smoke a cigar properly';14 in Act 2 of The Cherry Orchard, the governess Charlotte Ivanovna wears a man's peaked hat, and sits with a shotgun in her lap, and in the same play, Lopakhin 'waves his arms about' but, as Trofimov says, he also has 'fine sensitive fingers, like an artist's'. These apparently contradictory features of the visual appearance and of gesture relate, in fact, to the contradictory nature of credible human beings, and it is this kind of characterisation in-the-round which is normally related to Chekhov's 'naturalism'; in the one-act plays, however, where this feature of character is heightened and exaggerated, it may be seen in terms of what Vakhtangov called 'broader realism'. A student of Vakhtangov's, and the subsequent director of the Vakhtangov Theatre, Ruben Simonov, wrote:
Chekhov's one-act plays afford the possibility of creating characters on the basis of rather short text material … Plays with a number of acts portray the development of the characters in a much slower tempo. The central characters in a three- or four-act play show the beginning, growth, and conclusion of action; in this way the characters are revealed gradually. The characters in a one-act play must be immediately revealed by the actor and the regisseur; all exposition must be omitted and the characters shown fully defined in both their inner and outer design. Plays with several acts may be compared to a large river; plays in one act to a rushing torrent.15
And earlier in the same book, describing Vakhtangov's production of The Wedding:
At the basis of apparent eccentricity lies the truth of life. But whereas an actor in dramatic presentation has three or four hours in which to reveal the character and psychology of his hero, the actor-eccentric has at his disposal only five or six minutes. In these he must live through a rich scenic life, filled with brilliant events, and create an impressive living image. An actor-eccentric must go through all the psychological transitions thoroughly in order to be convincing. Where the dramatic actor has a number of pages of text, an actor-eccentric (in vaudeville, for example) has just a few words—and sometimes no words—with which to communicate to his audience a complex psychological state of mind.
How does a talented actor-eccentric accomplish his peculiar scenic truth? He does it by selecting the most typical and expressive details of that which he wants to convey to the audience and building them up to the fullest scenic expressiveness. Proportion and correlation between a canvas painted in oil and a laconic, graphic design is similar to that between the dramatic actor and the eccentric actor or clown. The exceptionally difficult art of an eccentric demands extraordinary skill and certainly could not be considered a second-rate art.16
These words might well serve as directions to the actress playing the part of Charlotte Ivanova in The Cherry Orchard, or to 'Waffles' in Uncle Vanya, to Yepikhodov and Simeonov-Pishchik in The Cherry Orchard, or to Shamrayev and Medvedenko in The Seagull—to all the characters, in fact, who in the full-length plays might quite inappropriately be regarded as 'minor' characters. It is, perhaps, a commonplace to say that there are no 'minor' characters in Chekhov's plays.
In Simonov's terms, however, given the brevity of the one-act plays, the approach of the 'actor-eccentric' might first and foremost be related to characters such as Smirnov and Popova, or Natasha, Chubukov and Lomov. And in The Proposal it could be argued that Chekhov retains certain short-cuts to characterisation which were traditional in vaudeville and to comedy as a whole: the use of 'meaningful' names. Thus Lomov's name may be translated as 'breaker', while Chubukov's name derives either from 'pipe' or from 'forelock'. In Chubukov's case, therefore, his name may be taken in several ways, possibly as a guide to his appearance or, if translated as 'forelock', he may be seen in opposition to Lomov 'the breaker', as a 'wedge'. In the case of neither Lomov nor Chubukov, however, is this an indication of 'type'; Chekhov also characterises immediately by the visual effect of Lomov and Chubukov and, again, this is largely achieved through the use of discrepancy and contrast. Lomov enters 'wearing evening dress and white gloves':
Chubukov: (going to meet him). Why, it's Ivan Lomov—or do my eyes deceive me, old boy? Delighted. (Shakes hands.) I say, old bean, this is a surprise. How are you?
Lomov: All right, thanks. And how might you be?
Chubukov: Not so bad, dear boy. Good of you to ask and so on. Now, you simply must sit down. Never neglect the neighbours, old bean—what? But why so formal, old boy—the tails, the gloves and so on? Not going anywhere, are you, dear man?
Lomov: Only coming here, my dear Chubukov.
Chubukov: Then why the tails, my dear fellow? Why make such a great thing of it?
The 'great thing' is the proposal, and Lomov had dressed in the most formal clothes he could think of, namely evening dress, even though it is lunchtime. There is, therefore, an immediate visual anachronism between Lomov and Chubukov,17 and, crucially and comically, between Lomov and his bride-to-be: Natasha is wearing an apron:
Natasha: Excuse my apron, I'm not dressed for visitors. We've been shelling peas—we're going to dry them. Why haven't you been over for so long? Do sit down. (They sit.) Will you have lunch?
Lomov: Thanks, I've already had some.
Natasha: Or a smoke? Here are some matches … But what's this I see? Evening dress, it seems. That is a surprise! Going dancing or something?
You're looking well, by the way—but why on earth go round in that get-up?
It is ironic that Lomov, who had clearly 'dressed up' in order to give himself confidence and to formalise the 'great event', is, in fact, undermined by his appearance. The comic visual effect of Lomov in black tails and white gloves in contrast to Natasha in her apron, is also paralleled by the psychological effect: both Lomov and Natasha are at a disadvantage because of what each is wearing. Lomov has 'over-done', while Natasha is, correspondingly, 'underdone'. The effect, then, is manifold: by showing Lomov inappropriately 'dressed to kill' in a ridiculous light, the audience clearly keeps 'the great event' in proportion, and is forced into an objective awareness both of Lomov and of 'the proposal'; much is expressed about Lomov's personality and his attitude through his physical appearance, and an audience is forced—in the same 'frame', so to speak—to take stock of Lomov in relation to Natasha; moreover, Natasha (dressed in her apron and talking about shelling peas) may invite a domestic conversation, but scarcely a romantic one. Turning up, without warning, at lunchtime and dressed in evening clothes scarcely encourages a situation conducive to a marriage proposal. Lomov makes his task more difficult (even before any mention of Oxpen Field) and diffuses any 'romance' by being excessive, and therefore ridiculous.
Chekhov's parody of a 'marriage proposal' is made evident when Lomov's motives and attitude are expressed in his monologue (Scene 2) immediately preceding Natasha's entrance:
Lomov: I feel cold, I'm shaking like a leaf. Make up your mind, that's the great thing. If you keep chewing things over, dithering on the brink, arguing the toss and waiting for your ideal woman or true love to come along, you'll never get hitched up. Barr! I'm cold. Natasha's a good housewife. She's not badlooking and she's an educated girl—what more can you ask? But I'm so jumpy, my ears have started buzzing. (Drinks water.) And get married I must. In the first place, I'm thirty-five years old—a critical age, so to speak. Secondly, I should lead a proper, regular life. I've heart trouble and constant palpitations, I'm irritable and nervous as a kitten. See my right eyelid twitch? But my nights are the worst thing …
Lomov then continues to give a graphic description of his nights—nights which, unless improved by the presence of a wife, would almost certainly lead to the separation of the couple. This monologue serves the usual purpose of exposition: an audience is informed about Lomov's motivation for marriage, his view of his intended, and about Lomov himself. What is not conventional, however, is the anti-romantic and unheroic posture of the prospective bride-groom: he is not in love with Natasha, but because she is a good housewife, 'not bad-looking' and 'an educated girl' he has finally, after much dithering, decided to take the plunge. In effect, however, what he really requires is a nurse or a nanny, not a young wife. Chekhov therefore uses the device of the monologue to expose Lomov's hypochondria, to prepare an audience for the physical reactions which Lomov has to any kind of situation, particularly emotional ones, and as a means of characterising this unprepossessing suitor.
It is interesting that when Natasha first enters she does not expect to see Lomov:
Natasha: Oh, it's you. That's funny, Father said it was a dealer collecting some goods or something. Good morning, Mr Lomov.
Had Lomov been passionately declaring his love for his intended, Natasha's opening remark might well have stopped him dead in his tracks; as it is, Chubukov's 'joke' in pretending to Natasha that a 'dealer' has come to collect goods is not acknowledged by the self-absorbed Lomov, but it does have an effect (albeit unconscious) on an audience. First, without realising it, Natasha 'deflates' Lomov and his purpose, by reducing his arrival to a mundane business; second, it indicates Chubukov's role in the background, a role which is not that of conventional vaudeville intriguer, nor of the parent placing obstacles in the path of a young couple, but that of a parent fully in support of the engagement who is just having a 'joke'. This 'joke' is, however, ironic: from Lomov's monologue, it is clear that in a way he is 'a dealer' who has come to collect 'goods', namely Natasha. This, the first comic misunderstanding in the play, sets in motion the major comic misunderstanding: it enables Natasha to enter without any knowledge of Lomov's presence or his intentions.
In fact, Chubukov's 'joke' about Lomov turns sour: Lomov is too much of a 'dealer' to avoid the fatal mention of their 'adjoining property', and from this Chekhov develops a theme to be found in Pushkin, Gogol, and Turgenev,18 and often in the vaudeville—arguments over property leading to litigation between rival landowners:
Lomov: But you have only to look at the deeds, my dear Miss Chubukov. Oxpen Field once was in dispute, I grant you, but it's mine now—that's common knowledge, and no argument about it. If I may explain, my aunt's grandmother made over that field rent free to your father's grandfather's labourers for their indefinite use in return for firing her bricks. Now, your greatgrandfather's people used the place rent free for forty years or so, and came to look on it as their own. Then when the government land settlement was brought out—
Natasha: NO, that's all wrong. My grandfather and great-grandfather both claimed the land up to Burnt Swamp as theirs. So Oxpen Field was ours. Why argue? That's what I can't see. This is really rather aggravating.
Lomov: I'll show you the deeds, Miss Chubukov.
The argument (over land with the unprepossessing names of 'Burnt Swamp' and 'Oxpen Field') continues in a completely farcical manner; long-deceased relatives on both sides are brought in as 'proof or justification (as Natasha says: 'Grandfather, grandmother, aunt—it makes no sense to me. The field's ours and that's that'); and—perhaps most revealing of all—both Natasha and Lomov separately claim that the argument is over principle, not the land itself.
Natasha: … I don't mind about the field—it's only the odd twelve acres, worth the odd three hundred roubles. But it's so unfair … It's ours! Argue till the cows come home, put on tail-coats by the dozen for all I care—it'll still be ours, ours, ours! I'm not after your property, but I don't propose losing mine either, and I don't care what you think!
Lomov: My dear Miss Chubukov, it's not that I need that field—it's the principle of the thing. If you want it, have it. Take it as a gift.
Natasha: But it's mine to give you if I want—it's my property.
The pointless argument builds in tempo and vehemence, until, in a clear parody of the 'interrupted love scene', Chubukov is drawn by the sound of the row. With his entrance, the rhythm drops slightly, but only to reach renewed force in the argument now involving all three: prospective suitor, would-be father-in-law, and the ferocious and unknowing bride-to-be. It is with Chubukov's entrance that the theme of litigation comes to a head:
Lomov: We'll see about that! I'll have the law on you!
Chubukov: YOU will, will you? Then go right ahead, sir, and so forth, go ahead and sue, sir! Oh, I know your sort! Just what you're angling for and so on, isn't it—a court case, what? Quite the legal eagle, aren't you? Your whole family's always been litigation-mad, every last one of 'em!
Lomov: I'll thank you not to insult my family. We Lomovs have always been honest, we've none of us been had up for embezzlement like your precious uncle.
With that, Lomov starts off a succession of insults—neatly reciprocated by Chubukov—involving near and distant, living and deceased relatives on both sides; the fury of the argument is such that each completely forgets the reason for Lomov's visit. The...
(The entire section is 27320 words.)