Anton Chekhov

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2378

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov 1860-1904

See also Anton Chekhov Short Story Criticism.


Chekhov is one of the most important playwrights in all of Western drama. His name has been linked with those of Molière, Schiller, and Shakespeare for the impact his work has had on the history of theater. With a small handful of plays he overthrew the long-standing tradition of works that emphasize action and plot, in favor of dramas that treat situation, mood, and internal psychological states. The content and dramatic technique of Chekhov's four masterpieces, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard inaugurated fundamental changes not only in the way plays are composed but in the way they are acted, a revolution that persists to this day in works written for film and television, as well as those composed for the stage.


Chekhov's grandfather was a serf who bought his freedom, and his father was the owner of a small grocery business in Taganrog, the village where Chekhov was born. When the family business went bankrupt in 1876, the Chekhovs, without Anton, moved to Moscow to escape creditors; Anton remained in Taganrog until 1879 in order to complete his education and earn a scholarship to Moscow University. There, he studied medicine and, after graduating in 1884, went into practice. By this time he was publishing sketches, mostly humorous, in popular magazines. Chekhov did this to support his family, and, although he wrote literally hundreds of these pieces, he did not take them very seriously. In 1885, however, he moved to St. Petersburg and became friends with A. S. Suvorin, editor of the journal Novoe vremja, who encouraged the young writer to develop his obvious gifts.

At this time, and for several years afterward, Chekhov's writings were profoundly influenced by Leo Tolstoy's ideas on ascetic morality and nonresistance to evil. But after Chekhov visited the penal settlement on the island of Sakhalin, which he would make the subject of a humanitarian study, he rejected Tolstoy's moral code as an insufficient answer to human suffering. In the late 1880s Chekhov began to produce what are regarded as his mature works in the short story form. At the same time he began experimenting with the writing of plays. In the 1880s he composed a number of comic one-act plays, or "vaudevilles," often adapted from his short stories. Ivanov, his first full-length work (aside from the early untitled and never-performed drama commonly referred to as Platonov), was staged in 1887, and The Wood Demon appeared two years later. Both Ivanov and The Wood Demon were unsuccessful when they were produced. His first major work as a dramatist, The Seagull, was also a failure when it was staged in a disastrous 1896 production at the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. A discouraged Chekhov vowed never to write for the stage again. However, two years later, in their debut season, the Moscow Art Theater mounted an acclaimed revival of The Seagull which established both Chekhov as an accomplished playwright and the Moscow Art Theater company as an important new acting troupe.

Around this time Chekhov rewrote The Wood Demon, transforming it into Uncle Vanya. The new play was performed several times in the Russian provinces before it received its first professional staging by the Moscow Art Theater in 1899. The same company also presented the first performances of Three Sisters (1901) and The Cherry Orchard (1904). In 1901 Chekhov married Olga Knipper, an actress with the Moscow Art Theater. Because of his worsening tuberculosis, from Which he had suffered since 1884, Chekhov was forced to spend most of his time in the Crimea, where, it was believed, the warm southern climate was better for his condition, and in European health resorts; consequently, he was often separated from his wife, who typically performed in Moscow. He died in a Black Forest spa in 1904.


Chekhov's interest and participation in the theater had its origins in his schooldays at Taganrog, when he acted and wrote for the local playhouse. His first serious effort in drama was written in 1881, during his residence in Moscow. This work, Platonov, initiated the first of two major periods of the author's dramatic writings. The works of this first period are conventional melodramas characterized by the standard theatrical techniques and subjects of the times. Platonov, a long and somewhat declamatory social drama, features a leading character whose reformist ideals are negated by the indifference of others and by his own ineffectuality. Chekhov's next drama, Ivanov, is less bulky and more realistic than its predecessor, though critics still view it as a theatrically exaggerated and traditional piece. Written during the Tolstoyan phase of Chekhov's works, The Wood Demon was his first attempt at the artistic realism fully achieved only in his later dramas. This didactic morality play on the theme of vice and virtue is criticized for the same dramatic faults as the other works of this period.

The dramas of Chekhov's second period constitute his major work in the theater. These plays are primarily noted for their technique of "indirect action," a method whereby violent or intensely dramatic events are not shown on stage but occur (if at all) during the intervals of the action as seen by the audience. Chekhov's major plays, then, contain little of what is traditionally regarded as "plot," and consist primarily of quotidian activities performed by the characters and conversations in which allusions to the unseen events are intermingled with discussions of daily affairs and seemingly random observations. Though not portrayed on stage, momentous events are thus shown by the characters' words and actions to be pervasive in their effects. By focusing more closely on the characters' reactions to events than on the events themselves, Chekhov's plays are able to study and convey more precisely the effects of crucial events on characters' lives. Although Chekhov utilized elements of this method in Ivanov and The Wood Demon, these works remain in essence traditional melodramas. The first drama in which the technique of indirect action is extensively employed is The Seagull. In this play, the highly charged, traditionally "dramatic" events—the affair between Trigorin and Nina, Treplev's suicide attempts—occur off stage. No "crises" in the usual sense are shown. What are presented are the precipitating events and consequent effects on the characters—Treplev's and Nina's idealism and the subsequent despair of the one and the resignation of the other. Even though Treplev's suicide attempts and Trigorin's seduction of Nina are resolutely kept off stage, their presence points to the fact that Chekhov was thus far unable to completely eradicate melodramatic elements from his work. Likewise, Vanya's attempt to shoot Serebriakov in Uncle Vanya and Tuzenbach's death in a duel in Three Sisters are remnants of the older tradition which Chekhov was unable to do without. Only The Cherry Orchard appears free of such theatrical "high points." In this play no-one dies. No shots are even fired—either on or off stage.

The static quality of Chekhov's plays, in which nothing much seems to happen, is evoked by their content as well as their apparent "plotlessness." A common theme throughout Chekhov's four major plays is dissatisfaction with present conditions accompanied by a perceived inability to change oneself or one's situation. Treplev tries and fails to revolutionize the nature of drama. Uncle Vanya feels he has wasted his life supporting the fraud Serebriakov and believes he has no alternative but to continue on as he has. The three sisters feel smothered in the stultifying atmosphere of a provincial town and appear incapable of taking action to realize their dream of returning to Moscow. Ranevskaya and Gaev are faced with the loss of their beloved childhood home but cannot act decisively to prevent its sale. Chekhov escapes pessimism in these works by including characters who express optimism—or at least some degree of hopefulness—regarding the future. Sonya in Uncle Vanya, Vershinin in Three Sisters, and Trofimov in The Cherry Orchard all anticipate some future state in which all present ills and discontents will be remedied.

The past, too, as well as the future, exerts significant influence on the behavior of Chekhov's characters. To Treplev in The Seagull, Arkadina and Trigorin represent the artistic past that he is attempting to overthrow. Vanya feels the burden of the past in the form of the years wasted supporting Serebriakov. Masha, Irina, and Olga long for the Moscow of their childhood. Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard is tormented by the memory of her drowned son and her subsequent flight to Paris. But it is the present that concerns Chekhov most in these plays. Affected by the past, leading to some unseen future, the present with all its complexities and uncertainties is the stuff of which Chekhov's plays are made. Life as it is really lived, rather than highly melodramatic and theatrical incidents, Chekhov insisted, is the proper subject for plays. "After all, in real life," he observed, "people don't spend every minute shooting at each other, hanging themselves, and making confessions of love. They don't spend all the time saying clever things. They're more occupied with eating, drinking, flirting, and talking stupidities—and these are the things which ought to be shown on the stage. A play should be written in which people arrive, go away, have dinner, talk about the weather, and play cards. Life must be exactly as it is, and people as they are.… Let everything on the stage be just as complicated, and at the same time just as simple as it is in life. People eat their dinner, just eat their dinner, and all the time their happiness is being established or their lives are being broken up."


Although the Moscow Art Theater production of The Seagull was a great success for both the company and the playwright, Chekhov was infuriated by the staging, contending that director Konstantin Stanislavsky had ruined the play. The sets, the lighting, the sound effects—which, famously, included the croaking of frogs and the chirruping of crickets—and the acting all emphasized elements of tragedy in a play that its author vehemently insisted was a comedy. A similarly heated disagreement arose between author and director over The Cherry Orchard, which Chekhov subtitled "A Comedy," but which, in the Moscow Art Theater staging, was presented as a nostalgic parable on the passing of an older order in Russian history. Stanislavsky and his actors stressed, to Chekhov's dismay, the pathos of the characters' situation.

Chekhov never applied the term "tragedy" to his works: aside from labelling The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard "comedies," he called Uncle Vanya "Scenes from Country Life" and Three Sisters simply "A Drama." Nevertheless, the plays have routinely been interpreted as tragedies in countless performances and critical studies. Until recently, actors, directors, and scholars alike perceived a mood of sadness and despair blanketing all of Chekhov's major plays. Among such interpreters, Chekhov has earned a reputation as a portrayer of futile existences and as a forerunner of the modernist tradition of the absurd. The view of Chekhov as a pessimist, however, has always met with opposition, especially from Russian critics, who have seen him as a chronicler of the degenerating landowner classes during an era of imminent revolution.

A common response of early reviewers of performances of Chekhov's works throughout Europe and North America was to dismiss the plays as meaningless assemblages of random events. Early critics censured their seeming plotlessness and lack of "significant" action. However, much critical attention has subsequently been paid to the organizational and structural principles of Chekhovian drama. Scholars have shown that by the meticulous arrangement of sets, sound effects (including verbal effects: witness, for example, the "Tram-tam-tam" exchange between Masha and Vershinin in Act III of Three Sisters), and action, as well as the characters' speeches, Chekhov creates scenes and situations which appear static and uneventful on the surface but which are charged with significance and meaning. (It was the care with which he had arranged the various elements of his plays that led to Chekhov's exasperation with Stanislavsky: the director's myriad stage effects obscured or obliterated the delicate balance of parts that the writer sought.)

The subtlety and indirection of Chekhov's method of presentation required a new style of acting, free of the big gestures and declamation characteristic of traditional acting. A restrained, allusive style was essential, and here Chekhov was well served by the Moscow Art Theater, with its new emphasis on internalizing character and conveying elusive psychological states. Scholars and theater historians have repeatedly stressed that Chekhov, together with Stanislavksy and the Moscow Art Theater, forever transformed the ways in which plays are conceived, written, and performed.

The reception, then, of The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard extends far beyond theater reviews and critical studies, and the influence of these plays continues to be felt by writers, actors, directors throughout the world.

A. Skaftymov (essay date 1948)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8189

SOURCE: "Principles of Structure in Chekhov's Plays," in Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Louis Jackson, Prentice-Hall, 1967, pp. 69-87.

[The following is an abridged version of an essay that was first published in Russian in 1948. Skaftymov addresses the "question of the unity of form and content" in Chekhov's plays.]

There is a rather large and in many respects substantial body of secondary literature on Chekhov's dramaturgy.

Contemporaries noted a peculiarity in Chekhov's plays at the time of the first productions. At first they interpreted this peculiarity as Chekhov's inability to manage the problems of continuous living dramatic movement. Reviewers spoke of "prolixity," of the lack of "stage-craft," of "insufficient action" and weakness of plot. In reproaching Chekhov, contemporaries wrote that "he himself does not know what he wants," that "he does not know the laws of drama," that, he does not fulfill the "most elementary demands of the stage," that he writes some sort of "reports," that he gives little pictures with all the chance accidentality of photography, without any thought, and without expressing his own attitude.

K. S. Stanislavsky and V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko noted the so-called "undercurrent,"1 the most essential principle in the dramatic movement of Chekhov's plays. They revealed the presence of a continuous, internal, intimate, lyric current behind the external, prosaic episodes and details; and in their endeavors at creative staging, they correctly directed all their efforts toward rendering this emotional current more perceptible to the spectator. The new, infectious force of Chekhov's plays became evident.

During this time critics ceased to speak of Chekhov's ineptitude in the field of drama. They reconciled themselves to the "absence of action" in his plays just as they did to the plays' evident strangeness; they defined Chekhov's plays as a special "drama of mood," and thereby seemed to answer all the questions for a time. Only a few critics continued to look back to traditional "dramatic laws," and as a mild reproof to Chekhov continued to speak of a "looseness" and of the "diffuseness of a Chekhovian scenario."2 This reproof, however, no longer testified to dissatisfaction or ill will. They "forgave" Chekhov for his peculiarity. All the articles on Chekhov's plays now enumerated everything that contributed to the "mood": elements of lyric coloring in the characters' speeches, sound accompaniment, pauses, and so forth.

Later on these same devices and peculiarities were described in special studies (Yuriev, Grigoriev, and Balukhaty). S. D. Balukhaty's contributions to the study of Chekhov's dramaturgy were especially considerable. In two books and several separate studies, he traced the history of the writing and first productions of each play and gathered a great deal of material characterizing Chekhov's own attitude toward his activities as a dramatist and the attitude toward his plays on the part of the critics and public. He carefully described the structure of each play and thoroughly mapped out the process of gradual formation of those special features and devices which constitute the specific character of Chekhov's plays. All this aids considerably in the study of Chekhov's drama.

Regrettably, even Balukhaty presents all the peculiarities of dramatic structure merely in a descriptive manner. The question of the unity of form and content in Chekhov's plays remains altogether untouched.

Much remains unclear. Specifically, what was the nature of the new attitude toward reality which required new forms for its expression? What ideological kind of creative force drew Chekhov to put together this particular complex of dramatic peculiarities? What motivated Chekhov to devise new methods of dramatic movement? Why does everyday reality occupy such a large and free place in his plays? Why does he abolish tightness of plot and substitute for it episodic, disconnected scenes, and why does he change all forms of interaction of dialogue? And mainly: how is it that all these peculiarities harmonize with each other; what is the nature of their interdependence; what underlying defining principle do they have in common?

The statement that Chekhovian drama is not drama in the usual sense, that it is "lyric drama" or a "drama of moods," and more precisely of "melancholy moods," has only descriptive value. Furthermore, it has little concrete meaning. It is true that in such a description, functional explanations are found for such elements as sound accompaniment, pauses, etc. But why, for the purposes of lyricism, was it necessary to resort to indirect rather than direct expression of feeling, moods, and so forth? If it is a matter of "lyricism" or "moods" in general, with the added note that this lyricism has a sad, melancholy character, then are the scattered quality of the everyday details, the absence of plot, and other purely Chekhovian features absolutely necessary for its expression?

Obviously, calling attention to the lyricism and melancholy mood of Chekhov's plays is inadequate as an answer to these questions. One must consider the qualitative substance of those "moods," that is, see what thoughts and ideas are connected with them. Only then will the essence of Chekhovian forms be revealed as the specific nature of content—a content which could only, and exclusively, be expressed through the given forms.

Balukhaty's suggestion that Chekhov, with his new type of drama, was seeking to supersede the old canon of the drama of everyday life explains little. It is true that Chekhov was dissatisfied with the "tried and true poetics" of the drama of everyday life, that he was "seeking to overcome the schematic character of the drama of everyday life" just by using new "elements and colors from everyday life," to "create in the theater the illusion of life," and "to construct new, fresh dramatic forms in place of the former, conventional typification of scenes and characters."3 But one can hardly agree that Chekhov includes "facts, actions, intonations, and themes," in a drama merely because they were "new," "strikingly impressive," and because they had not yet been "utilized" on the stage; that merely for the sake of such "novelty," Chekhov "avoids vivid, dynamic elements," simplifies the plot fabric, and substitutes "an apparently unsystematic combination of facts and actions" for "the dramatically conceived, strictly motivated movement of themes one finds in the drama of everyday life."4 Supposedly, Chekhov did all this in order to "tone down the customary 'theatricality' of plays and to revivify dramatic writing by naturalistic and psychological devices within the complex structure and relations of routine, ordinary life."5

The suggestion of a striving for novelty does not define the real nature of that novelty. If the term "naturalistic" is understood to mean Chekhov's striving not only toward novelty, but also toward the utmost truthfulness, that is, toward the closest approximation of the forms of life itself, then, of course, it would be generally correct to say that Chekhov discovered certain new aspects of reality, and in his creative work as an artist-realist sought to reproduce them. But a striving for truthfulness is insufficient as an explanation.… The crucial question is why Chekhov stubbornly and persistently sought to combine so many diverse elements of reality, the unity of which makes up the specific substance of his plays. He must obviously have perceived some sort of connection between all these elements of reflected life.… This article is an attempt to reveal the structural peculiarities of Chekhov's plays as an expression of a special dramatic quality of life discovered and interpreted by Chekhov as an attribute of his epoch.

As we know, theater critics reproved Chekhov most of all for introducing into his plays superfluous details from everyday life, and thus violating the laws of stage action. The presence of such details was put down to his ineptitude, to the habits of the writer of tales and short stories, and to his inability or unwillingness to master the requirements of the dramatic genre. These views were expressed not only by newspaper and theater reviewers who were distant from Chekhov and did not know him, but even by those who clearly wished him well (for example, A. Lensky and Nemirovich-Danchenko).

Chekhov himself, at the time he was writing the plays, apparently experienced the greatest difficulty and confusion on this point. While working on The Wood Demon, he saw that instead of a drama (in the usual sense) he was arriving at something like a story. "The Wood Demon is suitable for a novel," he wrote A. S. Suvorin October 24, 1888.

I am perfectly well aware of this myself. But I haven't the strength for a novel. I might be able to write a short story. If I wrote a comedy The Wood Demon, then not actors and a stage would be in the forefront, but literary quality. If the play had literary significance, it would be due to that.

After The Wood Demon, Chekhov turned away from the theater for some time. Seven years passed. He was now at work on The Seagull. His purpose was not to get rid of details from everyday life, but to overcome the seeming incompatibility between such details and the demands of dramatic genre and to effect a synthesis of these details. "Details" in the new play were, he knew, prevalent to a degree inadmissible in the usual play, but obviously, he could not forsake them. While working on the play, he wrote: "I am afraid to make a mess of it and to pile up details which will impair the clarity." And further: "I am writing the play not without satisfaction, although I sin terribly against the conventions of the stage. It is a comedy, three female parts, six male, four acts, a landscape (view of a lake); much conversation about literature, little action, tons of love." And then again: "I began it forte and finished pianissimo—despite all the rules of dramatic art. A story has emerged. I am more dissatisfied than satisfied, and reading my new play, I am again convinced that I am not at all a playwright." (Letters to Suvorin, October 21 and November 21, 1895.)

All of this indicates that for Chekhov in his excursions into drama, some sort of reproduction of the sphere of everyday life was an indispensable condition; he was unwilling to forsake it.… "They demand," he said,

that the hero and heroine be theatrically effective. But really, in life people are not every minute shooting each other, hanging themselves, and making declarations of love. And they are not saying clever things every minute. For the most part, they eat, drink, hang about, and talk nonsense; and this must be seen on the stage. A play must be written in which people can come, go, dine, talk about the weather, and play cards, not because that's the way the author wants it, but because that's the way it happens in real life.6

Let everything on the stage be just as complex and at the same time just as simple as in life. People dine, merely dine, but at that moment their happiness is being made or their life is being smashed.7

At first glance, such statements seem incomprehensible. Was there not everyday life in the earlier drama of everyday life which had developed over the course of the entire nineteenth century? Take A. N. Ostrovsky (1823-1886)—whom, of course, Chekhov could not fail to know—don't people eat, drink, hang about, and talk nonsense in his plays? Can it be that his characters come, go, dine, talk, and so forth only because "that's the way it happens in real life"? Is not the entire structure of an Ostrovsky play directed toward the attainment of the greatest likeness in life? Are not all devices of plot, development,. and denouement in Ostrovsky created in order to approximate the truth of everyday life? There were, of course, conscious deviations from this criterion. But these were unavoidable, an obligatory convention. And even in these instances the author's efforts were nevertheless directed toward achieving the closest resemblance to those situations which were regarded as possible in everyday life.

But let us not stop here. Are not the dramatic collisions which make up the heart and meaning of a play, drawn as belonging to everyday life? All images of people, types, and characters always have been represented as figures from everyday life, that is, as something established, of long standing, and characteristic of the general way of life in a given environment. At any rate, authors were always striving in this direction.…

The principal justification for the nineteenth century play of everyday life was always one and the same: its closeness to reality and to the most universal and enduring qualities of life and people. Out of this demand arose the notion of "typicality," binding for all alike and accepted as the basis for all literary and dramatic judgments. It gave a common direction to everyone's efforts—one which met with varying success, to be sure, and brought about the creation of a peculiar but widely shared style of everyday life realism. In spite of all the variety of thematic and ideological problems, all the subtleties in ways of selecting and arranging material, everyone more or less had to present everyday life not only as a framework, but as a theme facilitating the most exact verisimilitude. One can scarcely point to any play of this kind where elements of the common flow of life are not represented, where, specifically, tea is not drunk, where there is no eating and drinking, and where quite "ordinary" conversations do not take place.

Chekhov, of course, knew this. It is clear that, when he spoke of the necessity for everyday ordinariness in a dramatic reproduction of life, he had in mind some other reality which he had observed, something unlike anything he had seen in his predecessors.

Wherein lay the difference?

One of the salient features of pre-Chekhovian drama is that everyday life is absorbed into, and overshadowed by, events. The humdrum—that which is most permanent, normal, customary, and habitual—is almost absent from these plays. Moments of the even flow of life appear at the beginning of the play, as an exposition and a starting point, but subsequently, the entire play, the entire fabric of dialogue is taken up with events; the daily flow of life recedes into the background and is merely mentioned and implied in places.

In plays of this type … where the stage situation serves merely as an occasion for the characteristic descriptive utterances of the dramatis personae, there are no entangling events. But these plays are not finished works of art; even for the authors they were no more than preliminary studies, episodic genre sketches. In most of the other plays … the elements of commonplace tranquility always, in essence, foreshadow an event and are directed toward it. They foretell an event, giving information about the conditions under which it will occur; or they comment on its meaning by revealing in dialogue certain traits in the characters without which the event would not occur.…

Furthermore, in the earlier drama, everyday life is nothing but the customary manners and morals of people. In each play the intent is to expose, display, and comment on some social vice or imperfection. Depending on the depth and breadth of the author's understanding and ability, the central event of the play absorbs into itself both the roots and manifestations of the evil at issue, as well as its consequences. Basically, the characters appear either as bearers of the vice depicted or as its victims. Some characters are introduced for subsidiary aims: to forward the intrigue, to reveal the qualities of the main characters, or to explain the author's point of view (the raisonneur). Within these limits there are countless variations. But despite all the variety of world views, talents, and objects depicted, and despite marked differences in the writers' mastery of drama, all the previous drama of everyday life is similar in its one objective: to mark and isolate some everyday traits in people, and for this purpose to show an event in which the characters act in accord with these selected traits.

The everyday elements of each play, then, are chosen only as they illustrate the social or ethical meaning of some feature of typical life like ignorance, despotism, acquisitiveness, flippancy, official swindling, social indifference, obscurantism, and so forth.… The result is a concentration of the ordinary dialogue on some morally significant trait or other which is embodied in the principal event. All other details of everyday life are merely extraneous, have no direct bearing on the problem, and could easily be omitted. The even humdrum of life is almost absent from these plays.

In Chekhov it is entirely different. Chekhov does not seek out events; on the contrary, he concentrates on reproducing the most ordinary features of day-to-day existence. Chekhov saw the drama of life being performed in that ordinary flow when things are left to themselves and nothing happens. The peaceful flow of life as it is lived was, to Chekhov, not simply a "setting" and not simply an exposition serving as a transition to the events, but the central area of life's dramas, that is, the direct and fundamental object of his creative act of representation. So, contrary to all traditions, Chekhov moves events to the periphery as if they were details; and all that is ordinary, constant, recurring, and habitual constitutes the main mass, the basic ground of the play. Events that do occur in Chekhov's plays do not fracture the general atmosphere of everyday conditions. Events spread them-selves evenly throughout the interweaving of divergent interests, everyday habits and happenings; they are not knots where everything centers, but rather, they merge into the general multicolored fabric; each event serves as a thread, a detail in the pattern.

Chekhov's method of revealing everywhere—not only in the plot—the substance of the play is not yet apparent in Ivanov. Ivanov's inner drama, which organizes the play's principal movement, is brought out in the event which integrates the plot—the story of Ivanov and Sasha Lebedev. Much of the substance here, too, however, lies outside the strict plot field: for example, scene v in Act I (Shabelsky and Anna Petrovna), most of Act II (the guests at Sasha's estate), scenes i, ii, iii, iv in Act III, with the conversations of Lebedev, Shabelsky, and Borkin on political events in Germany and France, the conversations about tasty foods and snacks, and the subsequent intrusion of Kosykh with his passion for cards. None of this bears directly on the story of Ivanov and Sasha. Everywhere in the play one is reminded of the permanent and diverse aspects of life.

In The Wood Demon, this sense of an external, humdrum, protracted, and ordinary atmosphere, conveyed through neutral, everyday, trivial details, emerges quite distinctly. The play's event (the flight of Elena Andreevna) has the status of a local episode. The most important and larger part of the play's canvas is crowded with ordinary affairs, when there is no special intention to attract interest to the central event.

In The Seagull, the most notable events are centered on Treplev. But the play is not entirely concentrated around this most obvious pivot. Its driving impulse is felt autonomously and independently in Nina Zarechnaya, Trigorin's life, Arkadina's life, the lovesick Masha Shamraeva, the ill-starred life of Medvedenko, Dorn's weariness, and Sorin's peculiar kind of suffering. Common life flows on and everywhere preserves its common forms. Each of the participants has his own inner world and sorrow, and each plays his own little part in the general ensemble.

In Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters, there are even fewer events. In Uncle Vanya, the most prominently placed are Voynitsky's relations to Elena Andreevna and Serebryakov; in The Three Sisters, the relations of Masha and Vershinin and of Irina and Tusenbach. But these moments, so prominent, nevertheless do not provide a backbone of plot for the play as a whole. In the general flow of the play these moments remain episodes; they are seen as individual consequences of a way of life that was formed long ago and is common to all, a way of life that is sensed equally throughout the play and among all the characters in situations that have long been chronic.

At the center of The Cherry Orchard stands the sale of the estate and Ranevskaya's emotional upheavals and sufferings connected with it. But throughout the play the drama of Ranevskaya is absorbed into the flowing processes of common everyday life. From the first scenes, even Varya is shown to have her special anxieties and secret sorrows. Lopakhin is worried by the immediate business of the next day. Even Epikhodov, Firs, Simeonov-Pishchik, and Dunyasha have their minor, but still special inner worlds. And later, throughout the whole length of the play, everybody's common, everyday concerns continue to go on around Ranevskaya.8

In none of the plays do one or two persons bear the inner conflict all by themselves. Everyone suffers (except for a very few, cruel people).

… The bitter taste of life for these people consists not in a particular sad event, but precisely in the drawn-out, habitual, drab, monotonous dullness of every day. Workaday life with its outwardly tranquil forms is introduced into Chekhov's plays as the main sphere of the hidden—and most widespread—states of dramatic conflict.

What interests Chekhov in the humdrum of everyday existence is the general feeling of life, that state of pervasive inner tonicity in which man lives from day to day.

The dramatic characterization of everyday life, based on the depiction of customs, morals, and manners, proved unsuited to Chekhov's purposes. His choice of prosaic details was determined not by their ethical and thematic meaning, but by their significance in the general emotional content of life. But because this principle was not understood at first, it seemed that they had been deposited haphazardly, following no internal law.

At the end of Act I of Ostrovsky's Let's Settle It Among Ourselves, Bolshov, having a conversation with Rizhpolozhensky and Podkhalyuzin, picks up a newspaper, as if by accident, and reads there a declaration concerning "bankrupts." Now everyone can understand the reason for this episode because it is connected with the basic theme of the play. No one doubts the internal propriety of this seemingly "accidental" detail, because it so clearly corresponds to all that is happening and will happen to Bolshov.

But consider: in Act II of The Three Sisters, Chebutykin reads from a newspaper: "Tsitsikar. Smallpox is raging here." Neither Tsitsikar nor smallpox bears any relation whatsoever to Chebutykin, or to any other person, or to anything that is happening or will happen on the stage. A newspaper report happens to catch his eye. He reads it through and it has no direct bearing on anything that is being said around him. Subsequently, it is left without any echo. Why is it there?

In Act I of Uncle Vanya, again without any connection to what is happening, Marina walks around the house and clucks: "Cheep, cheep, cheep." And again, one asks: what is its purpose?

In Act II of The Seagull, Masha stands up in the middle of a conversation, walks in a "lazy, limping gait," and announces: "My foot is asleep." Why is this necessary?

There are many such "accidental" remarks in Chekhov. The dialogue is continuously bursting, breaking, and becoming confused by some apparently unnecessary and altogether extraneous triviality. The result was bewilderment. People were astonished by the seeming incongruities, by the insignificance of the thematic content, and by the accidentality of much of the dialogue and many of the characters' individual remarks.

One can remain bewildered, however, only so long as one does not grasp the new dramatic principle whereby all these seemingly meaningless particularities are drawn in and unified. They take on life and meaning not by what they connote, but by the complex sense of life they convey.

When Chebutykin, immersed in his newspaper, reads: "Tsitsikar. Smallpox is raging here," this sentence is addressed to no one, and is not intended to provide information. It is simply one expression of boring tranquility, the idleness, sluggishness, and insubstantial character in the play's general atmosphere. Again, when Solyony and Chebutykin argue as to whether the word chekhartma or cheremsha means a meat or a plant of the onion family, this passing episode has meaning not for its thematic content, but simply because of the triviality and the stage of half-exasperation it expresses.…

The internal state of an individual is superimposed on the common variegated fabric and from it derives its particular meaning, background, and emphasis. Remarks are charged not only with particular meaning for the character who is speaking, but, when spoken neutrally, take on vast meaning that illumines the condition of the other characters present.

When Marina, during one pause, imitates a chicken's "cheep, cheep, cheep," it not only says something about Marina, but also gives expression to the tedium that weighs upon the other characters present: here the upset Voynitsky and the bored Elena Andreevna. When at the end of the play, Marina says: "I, sinner that I am, have not eaten noodle soup in a long time," her words are not especially meaningful and might even seem superfluous. But in the context of the play, they say less about Marina's homely desire for food than about the succession of pleasant and tranquil, but dull days which have now begun again for Uncle Vanya and Sonya.

Chekhov's methods of rendering the tedium of life were not created all at once, but rather they developed and grew complex according to the peculiar problems of each play.

In Ivanov, Chekhov points to the spiritual destitution and emptiness surrounding Ivanov and Sasha when he stuffs the dialogue with frankly boring conversations by Lebedev's guests (Act II), and Ivanov's guests (at the beginning of Act III). More of these conversations, their emptiness all the more obvious, filled the first versions of the play. Chekhov was thus faced with the danger that his depiction of tedium might itself become tedious to the audience. This danger compelled him to forgo some motifs and to shorten these episodes.9

Subsequently, Chekhov communicated the impression of emptiness and tedium in the everyday flow of life without emphasizing the tedious and uninteresting elements; he would merely touch on them, hinting at people's boredom through a gesture or intonation which revealed the direct, but also the hidden, emotional meaning of a seemingly insignificant sentence.

During a general conversation, Masha, in The Seagull, gets up and says: "It must be time for lunch. (Walks in a lazy, limping gait.) My foot is asleep. (Exits.)" The audience grasps not only Masha's boredom but the whole feeling of a scene on a typical endless day.

At the end of Act II of Uncle Vanya, when Elena Andreevna, upset by a conversation with Sonya about love, happiness, and her own fate, waits to hear whether or not she may play the piano, the watchman taps in the garden. Then he leaves, at Elena Andreevna's request, and his voice echoes in the silence: "Hey you! Zhuchka! Boy! Zhuchka!" This juxtaposition of a neutral, peaceful, ordinary detail with the pathos of a joy that is denied, opens a perspective on the calm, eternal indifference of the everyday flow of life: life—you have to recognize it—passes and goes its way.

By means of such juxtapositions as these, the homely detail in Chekhov acquires an enormous capacity for conveying emotion, and you feel behind each detail the synthesizing force of a feeling for life as a whole.10

What is the source of the conflict? Who and what causes suffering? Until we arrive at the substance or the peculiar essence of Chekhovian conflict, we shall formulate it merely as the contradiction between what is given and what is desired, that is, the discrepancy between what a man has and what he strives for. Who or what brings about this breach between man's desired and real existence?

In other drama, the source of conflict, generally speaking, lies in the contradiction and conflict of human interests and passions. The conflict is based on a violation of moral norms, as when one will encroaches upon the resisting interests and wills of others. Therefore, the notion of some kind of guilt is always connected with the dramatic suffering. The source of the conflict, conse quently, is the faulty, criminal, evil, or misdirected will of a person or persons; a battle of wills breaks out—the battle with obstacles, and all sorts of peripeteia.

Some defect in social relations always lies at the base of the dramatic conflict, and conflict consists of a collision between healthy and honorable human desires and a dark, evil force. Basically, one of two kinds of villains is involved: either the "domestic" oppressor, who, by his own despotic conduct, corrupts and disfigures life for those around him; or the newcomer, the bearer of evil. The latter is an adventurer or a swindler, and by deception he forces his own way into the confidence of his victims in order to achieve his mercenary and dishonest aims.

The poor who are dependent on the rich experience most of the dramatic suffering; or it falls on younger members of the oppressor's family, who are deprived of their rights: the daughter, the governess, or less often, the son or wife. The victims of the deception are honest, trusting people, primarily women, who for one reason or another attract the deceiver's interest, then, betrayed by blinded feelings, find themselves in his snare.… Social relations changed, customs changed, new vices arose, other problems were posed.… The drama of everyday life, however, remained the same, because it retained in every respect its basic aims: to depict customs and morals, to edify, to expose and indict vice.

Chekhov is different and has an entirely different point of departure for his critique of reality. Chekhov's first mature play, Ivanov, does solve a problem having to do with social types, but at the same time it is polemically directed against preconceived and hasty judgment of people.

Ivanov perpetrates a number of acts which by their own outward appearance naturally arouse moral indignation. Everyone condemns him. Yet the play, by its dual illumination of Ivanov, outer and inner, cautions as it goes along against customary moral judgments and calls for a more complex understanding of those reasons, motives, and incentives which govern a man's behavior.… In Ivanov, instead of moralizing directly, Chekhov elucidates the emotional state of his hero and suggests the notion of involuntary guilt, as when one man causes another's misfortune without any desire whatsoever to do so.… 11

In his second play, The Wood Demon, Chekhov was concerned with the same idea. The play again wars on the lack of attention people give to each other. It attacks preconceived labels and stereotypes which prompt one to judge people without any real basis for doing so. All the mutual suspicions and accusations which, ultimately, led to the misfortune turn out to be false. Everyone regrets his mistake (except Serebryakov, the most obtuse and self-satisfied of all the characters; and in the first draft of the play, even he is remorseful).

Dramatic conflicts in Chekhov consist not in the opposition of strong wills, but in contradictions inherent in the objective conditions of life, contradictions before which the individual will is powerless.

In The Seagull, in Uncle Vanya, in The Three Sisters, and in The Cherry Orchard, "no one is to blame," no one individually and consciously prevents another's happiness. Who is to blame that in The Seagull, Medvedenko loves Masha, and Masha loves Treplev, and Treplev loves Nina Zarechnaya, and Nina loves Trigorin, and so forth? Who is to blame that the professions of writing and acting do not in themselves bring happiness to Treplev and Zarechnaya? Who is to blame that Voynitsky regards Serebryakov as an idol worthy of the sacrifice of an entire life, and that when Serebryakov proves to be a hollow man Voynitsky's life goes by in vain? Who is to blame when Astrov cannot summon the feelings for Sonya that would make her happiness? Who is to blame for the lonely and inane life that tortures Astrov, disfigures him spiritually, and wears away his feelings to no purpose? Who is to blame in The Three Sisters, where, instead of leaving for Moscow, the Prozorov sisters begin to sink even further into the drabness and fog of provincial life? Who is to blame when their knowledge and sensibilities find no application and wither to no purpose? Who is to blame when Ranevskaya and Gaev, by virtue of their own moral and psychic condition, are unable to make use of Lopakhin's well-meaning advice? Who is to blame for the general state of life in The Cherry Orchard, where the characters wheel about in lonely suffering, where people do not and cannot understand each other. Who is to blame when people's sincere feelings and mutual good will do not give warming joy, but life remains drab, dirty, unhappy, and sad?

No one is to blame. Then, since no one is to blame, there are no real adversaries; and since there are no real adversaries, there are not and cannot be struggles. The fault lies with the complex of circumstances which seems to lie beyond the influence of the people in the play. The unfortunate situation is shaped without their willing it, and suffering arrives on its own.

It is not that Chekhov's people are not judged at all. It is not that there is no distinction between human virtues and defects, or that human conduct is not shown to be a source of evil. All that is there. But evil in Chekhov operates outside the sphere of direct, willful activity as if it were merely some involuntary fruit of life (though it is evil all the same). Even in the most negative of Chekhov's characters, it is not their wills that are presented first and foremost, but the quality of their feelings. Their wills do not create the action of the play. Wicked people in the plays only make worse a situation that is already bad in itself. The better people turn out to be powerless. A mass of petty, ordinary details entangles man; he flounders in them and is unable to extricate himself. Life passes irrevocably and in vain, continuously, inconspicuously giving out what people do not need. Who is to blame? This question resounds continuously throughout each play. And each play answers: individuals are not to blame, but the entire makeup of their lives. People are to blame only in that they are weak.

What is the substance of the conflict? It was defined generally above as the contradiction between what is given and what is desired. But such a definition still leaves out the specific Chekhovian quality. The contradiction between what is given and what is desired is to be found everywhere, and every play is structured on this conflict; but Chekhov established his own, specific sphere of the desired.

In the earlier, pre-Chekhovian drama of everyday life, the desired is projected as liberation from the vice that hinders life. In each of the given plays, the setting to rights of life is conceived to be limited to the areas encompassed by the evil operating in the play. The fate of people is considered with reference to that aspect immediately subject to the interference and influence of the given vice. The characters' individual desires, as a whole, are contained within these limits. Remove the action of the vice, and a state of happiness is obtained. The destructive influence may prove to be so profound, however, that the restoration of the "norm" proves impossible; then catastrophe results. But whichever way the characters' fate is structured, even in these cases, it remains within restricted thematic limits. That is what happens in all of Ostrovsky's plays.…

The particular conflict in which a Chekhovian character finds himself also proceeds from some perfectly concrete desire that has not been or cannot be fulfilled. In The Seagull, it is anguish over unrequited love or longing for the joy of a writer's or an artist's fame. In Uncle Vanya, suffering, caused by the consciousness of the irrevocable and joyless passing of life, moves into the main focus beside the motif of desired, but unattainable love (Voynitsky, Sonya, Astrov, and Elena Andreevna). In The Three Sisters, the concrete desire is a yearning to escape from the provinces to Moscow. In The Cherry Orchard, it is connected with the change awaited in the fate of the estate.

Yet it is not difficult to see that these concretely designated yearnings do not, in themselves, take in the entire scope of that longing for the better which is felt in the play. Each private desire is accompanied by expectation of a change in the entire substance of life. The dream of fulfillment of a given desire lives in the soul of each personage with a longing for the satisfaction of more poetic interests that embrace all of life. Each person's suffering consists in the fact that these higher spiritual elements do not find application and conceal themselves in intimate thoughts and daydreams. Thus the particular, private desires always have an extended meaning. They appear as vehicles for the inner longing for another, bright existence in which vague, lofty, poetically beautiful, secret dreams can be realized.

The melancholy of Masha Shamraeva and Sonya, the belated outbursts of Voynitsky and Astrov, the Prozorov sisters' continuously voiced yearning to move to Moscow, contain a suffering brought about by the general drabness and emptiness of the life they lead. They all want a complete transformation, they want to reject the present and set off for some new and bright horizon.

When Nina Zarechnaya aspires to be an actress she has a notion of some higher spiritual happiness which is not granted to mere mortals, about which one dreams only from a distance. For the Prozorovs, that many-featured daydream calling from afar is Moscow. What they will obtain in Moscow or what and how it will fill their lives—of this not a word. At the focal point of the play, one finds only a spiritual unrest, a feeling of life's incompleteness, a surging impulse, and an expectation of something better. The concrete forms in which this desire takes shape and becomes concentrated vary with each character. Each in his own way wants and expects something better. And in each case the inner unrest and dissatisfaction is expressed in a personal form: in Tusen-bach it is different from what it is in Vershinin; in Solyony it is even more different; in Andrei Prozorov it is different again; and so forth. But in everyone, private desires are united with the common longing to begin some kind of different life. You feel an individual's distress only to feel the drabness and incoherence of life as a whole.

In The Cherry Orchard, personal and private outbursts are brought even more clearly into the realm of life's general disorder. The fate of the estate interests everyone in his own way, but behind each private interest, everyone thinks and feels desires of a more general character, as is obvious in the role of Petya Trofimov. Ranevskaya suffers not only because of the loss of the estate, but also because of the entire wasteland of her life. And even Lopakhin, in his dreams of summer cottages, in the end anticipates a general, fundamental change. "Oh, if it all would pass more quickly, if somehow our awkward, unhappy life would quickly change!" "Lord, thou gavest us immense forests, unbounded fields, and the widest horizons; and living here we should, by all that is true, be giants." This plea for eventual universal happiness finds passionate and overt expression in the lyric endings of the plays, in the words of Sonya, Olga, and Anya.…

The spectator is drawn into this lofty atmosphere of longing by various means, like things and sounds; and also by dialogue on subjects very different on the surface, but really in their emotional tone closely related and similar in meaning: love, happiness, nature, art, the past, and so forth. There are even theoretical discussions, usually inconclusive. They are cut short and abruptly left hanging in midair. Their significance lies not so much in their theoretical content as in the sense of helplessness and weariness which gives rise to them. They are symptoms of a dissatisfaction and inner upheaval which perhaps are not realized fully and equally by everyone all the time.

These lofty desires find strong resistance in the flow of life.…

The next question is that of the movement of the tragic element, of its development in the play. What are the progressive changes of situation that make up what we call "development of action"?

It is very characteristic of Chekhov that his selection of things to take place onstage and not offstage leans toward life's most constant and most time-consuming features.… The play opens with the characters already in a state of habitual, wearying discontent. The roots and causes of the present burdensome situation lie somewhere in the distant past. The chronic spiritual malaise is dragged out now day after day. This kind of suffering does not cease to be suffering, but has a peculiar character and its own discreet forms of expression. Hidden, it erupts and becomes noticeable only momentarily.

At the beginning of Act I of The Seagull, everyone but Nina Zarechnaya and, in part, Treplev (and Arkadina, who is always satisfied) has been only half-alive for a long time, can hardly endure life, and only frets and mourns after the happiness that has been denied to him. In Uncle Vanya, Voynitsky's situation was established long ago, and now, as his feeling for Elena Andreevna awakens again, it is only exacerbated. Astrov has long been sadly accustomed to the tedious, cold, and exhausting routine of his workaday existence and knows perfectly well that his situation is hopeless. Sonya, too, has languished for a long time. The Prozorov sisters have for years been yearning for Moscow. Life itself long ago conditioned the "unhappy" existence of the characters in The Cherry Orchard.

The development of the plays consists in the recurrence of hopes for happiness, followed by their being exposed as illusions and then shattered. Nascent hopes for happiness or at least for some improvement in the situation summon various persons to actions which have the character of events; but these events are never developed in the play. Chekhov quickly returns his hero to a new version of the everyday condition to be endured once again. The event provoked by the hero's enthusiasm for his new purpose occurs only behind the scenes. On the stage it makes itself felt only in the protracted and total tedium which has again set in.

In The Seagull, Nina Zarechnaya's fate changes. Illusions of happiness engulf her, an attempt to realize these hopes occurs (she draws nearer to Trigorin, she becomes an actress), and then the hopes are exposed as false. Happiness, she discovers, was not to be obtained even there. The moment of joy, however brief and illusory (her love affair with Trigorin), is not shown on the stage. Only the result is shown: the return to days of prosaic suffering. The false, happy excitement is already a thing of the past, life has become once more days to endure, and with this sad new humdrum state of things, Nina comes back on the stage. Masha Shamraeva, from act to act, hopes to overcome her melancholy by some new, decisive act (she gets married, again offstage). But there is no improvement.… Uncle Vanya contains almost no events. Voynitsky's feeling for Elena Andreevna is only an element in the final clarification and realization of his sealed fate. He struggles with no one and nothing. The shot at Serebryakov was only an indirect expression of his vexation at the mistake of his life which he had already realized. His joyless life is bound to remain the same as before. The play quickly restores him to his earlier, outwardly smooth, but bitter, humdrum existence. The same is true also of Sonya. Astrov, from the very beginning, knows that his situation is irremediable, and his drama is marked by bitter self-irony. "The entire meaning and drama of man are internal," Chekhov said apropos of Uncle Vanya. "Sonya's life had drama in it up to this moment; it will have drama in it after this moment, but the moment itself is simply an incident, a continuation of the shot. And the shot, after all, is not drama, but an incident."12

[In The Three Sisters] Irina hopes for a renewal in life when she starts to work. She becomes a telegraph operator, then serves on the town council. The days are past when all this was new to her.… Chekhov takes up the situation when the new post has already become tedious, drab, and burdensome, when it is already clear that the changes which occurred have added no joy whatsoever. Andrei marries Natasha. But again, the event is not onstage when it is still something new; only its joyless result receives stage embodiment; we see the marriage only when illusions have already disappeared and the monotonous protraction of life's useless passing has already set in.… Chekhov presents the bitter thought, the bitter feeling, human suffering, not when they are fresh, but when they have passed within, have become part of an established state of mind, and are hidden from others by outwardly usual behavior. As a result, the movement of action acquires exceptional complexity.…

The resolution of the conflict corresponds to the specific nature of its content. The final chord has a double ring: it is both sad and bright.

If the dramatic tension has to do with the whole tenor of life, if no one individual is to blame, then one can expect that the way to something better lies only in a radical unheaval of life in its entirety. The arrival of something better depends not on the removal of local obstacles, but on the transformation of all forms of existence. And until there is such a transformation, each person in the sepa rateness of his being is powerless before the common fate. Therefore, in the end, Chekhov's heroes do not find their lot improved. Life remains dismal and drab. Nevertheless, all the plays end with an expression of a passionate dream and a belief in the future. Each play emphasizes the confidence that in time life will become different, clear, joyful, and rich with radiant feeling. Life, however, remains joyless—but only temporarily and only for those who are still weak.…

The double emotional chord at the end (sadness about the present, and the bright promises of the future) is the synthesis of that judgment on reality which is realized in the movement of the entire play: it is impossible to reconcile oneself to the view that people must live without joy, that everything vital and poetic in man must remain fallow, that it must die impotent inside; life must change, must become "beautiful"; one must build such a life, work. "Such a life is necessary to man, and if it does not exist at this time, then he must anticipate it, wait, dream, prepare for it."


1 ' V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko, Predislovie "Ot redaktora" in N. Efros' 'Tri sestry' v postanovke Moskovskogo khudozhestvennogo teatro (Petrograd, 1919), p. 10.

2 Ju. Sobolev, Chekhov (Moscow, 1934), p. 241.

3 S. D. Balukhatyj, Chekhov-dramaturg (Leningrad, 1936), p. 113.

4 I bid.

5Ibid., p. 18. [My italics—A. S.]

6 "Vospominanija D. Gorodetskogo," Birzhevye vedomosti (1904), No. 364.

7 "Vospominanija Ars. G. (I. Ja. Gurljand)," Teatr i iskusstvo (1904), No. 28.

8 For further discussion on this point, see my essay "O edinstve formy i soderzhanija v 'Vishnevom sade' Chekhova" ["On the Unity of Form and Content in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard"] in my collection of essays, Stat 7 o russkoj literature (Saratov, 1958), pp. 356-390.

9 ' See my essay "P'esa Chekhova Ivanov v rannikh redaktsijakh" ["The Early Versions of Chekhov's Ivanov"] in Stat'i o russkoj literature, pp. 339-355.

10 In his representation of everyday life, Chekhov is sometimes thought to resemble Turgenev, especially as represented in A Month in the Country. It is true that one might see some analogy, notably in Act I in the insignificance of the conversation, in the remarks that cross and interrupt each other, in the general, peacefully bland mood as the characters play cards, wait for dinner, and so forth. But the substance of all these peculiar features in Turgenev bears no resemblance to Chekhov. In Turgenev the details are without relation to the essence of the characters' experience. The dramatic interest passes outside and around the details. Thus, the nature of the dramatic conflict in Turgenev is entirely different from that in Chekhov.

11 We find this same thought in "Verochka" (1887), written at the time he was working on Ivanov: "For the first time in his life he [the hero] knew by experience how little man depends on his own free will, found himself in the position of a decent and sincere man who, against his own will, brings cruel and undeserved suffering to his fellow man."

12 L. Sulerzhitskij, "Iz vospominanij o Chekhove," Shipovnik, No. 23, p. 164.

Hingley, Ronald (essay date 1950)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4854

SOURCE: "Chekhov's Last Years: His Approach to Drama," in Chekhov: A Biographical and Critical Study, George Allen & Unwin, 1966, pp. 219-44.

[In the following excerpt from a work that was first published in 1950, Hingley examines the essential characteristics of Chekhovian drama.]

A 'Revolutionary' Dramatist

Chekhov was admirably fitted to become the leading dramatist of the Moscow Art Theatre because he thoroughly agreed with Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavsky in wanting to get away from the conventions and atmosphere of the existing Russian stage. His four major plays—The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard—mark a break with tradition so startling that many critics call him a 'revolutionary' dramatist. In defining the revolution which he accomplished it is impossible to avoid paradoxical language—he is frequently said to have 'purged the theatre of theatricality', to have written 'undramatic drama' and 'tragedies, the essence of which consists in the absence of tragedy'.

Like the directors of the Art Theatre he objected to an over-concentration on a small number of characters, and seems to have been feeling his way towards this position as early as 1887 when he wrote Ivanov, in which he claimed that there was not a single hero or villain. Though Ivanov certainly lacked heroes and villains in the ordinary stage sense, it did contain, in the title role, a big part calculated to overshadow all the others, and suitable for performance by one of the old-style star actors. No such character appears in any of the four major plays. Naturally some of the parts are bulkier than others, but there is a much more even distribution of emphasis than had been customary in earlier drama.

Together with this tendency went a relative lack of action. The average pre-Chekhov play seemed to move from one emotional crest to another, treating the audience to an exciting succession of fights, quarrels, confessions of love, adulteries, suicides, murders and the like. There are many passages in Chekhov's letters showing that he deliberately rejected this conception of the drama:

'After all, in real life,' he observed, 'people don't spend every minute shooting at each other, hanging themselves and making confessions of love. They don't spend all the time saying clever things. They're more occupied with eating, drinking, flirting and talking stupidities—and these are the things which ought to be shown on the stage. A play should be written in which people arrive, go away, have dinner, talk about the weather and play cards. Life must be exactly as it is, and people as they are—not on stilts.… Let everything on the stage be just as complicated, and at the same time just as simple as it is in life. People eat their dinner, just eat their dinner, and all the time their happiness is being established or their lives are being broken up.'

This passage, similar to various statements by Chekhov on his approach to the short story, forms an excellent introduction to his method in the four major plays, although even in them he did not entirely dispense with such examples of stage action as shootings and confessions of love. His earlier dramatic work shows that an avoidance of such action had not always been part of his policy. This is particularly true of his earliest surviving play, which is sometimes referred to as Platonov, and which has considerably more than its share of startling effects. It includes, among many other examples of dramatic action, two unsuccessful attempts at murder, averted at the last minute, the murder of the hero, the attempt of one heroine to throw herself under a train, and a whole succession of hysterical love scenes. Ivanov, the next long play, also had a fair allotment of lurid incident such as is not usually encountered in ordinary life. Chekhov said of this play that he conducted it quietly and peacefully on the whole, but that at the end of each act he gave the audience a 'sock in the jaw'. It will be remembered that the most violent of these dramatic punches had been packed in the last act, which concludes with Ivanov's suicide on his wedding morning. It was a long way from this to the methods of the later plays. In The Wood Demon, which succeeded Ivanov, and was later transformed into Uncle Vanya, Chekhov was feeling his way towards his new approach. Unfortunately the harsh reception of The Wood Demon deterred him for a time from further experiment. The quieter manner adopted in this play led to its condemnation by critics on the ground that the treatment was more appropriate to a story or novel than to the stage. It is generally agreed to be un-successful, and even such a sympathetic member of the audience as Nemirovich-Danchenko pronounced it unfit for production.

Returning to the assault on the new drama, Chekhov produced in The Seagull the first representative specimen of his mature manner. In this play, as in its successors, he tends to avoid any concentration on exciting dramatic incidents. The characters are for the most part apparently absorbed in trivialities; they usually allow the audience to learn only in passing of important changes in their relationships and lives, such as might have been made the subject of vivid scenes by earlier dramatists. For example, the eventful career of Nina Zarechnaya (including her relations with Trigorin and his desertion of her) is hardly presented on the stage. The same applies to Treplev's two attempts at suicide, though on the second occasion the audience is allowed to hear the revolver shot. Revolver shots were for a long time Chekhov's last link with the more violent methods of the traditional theatre, and he said that he was very pleased when he managed to dispense with them for the first time in The Cherry Orchard.

The Cherry Orchard provides an especially interesting illustration of Chekhov's use of incident in his later plays. Though he talked about writing a play in which people do nothing more than 'arrive, go away, talk about the weather and play cards', he never managed to carry out this policy with complete ruthlessness. Something had to happen, even in a Chehkov play, and the main incident of The Cherry Orchard is one which seems to be very important to all the characters—the loss of the house and estate belonging to Gaev and his sister. There was a lot of fuss and worry about this, but it is typical that after the sale had taken place the whole affair should somehow seem very much less momentous. In fact Gaev himself gaily proclaims that 'now everything is all right. Before the sale of the cherry orchard we all suffered and got excited, but afterwards, when the question was finally and irrevocably decided, we all grew calm and even cheered up.'

Another way in which Chekhov wished to break with the old theatre was by avoiding stock theatrical types. He shows what some of these Were in another passage from his correspondence:

Retired captains with red noses, bibulous reporters, starving writers, consumptive hard-working wives, honourable young men without a single blemish, exalted maidens, kind-hearted nurses—all these have been described already and must be avoided like the pit.

Though he kept his plays free from these old favourites Chekhov feared that some of the characters might be misinterpreted along traditional stage lines, and it will be remembered that he did not even trust the Art Theatre to give the right interpretation in certain instances. Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard must on no account be turned into a conventional stage merchant, nor Uncle Vanya into a stage landowner; the officers in Three Sisters must not strut about like stage soldiers—on all these points Chekhov gave explicit instructions. The characters were ordinary, simple people who must be played plainly and sincerely so as to create exactly the effect they would make in ordinary life. It was natural that Chekhov should also seek to avoid stock situations. 'Remember,' he wrote, 'that confessions of love, the deception of wives and husbands, tears, whether widows', orphans', or anyone else's, have long ago been described.' He goes on to say that 'the subject must be new and you can do without a plot.'

Plot occupies just as small a place in the plays as it does in the stories. To Chekhov the exchange of small-talk was often a sufficient vehicle for the presentation of complex and subtle emotions. Again and again his characters speak of trivialities at a time when their thoughts are quite clearly engaged on something quite different. A conversation illustrating this takes place at the end of The Cherry Orchard between Lopakhin and Varya, both of whom know that this is a likely moment for Lopakhin to propose, and that if he misses the opportunity his marriage with Varya is never likely to take place. All that comes out in the dialogue, however, is a few banalities about the weather, the fact that the thermometer is broken, and that Varya has lost something while packing. Though the dialogue turns on such neutral themes the real situation makes a greater impact on the audience than might have been possible if Chekhov had handled it directly.

Chekhov's indirect method often enabled him to obtain extremely subtle effects, but he was always ready to be simple and straightforward when the occasion demanded it. This is often noticeable in the way he introduces information to the audience. He has not always been to any particular pains to dovetail his exposition into natural dialogue in the way usually considered necessary by playwrights. His characters often give information which must clearly be known already to the people with whom they are conversing, and which is really intended for the audience. Olga's first speeches in Three Sisters are a case in point, for they include many items which would not be news to her sister Irina with whom she is speaking.

Father died exactly a year ago, this very day, May 5th—your nameday, Irina.… He was a General in command of a brigade.… Father received his brigade and left Moscow with us eleven years ago.

A similar straightforwardness of approach is to be found in numerous passages where various personages give character-sketches of themselves, again for the benefit of the audience.

Whether he was being direct or indirect, Chekhov's words were equally packed with meaning. Stanislavsky had a very keen appreciation of this, for as actor and producer he naturally made an especially thorough study of Chekhov's text. His general conclusion was that behind each of Chekhov's words 'there stretched a whole range of many-sided moods and thoughts, of which he said nothing, but which arose of their own accord in one's mind'. Stanislavsky found that a play like Three Sisters was so saturated with meaning that, although he acted in it hundreds of times, every single performance revealed something new to him about it.

Atmosphere in Chekhov's Plays

The quality of Chekhov's plays, so charged with emotional significance in spite of their surface innocence, has stimulated Russian critics to look for a suitable name to describe his technique. His drama has been called 'lyrical'; it has been called 'internal', as opposed to the earlier, 'external' variety, and it has also been called the 'drama of the under-water current', since the operative dramatic stresses are so often submerged. The most common description is 'the drama of nastroenie ', a concept already discussed in relation to the stories, where it was shown that 'mood' or 'atmosphere' are the best English equivalents.

An examination of the plays shows that Chekhov's methods of presenting nastroenie are similar to those employed in the stories. The same use is made of memories of the past, hopes for the future, and the state of mind associated with unsuccessful love. Chekhov often chose to present situations particularly calculated to throw such sensations into relief. Leave-takings were very suitable for the purpose—for example, those involved in the departure of the regiment at the end of Three Sisters. It had been stationed for some years in the provincial town where the action takes place, so that, when it came to leave, intimate associations had to be broken off, with little prospect of them ever being renewed. The emotions attendant on such an occasion blended harmoniously into the Chekhov mood. Similar emotionally-charged partings are to be found in Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard. Madame Ranevskaya's arrival at the beginning of the latter play shows that the reverse process is equally capable of evoking atmosphere. She arrives back in her home early one morning after an absence of several years and cannot restrain her tears at the sight of the old nursery where she slept as a little girl. She ranges from laughter to tears as she revives her memories of such varied things as her brother's habit of interspersing his conversation with imaginary billiard strokes, and the wonderful sight of the orchard in bloom.

In the plays, as in the stories, Chekhov also makes use of the beauties of nature in building up atmosphere. For example, the audience is not long allowed to forget the lake which figures so prominently in The Seagull that it has even been suggested that Chekhov regarded it as one of the dramatis personae. The cherry orchard plays an even more important part in conditioning the mood of the play to which it gives its name. 'White, white all over,' Madame Ranevskaya addresses her orchard on her return. 'Oh, my orchard! After a dark, foul autumn and a cold winter you are young again and full of happiness; the angels of heaven have not forsaken you.' Again and again the characters refer to the orchard. In the minds of Ranevskaya and her brother it is bound up with countless childhood memories. The old servant Firs remembers how forty or fifty years ago they used to send cherries by the wagon-load to Moscow and Kharkov, after subjecting them to a special preserving process—now nobody can remember the recipe. To Trofimov the orchard typifies an obsolete social structure, but serves as a reminder of the beautiful life which he believes is possible on earth. He develops this theme to Anya, the young daughter of the house.

All Russia is our orchard. The earth is large and beautiful and there are many wonderful places in it. Think, Anya, your grandfather, your great-grandfather and all your ancestors were serf-owners, possessors of living souls. Do you not feel that human creatures are looking at you from every cherry in the orchard, from every leaf and trunk? Don't you hear their voices?

Whereas all these characters relate the orchard to the past in their various ways, the businessman Lopakhin is more concerned with its future. Nobody listens to him when he points out that the cherry trees must be cut down so that summer bungalows can be built. Finally the orchard has to be sold, and it makes its last contribution to the atmosphere of the play at the very end when the curtain goes down to the sound of axes as the work of felling begins.

As anyone who has seen the play will remember, this is a particularly brilliant use of sound in the theatre. The same play provides many other examples, including the dance music which serves as a background to the third act—an eloquent commentary on the household crisis with which it coincides. An examination of the stage directions in the plays provides innumerable more illustrations of Chekhov's feeling for sound. Stanislavsky says that Chekhov himself sometimes used to confer with the sound-effects man to make sure that the noises produced were in exact accord with what he had in mind. At the beginning of the third act of Three Sisters an alarm is sounded in warning of a fire, and, according to Stanislavsky, Chekhov went to a lot of trouble experimenting with various apparatus in the hope of reproducing the typical and unmistakable 'soul-searing' note of a church bell in a Russian provincial town. One remarkable sound effect has caused some embarrassment to producers, and illustrates the production of nastroenie on a more surrealist level. This is the 'distant, dying and mournful sound of a breaking string', which is heard twice in The Cherry Orchard. The play does not make it entirely clear how this noise is supposed to have originated, but Chekhov certainly regarded it as important in evoking the right sort of mood in his audience. Stanislavsky was a more than eager co-operator in producing sound effects, and often seems to have overdone it in Chekhov's opinion. His introduction of bird calls and croaking frogs were not always appropriate to the season in which the scene was supposed to be taking place, and his fondness for choruses of chirping crickets was a standing joke. There was plenty of scope for his ingenuity in correctly repro ducing the sounds which actually appeared in the stage directions. It should not be thought, however, that the plays were swamped with sound effects, for Chekhov retained his usual sense of balance in this matter. The point is not so much that he used such effects—they appear to a greater or lesser extent in any play—but that ' he used them with unusual subtlety. They were a particularly useful method of creating atmosphere, and one which is interesting because it was not available to Chekhov in the short stories.

Chekhov's Plays and the 'Chekhov Legend'

Chekhov's plays raise once again the complicated question of his pessimism and of the 'Chekhov legend' in which it is embodied. This legend could not have arisen without some basis in fact, and the most superficial examination of the four last plays does something to show how it originated. The first of them, The Seagull, begins with this exchange of remarks:

Medvedenko: Why do you always wear black?

Masha: I am in mourning for my life. I am unhappy.

Andrew's soliloquy in Three Sisters is in the same style:

Oh, where is my past, where has it disappeared to—the time when I was young, happy, intelligent, when my thoughts were fine, when my present and future were lit up with hopes? Why is it that, almost before we have begun to live, we become boring, grey, uninteresting, lazy, indifferent, useless, unhappy?

Only a small minority of Chekhov's personages are satisfied with their fate, and even these are usually people whose futility is patent to almost everybody else but themselves—the smug charlatan Serebryakov in Uncle Vanya, the absurd schoolmaster Kulygin in Three Sisters and the conceited man-servant Yasha in The Cherry Orchard. These figures are clearly antipathetic to Chekhov. Decidedly exceptional is Doctor Dorn in The Seagull, who can look back with satisfaction to a reasonably happy and contented life, and who yet enjoys the respect of his fellows and the apparent approval of Chekhov. Another exception is the hard-working Doctor Astrov in Uncle Vanya, with his interest in forestry schemes. However, even Astrov describes himself as a man lost in the dark without a light to guide him, and this is preeminently true of the rest of Chekhov's heroes, who mostly drift along without knowing where they are going. They are not usually men of action, and such action as they take is generally ineffectual. Even when they fire revolvers, a form of violence which, as has been seen, Chekhov occasionally permits them, they are more likely than not to miss.

The characters lose few opportunities for airing their frustrations. The younger people usually want something in the future, and nearly always it is something which they do not look like getting. His three sisters have attached their mental fantasies to life in Moscow, where, they imagine, all their worries and cares would disappear at once. They never go there, of course, and even if they had gone it seems unlikely that it would have made much difference. With the older characters frustration often takes the form of laments over a wasted life and lost opportunities. Sorin in The Seagull suggests himself as a subject for a story on the theme L'homme qui a voulu.

In my youth I wanted to become a writer—and didn't become one; I wanted to speak eloquently—and spoke revoltingly.… I wanted to get married—and I didn't; I wanted to live in the town, and here I am ending my days in the country.

When it is pointed out to Sorin that he has at any rate attained the distinction of becoming a senior civil servant, he replies that that was one of the things he hadn't wanted. Uncle Vanya regrets almost every feature of his past life, including the fact that he had not proposed to Elena before she became the wife of Serebryakov.

Ten years ago I met her at my sister's house. She was seventeen at the time and I was thirty-seven. Why didn't I fall in love with her then and make a proposal? Why, it would have been so easily possible! And now she would be my wife.… Yes … Now we should both have been woken up by the storms; she would have been afraid of the thunder, and I would have held her in my arms and whispered, 'Don't be afraid.'

Among the sources of frustration in Chekhov's plays love occupies pride of place. Broadly speaking no one is allowed to be in love with anyone who is in love with them, and on the rare occasions when this rule is bro ken some external circumstances can be relied upon to create an effective obstacle. In The Seagull the love-pattern presents a remarkably complicated picture, as follows:

Medvedenko loves Masha
Masha loves Treplev
Treplev loves Nina
Nina and Arkadina love Trigorin

This chain-formation was not repeated in any of the later plays, but in them love is frustrated with equal consistency.

It is obvious that anyone prepared to identify Chekhov with his own characters could find abundant evidence in the plays to support the 'Chekhov legend'. During his lifetime the idea sometimes did arise in Russia that Chekhov himself was a sort of Uncle Vanya, but this impression dissolved as his work and biography became better known. It was seen that Chekhov, far from identifying himself with his gloomier heroes, was often laughing at them, and it even began to be thought that he conceived his plays as scathing satires directed against the futility and morbid self-pity of intellectuals belonging to his generation. This view was almost equally mistaken. Perhaps Chekhov's attitude was puzzling because it was so simple. He was merely following his usual policy of putting on the stage ordinary people in an everyday environment. He might ridicule them or sympathize with them (very often he seems to have been doing both simultaneously) but his general attitude was not one of wholesale condemnation or approval.

It is inevitable that the 'ordinary' people in Chekhov's plays should produce an effect in some ways the reverse of ordinary in England, since the characters and life described are so peculiar by our standards. However, this very properly lends them an extra element of interest on the English stage, provided that they are acted (as they very often are) simply and sincerely, in the way Chekhov intended. Chekhov's world must seem equally unfamiliar to all except the oldest generation of presentday Russians. It is worth remembering, however, that the plays were regarded by his contemporaries as true and representative pictures of their society. The fact that three of them are set in country houses belonging to the land-owning upper class does much to explain the accent on frustration. Members of this class could look back to a period earlier in the century when they had played a much more important part in Russian life. At the time when Chekhov was writing they had long forfeited their position of cultural leadership, and were fast losing their wealth. Any mention of a Russian landowner in literature of the second half of the nineteenth century is almost certain to be followed by the information that his estates are mortgaged and that he is heavily in debt. The more sensitive members of the class realized that their way of life was dying out, but they were so conditioned by education and environment as to be unable to do anything about it, and submitted to the social trend which brought about their complete extinction thirteen years after Chekhov's death. It was natural, therefore, that the country houses in which Chekhov sets his plays should distil an atmosphere of regret and aimlessness.

If Chekhov managed to present this situation without undue melancholy, it was due principally to the sympathetic humour with which he regarded it. This emerges in many ways, including the extraordinary manner in which he handles his dialogue—frequently used to emphasize the isolation of the characters one from another. Disconnected remarks are placed in juxtaposition to show how the various personages, absorbed in their own interests, ignore, or do not hear, what other people have to say. As an example of many-sided disjointed dialogue, Nemirovich-Danchenko singled out the second act of Three Sisters. This contains in a very short space of time a succession of remarks, often entirely disconnected, on a bewildering variety of themes, including the fact that Tusenbach has a triple-barrelled name, that Irina was rude to a woman in the post-office, that her new hair-style makes her look a boy, that Andrew has lost two hundred roubles at cards, that the doctor hasn't paid his rent for eight months, that life will be wonderful in two or three hundred years, and that Balzac was married at Berdichev. Among exchanges which emphasize the estrangement of the characters one from another, is included:

Natasha: Babies understand very well. I said, 'Hallo, Bobik. Hallo, darling,' and he gave me a special sort of look. You think it's just a mother's partiality, but it isn't, I assure you. He's a remarkable child.

Solyony: If that child was mine I'd cook him in a frying-pan and eat him.

Mutual misunderstanding does not always operate on such a crude level, and a rather gentler example of this form of humour is to be found in a passage from The Cherry Orchard:

Dunyasha: The clerk Epikhodov made me a proposal after Easter.

Anya: You're always on about the same thing … I've lost all my hair-pins.

Dunyasha: I just don't know what to think. He loves me. He loves me so much.

Anya: (tenderly, looking at the door of her room) My room, my windows! Just as if I'd never gone away. I'm home! Tomorrow morning I'll get up and run into the orchard.

The element of humour became more noticeable with each play that Chekhov wrote, and it is most prominent in The Cherry Orchard. It will be remembered that Chekhov in his letters widely advertised the fact that he regarded this play as a farce, and it is quite true that many of the characters might have stepped straight out of one of his own vaudevilles—for example, SimeonovPishchik, whose name alone is ridiculous enough. This gentleman, with his inveterate borrowing, and claim to be descended from the horse which Caligula made a member of his Senate, is very much a figure of fun. When a servant offers his hostess a bottle of pills, he intervenes:

You shouldn't take medicine, dear lady.… It does you neither good nor harm.… Give them to me, most respected lady. (Takes the pills, pours them on his palm, blows on them, puts them in his mouth and drinks them down with kvas.)

This is not the only excursion into farce in the play. People fall downstairs, break billiardcues and lose their goloshes. At least half of the characters are presented in comic terms. These include, apart from Simeonov-Pishchik, the absurd governess Charlotta Ivanovna, most of the servants, and Gaev with his general ineptitude, mock billiards strokes and eloquent speeches which are liable to be addressed to the furniture. Similar comic touches appear in the other plays, though they figure most prominently In The Cherry Orchard.

Chekhov himself was seriously convinced that The Cherry Orchard and—what is more surprising—The Three Sisters were 'gay comedies, almost vaudevilles'. Stanislavsky has recorded his insistence on this point in the face of much opposition. 'Right up to his death Chekhov could not reconcile himself with the idea that The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard were sorrowful tragedies of Russian life.' Neither Chekhov himself nor the 'sorrowful tragedy' school of thought seem to have expressed the true position on the subject. The plays are not comedies or tragedies in the accepted sense of either word, nor are they exclusively gay or sorrowful. They contain rather an extremely subtle blend of both elements. That the evocative atmosphere peculiar to Chekhov should combine harmoniously with broad farce is perhaps a surprising fact, but The Cherry Orchard is there to prove the possibility of such a combination.

David Magarshack (essay date 1960)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13644

SOURCE: "Introductory," in Chekhov the Dramatist, Hill and Wang, 1960, pp. 13-49.

[In this essay, Magarshack explores Chekhov's views on art and the Russian theater of his day, as expressed in his letters and occasional writings.]

Chapter I

The plays of Chekhov, like those of any other great dramatist, follow a certain pattern of development which can be traced through all its various stages. His last four plays, moreover, conform to certain general principles which are characteristic of the type of indirect-action drama to which they belong. Chekhov himself was fully aware of that. Already on November 3rd, 1888, in a letter to Alexey Suvorin, he clearly stated that all works of art must conform to certain laws. "It is possible to collect in a heap the best that has been created by the artists in all ages," he wrote, "and, making use of the scientific method, discover the general principles which are characteristic of them all and which lie at the very basis of their value as works of art. These general principles will constitute their law. Works of art which are immortal possess a great deal in common; if one were to extract that which is common to them all from any of them, it would lose its value and its charm. This means "that what is common to them all is necessary and is a conditio sine qua non of every work which lays claim to immortality."

Chekhov did not claim immortality for his plays. He was too modest for that. What he did claim for them, however, was something that any immortal work of art is generally supposed to possess, namely, the power so to influence people as to induce them to create a new and better life for themselves. "You tell me," Chekhov said to the writer Alexander Tikhonov in 1902, "that people cry at my plays. I've heard others say the same. But that was not why I wrote them. It is Alexeyev (Stanislavsky) who made my characters into cry-babies. All I wanted was to say honestly to people: 'Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are!' The important thing is that people should realise that, for when they do, they will most certainly create another and better life for themselves. I will not live to see it, but I know that it will be quite different, quite unlike our present life. And so long as this different life does not exist, I shall go on saying to people again and again: 'Please, understand that your life is bad and dreary!'

"What is there in this to cry about?"

The misinterpretation of Chekhov's plays by the Moscow Art Theatre led to constant conflicts between their author and its two directors. These conflicts became particularly violent during the production of The Cherry Orchard. "The production of The Cherry Orchard" Olga Knipper, Chekhov's wife and one of the leading actresses of the Moscow Art Theatre, wrote, "was difficult, almost agonising, I might say. The producers and the author could not understand each other and could not come to an agreement." Chekhov himself wrote to Olga Knipper: "Nemirovich-Danchenko and Alexeyev positively see in my play something I have not written, and I am ready to bet anything you like that neither of them has ever read my play through carefully." And to a well-known Russian producer Chekhov said: "Take my Cherry Orchard. Is it my Cherry Orchard? With the exception of two or three parts nothing in it is mine. I am describing life, ordinary life, and not blank despondency. They either make me into a cry-baby or into a bore. They invent something about me out of their own heads, anything they like, something I never thought of or dreamed about. This is beginning to make me angry." And what is true of Chekhov's Russian producers is even truer of his English and American producers, though in their case the idea that the characters in Chekhov's plays represent curiously unaccountable "Russians" adequately conceals their own confusion and helplessness.

This general bewilderment would have been fatal to the popularity of Chekhov's plays were it not that, being a playwright of genius, Chekhov paints his characters with so exquisite a brush that no caricature can strip them of their essential humanity. If neither the spectators nor those responsible for the production and performance of the plays can see the wood for the trees in them, the trees themselves are so brilliantly delineated that they are quite sufficient to ensure the comparative success of any of Chekhov's famous plays. It must not be forgotten, however, that their success is only "comparative", for so far Chekhov has failed to become a really "popular" playwright either in England or America, and it is doubtful whether one in a thousand of the regular playgoers in these countries has ever seen a play of his or, indeed, knows anything about it.

Nor has Chekhov been particularly fortunate in his critics. Disregarding the host of critics in and outside Russia whose aesthetic appreciation of Chekhov derives entirely from their own sensibilities and who seem to delight in losing themselves in a welter of half-tones and feelings too exquisite for anyone but themselves to detect, two critical appreciations of Chekhov as a playwright sum up an attitude that is still prevalent among the more thoughtful admirers of Chekhov's genius. One of them comes from Tolstoy. Peter Gnyeditch, a Russian novelist and playwright who was for some years in charge of the repertoire of the Imperial Alexandrinsky Theatre in Petersburg, recounts the following observation made by Tolstoy to Chekhov in his presence: "You know I can't stand Shakespeare, but your plays are even worse. Shakespeare after all does seize his reader by the collar and lead him to a certain goal without letting him get lost on the way. But where is one to get to with your heroes? From the sofa to the … and back?" And to Gnyeditch himself Tolstoy remarked that Chekhov had not "the real nerve" of a dramatist. "I am very fond of Chekhov and I value his writings highly," Gnyeditch reports Tolstoy as saying, "but I could not force myself to read his Three Sisters to the end—where does it all lead us to? Generally speaking, our modern writers seem to have lost the idea of what drama is. Instead of giving us a man's whole life, drama must put him in such a situation, must tie him in such a knot as to enable us to see what he is like while he is trying to untie it. Now, as you know, I have been so bold as to deny the importance of Shakespeare as a playwright. But in Shakespeare every man does something, and it is always clear why he acts thus and not otherwise. On his stage he had signposts with inscriptions: moonlight, a house. And a good thing too! For the entire attention of the spectator remains concentrated on the essential point of the drama; but now everything is the other way round."

And in an interview published in the Russian journal Slovo on July 28th, 1904, about a fortnight after Chekhov's death, Tolstoy summarised his objections to Chekhov's plays in these words: "To evoke a mood you want a lyrical poem. Dramatic forms serve, and ought to serve, quite different aims. In a dramatic work the author ought to deal with some problem that has yet to be solved and every character in the play ought to solve it according to the idiosyncrasies of his own character. It is like a laboratory experiment. But you won't find anything of the kind in Chekhov. He never holds the attention of the spectators sufficiently long for them to put themselves entirely in his power. For instance, he keeps the spectator's attention fixed on the fate of the unhappy Uncle Vanya and his friend Dr. Astrov, but he is sorry for them only because they are unhappy, without attempting to prove whether or not they deserve pity. He makes them say that once upon a time they were the best people in the district, but he does not show us in what way they were good. I can't help feeling that they have always been worthless creatures and that their suffering cannot therefore be worthy of our attention."

The Seagull, it is interesting to note, Tolstoy roundly dismissed as "nonsense." Alexey Suvorin, the well-known Russian newspaper publisher and a life-long friend of Chekhov's, records in his diary on February 11th, 1897, that Tolstoy told him that the play was "utterly worthless" and that it was written "just as Ibsen writes his plays."

"The play is chock full of all sorts of things," Tolstoy declared, "but no one really knows what they are for. And Europe shouts, 'Wonderful!' Chekhov," Tolstoy went on, "is one of our most gifted writers, but The Seagull is a very bad play."

"Chekhov," Suvorin remarked, "would die if he were told what you thought about his play. Please, don't say anything to him about it."

"I shall tell him what I think of it," Tolstoy said, "but I shall put it gently. I'm surprised that you think he would take it so much to heart. After all, every writer slips up sometimes."

Tolstoy, according to Suvorin, thought that Chekhov should never have introduced a writer in The Seagull. "There aren't many of us," he said, "and no one is really interested in us." Trigorin's monologue in Act II he considered the best thing in the play and he thought that it was most certainly autobiographical, but in his opinion Chekhov should have published it separately or in a let ter. "In a play it is out of place," he declared. In his short story 'My Life,' Tolstoy concluded with what, if he only knew, would have appeared to Chekhov the most devastating criticism of his play, "Chekhov makes his hero read Ostrovsky and say, 'All this can happen in life,' but had he read The Seagull, he would never have said that."

Apart from his purely moral objections to Chekhov's characters Tolstoy's main criticisms of Chekhov's plays concern their structure and their apparent lack of purpose. Accustomed to the drama of direct action, Tolstoy expected the unravelling of the knot which the playwright ties round his hero to supply the key to his character, to reveal the man as a whole. He also expected a play to solve the problems society has so far failed to solve and in this way supply the answer to the question: where does it all lead to?

Curiously enough, English criticism, too, seems to regard the same apparent lack of purpose as characteristic of Chekhov's drama, though, unlike Tolstoy, most of the critics consider that as something praiseworthy. Discussing The Seagull, Mr. (as he then was) Desmond MacCarthy1 asks: "What is it all about?" and his answer is: "It is a question more than usually difficult to answer in the case of The Seagull. I am obliged to turn it aside," he goes on, "and say that it is a beautiful study in human nature, penetrating, detached, and compassionate.… It has no theme." Still, the critic admits that he often said to himself that "a work of art to have any value must somewhere carry within it the suggestion of a desirable life," which he does not apparently find in Chekhov's plays, and he therefore suggests that it is to be found "in the mind of Chekhov himself, in the infection we catch from the spirit of the whole play; in the delicate, humorous, compassionate mind which observed, understood and forgave." The same critic, in another notice of The Seagull eleven years later,2 answers the same question: "What is The Seagull about?" as follows: "It is a study of a group of people, penetrating, detached and compassionate." As for the purpose of the play, "the point that The Seagull drives home," he writes, "is that the person who possesses what another thinks would make all the difference to him or her is just as dissatisfied as the one who lacks it. By means of these contrasts Chekhov shows that what each pines for makes no difference in the end."

As for Uncle Vanya,3 Mr. MacCarthy finds that Chekhov's "favourite theme is disillusionment and as far as the kind of beauty he creates, beneath it might be written 'desolation is a delicate thing'." Generally, Chekhov's play, according to the same distinguished critic, reveals "an atmosphere of sighs and yawns and self-reproaches, vodka, endless tea, and endless discussion." And thirteen years declared later, the same critic, writing of Uncle Vanya again,4 declared that "though Chekhov was far from ineffectual himself, the ineffectiveness of his generation was his inspiration. And his final conclusion about the play is: "Besides inventing the play without plot and theatrical effects, Chekhov was also the poet and apologist of ineffectualness."5

Discussing The Cherry Orchard,6 Mr. MacCarthy states as a matter of fact ("we all know") that "the essence of Chekhov's drama" is "the rainbow effect, laughter shining through tears." And in a notice The Three Sisters7 he finds Chekhov's heroines to be of "forlorn, ineffectual young women" and comes to the conclusion that "Chekhov's supreme gift was to bring the observation of character to a most delicate sense of justice," and that his method was "to develop character and situation by means of a dialogue which follows the broken rhythms of life, and by making every remark, every gesture of his characters reflect the influence of group relations of the moment."

While disagreeing entirely with Tolstoy about the value of Chekhov's plays as works of art, Mr. Desmond MacCarthy, who in this respect represents English criticism as a whole, agrees with him about the absence of a well-defined aim in them as well as about the general ineffectualness of their characters. The only trouble about this now widely held view is that Chekhov himself dissented violently from it. Before, then, deciding whether Chekhov or his critics and producers are right, it is necessary to find out what Chekhov thought the final aim and form of a dramatic work ought to be, and what his attitude to contemporary drama was. For Chekhov had very definite ideas about both, and these most certainly influenced his work for the stage.

Chapter II

Chekhov was not, as is generally supposed, a great short-story writer who took up drama seriously only during the last seven or eight years of his all too short life. He was a born dramatist whose first works of importance were three full-length plays, two written in his late teens and the third in his early twenties. He took up short-story writing for two reasons: first, because he had to support a large family which was entirely dependent on him, and the writing of short stories was the quickest way of doing it; secondly, because the state of the Russian stage in the eighties and the nineties of the last century was such that no serious playwright could hope to have his plays performed, let alone earn a decent living in the theatre. Even Alexander Ostrovsky, whose reputation as a playwright had long been established, was not able to do so. It was indeed this hopeless position of the serious playwright in Russia towards the end of the nineteenth century that made Chekhov look on fiction as his "legal wife" and the stage as "a noisy, impudent and tiresome mistress." But the remarkable fact about a Chekhov short story is that it possesses the three indispensable elements of drama: compactness of structure (Chekhov's term for it was "architecture"), movement, that is dramatic development of plot, and action. "The reader," Chekhov wrote to the writer Ivan Leontyev on January 28th, 1888, "must never be allowed to rest; he must be kept in a state of suspense." The dialogue in Chekhov's short stories is essentially dramatic dialogue and that is what chiefly distinguishes them from the short stories of other fiction writers. Many of these short stories, particularly the early ones, have been adapted for the Russian stage, but the "adaptation" consisted mainly in lifting Chekhov's dialogue and using the descriptive passages as stage directions. Chekhov himself "adapted" five of his short stories for the stage on the same principle, that is, he merely lifted the dialogue, adding his own stage directions, and, if his story was too short, expanding it to the necessary length of a one-act play. Commenting on a play by the Norwegian playwright Bjoernstjerne Bjoernson in a letter to Suvorin on June 20th, 1896 (that is, after he had written The Seagull), Chekhov remarked that it was of no use so far as the stage was concerned because "it has no action, no living characters and no dramatic interest." This is surely the best comment ever made on the distortion the plays of Chekhov have suffered on the stage, and especially on the English and American stage, by being denied just the quality Chekhov himself valued most both as playwright and as short-story writer, namely, action.

Chekhov, then, was a born playwright and his knowledge of the stage, too, was first-hand. As a boy in his native town of Taganrog he had often appeared on the amateur and professional stage and earned general recognition as a talented actor. Replying on March 4th, 1893, to an invitation to take part in a literary evening, Chekhov pointed out that he was a bad reader and, what was even worse, suffered from stage-fright. "This is silly and ridiculous, but I can't do anything about it," he wrote. "I have never read in public in my life and never shall. A long time ago I used to act on the stage, but there I concealed myself behind my costume and make-up and that gave me courage." And writing to Suvorin on April 18th, 1895, about an amateur performance, of Tolstoy's The Fruits of Enlightenment, planned by a number of Moscow writers in aid of some charity, in which he had agreed to take the part of the peasant, Chekhov declared: "I used to act quite well in the past, though now I fear my voice will let me down."

His purely professional attitude towards drama (as opposed to the now so common "literary" one) can further be gauged from the fact that he did not consider a play of his completed before it had been thoroughly revised by him at rehearsals. Thus he wrote on November 27th, 1889, to the poet Pleshheyev who had asked his permission to publish The Wood Demon, "I never consider a play ready for publication until it has been revised during rehearsals. Wait, please. It is not too late yet. When the play has been revised at the rehearsals, I shall take advantage of your kind offer without waiting for an invitation."

Chekhov's only reason for writing a play was the likeli-hood of its being performed on the stage. Moreover, when writing a play he usually bore in mind the actors who were most likely to appear in its leading parts and, as in the case of Ivanov, he never hesitated to alter a play radically if a different actor or actress took a part he had originally intended for someone else.

"I sent you two versions of my Ivanov," he wrote to Suvorin on January 7th, 1889. "If Ivanov had been played by a resourceful and dynamic actor, I should have altered and added a lot. I felt in the mood for it. But, alas, Ivanov is played by Davydov. That meant that I had to write shorter and duller dialogue, keeping in mind that all the subtleties and 'nuances' will be overlooked, become ordinary and tedious. Can Davydov be gentle one moment and firrious another? When he plays serious parts there seems to be a kind of handmill turning round and round in his throat, dull and monotonous, which is speaking instead of him. I am sorry for poor Savina who has to play the part of my uninspiring Sasha. I would gladly have altered it for Savina, but if Ivanov mouths his part, I can't do anything for Sasha, however much I alter her part. I am simply ashamed that Savina will have to play goodness knows what in my play. Had I known earlier that she would play Sasha and Davydov Ivanov, I should have called my play Sasha and made everything revolve round this part and just attached Ivanov to it. But who could have foreseen that?"

Such an attitude may appear curious to a modern playwright, but that is only because the modern playwright has become detached from the stage. To Shakespeare or (in Russia) to Alexander Ostrovsky, to playwrights, that is, whom Chekhov called "specialists of the stage," such an attitude would not have appeared at all strange, and indeed both of them wrote their plays for and around well-known members of their companies.

What was Chekhov's attitude to the theatre? What did he think of the actors of the Imperial and private stage in Moscow and Petersburg? What were his views on the problems of acting and did he think a play ought to have a well-defined aim of its own, an aim that should be intelligible to the spectator? What, finally, were his ideas on the form and structure of a play and what did he consider to be the playwright's place in the theatre?

These questions occupied Chekhov's mind continually and were of decisive importance to his whole career as a dramatist.

Chekhov left a scathing description of the state of the theatre in Moscow in an article he contributed to the Petersburg weekly Fragments in 1885. What Chekhov found so appalling about the Moscow Imperial stage was the reign of mediocrity on it. "At the Bolshoy Theatre," he wrote in his article, "we have opera and ballet. Nothing new. The actors are all the old ones and their manner of singing is the old one: not according to the notes, but according to official circulars. In the ballet the ballerinas have been recently joined by Noah's aunt and Methuselah's sister-in-law." The state of affairs at the Moscow Imperial dramatic theatre, the Maly Theatre, was no better. "Again nothing new," Chekhov declared. "The same mediocre acting and the same traditional ensemble, inherited from our ancestors." As for the Moscow private theatre owned by Korsh where Ivanov was soon to be given its first try-out, it bore, Chekhov wrote, "a striking resemblance to a mixed salad: there is everything there except the most important thing of all—meat." There were two more private theatres in Moscow at the time, one near the Pushkin memorial, known as the Pushkin Theatre, where plays were performed for only half the season, and the theatre owned by the famous impresario Lentovsky. "Whether Lentovsky's theatre," Chekhov wrote, "will be given up to operettas, pantomimes or tragedies, or whether the celebrated clown Durov will be showing his learned pig there, is so far unknown to Lentovsky himself, who is at present preoccupied with designing vignettes for some grand, stupendous, nebulous enterprise." There were, besides, "fifty thousand amateur theatres," but Chekhov had no use for them, and even the foundation three years later of the Society of Art and Literature by Stanislavsky and the actor and playwright Fedotov was looked upon by Chekhov with unconcealed derision, the pretentiousness of the name of the society being sufficient to make Chekhov sceptical about its founders.

In a letter to Suvorin on February 14th, 1889, Chekhov roundly dismissed the Russian theatre as it existed at that time as "nothing but a sport. I don't believe in the theatre as a school without which it is impossible to exist," he declared. In "A Boring Story" which he wrote between March and September, 1889, Chekhov discussed the vexed problem of the theatre as a place of entertainment at greater length and came to the conclusion that such a theatre was a mere waste of time. "A sentimental and credulous crowd," he writes, "can be persuaded that the theatre in its present state is a 'school'. But anyone who knows what a school is really like will not be deceived by such a facile statement. I don't know what the theatre will be like in fifty or a hundred years, but under present conditions it can serve only as entertainment, and as entertainment it is too expensive to be worth while. It deprives the State of thousands of gifted young men and women who, if they did not dedicate themselves to the theatre, could have become good doctors, farmers, teachers, army officers; it deprives the public of its evening hours—the best time for intellectual work and fireside chats. Not to mention the sheer waste of money and the moral injury suffered by the public from seeing a wrongly presented case of murder, adultery or libel on the stage."

This criticism of the theatre as entertainment Chekhov puts into the mouth of the hero of his story, an old professor of medicine, and Chekhov was always very careful to make his heroes speak and think "in character". But there can be no doubt that, though Chekhov himself would not have expressed these ideas in so extreme a form, they were substantially his own ideas on the theatre of his day. It was certainly Chekhov the playwright who was speaking through the mouth of his hero when he condemned the music played in the intervals between the acts of a play as "quite unnecessary" and "as adding something utterly new and irrelevant to the impression created by the play." It was only with the foundation of the Moscow Art Theatre that this "unnecessary and irrelevant" custom was abolished.

Chapter III

Three notices which Chekhov contributed to Moscow journals in 1881, that is to say, at the very beginning of his literary career, reveal him as a thoughtful student of the stage and a merciless critic of bad acting. Two of these deal with Sarah Bernhardt who was on tour in Russia and appeared on the Moscow stage in December of 1881. Chekhov was not an admirer of the divine Sarah. While dramatically effective, he found her too artificial. "Every sigh of Sarah Bernhardt's," he wrote, "her tears, her convulsions in the death scenes, her entire acting is nothing but a cleverly learnt lesson. Being a highly intelligent woman who knows what is and what is not dramatically effective, and who, besides, possesses most excellent taste and a knowledge of the human heart, she knows how to perform all those conjuring tricks which at one time or another take place in the human heart at the behest of fate." Chekhov's strongest objection to Sarah Bernhardt's acting was based on the fact that the great French actress always acted herself. "She transforms everyone of her heroines," Chekhov wrote, "into the same kind of unusual woman she is herself." Furthermore, Chekhov found that Sarah Bernhardt was not anxious to be natural on the stage (an interesting and highly significant criticism this). "All she cares about," he declared, "is being unusual. Her aim is to startle, astonish and stun. There is not a glimmer of talent in all her acting, but just an enormous amount of hard work." It was Sarah Bernhardt's hard work that, Chekhov thought, provided the clue to her great success on the stage. "There is not one trivial detail in her big or small parts," he wrote, "that has not passed through the purgatory of hard work." And after expressing his "most respectful admiration" for Sarah Bernhardt's "industry", Chekhov advised the Russian actors to take a lesson from her. "That the majority of our actors do very little," he wrote, "can be gathered from the fact that they all seem to stand still: not a step forward—anywhere! If only they worked as hard as Sarah Bernhardt, if only they knew as much as Sarah Bernhardt, they would go far. But, unfortunately, where the knowledge of the art of the stage is concerned, our big and small servants of the Muses lag far behind and, if an old truth is to be believed, knowledge can only be achieved by hard work.

"We watched Sarah Bernhardt," Chekhov sums up his impressions of the French actress, "and we were thrown into raptures by her great industry. There were moments in her acting which almost moved us to tears. If our tears did not flow it was only because the whole charm of her acting was spoilt by its artificiality. But for that confounded artificiality, those deliberate conjuring tricks and over-emphasis, we should most certainly have burst into tears, and indeed the whole theatre would have shaken with thunderous applause. Oh, genius! Cuvier said that genius was always at loggerheads with mere agility, and Sarah Bernhardt is certainly very agile."

There was one important quality of acting, however, that Chekhov did appreciate in Sarah Bernhardt: it was her ability to listen. That ability, though, was shared by the rest of her French company. They were all excellent listeners, and that was why, Chekhov thought, they never felt out of place on the stage. It was different with the Russian actors. "This is how we do it:" Chekhov wrote, "when Mr. Mashkeyev is saying his lines on the stage, Mr. Wilde, who is listening to him, has his eyes fixed on some far-away point and keeps coughing impatiently, and as you watch him, you cannot help feeling that what he is thinking of at the moment is: 'That has nothing to do with me, old man'!"

What Chekhov admired, therefore, and what he demanded from his actors, was natural acting, the sort of acting for which the great Russian actor Shchepkin became famous and which Stanislavsky later on made into the cornerstone of his own system of acting. He realised, as Stanislavsky did many years later, that such acting required a great deal of hard work as well as observation of life. "Our actors," Chekhov complained in a letter to Suvorin on November 25th, 1889, "never observe ordinary people. They know nothing of landowners, business men, priests, or Civil Servants. On the other hand, they are quite capable of representing billiard markers, rich men's mistresses, drunken card-sharpers, and generally those individuals whom they happen to observe incidentally during their pub-crawls and drinking-bouts. The real trouble is that they are so frightfully ignorant."

Chekhov's dissatisfaction with the state of the Russian stage of his time is expressed even more forcibly in a notice on a performance of Hamlet at the Pushkin Theatre which he wrote on January 11th, 1882. It is the only dramatic criticism of a Shakespearean performance Chekhov ever wrote, and for that reason alone it deserves to be quoted at length. Chekhov begins his notice with a parable of a sage who could not be dragged away from his books but whom one of his disciples discovered one night in "a far from respectable place" with a pretty French girl on his knees, sipping champagne.

"What are you doing, Herr Professor?" his disciple exclaimed in dismay, turning pale with surprise.

"A foolish thing, my son," the sage replied, pouring out a glass of wine for his disciple. "I am doing a very foolish thing."

"But why?" the disciple asked.

"To let in a little fresh air, my son," the sage replied, lifting his glass. "To wine and women!"

The disciple drank, turning even paler with surprise.

"My son," went on the sage, stroking the hair of the pretty French girl, "clouds have gathered in my head, the atmosphere has grown heavy, and lots and lots of things have accumulated. All that has to be aired and purified and put in its proper place. It is to do that that I am committing this piece of folly. Folly is a regrettable thing, but very often it does freshen things up. Yesterday I felt like rotting grass, but tomorrow morning, O bone discipule, I shall be as fresh as a daisy. Three cheers for an act of folly committed once a year! Viva stultitia!"

"If folly," Chekhov continues, "sometimes acts in so refreshing a manner, how much more must it be true of its opposite extreme." And he goes on to explain that nothing needed refreshing so much as the Russian stage. "Its atmosphere," he writes, "is leaden and oppressive. It is covered inches-thick in dust and enveloped in fog and tedium. You go to the theatre simply because you have nowhere else to go. You look at the stage, yawn, and swear under your breath."

But, Chekhov contends, it is impossible to put new life into the stage by an act of folly because the footboards are all too used to acts of folly, as it is. It must be brought to life by the opposite extreme, and, he adds, "this extreme is Shakespeare. I have often heard people ask whether or not it is worth while performing Hamlet at the Pushkin Theatre," Chekhov writes. "It is an idle question. Shakespeare must be played everywhere for the sake of letting in fresh air, if not for the sake of instruction or some other more or less lofty purpose."

Hamlet, Chekhov was glad to report, was accorded a delighted welcome by the audience of the Pushkin Theatre which seemed to enjoy itself hugely. Chekhov goes on to criticise the performance, and again in these criticisms a clue can be discovered to his own ideas of acting.

"Mr. Ivanov-Kozelsky,"8 he writes, "is not strong enough to play Hamlet. He understands Hamlet in his own way. Now, for an actor to understand a character in his own way is not a fault, provided the actor does not let his author down. Mr. Ivanov-Kozelsky whined through the whole of the first act. Hamlet never whined. No man's tears are cheap, and certainly not Hamlet's. On the stage," Chekhov declares, as though in anticipation of the fate that would befall his own characters, "tears must not be shed without reason. Mr. Ivanov-Kozelsky," he goes on, "was frightened of the ghost, so greatly frightened indeed was he that I felt sorry for him. He made a hash of Hamlet's speech to his father. Hamlet was an irresolute man, but he was no coward, all the more so since he had already been prepared for the meeting with the ghost. The scene in which Hamlet invites his friends to swear on the hilt of his sword was not successful: Ivanov-Kozelsky did not speak but hissed like a gander chased by boys. His conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern lacked dignity. He gave himself airs in their presence. It is not enough," Chekhov goes on, again as though in anticipation of the way in which his own characters would be mangled and distorted on the stage, "it is not enough to feel and to be able to convey one's feelings correctly on the stage; it is not enough to be an artist; an actor must also possess a great fund of knowledge. An actor who undertakes to play Hamlet must be an educated man. The scene between Hamlet and his mother was excellently played. So was the scene in the churchyard. There was a great deal of charm in Ivanov-Kozelsky's acting, but all this charm was due to his ability to feel, and to that alone. He underlined every word, watched his every movement, counted his steps. This is the fault of every beginner. Hamlet's death in horrible convulsions and a fearful voice should have been replaced by a natural one."

As for the other actors, Chekhov found that "Claudius was not bad," and, he added significantly, "he knew how to kneel." On the other hand, "the queen, the ghost, Horatio and the rest were bad. Still, the First Player was good enough and though I am told that Ophelia had a better voice than Miss Baranova, she did not play so badly."

After criticising the small stage, the bad scenery and costumes, and the unnecessary cuts, Chekhov concludes his notice by praising "the genius of the man who first suggested a performance of Hamlet on the stage of the Pushkin Theatre. Far better," he declares, "a badly acted Shakespeare than some dreary trash."

This being Chekhov's opinion of the Russian stage and the Russian actors, what did he think of the Russian audiences? There were moments when the Russian audiences made him lose heart. "Why and for whom do I write?" he exclaims in a letter to Suvorin on December 23rd, 1888. "For the public? But I do not see it and I believe in it less than in house demons: it is uneducated, badly brought up, and its better elements are unfair and ill-disposed to us. I can't make up my mind whether this public does or does not need me." But he drew the line at blaming the Russian audiences for the bad state of the theatres. "The public," he wrote to Suvorin in November of the same year, "is everywhere the same: intelligent and foolish, generous and ruthless, all depending on its mood. It always was a herd in need of good shepherds and dogs and it always went where the shepherds and dogs made it. You profess to be outraged that it should laugh at silly jokes and applaud high-sounding phrases; but it is the same audience that packs the theatre to see Othello and that weeps when listening to Tatyana reading her love letter in Eugene Onegin. However foolish it may be, it is in general more intelligent, more sincere and more good natured than Korsh or any actors and playwrights, while Korsh and the actors imagine that they are the more intelligent ones. A mutual misunderstanding."

Chapter IV

A scathing description of the type of playwright who was all too common in his day, was given by Chekhov in 1886 in a small sketch under the title of "Dramatist." The playwright, "a dim personality with lustreless eyes and a catarrhal physiognomy," is shown paying a visit to his doctor. His complaints include breathlessness, belching, heartburn, depression and a bad taste in the mouth.

"What do you do for a living?" asked the doctor.

"I am a playwright," the individual replied not without pride.

The doctor, filled with respect for his patient, smiled deferentially. Since such an occupation implied great nervous strain, he asked his patient to describe his mode of life. The playwright told him that he usually got up at twelve, and at once smoked a cigarette and drank two or three glasses of vodka. After breakfast he again had some beer or wine, the choice depending "on his finances". Then he usually went to a pub and after the pub he had a game of billiards. At six o'clock he went to a restaurant to have his dinner, but his appetite was so bad that to stimulate it he was forced to have six or seven glasses of vodka. Then at the theatre he felt so nervous that he again had to consume large quantities of drink. From the theatre he went to some night-club where he usually stayed till the morning.

"And when do you write your plays?" asked the doctor.

"My plays?" the playwright shrugged. "Well, that depends …"

Asked by the doctor to describe "the process of his work," the playwright gave this illuminating, though not by any means exaggerated, account of the way "popular plays" were usually written in those days: "First of all, I get hold of some French or German piece either by accident or through some friends (I haven't got the time to keep an eye on all the new foreign plays that are published myself). If the play is any good I take it to my sister or hire a student for five roubles. They translate it for me and I, you see, adapt it for the Russian stage: I substitute Russian names for the names of the characters and so on. That's all. But don't run away with the idea that this is easy. It isn't at all easy!" the "dim individual" declared, rolling up his eyes and heaving a sigh.

The Russian stage in the eighties and nineties of the last century was indeed flooded with such "adaptations" of, mostly, French plays, and one of Chekhov's own brilliant one-act comedies actually owed its origin to one such adaptation of a French play.

Two years later Chekhov gave the following description of an original Russian play by E. P. Karpov, who was later to become the producer of the Petersburg Alexandrinsky Theatre and who was chiefly responsible for the failure of The Seagull:

"The other day I saw Crocodile Tears, a rubbishy fiveact play by a certain Karpov, author of On the Meadow, The Agricultural Board, The Free Bird, etc." he wrote to Suvorin on November 11th, 1888. "The whole play, even if one overlooks its wooden naivety, is an utter lie and travesty of life. A dishonest headman of a village gets a young landowner, a permanent member of the local agricultural board, into his power and wants him to marry his daughter, who is in love with a clerk who writes poetry. Before the marriage a young, honest land-surveyor opens the eyes of the landowner, who exposes his would-be father-in-law's crimes, the crocodile, i.e., the headman of the village, weeps, and one of the heroines exclaims: "And so virtue is triumphant and vice is punished!" which brings the play to an end.

"Horrible! After the play Karpov stopped me and said: 'In this play I have shown up the liberal milksops and that is why it was not liked and was abused. But I don't care a damn!'

"If ever I say or write anything of the kind, I hope that you will hate me and have nothing to do with me any more."

And in a letter to Leontyev on the same day Chekhov wrote:

"You want to have an argument with me about the theatre. By all means, but you will never convince me that I am wrong about my dislike of these scaffolds where they execute playwrights. Our contemporary theatre is a world of confusion, stupidity and idle talk. The other day Karpov boasted to me that he had shown up 'the silly liberals' in his third-rate Crocodile Tears and that that was why his play was disliked and abused. After that my hatred of the theatre grew more violent and I grew even more fond of those fanatics who are trying to make something decent and wholesome out of it."

It was in another letter to Leontyev that Chekhov summed up his attitude to his contemporary playwrights in these words: "Our gifted writers have a great deal of phosphorus, but no iron. We are, I am afraid, no eagles, but just pretty birds who know how to sing sweetly."

It is an amazing fact that the accusation of lacking "iron", which Chekhov brought against the writers of his own day, should even in his lifetime have been brought against him by those who were so influenced by this general absence of a clearly perceived aim in their own writings that they naturally assumed that Chekhov, too, was like them. And yet there was no more outspoken a critic of this contemporary trend in literature than Chekhov. Writing to Suvorin on October 27th, 1888, Chekhov declared: "I dislike everything that is being written today. It makes me feel bored. Everything in my own head, however, interests, moves and excites me—and from this I conclude that nobody is doing what ought to be done, and that I alone know the secret of how to do it." Chekhov was quick enough to modify this seemingly arrogant statement from a young man of twenty-eight by adding that he supposed every writer thought the same, but in his case it happened to be true. Among his contemporaries, that is to say, among the young popular writers of the eighties and nineties, he was the only one to demand from the creative artist "a conscious attitude towards his work", though at first he insisted that it was not the business of a writer to provide a solution of social problems. "In Anna Karenina and Eugene Onegin," he wrote to Suvorin in the same letter, "not a single problem is solved, but they satisfy you completely because the problems in them are formulated correctly. It is the duty of the judge to put the questions to the jury correctly, and it is for the members of the jury to make up their minds, each according to his own taste." In another letter to Suvorin earlier in the same year Chekhov is even more specific. "The creative artist," he writes, "must not set himself up as a judge of his characters or of their opinions, but must be an impartial witness. If I happen to hear a rather confused discussion about pessimism which does not solve anything, I have to report this conversation in the form in which I heard it, and it is for the members of the jury, i.e. for my readers, to express an opinion about it. My business consists in being talented, that is, in being able to distinguish the important depositions from the unimportant ones and in being able to throw light on my characters and to speak their language.… It is time that writers, and particularly those of them who are artists, should admit that it is impossible to make anything out in this world, as indeed Socrates and Voltaire so admitted. The mob thinks that it knows and understands everything, and the more stupid and ignorant it is, the wider does the scope of its knowledge and understanding seem to stretch. But if an artist in whom the mob believes is bold enough to declare that he does not understand anything of what he sees around him, then that alone will be a big step forward."

The vexed problem of the ultimate aim of art is of particular importance so far as Chekhov the playwright is concerned. Chekhov's insistence on the absolute objectivity of the writer led him at first to assume a standpoint which is barely distinguishable from that of the art-forart's sake school. Indeed, it led him to write the only purely naturalistic play he ever wrote—"On the Highway," a play that was forbidden by the censor on the ground that it was "sordid". The failure to differentiate between Chekhov's plays of direct-action and his later plays of indirect-action is to a certain extent due to the failure to realise that Chekhov's attitude towards the ultimate aim of art underwent a complete change during the seven years that separate his last play of the direct-action type from his first play of the indirect-action type. It is not only the purely structural form of the plays that underwent a change but also their inner content. If during his first period as a playwright Chekhov seemed to assume that artistic objectivity was incompatible with the presence of a "message" in a work of art, it was due mainly to his own struggles to achieve personal freedom and eradicate all traces of slavishness which his upbringing by a bigoted and despotic father had left on his mind. "My holy of holies," he wrote to the poet Pleshcheyev on October 4th, 1888, "is the human body and brain, talent, inspiration, love and personal freedom—freedom from force and lies, whatever form the last two may take. That is the programme I should like to have followed if I were a great artist.… I am not a liberal, or a conservative, or an evolutionist, or a monk or an indifferentist," he declares in the same letter. "I should like to be a free artist and—that is all.… I hate lies and violence of any kind. Phariseeism, stupidity and licence are to be found not only in middle-class homes and police stations; I see them in science, in literature, and among our young people. I consider a label or a trade-mark of any kind to be a prejudice." In a letter to Suvorin on January 2nd, 1889, he replied to the assertion of the Russian novelist Dmitry Grigorovich who wrote to him that "talent and freshness will overcome everything". It was much truer to say, Chekhov declared, that "talent and freshness may spoil a great deal. For in addition to the profusion of material and talent, something no less important is required. First of all, a mature mind and, secondly, a feeling of personal freedom, which I did not possess before."

But even during the period when Chekhov drove his conception of the creative artist's objectivity to the extreme of denying that a work of art must possess what is commonly known as "a message", he deeply resented any accusation of being merely a naturalistic writer. In reply to the criticism of his short story "Slime" (an early story published in September, 1886) by Maria Kisselev, an old friend of his, who accused him of being too much preoccupied with "dunghills" and urged him to concentrate on finding "the pearl in the dunghill", Chekhov made a detailed statement on his attitude to literature and the aims that should animate a serious writer in clothing contemporary life in an artistic form, a statement that is of the greatest possible significance to his early work for the theatre.

"I do not know who is right," Chekhov wrote on January 14th, 1887, "Homer, Shakespeare, Lope de Vega or, in general, the ancients who were not afraid of rummaging in 'dunghills' but were much more steadfast than we are so far as morals are concerned, or our contemporary writers who are prudes on paper but cold cynics in spirit and in life. I do not know whose taste is worse: the taste of the ancient Greeks who were not ashamed of glorifying love as it really is, or the taste of the readers of Emile Gaboriau, Eugenia Marlitt or Peter Boborykin?" At the age of twenty-seven Chekhov did not feel himself competent to give an answer to this question, just as he felt incompetent to give the right answer to the question of nonresistance to evil or the freedom of conscience. His correspondent's references to Turgenev and Tolstoy, who, she claimed, avoided the "dunghill" Chekhov brushed aside as irrelevant. "Their fastidiousness," he wrote, "proves nothing; after all, the generation of writers before them considered even descriptions of peasants and low-grade civil servants as beneath their dignity. And, besides," he goes on, "one period of literature, however rich in content, does not give us the right to draw any conclusions in favour of one literary movement or another. References to the corrupting influence of a certain literary movement do not solve the problem, either. Everything in the world is relative and approximate. There are people whom even children's books will corrupt and who seem to derive delight from reading the piquant passages in the Psalms and Solomon's Proverbs. But there are also people who remain unaffected by 'dirt'; indeed, the more familiar they become with it, the cleaner they are. Publicists, lawyers, and doctors, who are familiar with all the secrets of life are, as a rule, much more moral than bishops. And, finally," Chekhov maintained, "no literature can possibly outdo life by its cynicism: you can't make a man drunk on a glass of liquor if he has already drunk a whole barrel."

As for his correspondent's claim that it was the duty of literature to dig for "the pearl" in "the dunghill", that, Chekhov contended, meant disowning literature itself, for literature, he wrote, "is a creative art just because it shows us life as it is. Its purpose," he went on, "is absolute and honest truth, and to narrow down its functions to such a specialised field as the extraction of 'pearls' is as fatal as, for instance, compelling Levitan to paint a tree without showing its dirty bark and yellow leaves." Chekhov was ready to admit that the "pearl" was an excellent thing in itself, "but a writer," he insisted, "is not a confectioner, a cosmetician or an entertainer. He is a man who has to fulfil certain duties; he is a man who has entered into a contract with his conscience and his sense of duty, and however much he may hate it, he must overcome his fastidiousness and soil his imagination with the dirt of life … To a chemist," Chekhov went on, "the notion of dirt does not exist. A writer must be as objective as a chemist. He must renounce every subjective attitude to life and realise that dung-hills play a very honourable part in a landscape and that vicious passions are as much a part of life as virtuous ones." On the other hand, Chekhov admitted that writers must observe the rules of decency, but, he added, "it is only that that we are entitled to demand from the realists."

Chekhov concluded his letter by deploring any outside interference with literature. "The fate of literature would be lamentable indeed," he declared, "if it were left to the mercy of personal prejudice. That is first of all. Secondly, no police exists that could possibly consider itself competent in literary matters. I admit that self-restraint is necessary, for charlatans, too, find their way into literature, but, however much you tried, you could never invent a better police for literature than the critic and the author's own conscience. People have been inventing all sorts of things since the creation of the world, but they have not invented anything better than that."

This letter was written shortly before Chekhov wrote Ivanov, his last direct-action play, and the views expressed in it are therefore important in assessing the literary merits of his plays of that period. He had acknowledged himself to be a realist pure and simple and had taken for his watchword the phrase "life as it is". But it would be a grave mistake to think that Chekhov never budged from this position. Indeed, the seven years that separate The Wood Demon (1889), the play in which he had unsuccessfully attempted to find a different approach to drama, from The Seagull (1896), the first play in which he was supremely successful in his new medium of indirect action plays, were years of great heart-searchings for Chekhov, years in which his formula "life as it is" underwent a profound change. His endless recasting of Ivanov and his final dissatisfaction with the play, to which he began to refer in his letters as Bolvanov (bolvan meaning "blockhead" in Russian), shows that even at that early date Chekhov was beginning to be conscious of the dilemma inherent in the strict adherence to the principle of complete objectivity. In his letter to Suvorin of October 27th, 1888, he summed up the problem in these words: "If one were to deny the problem and the intention in creative art, then one would have to admit that the artist worked without premeditation under the influence of some mental aberration, and if, therefore, some writer were to boast to me that he had written a story without any previously thought out design but just by inspiration, I should call him a madman." But he still insisted that while it was right to demand from an artist a conscious attitude towards his work, it was only "the correct formulation of the problem" and not its solution that was compulsory for him. Two years later, however, in reply to Suvorin's criticism of his short story "Thieves," he admitted that "no doubt it would be pleasant to combine a sermon with art," but, he pointed out, he found such a combination personally impossible for technical reasons. "For to depict horse-thieves in seven hundred lines," he wrote on April 1st to Suvorin, "I have to think and talk all the time in their tone and feel as they do, otherwise, if I were to add subjectivity, my characters would become blurred and the story would not be as compact as all short stories ought to be. When writing I rely entirely on the reader to add the missing subjective elements in the story."

But Chekhov soon discovered that it was impossible to rely on the reader to draw the right moral from his stories. Indeed, one of the "fat", i.e. "highbrow", monthlies in Moscow, Russian Thought, to which he was to become a regular contributor later on, had so misunderstood the whole purpose of his writings that it bluntly accused him of being "an unprincipled writer". That was the last straw. On April 10th, 1890, Chekhov wrote a furious letter to Vukol Lavrov, the editor of the monthly, in which he repudiated the accusation of lack of principle as a libel which made any future business relations between them and the usual civilities of acquaintanceship impossible. This letter is important in that it reveals the inner conflict that was going on in Chekhov's mind at that particular time. Indeed, his defence against Lavrov's criticism is rather lame, and the fury of his letter must be chiefly ascribed to his own realisation of its lameness. "I have never been an unprincipled writer," he declared, "or, which is the same thing, a scoundrel. It is true that my whole literary career is an uninterrupted sequence of mistakes, sometimes gross mistakes, but that is explained by the limitation of my gifts and not at all by my being a good or a bad man. I have never blackmailed anyone, I have never written anything of a libellous nature, I have never informed on anyone, flattered anyone, or lied to anyone, or insulted anyone—in short, I have never written a single line of which I need be ashamed. If I were to assume that by 'unprincipled' you have in mind the melancholy fact that I, an educated man, who have often appeared in print, have done nothing for those I love, and that my activity has vanished without a trace, without, for instance, being of the slightest use to our agricultural boards, our new courts of justice, the free dom of the press, and so on, then Russian Thought ought in justice to consider me as its colleague and not accuse me, for it never did more than I—and that not because of any fault of mine."

Chekhov went on to defend himself against an accusation which obviously hurt him to the quick by claiming that even if he were to be judged as a writer pure and simple, he did not deserve to be publicly stigmatised as unprincipled, and he advanced the curious plea that he was really a doctor and not a writer at all, and that even as a writer he had so far got on excellently with all his literary friends. Finally, he pointed out that in the conditions of the strict censorship that prevailed at the time, it showed a peculiar lack of tact on Lavrov's part to bring such an accusation against writers.

Chapter V

Chekhov's reference to the stringent censorship was the only valid argument he used to rebut Lavrov's criticism. In his great plays he had to resort to all sorts of evasions in order to circumvent that particularly obnoxious obstacle. But his letter undoubtedly reveals a great uneasiness of mind and is indeed an indirect admission that there was some justice in Lavrov's accusation. His fury with Russian Thought was short-lived. He was, above all, honest with himself. On November 25th, 1892, in a letter to Suvorin he redefined his position as a writer by finally relinquishing his standpoint of strict objectivity and placing the "aim" of a work of art, i.e. its moral purpose, at the head of all its other distinguishing marks.

Chekhov began his letter by casting a critical eye over the successful writers and artists of his time. His main objection to them was that they lacked "alcohol" to make their readers "drunk and enthralled". Had any of these writers ever given the world "one drop of alcohol?" Were not "Korolenko, Nadson and all our modern writers just lemonade? Have the paintings of Repin and Shishkin," he asked Suvorin, "ever turned your head?" And he went on to characterise these writers in the phrase he later put into Trigorin's mouth: "Charming, talented. You are delighted," he wrote, "but at the same time you can't forget that you want to smoke." Comparing the achievements made in his day by science and technology, Chekhov could not help concluding that the writers of his time found life "flabby, sour and dull" and that they themselves, too, were "sour and dull. All this," he concluded, "is not caused by our stupidity or lack of talent or, as Victor Burenin9 thinks, by our self-conceit, but by an illness which is for an artist worse than syphilis or sexual impotence." These writers lacked "something", something very essential, something that made all the difference between mere entertainment and real art. What was that "something"? Chekhov went back to the classics in search of it. "Remember," he wrote, "that the writers whom we consider immortal or even just good, the writers who have the power of keeping us enthralled, all possess one highly important characteristic in common: they get somewhere and they call upon us to go with them, and we feel not only with our reason but with the whole of our being that they have some aim, like the ghost of Hamlet's father, who did not come back for nothing and did not trouble Hamlet's imagination for nothing. Some of them, according to how great they are, have aims that concern their own times more closely, such as the abolition of serfdom, the liberation of their country, politics, beauty, or simply vodka, others have more remote aims, such as God, life beyond the grave, human happiness, and so on. The best of them are realists and depict life as it is, but because every line they write is permeated, as with a juice, by a consciousness of an aim, you feel in addition to life as it is, also life as it should be, and it is that that delights you. But what about us? We depict life as it is, but we refuse to go a step further. We have neither near nor remote aims and our souls are as flat and bare as a billiard table. We have no politics, we do not believe in revolution, we deny the existence of God, we are not afraid of ghosts, and so far as I am concerned, I am not afraid of death or blindness, either. But he who wants nothing, hopes for nothing and fears nothing cannot be an artist." In another letter belonging to the same period, he wrote that the writers of his time were "like maniacs who are writing books and plays for their own pleasure. One's own pleasure is of course an excellent thing while one is writing," he declared, "but afterwards?"

So the great realisation had come at last, and though for the time being Chekhov pretended that he, too, was suffering from the same illness, it was merely his modesty speaking. Already in his short story "Ward No. 6," which he wrote shortly before his letter to Suvorin, he had shown "a consciousness of an aim" that entitled him to a place among the foremost creative artists in fiction, but that consciousness was already discernible in many of his earlier stories in spite of his adherence to the principle of strict objectivity. For objectivity is as much the hallmark of a great artist as the consciousness of a high moral purpose, and, as Chekhov points out, it is the combination of the two that is characteristic of all great art, or, in other words, of realism as opposed to mere naturalism.

Having reached that conclusion, Chekhov later not only refused to include "On the Highway" in the collected edition of his works, but entirely suppressed it. And the main reason for his bitter conflict with the directors of the Moscow Art Theatre was their failure to see the high moral purpose of his plays, a failure that is still characteristic of most of his producers in England and America. What differentiates Chekhov's early from his four last plays is not only a difference of technique. It is the much more important question of the final aim of the plays, the moral purpose that is absent from his early plays and forms so essential a part of his later ones. For it is these later plays that, in Chekhov's own words, "are permeated by a consciousness of an aim", and are meant to make the spectator see not only "life as it is", but also "life as it should be".

The greatest mistake English and American producers of Chekhov's plays have been making is to accept the view that Chekhov's drama is essentially a drama of frustra tion. This is only true of his two plays of direct action; of his last four plays the opposite is true: it is a drama of courage and hope. It was Stanislavsky who was mainly responsible for treating Chekhov's plays as plays of frustration and it was he who imposed this view on the rest of the world. But the bitter conflict between Chekhov and Stanislavsky is well known, and the most obvious mistake some producers make is in either overlooking this conflict altogether or drawing the wrong conclusion from it. They all ignore the final aim of the four great plays. Indeed, they usually go so far as to deny that such an aim exists and purposely play down or entirely ignore those parts of the plays which deal with this aim. Hence the spurious "Chekhovian" atmosphere which is laid on so thickly in every production of a Chekhov play. Ironically enough, it is they who, instead of expressing Chekhov's ideas, express the ideas of the Russian wornan critic Sazonova, which appalled Chekhov when he read her strictures of his letter to Suvorin of November 25th, 1892. Suvorin himself was so astonished to read Chekhov's views on the ultimate aims of a work of art, which were so much at variance with Chekhov's former views, that he sent his letter to Sazonova for her comment and then sent those comments on to Chekhov, whose reply to Suvorin is both illuminating and decisive.

"That the last generation of writers and artists had no aim in their work," Chekhov wrote to Suvorin on December 3rd, 1892, "is quite a legitimate, consistent and interesting phenomenon, and the fact that Sazonova was aghast at my letter does not mean that I was insincere or acted against my conscience. It is you yourself who have read insincerity into it, for otherwise you would not have sent her my letter. In my letters to you I am often unjust and naïve, but I never write anything I do not believe in. But if you want insincerity, there are tons of it in Sazonova's letter. 'The greatest miracle is man himself, and we shall never grow tired of studying him. ' Or 'The aim of life is life itself. Or 'I believe in life, in its bright moments, for the sake of which one not only can but also must live; I believe in man, in the good sides of his nature,' and so on. Do you really think this is sincere, or does it indeed mean anything? This is not an outlook on life, but sheer nonsense. She underlines 'can' and 'must' because she is afraid of speaking about what is and what must be taken into account. Let her first of all tell us what is, and then I shall be glad to listen to what can and must be done. She believes in 'life', which means that she does not believe in anything if she is intelligent or that she simply believes in the peasant's God and crosses herself in the dark as if she were a silly old woman.

"Under the influence of her letter," Chekhov goes on, "you write to me about 'life for life's sake'. Thank you very much. Why, her letter which is supposed to be so full of the joy of life is more like a graveyard than mine. I wrote that we had no aims and you rightly drew the conclusion that I considered them necessary and that I would gladly go in search of them, while Sazonova writes that it is wrong to tempt man with all sorts of benefits which he will never get—'you must be thankful for your present mercies', and in her opinion our misfortune consists solely in our looking for some more remote and higher aims. If this is not just female logic, then it is the philosophy of despair. He who is sincerely convinced that higher aims are as unnecessary to man as they are to a cow and that 'our whole misfortune' lies in having those aims, has nothing left but to eat, drink and sleep, and when he gets sick of all that, to take a good run and smash his head on the sharp edge of a trunk. I am not abusing Sazonova. All I mean is that she does not appear to be a very cheerful person."

Chapter VI

Mention has already been made of Chekhov's views on the paramount importance of action in a play. What are the other general conditions that Chekhov regarded as necessary to an aspiring playwright? First of all comes a thorough, first-hand knowledge of the stage. "Beginning with the next season," Chekhov wrote to a fellow-dramatist in March 1889, "I shall start visiting the theatre regularly and educating myself scenically." To his eldest brother Alexander, who had sent him a general outline of a play he was proposing to write, Chekhov wrote: "Don't forget to visit the theatre a few times and make a thorough study of the stage. You'll then be able to compare and that is important." Another rule that Chekhov was never tired of enjoining on his fellow-dramatists was the need for originality. "Try to be original in your play," he advised his brother, "and, as far as possible, intelligent, but do not be afraid to appear silly. Complete freedom of expression is necessary, but remember that only he is free to express his views who is not afraid to write stupid things. Incidentally, love declarations, infidelities by husbands and wives, and tears shed by widows, orphans and other people have been described long ago." In a further letter to his brother he gives another list of characters that a playwright should avoid: "Retired captains with red noses, drunken press reporters, starving writers, consumptive and hard working wives, honest young men without a blot on their characters, lofty-minded young ladies, and dear old nannies." Eleven years later, in a letter to Suvorin, he adds this illuminating note on the need for originality in a playwright's characters: "An educated nobleman who wants to become a priest—this is rather old-fashioned and does not arouse curiosity. You should have taken a young scientist, or a secret Jesuit who dreams of the union of the churches, or anyone else who would have cut a much more imposing figure than a nobleman who is about to take holy orders." Discussing another character in Suvorin's play, Chekhov remarks: "The father seems to have no weakness of any sort. He does not drink, he does not smoke, he does not play cards, and he is not ill. You ought to attach some kind of quality to him and give the actor something to hang on to." And he adds this rather significant note on the importance of sex in plays: "Whether the father does or does not know about his daughter's false step is not very important. Sex, no doubt, plays a great role in the world, but not everything depends on it, not by any means; and it is not everywhere that it is of decisive importance."

A play, in Chekhov's view, must above all be compact. "The more compact and the tighter a play is," he writes to a fellow dramatist, "the brighter and more expressive it is." He warns the same dramatist against becoming a professional playwright, that is to say, a playwright to whom the mere tricks of the stage are more important than the subject matter of his plays. A playwright, he insists, must above all be a poet and an artist. He must conquer the stage and not let the stage conquer him. All the same, so keen was Chekhov's perception of the requirements of the stage that in a letter to another fellow dramatist he coined the aphorism: "You must never put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is going to fire it."

In addition to compactness and expressiveness, Chekhov laid great stress on "plasticity of phrase". He warned his brother against preciosity of language. He objected to the dialogue of one of Suvorin's plays because the language of its characters was "like a white silk dress which is all the time reflecting the sun and on which it hurts you to look. The words 'vulgarity' and 'vulgar'," he adds, "are old-fashioned now." Writing to Gorky in January 1899, Chekhov warned him against lack of gracefulness and restraint in his first play, defining "gracefulness" in these words: "When a man spends the least possible number of movements on some definite action, then that is gracefulness."

Another principle of writing plays Chekhov stuck to all through his career as a playwright concerned the elimination of what he called "the personal element". Writing to his eldest brother in May, 1889, he declared: "Your play will be no good at all if all the characters are like you. Who cares about your life or mine or about your ideas or mine?" A further principle, which is very characteristic of Chekhov's later plays especially, is that "an author must always be humane to the tips of his fingers". But admirable as this last principle is, it has undoubtedly been responsible for a great deal of "sensitive" criticisms of Chekhov's plays which tend to obscure their more important points.

There is another piece of advice Chekhov gives to his brother which is characteristic of the external form of a Chekhov play and which might as well be noted here. Every full-length play of Chekhov's has four acts and the importance of each act in its relation to the play as a whole was defined by Chekhov as early as May 8th, 1889, in a letter to Alexander: "The first act," he wrote, "can go on as long as an hour, but the others must not last longer than thirty minutes. The climax of the play must occur in the third act, but it must not be too big a climax to kill the fourth act."

It was Chekhov's custom first to produce a rough draft of a play and then go on improving it. With Ivanov and The Wood Demon (Uncle Vanya) this procedure was much more drastic, the two plays in their final form undergoing vital alterations. This process of re-shaping a play Chekhov considered required much greater ability from the playwright than the initial process of writing the play. In a letter to the poet Pleshcheyev on January 15th, 1889, written soon after the completion of the final draft of Ivanov, he referred to this particular aspect of the playwright's craft in connexion with the "tragic laugh" that was one of the characteristics of his friend and fellow dramatist Ivan Leontyev (Shcheglov). "No," he writes, "I do not envy Jean Shcheglov. I understand now why he laughs so tragically. To write a good play for the theatre one must possess a special kind of talent (one can be an excellent novelist and at the same time write bunglingly incompetent plays); but to write a bad play and then attempt to make a good one out of it, to resort to all sorts of tricks, to delete, re-write, insert soliloquies, resurrect the dead, bury the living—to do all that one must possess a much greater talent. That is as difficult as making a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Here you will not only laugh tragically, but neigh like a horse."

One more important aspect of Chekhov's attitude to the stage still remains to be elucidated, namely his views on the playwright's place in the theatre. It was undoubtedly Chekhov's great good fortune that among the greatest admirers of his genius was Nemirovich-Danchenko, one of the founders of the Moscow Art Theatre, who prevailed on Stanislavsky almost by main force to put on The Seagull during the Moscow Art Theatre's first season, thus being responsible for Chekhov's close association with one of the most progressive theatres in Russia. But this association with Stanislavsky and NemirovichDanchenko was also one of Chekhov's greatest misfortunes inasmuch as both producers were, at the outset of their stage careers at any rate, what is commonly known as producer-autocrats who brooked no interference either from their actors or from their authors and who quite honestly held the view (all too common among producers) that they had a right to interpret a play any way they liked. Ordinarily this would have brought about an early break between Chekhov and the Moscow Art Theatre, for Chekhov would never have agreed to his elimination from the production of his plays and the complete disregard of his own interpretation of them. As early as 1887, he insisted on the playwright's right to have a deciding voice in anything that concerned the production of his plays. Writing to Nicolai Leykin, editor of the humorous weekly Fragments to which he had been contributing regularly during the early years of his authorship, Chekhov made it quite plain that he would never resign his position in the theatre to the producer. Leykin had written to him: "An author who habitually interferes with the production is a nuisance to the actors, his instructions being mostly silly." To which Chekhov replied: "The author is the owner of the play and not the actors. Everywhere the casting is left to the author, provided he is not absent. Besides, till now all my instructions were helpful and the actors did as I told them. If the author is to be completely eliminated from the production of his plays," he concluded, prophetically as it turned out, "then goodness knows what will happen. Remember how Gogol used to fly into a temper when his play was being produced! Wasn't he right?"

Holding such views, how did it happen that Chekhov let Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko ride roughshod over his own conception of his plays? The answer to this question is simple: at the time his plays were being performed at the Moscow Art Theatre Chekhov was already a stricken man who could take no direct part in their production. He was condemned to live in the Crimea and the few rehearsals he managed to attend in Moscow were insufficient for him to correct the cardinal misunderstanding of his ideas by the two producers. (He did, however, take an active part in the rehearsals of The Three Sisters before the revival of the play in the autumn of 1901.) That was the reason for his frequent outbursts of anger during the rehearsals and his refusal to advise the actors how to play their parts. His stock reply to the actors, "You'll find it all in the text," was just an evasion forced on him by his complete helplessness to make his producers see the positive ideas he had taken so much pains to present in an artistic form. In face of such utter blindness on the part of his producers and their inability to raise themselves above the prevailing ideas of their time, Chekhov was powerless: he was too ill to do anything. The irony of it was that this cardinal misinterpretation of his plays seems to have agreed with the mood of that particular period in Russian history so that in spite of it the plays were (after a time) successful. There is, of course, the further fact that with so great a playwright as Chekhov the failure to grasp the ruling ideas of his plays, the inability to understand their structure, and even the plain distortion of their characters, leaves so much that is original and artistically true that the spectator has plenty left he can thoroughly enjoy. That, however, does not justify the view that Chekhov's outbursts of angry protests against the misinterpretation of his plays were merely the unaccountable tantrums of genius. Chekhov, as is plainly evident from his letters, does not belong to the type of writer who is devoid of critical ability. He was, in fact, a very profound literary critic as well as a man who possessed the invaluable capacity for self-criticism. It took him about seven years to work out his new formula of the play of indirect action, and there can be no doubt that he arrived at his new form of dramatic expression only after a careful and painstaking analysis of the technique of playwriting, including a thorough study of Greek drama,10 a fact of some consequence to the understanding of the structure of his last four plays.


1The New Statesman, November 14th, 1925.

2 Ibid., May 30th, 1936.

3 Ibid., May 16th, 1914.

4 Ibid., February 13th, 1937.

5 Ibid., January 27th, 1945.

6 Ibid., October and, 1926.

7 Ibid., February 5th, 1938.

8 A famous Russian actor.

9 A member of the staff of Suvorin's paper, Novoye Vremya.

10 Among the large number of well-thumbed books Chekhov sent to the public library of his native town of Taganrog were the best available translations of the complete plays of the Greek dramatists.

Charles B. Timmer (essay date 1960)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7584

SOURCE: "The Bizarre Element in Čechov's Art," in Anton Cechov, 1860-1960: Some Essays, edited by T. Eekman, E. J. Brill, 1960, pp. 277-92.

[In this essay, Timmer traces Chekhov's use of the "bizarre, " defined as "a statement, or a situation, which has no logical place in the context or in the sequence of events, the resulting effect being one of sudden bewilderment. "]


A study in literature, whether on Gogol', Dostoevskij or Cechov is bound to involve a study in anti-reason: it cannot limit itself to a study of aesthetic laws only, unless we are prepared to assume that the grotesque, the bizarre, the absurd elements in the works of these authors are unexplainable phenomena.

The grotesque, the bizarre, the absurd,—by using these words I realize that I am bringing to the foreground certain aspects of Čechov's art, which to my knowledge did not thus far have the attention they undoubtedly deserve. It is certainly not my ambition to exhaust the subject in these notes; my purpose is merely to outline it and to make an attempt to trace the difference between the technique of the bizarre in Čechov's last works and his use of the bizarre element in his early stories; for example, between a little scene like this in The Cherry Orchard (1903-04):

Varja: The estate will be up for sale in August.

Anja: Oh dear!

Lopachin: (puts his head through the door and bleats) M-e-e-e … (Disappears) 1

and 'bizarre' stories like "On Christmas Eve" (1883), "At Sea" (1883), "Oysters" (1884), "The Mistress" (1882), "In the Home for Incurables and the Aged" (1884) and many others from CČechov's early period, stories that are bizarre either in style or theme, or both. When we consider Čechov's literary output as a whole, we cannot fail to notice one remarkable fact, namely, that the bizarre element is abundantly represented in the early, the 'Čechonte' stories, that it gradually disappears in his later and riper work, but reappears, more profusely than ever, in his plays.

But what really is the meaning of the bizarre in art and what is its function? When do we call a certain phenomenon, a situation, a statement bizarre?

The word defies precise definition. However, it is possible to mention one inherent quality:—its irrelevancy, and one typical effect:—its capability of producing bewilderment. In this it differs from the grotesque, which really is nothing but comical exaggeration, showing us the ludicrous side of 'extreme situations'; it likewise differs from the absurd, which lies already wholly in the realm of the irrational. The bizarre is not necessarily absurd: it is, as it were, a statement, or a situation, which has no logical place in the context or in the sequence of events, the resulting effect being one of sudden bewilderment; the bizarre brings about a kind of mental 'airpocket': one gasps for breath, until the tension is relieved by laughter. The absurd is contrary to reason and does not necessarily contain this element of playful, whimsical strangeness, which is so characteristic for Čechov in the youthful wantonness of his art, a strangeness, which comes so strikingly to light again in many characters and situations in his plays. It is difficult, if not impossible to draw a distinct line between such conceptions as 'the absurd', 'the bizarre', 'the grotesque'; they often overlap and flow together. And besides, in all these matters the factor of personal appreciation by the reader or spectator and therefore of subjective interpretation influences the definition. A few examples by way of illustration, taken from Čechov's Notebooks—this rich fund of grotesque, bizarre and absurd fancies and observations, may throw some more light on the matter. Thus the following situation might be called simply 'grotesque': "A shy young man came on a visit for the night; suddenly a deaf old woman of eighty came into his room, carrying a clyster-pipe and administered a clyster to him; he thought that this must be the usual thing and so did not protest; in the morning it turned out that the old woman had made a mistake."2 Here my contention that the characteristic quality of the gro tesque lies in the exaggeration, in the hyperbolism of a possible situation, is clearly demonstrated by the English translation of this passage,3 in which, possibly for reasons of modesty, the clyster-pipe is replaced by a cupping glass and the victim is bled. Suppose another translator would go one step further and change the syringe for a cup of tea—then the grotesque element would have disappeared altogether. The bizarre element can be found in a statement like this: "When I become rich, I shall have a harem in which I shall keep fat naked women, with their buttocks painted green." This is a good example of that particular kind of 'mental leap', so typical of the bizarre, with the clear-cut caesura in the logical sequence after the third section of this statement. Finally, the absurd is demonstrated in a note of the following kind: "N., a singer; speaks to nobody, his throat muffed up—he takes care of his voice, but no one has ever heard him sing." Which, in my opinion, is a good exampe of irrational behaviour.

In the beginning of his career as a writer the bizarre element in Čechov's work comes very close to the grotesque; wherever it appears in his later prose-writings and in his plays, it has more in common with the absurd. This is important and fully in harmony with the well-known fact that the laughter in Čechov's stories gradually dies down. In his early period it seems hardly likely that Čechov used the bizarre deliberately as a consciously worked out technique: it rather appears that bizarre thoughts, statements, situations found their way in his work quite naturally, as the fruit of unbridled inspiration; they arose understandably from a youthful brio, playfulness and boldness in the author himself; they are, if I may quote Dylan Thomas, "A portrait of the artist as a young dog". More often than not the stories, in which the bizarre element is very evident, can be found in that group of narratives, which Čechov himself did not include in his collected works and which form a part of his literary inheritance. The genuinely grotesque-bizarre stories are published under the penname 'Čechonte', a pseudonym rather bizarre in itself, at least for Russian ears.

Quite frequently the stories, containing bizarre elements, are written in the first person singular or plural, e.g. "The Crooked Mirror", "At Sea", "The Confession", "The Only Remedy", "At a Spiritualist Seance", "The Ninny", "A Charitable Publican", "The Guardian", "From the Reminiscences of an Idealist", "The Dream", etc. They are often provided with a sub-title in the way of "A Christmas Story", or "A Psychological Etude", or "Lament of a Ruined Man". In all these cases the bizarre character of the story is evoked by a peculiar blend of mystification, exaggeration and the deadly serious tone of the story-teller. A story like "At Sea" for instance, bearing the sub-title "A Sailor's Story", deals with anything but life at sea; this tale gives a perfect demonstration of the method of disguise and it leaves a peculiar impression of bewilderment and oppression with the reader, who at the same time feels inclined to laugh the whole thing off. The bizarre in stories of this kind, as also in "On Christmas Eve", an early story, written in a pseudo-romantic vein, and in quite a few others is realized by way of a subtle mockery of the 'terrible'; the element of horror is played with, rather flippantly sometimes, with the effect that horror becomes funny. Most of these stories have a definite point, with a surprising denouement, which does not however solve a problem or a mystery, but intensifies the comical effect of the narrative. Upon finishing his play Ivanov, Čechov wrote in a letter to his brother Aleksandr: "This is the first play I wrote, ergo—I was bound to make mistakes. The subject is complicated and not stupid. Every act I end just like my stories: throughout the whole act everything goes on peacefully and smoothly, but towards the end I give the spectator a punch on the nose."4 It is in this "punch on the nose", in this sudden uncovering of "green-painted buttocks", that the typical bizarre element in Čechov's early work is revealed and it is not without reason that his second collection of stories, which Čechov published in 1886, bore the title Motley Stories. Nor is it fortuitous that Čechov did not include in this collection any work of his hand that had appeared under his own name in the literary magazine New Times, work that he wanted to save for 'a more important publication'. Seen against the background of Čechov's later, much more complicated and serious output, we can understand that the author at the height of his creative powers felt rather reluctant to include certain of his bizarre 'trifles' (as he calls them) in his collected works, although Čechov's harsh judgment seems to us unwarranted: in their class these stories are priceless.

As I pointed out, the bizarre gradually disappears in Čechov's later work, or rather, it loses its grotesque aspect and approaches more and more that particular attitude towards things, which we call the absurd. Here it must be stated at once, however, that the absurd as such in Čechov's art is always treated merely incidentally, never programmatically, dogmatically or from the platform of a certain philosophy. For Čechov life as such (existence) is neither absurd nor intelligible. The absurd elements in his stories should therefore not be confused with the absurd as idea. The absurd is the confrontation with the irrational; it is, what in relation to human judgment is considered as unreasonable. If we think of a scientist, whose knowledge in a certain field of science is unique and of immeasurable value to mankind, who suddenly dies in a car-accident, we may speak of an absurd occurrence, the absurd in this case consisting in the fact that such a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience can be destroyed within a fraction of a second. Death in its finality is bizarre in so far as it causes bewilderment, it is absurd in so far as we consider it unreasonable. Čechov had a wonderful feeling for the whole scale of subtle shades between the bizarre and the absurd in life and death. The long standing controversy, whether Čechov was an optimist or a pessimist, with ardent partisans on both sides, loses its meaning, when we realize that Čechov, like every sensitive artist, was torn between two contrary insights: that the world, or life as such, is unreasonable and at the same time, that man cannot leave off trying to find a reasonable explanation for this world, or, in the words of Albert Camus, this philosopher of the absurd (whose own death can stand as an example of absurdity): "Ce monde en lui-même n'est pas raisonnable … Mais ce qui est absurde, c'est la confrontation de cet irrationnel et de ce désir éperdu de clarté dont l'appel résonne au plus profond de l'homme."5 Čechov's dithyrambic dreams of a better life in the future, expressed in his last plays and in some of his stories, are no proof of his "optimism", but only of his desperate desire to find a solution to the problem of the antagonism, existing between absurd reality and rational ideality, his desire to bring about a peace between life as it is lived:—an apparently bizarre and senseless under-taking,—and life as it could be projected in the mind:—beauty, justice and harmony. On the other hand, if Čechov were convinced that such a peace would a priori be impossible, that the search for a reasonable explanation of the world is an enterprise, foredoomed to failure, then we might be justified in calling him a pessimist; but he never made such a statement, on the contrary: somewhere, at some time in the future the solution will be found, he says. This is not optimism, but the firm conviction that life itself generates hope. Converted to secular values, we may compare Čechov's faith with the 'Credo quia absurdum' of Tertullian, philosophically speaking the most optimistic statement ever made, if we put the stress on the 'credo', but at the same time the most pessimistic one, if we realize that we can never overcome the absurd, that we, as long as there is life, shall never be able to say: we believe in it, because it is reasonable. In other words: that faith can never be replaced by knowledge, Čechov's dream of happiness 'after two hundred years' is nothing else than this désir éperdu de clarté, of which Camus speaks. In fact, hope and expectation are blended so masterfully in Čechov's art with hopelessness and despair, the technique of evoking bizarre effects by letting hope clash on despondency is handled so skilfully, that we can say without hesitation that here we find the clue to that unique fascination, which emanates from his work and the spell it exercises on the reader. A perfect demonstration of this we find in stories like "Dreams" (1886), or "Happiness" (1887), in "Peasants" (1897), "In the Ravine" (1900) and many others. In the story "Happiness" an old shepherd is telling about the treasures, hidden, according to legend, somewhere in the vast Russian steppe. A young shepherd listens attentively to the old man's stories. "But, if you find the treasure, what are you going to do with it?", he asks in the end. The old man does not know; all through his long life he has dreamed of finding one of these legendary treasures, but the thought, what to do with it, has never occurred to him: that was not important. The young man also starts to wonder at the curious fact that only old men and women were so interested in these treasures, only the old kept constantly talking about them. At last the young shepherd falls silent and thinks about all the things he has heard in the course of the summer night. "He was not interested so much in happiness in itself, which he did not need, and which he could not comprehend, as in the fantastic, the fairytale side of human happiness …" concludes Čechov.

One of Čechov's notions of the bizarre,—and probably one of the most important ones,—is that in an apparently hopeless life there is still hope, that, as I said before, life itself generates hope. That, if there is seemingly no way out,—there is nevertheless a way out: by being interested, fully, humanly interested in "the fantastic, fairytale side" of every situation. To the question of what life means, Čechov had no other answer than: it is what it is, as in Three Sisters, when Masa asks: "Isn't there some meaning?" and Tuzenbach answers: "Meaning? . . Look out there, it's snowing. What's the meaning of that?"6 In the same play the final conclusion of Andrej, when Čebutykin asks him: "What about your wife?" is: "My wife is my wife".7 But even if every life is condemned to end in failure, even if it has many terrible aspects, it still is hopeful, because it is life, because it can be seen and felt and tasted and experienced, because it can be told. In the story "Peasants" this hope, this life, this Čechovian conception of indestructible continuation is impersonated in the little girl Saša, who as an innocent witness of poverty and misery wanders through the whole story with eyes to see and to bear witness. The little girl is not a judge, she just observes and sees. The fact that in life there are eyes to see the injustice, the absurdity, is enough: this is all the hope there is. Well, and this is precisely the case with Čechov himself: he just sees. And to see, really to see, with inquisitive, child-like eyes, means to discover the hidden relationships in life, to reveal its fairytale side. In many of Čechov's stories it is the child, or the grown-up with the childlike mind that sees in this manner: it is the child and the artist, who possess this talent for discovering. And again, it is children and artists who have the genuine taste for the bizarre, the feeling for the absurd; it is they also, who can recreate it, because playfulness is an intrinsic part of their being, they represent the homo ludens with his taste for freedom. In Čechov's first long story "The Steppe" (1888) it is through the eyes of the little boy Egoruška that the steppe and life in it are recreated. In the story "In Exile" (1892) it is the poor, illiterate Tartar with the mind of a child, who understands and grasps the 'hidden relationships' and stammers the truth in his broken Russian: "The gentleman is a good soul, very good, and you are a beast, you are bad! The gentleman is alive and you are dead … God made man that he should be alive, that he should have happiness, sorrow, grief, and you want nothing, so you are not alive, but a stone! A stone wants nothing and so do you …".8

When comparing the bizarre in Čechov's work with the bizarre in Dostoevskij, we find some striking differences in their approach, both in technique and its application. In the great novels of Dostoevskij the bizarre element is mainly demonstrated in some of the secondary characters and they are always slices of enlarged humanity. Mentally, intellectually, the reader believes in a captain Lebjadkin (Evil Spirits), in a Lebedev (The Idiot) and queer characters like these, although they possess a reality, built up out of isolated psychological components and the bizarre in them lies in their psychological hyperbolism. Lebedev in The Idiot is a vulgar scoundrel and a drunk, but at the same time a man, who prays at night for the salvation of the unfortunate comtesse Du Barry; he is a specialist in the exegesis of the Apocalypse, and in some casual, enigmatic remarks he gives a clue to the main theme of the whole novel. In the hundreds of characters in Čechov's stories not one is in this sense 'enlarged' and hyperbolic; they always stay human in every respect; the bizarre with them,—even with the queerest characters we meet in his plays,—does not appear so much in what they are, as well in what they do. Looking for the bizarre in Čechov's work, we do not find it in the characters, but in their situation, in their mutual relationships. The reason for this may be found in the fact that Čechov's characters nearly all are 'whole', while Dostoevskij 's characters are practically all 'split personalities', or combined doubles; they are dramas, tragedies in themselves, while Čechov's people through their interrelationship create tragedies and dramas amongst themselves. Čechov's characters long for things they do not possess (Moscow, talent, love, gooseberries), or for what they are not and cannot be (famous, active, energetic) and the author knows how to uncover the bizarre element in such hopeless longing: in this respect the epithet of "a cruel talent" could be given to Čechov also! But Dostoevskij 's heroes are both mean and noble, both evil and good, both vulgar and highminded; alternatively the one or the other quality breaks out and suppresses the opposite impulse. Therefore the bizarre with Dostoevskij is one of inner conflict and of being; with Čechov of outer conflict and of situation. In 1886 Čechov wrote in a letter to his brother Aleksandr: "Heaven forbid that we indulge in the use of commonplaces! The best would be to avoid in your stories the description of the mental state of your heroes altogether. You must try to develop this state out of the actions of your heroes."9 This is exactly the opposite of Dostoevskij's method, where the action is rather a result, the outcome of the mental state of the hero, of what I call his 'inner conflict'. Nikolaj Čikildeev in the story "Peasants" had to give up his job as a waiter in a Moscow hotel because of ill health and returned with wife and child to his native village, where he slowly withers away. In the famous description of a night at the peasant-cottage Čechov relates, how "Nikolaj, who had not slept all night, got down from the stove. He took his dress-coat out of a green chest, put it on, and going to the window, stroked the sleeves, fingered the coat-tails—and smiled. Then he carefully removed the coat, put it away in the chest, and lay down again."10 There is no question in Nikolaj's bizarre behaviour in the middle of the night of a description of inner conflict: Nikolaj is quite an ordinary man, but he is placed in an extraordinary situation, a man beyond hope and help, who attires himself at night with the only remaining attributes of his former happiness and dignity. In the given situation the bizarre lies in the fact that the ex-waiter, placed in the position of a parasite on the village-life, caresses as a symbol of liberty and human dignity an object, a waiter's dress-coat, which in fact should stand as a symbol for human servitude and humiliation."11 It will be clear, from an example like this, that the technique of the bizarre, as used by Čechov in this passage, is quite a far cry from the overt and wanton caprices in his 'Čechonte'-period; now the bizarre comes to us as a technique, subtly handled by a masterhand and only recognizable as bizarre through the intellectual cooperation of the reader.


In the confrontation with the bizarre man is conscious of his existence as an enigma. Although Čechov, being through education a man of science himself, believed in the civilizing and beneficent powers of knowledge and enlightenment, his faith was not a blind faith in nineteenth century positivism and progress. Nobody saw clearer than Čechov the danger of the so-called 'intellectualism', nobody realized better the limits of pure rationalist thinking. Stories like e.g. "A Dreary Story" (1889), "Ward No. 6" (1892), or "The Black Monk" (1894) provide ample substance for this contention. Čechov himself was a highly intelligent man, a keen observer, capable of putting two and two together in all the phenomena of life. But here he added one element to his intelligence—and in this we recognize his genius,—namely, his readiness to accept, to admit and to tolerate the statement that two and two can be five, at least to grant the possibility of such a statement, were it only as a form of protest. Protest against what? My answer would be: a protest against the law.

Amongst the few types of wholly negative characters in the work of Čechov, a prominent place is given to the "man in a shell", of whom it is said that "the only things that were clear to him were Government regulations and newspaper notices in which something was forbidden."12 This man-in-a-shell type of the intelligentsia, this Belikov, has a close relative in a slightly different hero, one somewhat more sociable and congenial, but likewise inclined to terrorize his neighbourhood: the type of the Von Koren in the story "The Duel" (1891), or his pendant L 'vov in the play Ivanov (1887-89). They are the personifications of what we may call the 'guardians of duty', 'the pillars of law and order',—men, who are honest, correct, intelligent, but absolutely devoid of imagination, men with no feeling, no taste and no understanding at all for the bizarre. Both the story "The Duel" and the play Ivanov are built up around three heroes: in "The Duel" this trio is formed by Laevskij, Von Koren, and Samojlenko. In the play Ivanov we meet the same trio in the persons of Ivanov, L'vov and Lebedev. The positions of these three types are clear: Laevskij/Ivanov is the man fighting with, and eventually becoming the victim of the bizarre; Von Koren/L'vov is the man who does not admit the existence of the bizarre, while Samojlenko/Lebedev accepts the bizarre as an intrinsic part of life. In the last act of Ivanov, when Ivanov, a prey to despair and harassed by self-accusations, informs his bride Saša that he cannot marry her, when L'vov walks around as a Nemesis, firmly decided to unmask Ivanov once and for all, then the 'fool' Lebedev, this apparent good-for-nothing, utters some words of plain common sense. In a conversation with his future son-in-law and friend Ivanov it is he, who exclaims: "Look at things simply, as everybody else does! In this world everything is simple. The ceiling is white, the boots are black, sugar is sweet. You love Saša, she loves you. If you love her—stay with her, if you don't love her—go, we won't bear you any malice. It's really as simple as that!"13

With Čechov, just as with Shakespeare, we must above all things be attentive to what the 'fool' has to say. The Lebedev-element, this third aspect of human intelligence, is innocence, presented—as is so often the case—in the disguise of foolishness. It is the voice of life itself as it is lived, when we are told: "In this world everything is simple!", an observation which must sound as the height of absurdity in the ears of pathetic Ivanovs, caught in a mess of guilt-complexes, or of the stern L'vovs who want to reduce life to a complicated system of regulations. But what we hear in Lebedev and Samojlenko, apart from a certain amount of naïveté, is the voice of confidence, this utter and stable confidence that cannot be shaken by all the horrors in the world. It is Čechov's confidence in the regenerating powers of life. It is the voice of unassailable innocence in human intellect, of its inviolable virginity. It is the voice that will be heard "two hundred years from now …" The Lebedevs and Samojlenko's together with the little girl in "Peasants", with Lipa in "In the Ravine", with Gusev in the story of that name, with father Anastasij in "The Letter", with the Tartar in "In Exile",—these are the ones, of whom I said that they are the children and artists, who see and accept the bizarre, who are free and possess the talent for discovering the hidden relationships.

However, it is not Čechov's philosophy or outlook on life, that I am concerned with here. The problem of the grotesque-bizarre-absurd in his art is not a philosophical problem, but one of style and technique. I already pointed out that in the 'Čechonte'-stories the bizarre element appears to be used as a series of outbursts of youthful spontaneity rather than a consciously applied literary technique. It was found that this element gradually disappears in his stories of a later date; whenever we find traces of it, it is used with much restraint and consordino, the technique is usually applied in the form of a quick, unexpected shifting of various moods. We only need to compare a story like "At Christmas Time" (1900) with one of the 'Čechonte'-stories to see the difference in function of the bizarre. At first glance this element seems to be present in this story as well with the same nonchalant brio as for instance in "For Stealing Apples" (1880), but soon it becomes clear that it is used in quite a different technique; while in the early story the bizarre was nothing but ornament, here it is the canvas, on which the story is embroidered.

But it is especially in the plays, and most of all in Uncle Vanja, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, that we find the technique of the bizarre applied consciously and deliberately with an eye on the effect it will produce. The functions of the bizarre as consciously applied technique are manifold. In the first place there is the function of retardation of the action. A good example can be found in the last act of Uncle Vanja. In the stage-directions at the beginning of this act it says: On the wall a map of Africa, obviously serving no useful purpose here.14 The 'purpose' of this map, indeed a rather bizarre object in the study of an estate somewhere in the Russian province, becomes clear when Astrov takes his final leave. Astrov is firmly resolved to take his departure and to stay away for a long time to come, but he does not want to go at all. There really is nothing more to be said, but everybody feels the necessity of some remark being made, never mind what, only so that the final moment may be put off. It is then that Astrov walks up to the map of Africa and says: "I suppose down there in Africa the heat must be terrific now!" On this bizarre and quite irrelevant remark of the doctor in the prevailing situation Vanja reacts laconically with the words: "Yes, very likely."15

Apart from retardation the above example reveals another function of the bizarre and a very important one too, namely, to give a suggestion of indifference. It is well known, what importance Čechov attached to 'coldness', 'non-attachment' in the creative process. The impact of emotions, of distress, delight, of grief and joy is felt much stronger, when they are suggested and not described. If, in the given situation, Astrov would have said: "How awful to have to leave your people; I don't want to go, but have to, you know!" or something of the kind, the impression on the spectator would be nil, because that would be exactly the thing he had expected. Instead, Astrov says: "I suppose down there in Africa the heat must be terrific now!" and this element of restraint, applied in a scene that is charged with emotions, greatly intensifies the impression on the spectator. The element of the bizarre as a technique to retard the action and restrain the emotions is used frequently by Čechov in his plays.

A third function of the bizarre is the communication of a hidden meaning. This end is often attained by way of an understatement. It may happen that one of the characters makes an apparently nonsensical remark, which stupefies the reader or spectator. In Three Sisters the old and doting doctor Čebutykin has the habit of reading aloud from some old newspaper he always carries around with him. In act II, in the midst of a lively conversation on the meaning of happiness, he suddenly, reading from his newspaper, remarks: "Balzac was married at Berdičev".16 This in the given context seemingly quite senseless remark is repeated twice, showing that the author did not regard it as just a casual interjection by a drunk, but that these words were meant to communicate some hidden message, an allusion to something, which, however, is nowhere explained in the further development of the conversation. But what possible meaning could be concealed in the bizarre observation of an old, dilapidated country-physician, in a play, the action of which takes place around 1900, while the words "Balzac was married at Berdičev", read from a newspaper, point to an event that surely happened before Balzac's death in 1850? The theme of the play is the expectation of happiness: Vers̆inin projects the 'coming happy life' in the future; the sisters believe that they will find happiness and fulfilment as soon as they will be in Moscow. When we remember that Berdičev is an ugly little bordertown in Western Russia, the remark of Čebutykin becomes meaningful, without losing its bizarre character: it means to say that, if Balzac could find his happiness in such a doghole as Berdičev, it is quite unnecessary to go to Moscow to look for happiness, because it can be found anywhere, and further: why project your dreams of happiness in the future, when we only need to open some old newspaper in order to find ample proof of happiness and fulfilment in the past? The function of the bizarre in this instance is first to stupefy and to shock, to disrupt the logical sequence of thoughts by some eccentric observation, secondly to provide this observation with an under-current of deeper meaning. Another example of this technique we find in the long story "The Duel" (the scene, when doctor Samojlenko and Von Koren carry on an animated conversation about the 'superfluous man' Laevskij). In the course of the conversation both get more and more excited. There is a third person in the room, a young deacon, a rather silly man who chuckles and giggles all the time, a man in whom we recognize once more one of these typical Čechovian fools, who are not directly involved in the conflict, but who at unexpected moments come forward with their comments and who, in this respect, have a rather similar function to that of the 'chorus' in the Greek tragedy. When the conversation between Samojlenko and Von Koren reaches its climax and both are about ready to cut each other's throat, this little, insignificant deacon suddenly makes the casual observation: "Our Eminence does not travel by coach through his diocese, he always goes on horseback …" and then he compares the bishop in his humility and simplicity with a Biblical character. The interruption had nothing whatsoever to do with the conversation, there was no talk at all about bishops, coaches or horses and to all appearance the deacon's words are out of place and sheer nonsense. Yet it brings the conversation to a sudden stop, the heat of the quarrel has abated and the observation carried a hidden meaning as well: the hint to both hotheaded antagonists to follow the bishop's example and to be more humble.

In "Gooseberries" (1898) Čechov makes the following observation: "What is terrible in life goes on somewhere behind the scenes …".17 The bizarre is indeed quite frequently an eruption of the terrible on the smooth surface of common everyday life. Such an eruption takes place in the story "The Murder" (1895), in which the bizarre is an intrinsic part of the whole intrigue and a man is murdered, because during Lent he wanted to help himself at dinner to some oil; the instrument he is killed with is the oil-bottle.

Sometimes Čechov does not leave the bizarre but reveals the meaning of it in an exposé, for instance, in "The Lady with the Pet Dog" (1899), in the following fragment: "One evening, coming out of the physicians' club with an official with whom he (the hero) had been playing cards, he could not resist saying: 'If you only knew what a fascinating woman I became acquainted with at Jalta.'" The official has no better reply to this beginning of a lover's confidential confession than the sordid and bizarre words: "Dmitrij Dmitri! … You were right this evening: the sturgeon was a bit high!"18 Where-upon Čechov enters into a long explanation of why the hero was so infuriated by the vulgarity of the official's words.

A further function of the bizarre,—and this mainly in the plays again,—is to emphasize the salient features of certain characters, in other words, to show them in their absurdity. One of the most bizarre characters in Čechov's plays is Solenyj in Three Sisters, a sinister man, belonging to the family of the 'men-in-a-shell', in so far as meanness and limitations are not only the result of social maladjustment, but also caused by his private inhibitions. He has a very important function in the drama and is, as his name indicates, the salt in the play. His condition of being a potential murderer Solenyj can only cover up by spraying his hands frequently with perfume. Everything he says or does is absurd.

In order to give a note of the bizarre to his characters Čechov often makes use of the attribute of gluttony. Quite a few of his early comical stories are based on this human weakness. But this element also appears in his later stories and in the plays. The official in "The Lady with the Pet Dog" could only think of sturgeon when his partner wanted to talk about his beloved; Pis̆c̆ik, bizarre character in The Cherry Orchard pours all the pills from a pill-box, brought by the valet to madame Ranevskaja, into his hand and eats them … We also hear that during Easter week he had consumed a gallon and a half of cucumbers.19 Solenyj, in Three Sisters, referring to Bobik, Nataša's baby, remarks: "If that child were in mine, I'd fry him in a frying pan and eat him,"20 in which words he certainly betrays his radicalism. A little later it appears that he has eaten all the chocolates from a box of sweets on the table. Gaev, in The Cherry Orchard, frequently takes a box of caramels out of his pocket and sucks one.

Bizarre attributes are often used in drawing a character. Thus one notices Gaev's passion for billiards in The Cherry Orchard and his use of technical terms of the game, mostly in situations when he is confused and bewildered. Bizarre attributes, used in drawing Maša's character in The Sea-gull, are the black dress she wears and her opening-line in the play: "I am in mourning for my life";21 in the case of Sorin, in the same play, it is his habit to use stock-expressions like: "and all that", "and all the rest of it", "and so on, and so forth",22 which are all that is left of l'homme qui a voulu, the man, who in his youth had dreamt of becoming a literary man—and didn't … The pathos of an utterly lonely woman, the governess Šarlotta Ivanovna in The Cherry Orchard, is accentuated by her bizarre talent to amuse the company with card tricks; equally bizarre is the way she makes her appearance in the first act with a little dog on a line and introduces herself with the words: "My dog eats nuts too".23

All this shows that in Čechov's plays the element of the bizarre both helps to build up a character and aids in preparing the surprise moment in the development of the action. Once they are firmly established as "queer characters", their quasi irrelevant observations cause a break in the dialogue. And here we touch upon one of the principal aspects of the bizarre, lying in the fact that, while all these observations and odd demeanours should normally bring about a certain bewilderment or at least some response in the others, this is not the case: more often than not there is no reaction at all, as if the others did not exist, as if the words were spoken in a void, as if all those persons were living in a vacuum, in other words: the bizarre is accepted, or rather tolerated, but not reacted upon. When in The Cherry Orchard the servantgirl Dunjaša, anxious to pour out her heart to her young mistress, says to Anja: "Epichodov, the clerk, made me a proposal just after Easter",24 the answer is: "I've lost all my hairpins." When in the second act of this play Šarlotta Ivanovna all of a sudden starts to complain about her fate and says: "Always alone, alone, nobody belonging to me … and who I am, and why I'm on earth, I don't know",25 there is no response from the others. When in the third act of Three Sisters Čebutykin has broken the clock and Irina says: "That was mother's clock", the old doctor declares in drunkenness: "Perhaps … Well, if it was hers, it was …"—and then continues: "What are you staring at? Nataša has got a little affair on with Protopopov, and you don't see it … You sit here and see nothing, while Nataša ha a little affair on with Protopopov …"26 The only reaction to this grave accusation comes from Veršinin, who says: "Yes" and then immediately resumes his conversation about his own affairs. Time and again we hear in Čechov's stories and plays the desperate complaint: "To whom shall I tell my grief?", which is used as motto in the story "Misery" (1886),—but there is no response and by this frequently used technique Čechov succeeds in producing that oppressive atmosphere of human loneliness which is so typical for his art; the inability of people to understand each other, their complete lack of interest and attention is the core of all tragedy. Human coldness, indifference and careless cruelty—these form the main subject and the leading theme of many of Čechov's stories and plays.

Finally, in some of the plays, especially in Three Sisters, echov succeeds in attaining a bizarre effect by frequently putting quotations from other writers in the mouth of his characters. In many cases these quotations have a definite function in the play, both to reveal a character and to create a certain "mood", to evoke an atmosphere. Two of the best known of these functional quotations in Three Sisters are: "A green oak grows by a curving shore, and round that oak hangs a golden chain …",27 which are the opening-lines of Puškin's poem "Ruslan and Ljudmila", and: "He had no time to say 'Oh, oh!', before that bear had struck him low … ",28 two lines from Krylov's fable "The Peasant and the Farmhand", the first quotation being used by Masa, the second one by Solenyj, and not just once, but several times on appropriate occasions, thus becoming something like motives, played by solo-instruments in a symphonic work. Apart from literary quotations Čechov uses quotations, taken from actual life. An example of a quotation from life can be found in a letter by 01 'ga Knipper to Anton Pavlovič, written in 1900, in reply to a complaint of the author that he was becoming bald. In this letter Ol'ga Knipper writes: "I shall give you a fine recipe for falling hair. Take half a bottle of methylated spirit and dissolve in it two ounces of naphtaline, then rub the skin with this lotion …". Ol'ga Knipper took her recipe so seriously that she hastened to write to Čechov a few days later that she had made a mistake in it: it ould not be two ounces of naphtaline, but only half an ounce. But Čechov had al-ready used the original passage in Three Sisters, first act, where he lets the 'fool' Čebutykin read the recipe from his newspaper.29 The motive for the well-known Tra-ta-ta conversation,—possibly the most mysterious and original iove-talk' in literature,—between Masa and Veršinin at the end of the third act of Three Sisters is likewise taken from real life and based on an actual experience Čechov had in a restaurant. These examples,—and the notes in Čechov's notebooks could easily provide further ample material,—show, how keen an eye Čechov had for the bizarre, how much value he attached to such phenomena and how anxious he was to apply this material in his art. I wonder, whether it is only a matter of coincidence that Čechov's biographers managed to dig up such a remarkable variety of bizarre incidents in the life of the author. If we may believe one of his biographers, N. Telešov, the bizarre did not even leave Čechov on his deathbed: in the evening of July 15 th 1904 in Badenweiler the doctor had ordered the sick man to drink a glass of champagne. Anton Pavlovič took the glass, remarked to his wife: "I have not tasted champagne in a long time", drank the glass to the bottom, lay down on his left side and died. "The oppressive silence of the night,—Teles̆ov tells us,—was only disturbed by a large night-moth that had flown in through the open window … After the doctor had gone, in the complete silence and stuffiness of the summer night, suddenly, with a terrific blow, the cork shot out of the half finished champagne bottle …".30


1 Anton Chehov, Three Plays, transl, by Elisaveta Fen, London 1953, p. 30.

2The Personal Papers of Anton Chekhov, New York 1948, p. 104. The translation of the Notebook is by S. S. Koteliansky and Leonard Woolf and quoted here with some corrections.

3 The passage referred to reads in the English translation: "Suddenly a deaf old woman came into the room, carrying a cupping-glass, and bled him". Cf. A. P. Čechov, PSSP XII 284: "Vdrug vošla starucha let 80, gluchaja, s klistimoj kružkoj i postavila emu klistir."


5 Albert Camus, Le mythe de Sisyphe, Paris 1942, p. 37.

6 Anton Chehov, Three Plays, transl, by Elisaveta Fen, London 1953, p. 126.

7 Id. p. 162.

8The Stories of Anton Tchekov, ed. by Robert N. Linscott, N.Y. 1932, p. 180.

9PSS X III 215.

10The Portable Chekhov, ed. by Avrahm Yarmolinsky, N.Y. 1947, p. 339.

11 Cf. A. Derman, O masterstve Čechova, Moskva 1959, p. 42.

12The Portable Chekhov, ed. by Avrahm Yarmolinsky, N.Y. 1947, p. 356.

13 Anton Chehov, Three Plays, transl, by Elisaveta Fen, London 1953, p. 251.

14 Anton Chehov, The Seagull and Other Plays, transl, by Elisaveta Fen, London 1954, p. 140.

15 Id., p. 150.

16The Plays of Anton Tchekov, transl, by Constance Garnett, N.Y. n.d. p. 146.

17The Portable Chekhov, ed. by Avrahm Yarmolinsky, N.Y. 1947, p. 381.

18 Id., p. 424.

19The Plays of Anton Tchekov, transl, by Constance Garnett, N.Y. n.d. p. 72.

20 Id., p. 147.

21 Id., p. 3.

22 Id., p. 46.

23 Id., p. 64.

24 Ibidem.

25 Id., p. 80.

26 Id., p. 161.

27 Anton Chehov, Three Plays, transl, by Elisaveta Fen, London 1953, p. 98.

28 Id., p. 99.

29 Id., p. 96. Cf. Teatr, ežemesjačnyj zurnal dramaturgii i teatro, Moskva 1960,1: A. Vladimirskaja, Zametki na poljach.

30 N. Telešov, Zapiski pisatelja, Moskva 1950, pp. 86-87.

Maurice Valency (essay date 1966)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4558

SOURCE: "The Sound of the Breaking String," in The Breaking String: The Plays of Anton Chekhov, Schocken Books, 1983, pp. 289-301.

[In the following excerpt from a work that was first published in 1966, Valency places Chekhov in the context of the social and cultural upheavals of his time.]

Chekhov's drama, like Ibsen's, represents a world in transition. In Ibsen's Norway, wherever that might be, the impact of modern thought in the latter half of the nineteenth century brought about a relatively peaceful revolution. In Russia the idea of the state was formulated along particularly rigid lines, and the transition from the old to the new was accompanied by impressive rites of passage. In his Autobiography, Gorky speaks with something like awe of an old policeman's description of the invisible thread that issued from the heart of the Tsar and wound through his ministers down to the least of his soldiers in a web that encompassed the nation.1 To many, life under these conditions seemed intolerable; but the thought of breaking the tie caused much uneasiness.

One of the constant complaints of the time centered on the breakdown of communication between fathers and sons, and the abyss that divided the older generation from the younger. This is, no doubt, a universal complaint in all periods, but the social and economic situation of Russia in the latter half of the nineteenth century made the break particularly sharp and deep. The golden string that connected man with his father on earth and his father in heaven, the age-old bond that tied the present to the past, was not to be broken lightly. When at last it snapped, the result, we have discovered, was both world-shaking and soul-shaking.

It was on the threshold of this cataclysm that Chekhov set his stage. He was primarily an ironist, and his plays were, on the whole, comedically conceived. But Chekhov was taking the pulse of a dying world. It died well, with courage and gayety; nevertheless, the description of its agony could not be altogether funny. His plays are full of laughter, but in each we hear the sound of the breaking string; and from the contrast between what seems, from one viewpoint, comic, but tragic from another, Chekhov developed a form of drama, a dramatic polyphony, which is unparalleled in the history of the theatre.

The technique of suggestion and implication through which this result was achieved had been fully worked out in his stories before Chekhov attempted to employ it on the stage. The short story called "The Wife," for example, concerns the relations of a husband and his estranged wife with regard to the relief of a neighboring village in time of famine. In the behavior of these two people is implied the whole story of their past, what amounts virtually to a novel. None of this is actually related. But by the end of the story, what has not been said has become completely clear, and one realizes that two stories have been told simultaneously, the one related directly, and the other altogether implied. Similarly, "About Love" is the story of an adulterous relationship that does not take place. It results in an intimate characterization of the narrator, Alekhin, who is understood mainly by reference to what he does not do and does not say. It would be an error to conclude from such examples that Chekhov was primarily concerned with novel forms of narration. He was, on the contrary, much inclined to a very simple and unaffected style, and disliked anything that smacked of trickery. But the things that most interested him as a writer were often too intangible for direct communication. In consequence, he developed a curiously tangential method of approach.

The difficulty of representing on the stage anything that cannot be directly stated is enormous. Unlike the novelist, the playwright relinquishes control of his material the moment it is played, and the audience is at liberty to do with it what it pleases. The theatre therefore inclines one to an uncompromising frontality of approach, and its conditions are generally unsuitable for any but the simplest and most unambiguous effects. This is particularly true of characterization. In the theatre it is usually assumed that the audience will be briefed quite precisely as to the nature of the characters by the end of the first act—such was the Scribean practice. Anything that changes this impression is then in the nature of a major effect, a surprise, or a recognition.

None of Chekhov's plays follows this prescription. His characters do not announce themselves, nor do they lend themselves readily to definition. Like real people, they are the subject of surmise and inference, and the author furnishes only the barest clues as to his intention. When the Moscow Art Theatre presented The Sea Gull, its directors went to great lengths to explore the personality of the principal characters in the interests of a truly realistic production. Chekhov's approach to these problems was characteristically oblique. Stanislavsky had been playing Trigorin in the elegant costume of a successful writer. When he managed in time to elicit from Chekhov a judgment of his interpretation, Chekhov's only comment was: "Excellent. Only he wears checked trousers, and his shoes have holes." He was somewhat more expansive with Kachalov, who also undertook this role for a time: "His fishing-rods are homemade, you know, all crooked and bent; he makes them himself with a pen-knife. His cigar is a good one, perhaps even a very good one; but he never removes the cigar band." And after a moment's earnest thought, he added: "But the main thing is his fishing rods." Similarly, during the rehearsals of Uncle Vanya, he wrote to Stanislavsky to explain Astrov's last scene: "He whistles, you know. Whistles. Uncle Vanya cries, but Astrov whistles."

These were, in fact, very useful clues to the characterization in each case, though willfully—one might even say mischievously—enigmatic. Even in the interests of his own production, Chekhov did not trouble to spell out for his cast the process of reasoning through which the character of Trigorin might be deduced from the holes in his shoes or the crudeness of his fishpoles. Here, as elsewhere, he contented himself with pointing to the external fact, the superficial manifestation of the inner situation.

That this epigrammatic mode of representation was learned rather than innate can hardly be doubted. Experience had taught him the futility of long explanations. In 1888, he had written copious notes analyzing the characters of Ivanov, and he had coached Davydov for hours in connection with the Petersburg production, all to no avail. Even toward the end of his life, in his letters to Olga Knipper he furnished from time to time detailed analyses of character and action, which nobody in the acting company understood or heeded. But he had his special magic, and used it to good effect. He knew that a moonlit landscape could be evoked by the highlight on the neck of a bottle; and in a man who whistled while others wept one could divine the depths of the soul's despair.

Until the last years of the nineteenth century, only the greatest dramatists had attempted anything on the stage beyond the depiction of the obvious. Traditionally, a play was an acted story, an observable pattern of events, but it was considered necessary in the course of a dramatic action for the author to reveal something of the secret life of his characters. This was accomplished in the simplest manner. Even in the nineteenth century, we find the characters of drama eager to explain themselves to us verbally in soliloquies or, more subtly, in the relation between what they do and what they say. Until the advent of symbolism, drama was an art that made things clear. Only the greatest plays preserved their mystery.

Impressionism was the great innovation of the later nineteenth century. The impressionists declined to look below the surface and, in the novel as on the stage, impressionist art was primarily concerned with the definition of external experience. For the impressionists, and their semi-scientific brethren, the naturalists, a character was what he seemed to be, and nothing more. The reaction was inevitable. Long before 1891, the year Huret published the results of his Enquête on the future of literature, it had become evident that a literary art which declined to look beyond appearance could have no great future.

The immediate result of the reaction to the school of Médan was a renewal of interest in symbolism and psychology, both of which attempted to probe the surface in order to discover what lay beneath the external tissue of experience. Chekhov had no taste for the metaphysical; but the workings of the human psyche interested him very much. His attitude from first to last remained staunchly impressionistic. He was concerned primarily to describe the face of nature; but its physiognomy fascinated him and, like all the major writers of his day, he came readily under the influence of symbolism.

Maeterlinck's essay Le Tragique quotidien was not pub lished until 1896, the year of The Sea Gull, but Chekhov had been reading him for some time in French, and in the summer of 1897 he wrote Suvorin of the great impression Maeterlinck's plays had made upon him. Maeterlinck had written of the need for a quiet drama, the drama of every day, which would convey the true sound of life:

Here, we no longer live with barbarians, nor is man now fretting in the midst of elementary passions, as though these were the only things worthy of note; he is at rest, and we have time to observe him. It is no longer a violent, exceptional movement of life that passes before our eyes—it is life itself.2

It must have occurred almost as readily to Chekhov as it had to Maeterlinck that in "life itself" there is something other than the obvious component, and that, consequently, naturalism, even at best, is a needlessly shallow evaluation of experience. People are primarily visible to the sensual eye, but only in their solidity, their opacity; the eye sees them and understands nothing. If they are to be understood, they must be perceived with the eye of the mind, armed with all the perceptive powers of which the mind is capable. Chekhov was unwilling to speculate, and refused to predicate anything of a general nature with regard to the substrate. Nevertheless, he was very much aware of the invisible life. He noted the outward detail of his world with the vigilant eye of the impressionist, but the result was valuable to him chiefly insofar as the outer world furnished a basis for the exploration of the world within, and it was in the relation of the two worlds that he found the true substance of his art.

In "The Lady with the Little Dog" the contrapuntal nature of the double life is demonstrated in a very elementary form. Gurov, the hero of the story,

had two lives, one open, seen and known by all who cared to know it, full of conventional truth and conventional falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances, and another life that ran its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental combination of, circumstances, everything that was of interest and importance, and essential to him, everything about which he felt sincerely and did not deceive himself, whatever constituted the core of his being, was hidden from other people; while all that was false in him, the shell in which he hid in order to conceal the truth … all that life went on in the open. And, judging others by himself, he believed nothing that he saw, and always considered that every man led his real, and most interesting life under the cover of secrecy, as under the cover of night3

It was Chekhov's special gift as an artist that he was able to penetrate to the core around which the outer life is shaped; but it was characteristic of his native reticence that beyond a certain point he did not betray his characters. With Chekhov, the revelation of truth was a matter involving the greatest circumspection. He never pretended to understand what he did not understand, and he scrupled to make a display of what he knew. In "The Black Monk," Kovrin lives his true life in the company of the mysterious apparition he has called forth from within himself. His well-meaning wife and her father, by means of diet and bromides, succeed in driving away the phantom which absorbs his attention, and are surprised when the excitement and the joy of his life vanish also. Once he is cured of his hallucination, the man is ruined, and his resentment knows no bounds. When the phantom monk returns at last, Kovrin is happy once again, and it is now that he suffers the hemorrhage that puts an end to him.

This is all Chekhov tells. But the intimation is clear. Kovrin's secret life, his essential life, is inseparable from the disease he hides in his breast, his tuberculosis, which works silently and secretly within him, and at last appears before his eyes as his dearest friend and greatest solace, his sincere admirer, the black monk. Such is the compensation he has invented for his mediocrity; and the fantasy is more than merely compensatory. It is a work of art precisely suited to his psychic needs, realized step by step until it destroys him. This growing death which he nourishes is, in short, his life, the illusion of greatness which at once sustains and consumes him. In the same way, in The Sea Gull, Treplev cannot endure the thought of his mediocrity. For him also the idea that he is a genius is his link with the vital principle; when this link snaps, his life comes to an end.

The art of Chekhov is, seemingly, limpid, a more or less humorous representation of the life of his time. In fact it is the art of the incomprehensible, the half-surmised, the enigmatic. It elicits, not a feeling of satisfaction but a revery, a mood that is very often disturbing. Chekhov speaks not to the mind, as perhaps he intended, but to the soul, reaching inward through a train of associations over which he exercises only a partial control. There is certainly something in this method that suggests the poet, or better still the composer; and Chekhov's work has, in consequence, often been called poetry, and compared with music. But if this art is musical, it is, on the whole, a discordant music that it makes. Chekhov was often compassionate, but more often brutally ironic. His was not a gentle art.

It is perhaps for this reason that Chekhov seems to us in our day so astonishingly modern. He was no ordinary realist. Had he been, his work would very likely have withered with his age, as he feared it might. In his own day, and in his country, he was admired for things that no longer seem important; and even now there is surely a tendency among Russian critics to exaggerate his role as a precursor of the Revolution. Tolstory admired him greatly as an artist; but he thought his plays were pointless. Of all his stories, Tolstoy liked "Dushechka" best—"The Darling"—which he considered a beautiful portrayal of womanhood, completely overlooking the irony of the characterization.4

The truth of "life as it is," which Chekhov thought it the function of the artist to reveal, was not, indeed, a truth perceptible to the realist. The life with which he was concerned was not the life which people exhibit. His was another order of realism. For those who are mainly aware of the external life, it is Chekhov's comic tales which are primarily valuable, and the works of his later period seem to them the product of a mind which ceased at a certain point to be amusing.5 But after half a century of earnest psychologizing, we tend to look beyond the jester in Chekhov, beyond the ironist, and for the first time, perhaps, we become aware of his terrifying insight into the guarded depths of the personality, the dark continent of the mind which only the artist can enter without intrusion.

Chekhov's characters are never wholly detached from the matrix. They stand out in various degrees of relief, never wholly in the round, physically and psychically a part of their environment, something to be contemplated along with the other things of nature, rivers and trees, the sky, the flight of geese, the lightning. For Chekhov all such manifestations of life were equally animate and equally mysterious, a source of wonder in themselves and in their mutual relations. Chekhov never ceased to be the boy traveling across the steppe toward the distant city, and he transmitted best of all the sense of surprise, the feeling of awe that life can arouse in a fresh and receptive mind. Perhaps because death was so near to him, he had no strong terminal sense. Man ends; but his story is endless. Chekhov's plays are not finished. When the curtain has fallen, the play goes on; there is still the sense of flux. We say farewell, and the brigade moves on toward other horizons. With Chekhov the story is soon told; but behind the story there is an eternity of stories, there is the eternal story:

Yalta was hardly visible through the morning mist; white clouds stood motionless on the mountain tops. The leaves did not stir on the trees, cicadas chirruped, and the monotonous, hollow sound of the sea, rising from below, spoke of peace and the eternal sleep that awaits us. So it must have sounded when there was no Yalta, and no Oreanda; so it sounds now, and so it will sound, indifferent and hollow, when we are no more. And in this permanence, in this complete indifference to the life and death of each one of us, there is hidden perhaps a pledge of our eternal salvation, of the unceasing movement of life on the earth, of the unceasing movement toward perfection.6

It is in such passages that we sense the nature of the Chekhovian "Beyond," the strangely unreal atmosphere in which the realities of his later plays are suspended. It is an atmosphere less mysterious and less explicit than the Maeterlinckian auxdelá, and certainly more intelligible. Like many of Chekhov's stories, his plays, The Sea Gull, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard, are presented with utmost realism, but they are presented sub specie aeternitatis, so that everything in them seems provisional and ephemeral in its nature, and the action seems curiously insignificant, a trifle in comparison with the vast process of which it forms a part.

Men live and suffer and die and are forgotten; the wave piles high on the beach, recedes, returns, endlessly repeating its monotonous cycle. It is perhaps quite aimless and meaningless; yet we are permitted to see in it the symbol of our salvation. The doubt, the question, is at the bottom of all. It is the true source of the unity of these plays, and the ultimate principle of their form. In consequence of the doubt which shaped them, they have a dream-like quality which is emphasized by somnambulistic characters for whom the borders of reality seem blurred. And, indeed, beyond the action of these plays we are made aware through dubious signs of another and more questionable reality to which these symbols barely reach; and which is perhaps not there.

Late in his life, it is said, Chekhov came to the conclusion that his works were essentially of exemplary and didactic character. Tikhonov recalls that in the course of a discussion in Moscow Chekhov remarked: "You say that you have wept over my plays. Yes, and not you alone. But I did not write them for that; it is Alexeyev who has made such cry-babies of my characters. I wanted something else. I wanted to tell people honestly: 'Look at yourselves. See how badly you live and how tiresome you are!' The main thing is that people should understand this. When they do, they will surely create a new and better life for themselves. I will not see it, but I know it will be entirely different, not like what we have now. And so long as it does not exist, I will continue to tell people: 'See how badly you live, and how tiresome you are!' Is that what makes them weep?"7

Evidently, at this stage of his career, the work of preparing the future of humanity, of which Vershinin speaks so vaguely, was taking a more definite form in Chekhov's mind, and he was willing to present his work primarily as social criticism. Unquestionably Chekhov said things of this sort from time to time, and especially when he found it necessary to defend himself against the charge, often repeated, that his writings made no point and car ried no message. But while such statements are under standable in the circumstances, and even perhaps to his credit, the truth is that, as a dramatist, he was a very minor social critic, but a very great artist. It is doubtful that anyone will wish to read Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, or The Cherry Orchard for purposes of edification, and it seems quaint that Chekhov should have suggested the possibility; but they have the universal validity of the highest art.

It seems altogether unlikely that Chekhov ever wrote with a particular point in mind. His work is never argumentative, seldom demonstrative. It is descriptive, representational. When he found a subject to his liking, he proceeded, apparently, to set it down as a painter might, filling in his canvas with broad, and often seemingly unrelated, touches which in the end are seen to make a Gestalt. Chekhov was certainly concerned with meaning, but not often with message. His works leave one with a sense of a deeply felt and complex experience, in part emotional, and in part intellectual, but never with the feeling of having digested a sermon or an exemplum. Apart from his often-expressed faith in the future of humanity, it is quite impossible to say what Chekhov believed. He affirmed life. He gave to the transitory a permanent form, an intimation of eternity; and he fixed the cultural elements of his time in patterns that are beautiful in themselves, and universally intelligible. It is the traditional role of the artist. His work comes as close to life as the work of Gogol and, since like him he was inclined to caricature, he strove for a likeness. But from the intellectual standpoint he was never precise: he displayed mainly his ambivalence. His plays are never definite in function or in aim and, as works of art, they seem as irrelevant to such concerns as the paintings of Brueghel or Vermeer.

It was evidently Chekhov's idea that the elemental forces of the universe express themselves most clearly in the individual, and that it is by observing the behavior of individuals that we become aware of the great tides that sweep the world. All of Chekhov's plays are small in subject matter, plays of the drawing-room and the garden. Yet no one has painted a broader canvas, or unfolded a deeper perspective. It was his aim to write simply and accurately. No modern dramatist is more complex; and few have elicited more diverse interpretations. In the belief that a representation of life involves everything that can be truly said about it, he noted in detail the symptoms of the world's malaise. So far as he could see, his world was a tissue of absurdities. It made no sense, and was probably no longer viable. He had only general therapeutic measures to suggest. Perhaps it could be nursed back to health. If not, it would die; and a new world would rise from its ashes. The question of how precisely this was to happen seemed, at the moment, unanswerable. But in two or three hundred years at the most, he was certain, the answer would be clear, and perhaps even the question. In the meantime, there was nothing for it but patience. Life was painful, but it was amusing; on the whole, an interesting and exasperating experience that one would not willingly forego. There was no more to be said on the subject. "You ask, what is life?" he wrote Olga some months before his death. "That is just the same as asking what is a carrot. A carrot is a carrot, and nothing more is known about it."8

Chekhov expressed no great faith in his chances of survival on the literary scene. In 1901 he remarked to Ivan Bunin that he did not expect his works to live over seven years. "But even though they read me only seven years more," he added, "I have less than that to live. Six."

He exaggerated. He had only three years more to live, barely that; but he would surely be read for centuries. He was not like other writers of his age, who spoke well, but only for their time, and were certain to pass away with it. Better than any among his contemporaries he expressed the transition between the old world and the new; his viewpoint was universal, his insights were at the same time Olympian and intensely human, he saw the jest where others saw only the injustice, and sensed the pain where others were moved chiefly to laughter. It is much to his credit that he saw life in the round, and also that he was not much concerned to formulate it philosophically. After all, he was soon to die, and for him the word nichevo, which his characters speak so often, had a special connotation.

In a noisy age, Chekhov greatly cultivated the gift of understatement. Therefore his words come to us softly and clearly through the hubbub of his time, and in this manner he is emphatic beyond any of his contemporaries, more convincing than Tolstoy, more effective than Gorky. Occasionally in his world there arises a scream of anguish or a shriek of laughter; but not often. His world, in general, is quiet, so quiet that when a string breaks in the sky, we hear it.


1 M. Gorky, Autobiography, New York, 1949, pp. 468.

2 Maeterlinck, Le Tragique quotidien. In Le Trésor des humbles, Paris, 1949, pp. 127 ff.; translated in part in B. Clark, European Theories of the Drama, p. 412.

3 "The Lady with the Little Dog." In Selected Works, III, 186 f.; translated in Yarmolinsky, Chekhov, pp. 430 f.; Garnett, Tales, Vol. III: The Lady with the Little Dog and Other Stories, New York, 1917, pp. 24 f.

4 See the fine study by Sophie Laffitte, Chekhov et Tolstoy, in Eekman, Anton Čechov, pp. 131 ff.

5 E.g. Prince Mirsky, Contemporary Russian Literature, New York, 1926, pp. 84 ff.

6 "The Lady with the Little Dog." In Selected Works, III, 178 f.; Garnett, Tales, Vol. III, p. 18; Yarmolinsky, Chekhov, 419.

7 "Chekhov v neizdannykh dnevnikakh sovremennikov" in Literaturnoe nasledstvo, LXVIII, Moscow, 1960, pp. 479 ff.

8 Letter to Olga Knipper, 20 April 1904. In Garnett, Letters, p. 386. For a good discussion of the various viewpoints, from the time of Skabichevsky and Shestov to that of Chukovsky, with regard to Chekhov's temperament, see Hingley, Chekhov, A Biographical and Critical Study, pp.103 ff.

Kenneth Rexroth (essay date 1967)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1447

SOURCE: "Chekhov's Plays," in Saturday Review, Vol. L, No. 27, 8 July 1967, p. 18.

[In this essay, Rexroth comments on the profound change in the nature of drama brought about by Chekhov.]

It comes as a bit of a shock to sit yourself down and deliberately think, "In the first half of the twentieth century, the position once occupied in ancient Greece by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides was held, in the estimation of those who sought serious satisfaction in the modern theater, by Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov." What had happened in two thousand years? Had it happened to the audiences, or to the playwrights, or to the self-evolving art of drama? Or was the change more profound than this, more profound even than a change in the meaning of civilization—was it a change in the very nature of man? We still say we enjoy Antigone; but if we go directly from a performance of that play to Chekhov's Three Sisters, it is difficult not to believe that the men of Classic times were different from us, a different kind of men.

In certain plays, both Ibsen and Strindberg set out deliberately to compete with the great past, with Shakespeare or Schiller or Sophocles or Aeschylus. The results are hardly competition. Peer Gynt or Damascus bears little resemblance to the past, though certain Strindberg plays do contain distorted reflections of Euripides. But Chekhov—what would the Greeks have made of The Sea Gull? They would have classed it with Menander, with the New Comedy of domestic conflict and absurd situation. So did Chekhov. We seldom pay attention to half-titles in "Collected Plays," but there it says, right on the page—"The Sea Gull, A Comedy in Four Acts." Ivanov is called "a drama"; Uncle Vanya, "scenes of country life"; Three Sisters, a "drama"; The Cherry Orchard, certainly the saddest of all, "A comedy."

So simply Chekhov states his aesthetic, and with it a philosophy of life. If we take these heartbreaking plays as tragedies in the sense in which Oedipus the King is a tragedy, we are self-convicted of sentimentality. No one has ever had a more delicate sentiment, a more careful sensibility, when it comes to portraying, and so judging, the lives of more-than-ordinary men and women—but no one was ever less a sentimentalist—than Chekhov. This is why he outraged a swashbuckling sentimentalist like D. H. Lawrence, who hated him and who couldn't understand why he didn't come down hard on the right side and plump for the Good Guys and The Life Force.

Chekhov always insisted that the five plays of his maturity that his audiences insisted were tragedies were simply developments, precisely in maturity, of the hilarious short farces of his youth. But if Uncle Vanya's impotent pistol shots and Irina's "Moscow, Moscow, we'll never see Moscow now!" are not tragic, then Chekhov is mocking us, and his characters—and, not least, his actors—too. No. Chekhov is the master of an art of such highly refined modesty that he can present his people in their simplicity on a stage and let life itself do the mocking.

He wanted a new theater, a theater that would tell it the way it really was. There has been plenty of realist and naturalist theater in Russia in his day and since, but there is only one Chekhov. The naturalist theater uses a whole armamentarium of devices to create an illusion of "real life" and then drive home its points, all derived from the storehouse of literary and dramatic morality.

There have been many more lifelike plays than Chekhov's. His is not a circumstantial naturalism of décor and talk and event—it is a moral naturalism. These lost people, off in the vast provinces of Russia, frustrated, aimless, hopeless, or full of Utopian unrealizable hopes, all alike coming to trivial ends, actually make up a highly stylized theater of their own, as formal or classic as the Commedia dell' Arte or Plautus and Terence.

What is realistic, or naturalistic? What is "life as it really is"? This is the silent moral commentary that underlines every speech, like an unheard organ pedal. Is it a judgment? In the sense in which "Judge not lest ye be judged" is a judgment.

There is something intrinsically ridiculous about all the people in all the plays. Chekhov's is truly a theater of the absurd. Yet we never think of them as very funny—and we don't think of them as very sad, either. The play as a whole may sadden us, as life saddens us with all the massive pathos of mortality, but Chekhov's people we simply accept.

We do not judge Uncle Vanya to be a fool or Irina to be a silly girl or Trigorin to be an ass and a cad, although they certainly say foolish and silly and asinine things. And when that recurrent character who always says, "Some day life will be splendid, and people in those faroff days will look back on us and pity us in our filth and misery and thank us for having endured our agonies for them, so that they might be" speaks his recurrent part, we neither laugh nor sigh nor believe, but at the most think, "Perhaps. Not likely. It won't matter."

Chekhov would have been horrified if anyone had coldbloodedly accused him of teaching a moral—but so he does. We accept these tragic comedies, these sorrowful farces of Chekhov's the way we would accept life itself if we were gifted with sudden wisdom. Chekhov places us in a situation, confronting the behavior of a number of human beings in what seems to them, at least, an important crisis. We are so placed, so situated and informed, that we can afford to be wise. We can regard the affairs of men as they should be regarded, in the aspect of timelessness. But this is what Sophocles does.

Once we accept both the idiom of Chekhov and the idiom of Sophocles we can compare them, and we can see very clearly the great precision and economy with which Chekhov works. His plays are pre-eminently, in modern times, playwright's plays, a joy for a fellow craftsman to see or read. How right everything is! How little time or speech is wasted! How much every line is saturated with action! Sophocles, Moliére, Racine—very few other playwrights have been as accurate and as economical.

It is this genius for stating only the simplest truth as simply as can be that makes Chekhov inexhaustible—like life. We can see him for the hundredth time when we are sick of everything else in the theater, just as we can read his stories when everything else, even detectives and science fiction, bores us. We are not bored because we do not feel we are being manipulated. We are, of course, but manipulated to respond, "That's the way it is." Since the professional manipulators of the mind never have this response in view, we are quite unconscious of Chekhov's craftiness—that he is always interfering on the side of suspended judgment.

Quite unlike those of Ibsen and Strindberg, who were tireless preachers and manipulators, Chekhov's people are not alienated. They have trouble, as men have always had, communicating, but the cast of each play forms a community nonetheless. They would all like to live in a society of mutual aid if only they could define the means and ends of aid itself. One feels that Ibsen and Strindberg didn't like any of their casts very much and made them up of people who wouldn't listen to Ibsen and Strindberg. Chekhov doesn't want to be listened to. He isn't there. He is out of sight, in the last row of the balcony, listening. "I imagine people so they can tell me things about themselves." This is an unusual, but certainly an unusually effective, credo for a playwright.

It is easy to accept Orestes or Hamlet as an archetype. Hundreds of books are written analyzing the new pantheon of heroes who make up the inner dramas of our unconscious. They are very spectacular personages, these. It is hard at first to believe a playwright who comes to us and says, "The schoolteacher and the two stenographers next door to where you live in Fort Dodge—these are the real archetypes." But until we have learned this—and most of us will never learn it, however many Chekhov plays we see; not really, not deep in the bowels of compassion, but only as we learn things in books—we will never learn to approach life with the beginnings of wisdom: with that wisdom so characteristic of Sophocles.

J. B. Priestley (essay date 1970)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3150

SOURCE: "Chapter 7," in Anton Chekhov, A. S. Barnes & Co., 1970, pp. 70-82.

[In the essay below, Priestley admires the psychological depth of Chekhov's characters, arguing: "It is this depth, where consciousness dissolves into the fathomless unconscious, where new half-realized meanings gleam and then vanish like fish in some deep lake, that constantly renews for us the fascination of [Chekhov's] drama. "]

The first Chekhov play I ever saw was The Cherry Orchard. This was in 1925 when it had its first London run. (There had been a single Stage Society performance as far back as 1911.) I took a girl with me, an intelligent girl who was a newly qualified doctor, and I remember that she left the theatre feeling bewildered and rather resentful. But the play, even in this faulty production, had enchanted me. The magic of it lingered for days. Since then I have seen many different productions of The Cherry Orchard. The best I ever saw was when I was in Russia in 1945, in a performance beginning at the curious hour of noon on Sunday, and it was of course being given by the Moscow Art Theatre, largely by players who had been trained and directed by Stanislavsky. Compared with that, the performance given by the Moscow Art Theatre during its visit to London in 1958 was disappointing. Incidentally, almost all the earlier British and American productions of Chekhov were too slow, heavy, lugubrious, missing the shot-silk 'laughter-through-tears' effect. Chekhov himself would have detested them.

After so many years I do not remember what my girl-doctor companion said after we left the theatre that evening in 1925. But it is a fairly safe guess to suppose she told me that 'nothing happened'. It was a common complaint for some time against Chekhov and his four last plays. In point of fact a great deal happens in these plays, and indeed in The Seagull, Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters there are moments that might have come from melodrama. It is not the dramatic substance of these plays that used to leave audiences feeling bewildered and dissatisfied: it is Chekhov's peculiar method. What he does in effect is to turn the conventional 'well-made' play upside down and inside out. It is almost as if he had read some textbooks on the art of playwriting and had then done the opposite of everything they recommended. It is common form in conventional drama to endow the leading characters, if only for the sake of the inevitable 'conflict', with more power of will and sense of purpose than most of us can pretend to have. Chekhov reverses this. Instead of heightening and hardening the will in his characters, he depresses and softens it: most of them are even more uncertain and weaker than we are. Again, in the 'well-made' play, the characters are so intent upon shaping neat scenes, are so anxious to reach the climax of the conflict, they cannot find time to tell us they dislike tomato soup or have an old uncle who still plays the 'cello. But if they are Chekhov characters, then they have time to tell us anything that comes into their heads.

There is a fascinating thing here that has escaped general notice. Chekhov himself, following some secret train of thought, was always surprising other people by making inconsequential remarks, just like so many characters in his plays. The others might be arguing about Marxism and he would say, 'Have you ever been to a stud farm?' Or the subject might be literature, and he would announce out of the blue, 'One ought to go to Australia.' Stanislavsky describes how Chekhov, a devoted angler, when he was out fishing with some theatrical friends, suddenly burst out laughing, and when they asked him what was the matter, he replied, 'Listen! Artem can never play Ibsen.' But what was a little idiosyncrasy in his own talk was broadened and deepened to become a highly original method in his drama. It enables us to come closer to his characters. It reminds us how difficult true communication can be. (Act Two of The Cherry Orchard originally ended with a scene between Charlotta, the eccentric governess, and Firs, the very old valet, who tried—entirely in vain—to explain their lives to each other. But it was decided during rehearsal to shorten the act and this scene had to go—most unfortunately, in my opinion.) This method also reminds us how essentially lonely we are, most of our time. Finally, it gives Chekhov's drama, on the surface so lackadaisical and incon-sequential, rhythm and development in depth.

It is this depth, where consciousness dissolves into the fathomless unconscious, where new half-realized meanings gleam and then vanish like fish in some deep lake, that constantly renews for us the fascination of his drama. He can be disliked—anybody and anything can be disliked—but if we like him at all, then we can take his plays over and over again. I have seen dreadful productions of Chekhov, who makes demands that too many companies cannot meet, but even during the worst of them something of the magic has remained. He has, so to speak, an extra dimension. Many of his friends, while they loved him for his unfailing kindness, generosity and charm, found something teasingly elusive in his personality. He can be equally elusive in his plays. What is farcical turns into pathos, comedy dissolves into tragedy, while this in turn reveals a glint of irony. Let us take, as an obvious example, all those speeches about life being wonderful sometime in the future. As we hear or read those speeches we can almost see an enigmatic smile hovering above them. Whatever else Chekhov may be doing, he is not seizing an opportunity to declare his faith in progress. (But I am not saying he had no such faith, only that he was not writing plays to prove it.) Any attempt to saddle him, as a dramatist, with a political-economic-social purpose seems to me quite wrong. He goes to work on a deeper level.

Like many of his tales, his plays make us movingly aware of waste and loss. With the exception of his lovable old innocents, his characters, though they may suffer from self-deception and weakness of will, make us feel that Time has cheated them. It is as if Anton Chekhov, as distinct from the practical sensible Dr A. P. Chekhov, felt strongly when in a creative mood that there is some secret, which might reveal a very different scheme of things, that we have lost. There is a curious speech by Vershinin in The Three Sisters, beginning: 'I often say to myself: suppose one could start one's life over again, but this time with full knowledge? Suppose one could live one's life as one writes a school composition, once in rough draft, and then live it again in a fair copy?' It is worth noticing that although there is a great deal about love in these four plays, not one of them offers us an example of a happy lasting sexual relationship. And there is a significant entry in one of his notebooks: 'Love is either the residue of something that is degenerating and that was once tremendous or else a part of something that will become tremendous in the future. But in the present it cannot satisfy, it offers much less than is expected of it.' He may have had in mind the the heady false romanticism common enough in the Russia he knew. But his conclusion—'it offers much less than is expected of it'—is oddly prophetic to us now, when among so much uncertainty, fear, hidden despair, sex is being asked to carry too heavy a load.

However, it is time to take a seat in the theatre and look at the plays themselves. From here on it must be understood that my criticism is very personal, an expression of my own likes and dislikes; it could not be anything else and remain honest; but at least I can add that I have seen many productions of these plays, including some in Moscow itself, and that my own theatrical experience has been very considerable. In any order of all-round merit, I would say that the last of these plays, The Cherry Orchard, comes first; then, a little below it, The Three Sisters (often called simply Three Sisters, but this sounds a bit brutal in English); and then, some way below and both on the same level, Uncle Vanya and The Seagull.

We have seen already how immensely popular The Sea-gull became as soon as it was produced by the Moscow Art Theatre. It is far closer to conventional drama than Chekhov's later plays. It is nothing like so subtle and elusive. Its characters create definite 'scenes'. And it offers us actresses and authors—incidentally, the last we shall see in Chekhov. Nor is it surprising that the first act should have been so rapturously received at its opening performance. It is a wonderful first act, strikingly original, and broad, rich and deep. I could enjoy seeing it again and then leaving the theatre. Not that the rest of the play is bad—far from it—but it has weaknesses more obvious as the play develops. One of them is that it has too large a circle of unrequited lovers: the A loves B, B loves C, C loves D pattern soon becomes irritating. Then Trigorin and Treplev are hard to accept. What Chekhov did here was to divide his own personality into three: Trigorin being the popular storyteller self he was getting tired of, Treplev being the self struggling with new forms of expression, and Dr Dorn being his doctor-self, significantly sympathetic to Treplev's efforts. None of them quite succeeds as a separate creation, an independent character. Trigorin, a part notoriously difficult for actors, is presented as a weak, shallow, fashionable author, yet he shows an all-consuming devotion to his art that is neither weak nor shallow and would set him apart from fashionable hacks. (He says some very good things of course, but are they in character—and which character?) Again, unless I have been deceived about Treplev as a highly original young writer, then I cannot accept his suicide. Finally, though this is a minor criticism, Dr Dorn seems to carry weight that he never really uses. The women, especially Nina, are good acting parts but hardly memorable characters. The play itself is fine theatre, which explains its popularity, but even so I am now ready to leave after that wonderful first act.

I am happy to announce that the production of Uncle Vanya I most enjoyed was an English one, that by the Old Vic in 1945, with Richardson as Uncle Vanya, Olivier as Astrov, Joyce Redman as Sonya, Margaret Leighton as Yelena. Even though it has the advantage of a very moving last act, Uncle Vanya is not an easy play for an English-speaking audience to accept. Its main theme—that old Professor Serebryakov and his beautiful young wife, Yelena, are not worth the sacrifices that Uncle Vanya and Sonya have been making for them—is straightforward enough. But the Professor's social importance is not obvious to us, and we could do with a little more of him. The over-excitable Uncle Vanya, very much a Slav type, is always in danger of appearing quite farcical, and the scene in which he fires at—and misses—the Professor has always seemed to me, as people say, 'a bit much'. As we know, this play is based on a much earlier one, The Wood Demon. It was completed, probably rather hastily, in 1896, but there is some evidence that Chekhov may have worked on it as early as 1890. Certainly if he had been still revising it by the time he was writing The Three Sisters and was now at ease with his own method, the rather awkward soliloquies in Uncle Vanya would have been taken out, and, for example, Dr Astrov would have been less obviously explicit about his forests and the waste of the countryside. The old underlying theme of waste and loss is here again, but this play may be taken as a symbolic presentation of the Russia of the 1890s, when so many glittering empty types like the Professor and his wife were being maintained by the long hard work and the drastic economies of the Uncle Vanyas and the Sonyas—who must 'live through a long, long chain of days and weary evenings' and know no rest this side of the grave, only in Heaven.

There are some great plays that offer more to the imaginative reader than they do to the playgoer. (After seeing many productions of King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra, I think they are best enjoyed at home.) Chekhov's The Three Sisters is not one of these plays. So long as the production is worthy of it—and it is a difficult play to stage—it must be seen to be fully appreciated. I have described already how Chekhov took endless trouble over this play, constantly sending on textual revisions and advice to actors after he had been compelled to go abroad. The best production of it I ever saw was at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1945, with Tarasova, a magnificent actress, playing Olga Knipper's original part, Masha. (My only reservation about this production, superb in every detail, is that because it tried to keep together as many as possible of the players trained by Stanislavsky, the cast as a whole tended to be much older than the characters they were playing.) The first act, in which we have to be introduced to so many people, is rather, awkward, and the opening scene, between the three sisters, offers us too much obvious exposition. On the other hand, the play gains in force and depth as it goes along, and the last act—properly produced and using a big stage—is overwhelming. There is no better example of Chekhov's unique laughter-through-tears' effect than the scene in which the little teacher, Kuligin, puts on the false beard in a pathetic attempt to amuse his wife and her two sisters. There is much irony in the play as well as great pathos, as one illusion after another fails the test of reality; but it is not intended as a complicated proof of human futility. While Anton Chekhov tenderly removes each illusion, Dr A. P. Chekhov is suggesting we should not waste the life we have by allowing idle dreams to rob it of colour, flavour and zest.

We have seen already how Chekhov found The Cherry Orchard hard to compose—and it was composed rather than written, almost like another Das Lied von der Erde. And not simply because he was then a very sick man, working under a sentence of death. But I think this influenced him to a degree beyond his conscious appreciation, so that while he protested over and over again that he was writing—or had written—a comedy, he was not aware how much sadness was seeping through. (Stanislavsky must have felt this, so that he was not really at cross-purposes with Chekhov, though he may have wanted to make too much of the dying aristocracy theme.) But Chekhov must have found his 'comedy' hard to compose because it carried his unique dramatic method as far as it would go, while at the same time he had to handle a large and varied group of characters. Furthermore, he gave each act its own particular atmosphere: first, the waiting up in the dark hours and then the arrival at dawn; secondly, the revealing talk in the immense calm early evening; thirdly, the semi-hysterical atmosphere of the late party; and finally the hurried tearful departure from the desolate house. All four are wonderful in their own way, but to my mind the masterpiece is Act One, which has long seemed to me the finest single act in the whole of modern drama. Technically it is a marvel, but over and above what can be analysed it has a peculiar magic that is renewed year after year.

Too much can be made of the cherry orchard itself. It gave Chekhov a beautiful image for his title, and the sale of it helps to shape the drama. But it is the house and not the orchard that is the centre and heart of the play. All the characters—even Lopahin, who begins by telling us so—are intimately connected with the house. But this is not a play about closing a house or selling an orchard. What then is it 'about'? It is about time and change and folly and regret and vanished happiness and hope for the future. A little girl I once knew, quiet for once and sitting in a corner, was asked what was the matter, and replied: 'Life in this world'. The Cherry Orchard is about life in this world. Coldly considered, its characters are far from being admirable: Madame Ranevsky is a foolish woman only too anxious to return to a worthless young lover; Gaev is an amiable ass who talks too much; Anya is a goose and her Trofimov a solemn windbag; Lopahin, the practical self-made man, is confused and unhappy; Epihodov a clumsy idiot; Dunyasha a foolish girl; Yasha an insufferable jumped-up lad; and Firs far gone in senility. But Chekhov, who knows all this better than we do, is not coldly considering these people. Even more, I suspect, than we are consciously aware of, he is revealing them to us in a strange light, infinitely tender and compassionate, that might illuminate a man's mind when he is in effect saying farewell to this life. Chekhov talked vaguely about another play he was planning to write, but I think he never meant this seriously. He had already said goodbye in The Cherry Orchard, his masterpiece.

A final point about Chekhov as dramatist. He came to have an enormous influence upon younger writers. Now a man may be a magnificent dramatist himself and yet be a bad influence. This, in my opinion, is true of Shaw, who, out of his unusual temperament, experience, witty ebullience, was able to create unique comedies of debate. He is an easy man to enjoy and a very difficult man to follow, with the result that we have had far too many mediocre comedies, loud with argument, written under his influence. The opposite is true of Chekhov. Since his time we have had many Chekhovian plays. None of them rivals The Cherry Orchard or The Three Sisters, but they are not worse plays because of his influence, they are all better than they might have been. While appearing at first so indifferent to the immediate demands of the Theatre, in the end Chekhov liberated and enriched it.

David Magarshack (essay date 1972)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3683

SOURCE: "Introduction," in The Real Chekhov: An Introduction to Chekhov's Last Plays, George Allen & Unwin, 1972, pp. 9-18.

[In the following, Magarshack examines misinterpretations of Chekhov's plays by theater directors, translators, and others.]

The stage is a scaffold on which the playwright is executed.

Chekhov (Letters)

Chekhov's chief executioners both in Russia and England (not to mention the United States) have been the directors, who quite consistently disregard Chekhov's intention in writing his plays, inevitably producing a crude distortion of their characters and a travesty of their themes. 'It is highly necessary', Mr Basil Ashton declared in a letter to the New Statesman (II September 1970)

for anyone who really cares about the classics to insist on the theatre providing a few directors who respect their author, rather than seeking, solely, to air their egos.… It is only by the writings of dramatists that the theatre survives, and directors should consider this fact as strongly as modern conductors seem able to consider the importance of the composer. As I happen to be a director myself, I cannot be accused of self-interest when I repeat that a director is only of any use when he serves the dramatist and allows the public to see and understand what the dramatist intended.

Chekhov himself had no delusions about the 'egos' of the directors. 'Chuck the theatre,' he advised a fellow-writer. 'With a few exceptions it is nothing but an asylum for megalomaniacs.' It is not a director's 'ego', however, that is the chief culprit in the 'execution' of Chekhov on the stage and screen. What makes him so consistently ignore Chekhov's intention is his complete ignorance of the background of Chekhov's plays as well as of his personal life, of his views of the literary and political problems of his day, and of the circumstances relating to the genesis of his plays. It is the total incomprehension of the central themes of Chekhov's plays that explains why directors are so prone to indulge in wild fantasies. Their ignorance of Chekhov's personal life all too often results in grotesque inventions, which have led some well-known actors to make up to look like Chekhov in the part of Trigorin in The Seagull.

It was ignorance of Chekhov's attitude to the literary and political problems of his day that led Stanislavsky to describe Chekhov's comedies as 'great tragedies of Russian life'. This cardinal misconception gave rise to the sadness-cum-despair syndrome which became such a characteristic feature of most Chekhov productions.

This was already manifest in Stanislavsky's production of The Seagull at the close of the first season of the Moscow Art Theatre in December 1898. It was the last play of the season. The theatre had scored a moderate success with its first play, a mediocre historical drama by Count Alexey Tolstoy, but the other five plays in its repertoire had been dismal failures. The whole future of the Moscow Art Theatre depended on the success or failure of The Seagull. It was a resounding success and the theatre was saved. At the time this success was attributed to the 'mood' of the play and the mises en scène. Stanislavsky was responsible for both. The 'mood', which was to become so generally accepted as the most characteristic feature of Chekhov's plays, may have corresponded with the despondent mood of the Russian educated classes before the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, but it had nothing whatever to do with Chekhov's play. As for the mises en scéne, they were made up entirely of the inventions and gimmicks Stanislavsky had used so successfully in his amateur productions: the nocturnal countryside noises of croaking frogs, the crake of the landrail, the chirrings of the crickets, the ominous reddish light hovering over the darkness, and the slow tolling of a distant church bell which, Stanislavsky explains in his 'score' of The Seagull, 'help the audience to get the feel of the sad monotonous life of the characters'. Here we have the birth of the sadness-cum-despair syndrome, which threw Chekhov into a fit of blind fury when the play was performed for him later. Indeed, Chekhov was so furious with Stanislavsky's misinterpretation of his comedy that, unable to demand Stanislavsky's dismissal from his own theatre, he kept insisting on the instant dismissal of the young actress who played Nina and whose 'sad and monotonous' mood and bursts of loud sobbing (neither she nor Stanislavsky had the faintest idea of the real meaning of the last scene of the play), Chekhov declared had ruined his play. He was to say the same thing about Stanislavsky's production of The Cherry Orchard.

The two never got on. Chekhov treated Stanislavsky with half-amused contempt. Stanislavsky, as he was to admit many years later in his reminiscences, thought Chekhov to be 'supercilious and insincere'. But the reason for their disagreement lay much deeper than mere personal antipathy, and it also explains why Stanislavsky so persistently misunderstood and misinterpreted Chekhov's plays. To Chekhov, the son of an impoverished former serf, the sale of the Gayev estate and its unproductive cherry orchard was, as he makes Trofimov explain to Anya at the end of Act II, merely the inevitable consequence of the life of people who for centuries had lived at the expense of those whom they did not admit 'further than their entrance hall'. They were not tragic figures at all, but characters in a comedy. To Stanislavsky, the son and heir of a rich factory owner, they were, on the contrary, characters of 'a great tragedy', as indeed he would have regarded the failure of his father's lucrative business as 'a great tragedy'.

The most extraordinary thing in the whole history of European drama is the contemptuous dismissal by directors of Chekhov's own description of The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard as comedies. They are quick enough to acknowledge Chekhov as one of the greatest dramatists of his age, but they do not seem to take him seriously when he claims his two plays to be comedies. Do they really believe that Chekhov did not know the difference between a comedy and a tragedy? The main reason for this almost unanimous disregard of Chekhov's intention in writing the two plays is, of course, that both plays seem to end unhappily for some of their chief characters. In The Seagull, Konstantin's suicide is generally interpreted as being due to an unhappy love affair. B. N. Livanov, director of the Moscow Art Theatre's first revival of The Seagull after over sixty years, did not hesitate to distort Chekhov's intention by the insertion of new dialogue and to mutilate the play by completely ignoring Chekhov's stage directions. According to Livanov, Konstantin commits suicide because he is 'disillusioned by Nina's rejection of him'. This is what Stanislavsky and countless other directors took to be the reason for Konstantin's suicide. When, towards the end of the last act, Konstantin asks Nina where she is going, and she replies simply enough that she is going back to the town, Stanislavsky interpolates the melodramatic note: 'This is where he really dies'. But, surely, if disappointed love made him commit suicide, he should have 'died' earlier at the time when Nina had told him that she was still in love with Trigorin.

Konstantin's suicide does not make The Seagull into a tragedy, in the dramatic meaning of the word, any more than does Uncle Vanya's suicide at the end of the third act of The Wood Demon—the first Tolstoyan version of Uncle Vanya—which Chekhov also described as a comedy and provided with a happy ending strictly in accordance with the Tolstoyan notion (made abundantly plain in Tolstoy's famous story 'The Devil') that a man who lusts after a married woman ought to put a bullet through his head. Konstantin's suicide has a much deeper significance. It concerns Konstantin's realisation that his un-critical acceptance of the ideas of the avant-garde symbolist movement had resulted in his failure as a writer, a theme which has wider implications and is as pertinent today as it was in Chekhov's day.

Chekhov strongly objected to being labelled a 'realist'. To him labels like 'realism' or 'naturalism' were just, as he expressed it through the mouth of Uncle Vanya, 'nothing but a lot of nonsense'. Indeed, what makes The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard comedies in the strict meaning of the word is that both plays are based on the principle that characterises both low and high comedy, namely, the incongruity between reality and delusion. The clash between things as they are and things as they are believed to be by the characters of a comedy is also one of the most characteristic aspects of a Chekhov play. When Mrs Ranevsky is told that her estate and the un-productive, though aesthetically beautiful, cherry orchard are quite certain to be sold at a public auction, she refuses to believe it, while her brother Gayev, a confirmed escapist, takes refuge in his obsession with billiards (a situation that would have appeared more credible to English and American audiences if his obsession had been with golf). When the slow-witted country schoolmaster Medvedenko declares at the very beginning of the first act of The Seagull that Nina and Konstantin are in love and that in Konstantin's play 'their souls will unite in an endeavour to give expression to one and the same artistic ideas', the preciosity of such an utterance should immediately arouse the suspicions of a perceptive audience and prepare it for the following scene between Nina and Konstantin, which far from being a love scene, as it is usually played, shows the first serious rift in the boy-and-girl romance of the two chief characters of the comedy.

The Moscow Art Theatre's last production of The Seagull shows all too clearly how easy it is for a director to destroy and mutilate a great play by totally ignoring the playwright's intention. Stanislavsky at least was very careful not to interfere with Chekhov's text, which cannot be said of Livanov who had no compunction at all in amending, cutting, rewriting and, generally, mangling Chekhov's text to satisfy his own philistine ideas of how the play should have been written. English and American directors have it much easier. It is the translator who does most of the mangling for them.

Chekhov burst upon the English stage at a time when Stanislavsky and his Moscow Art Theatre were at the height of their fame in the West. It was natural, therefore, that Stanislavsky's idea of Chekhov's plays as 'tragedies of Russian life' should have been accepted without question. It was also at the same time—that is, in the early twenties—that the only widely recognised translator from the Russian was Constance Garnett, whose admirable zeal and indefatigable perseverance was only equalled by her inadequate knowledge of Russian which never rose above the dictionary level. It was Constance Garnett who for a long time monopolised the presentation of Chekhov plays on the English stage, leaving a ghastly legacy of misconceptions and misrepresentations that made them synonymous in the mind of the English spectator with sadness, gloom and despair.

The frequent mistranslations of Russian colloquial expressions and idioms necessarily introduce an element of quaintness which is totally absent from the original text. This element of quaintness is intensified by the attempt, so beloved by directors who have no idea of their author's intention, to convey the 'Russian' atmosphere, either by the introduction of Russian words into the dialogue or by insisting that the actors should use Russian names and patronymics which are usually mispronounced so horribly that no Russian would be able to recognise them. Why insist on patronymics when they not only confuse the audience but also interfere with the rhythm of English speech, and when the slightest Russian variation of them, such as Potapych instead of Potapovich in the Three Sisters, is quite meaningless to an English or American ear? The same is true of the Russian diminutives which are also invariably mispronounced and whose infinite variations convey different meanings beyond the comprehension of an English-speaking audience. Why insist on making the actors pronounce Petya or Alexandr when all it means is 'darling Peter' and 'Alexander'? What actually happens, therefore, is that what the director takes to be the 'Russian atmosphere' is not Russian at all. It is nothing but a fraud perpetrated upon an audience to cover up a director's ignorance.

This failure to see the hidden meaning of a word or a name is also true of American translators of Chekhov's plays. Korney Chukovsky, the well-known Russian critic, translator and poet, has this to say about Miss Marian Fell's translations of Chekhov plays in his recently-published book on Translation as a High Art Form:

Marian Fell excelled herself in her translations of Chekhov plays. She has made up a hundredfold for all the howlers and mistakes ever made by her Russian colleagues. The Russian scholar and art critic Batyushkov, mentioned in Uncle Vanya, becomes a Greek Orthodox priest, for she seems to have confused the surname Batyushkov for batyushka, the Russian word for a priest. In another play she has transformed the radical critic Dobrolyubov into St Francis of Assisi by translating his name literally as 'a lover of goodness' and jumping to the conclusion that Chekhov must have meant St Francis. In Ivanov Count Shabelsky says that he has spent twenty thousand roubles on all sorts of cures. She translates it: 'In the course of my life I have nursed several thousand sick people.' Indeed, the whole character of Count Shabelsky has been smashed to smithereens by her translation of a short sentence. Chekhov wrote: 'Tebya, brat, zayela sreda ', which means, 'You, my dear fellow, are the victim of your environment.' 'Miss Fell, mistaking sreda for the Russian word for Wednesday, translates it: 'You have got out of your bed on the wrong side.' She describes Gogol as a Russian fabulist. Every page of Miss Fell's translation of Chekhov's plays is teeming with blunders which completely distort Chekhov's text. But let us suppose for a moment that, overcome with shame, Miss Fell eliminated ail her howlers and mistakes, that batyushka became, as in Chekhov, Batyushkov, that St Francis became Dobrolyubov, that, in short, her translations became a faithful translinear rendering of the Russian text, even then it would have been of no use at all, for it would have lacked the most important quality of the original, its style, without which Chekhov is not Chekhov.

But, style apart, it is the ignorance of the background of the plays that more often results in the total misconception of their author's intention. A good example of this is Constance Garaett's substitution of Chekhov's Hamlet quotation in the first act of The Seagull by another quotation from the same play. When Chekhov first submitted his play to the censor prior to its performance at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in Petersburg, the censor objected to several passages at the beginning of the first act in which Konstantin referred in scathing terms to his mother's relationship with Trigorin. For a son to speak so disrespectfully of his mother was considered to be quite inadmissible in a public performance of a play. Chekhov was told that unless he deleted those passages he would obtain no permission for the performance of his play on the stage of what at the time was not a private but a state theatre. He, therefore, decided to make Konstantin recite Hamlet's lines to Gertrude, 'Nay, but to live in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed', etc., so as to reveal Konstantin's disapproval of Arkadina's relations with Trigorin and, at the same time, make it quite impossible for the censor to object to it. To introduce the lines and to heighten their dramatic effect, he had to give Arkadina Gertrude's preceding lines, as a cue for her son's violent outburst. Constance Garnett totally failed to grasp the relevance of the Hamlet quotation. She therefore substituted two lines Hamlet uses for the introduction of his own play: 'And let me wring your heart, for so I shall / If it be made of penetrable stuff, an utterly inappropriate quotation, for it was not Konstantin's intention to wring anybody's heart, but merely to give a dramatic form to the cosmic conflict between the two primary super-human figures of the World Soul and Satan as conceived by the poet and mystic Vladimir Solovyov, one of the leading figures of the Russian Symbolist Movement, of which Konstantin was an ardent adherent. Needless to say, Constance Garnett completely misses the meaning of the seagull theme (as, indeed, do most of the directors and actors of the play) by the mistranslation of a single word in Nina's speech in the last act by making Nina say, 'What matters is not fame … but knowing how to be patient', instead of 'knowing how to endure'.

The mistranslation of a single word may sometimes be enough to ruin a Chekhov play by reducing one of its chief characters to a state of utter idiocy. There was the case of a well-known director who used a 'new' translation of The Cherry Orchard (directors are very keen on using 'new' translations without bothering to find out whether the translator has the qualifications for it) in which Trofimov's advice to Lopakhin not to throw his arms about is translated: 'Don't flap your hands'. Lopakhin in this production kept flapping his hands all through the play. He would do so even in the middle of a speech, pausing to flap his hands whenever he wished to emphasise a point. It was no use explaining to the director in question the utter senselessness of Lopakhin's hand-flapping. He seemed quite convinced that the flapping had some deep meaning, some mystic revelation of the 'Russian soul', some Dostoevskian streak of submissiveness and suffering in the far from submissive or suffering Lopakhin.

Quite often a translator will deliberately mistranslate a single word to justify a generally accepted perversion of a Chekhov character. Elisaveta Fen, the translator of the Penguin edition of Chekhov's plays, does just that in translating the second line of Chebutykin's version of 'Tarara-boom-di-ay' as 'I'm sitting on a toomb-di-ay', as a final confirmation of the Chekhovian sadness-cum-despair syndrome. Miss Fen, of course, knows very well that the Russian word toomba does not mean a tomb but a round stone post at the corner of a street in a Russian town. The intention of the second line is simply to put the finishing touch to the man who describes himself as 'not a human being at all', whose creed is that 'nothing matters', and who does nothing to save his favourite Irene's husband-to-be from being shot dead in a duel at which he as doctor is present. Miss Fen has become the victim of the general lunacy which is so characteristic a feature of the Chekhov cult.

Another feature of this cult is boredom. 'In Uncle Vanya' an English critic wrote in a recent issue of a well-known Sunday paper, 'the whole theme is the boredom of comfortable provincial life'! [Sunday Times, 15 November 1970]. The view of a lunatic? Not at all. It simply is one more proof of the well-known phenomenon, namely that once somebody or something becomes the object of a cult then even the craziest idea can be accepted without questioning. That is the explanation of why an English director does not hesitate to sit down with several translations of a Chekhov play and proceed to write his own 'version', for he is convinced that he knows what Chekhov ought to have written, and he manipulates his or somebody else's version of the play accordingly: gloom, despondency, a dialogue that makes no sense, a few Russian words scattered here and there, a general atmosphere of gloom and despair, and scenery that is the work of some celebrated stage designer and that by itself is sufficient to kill the play stone dead. There is, further-more, the strong itch felt by some ignorant, fashionable directors to introduce a 'new slant' into a Chekhov play. In one production of The Cherry Orchard Mrs Ranevsky, it is made apparent, was about to have, or is having, an affair with Yasha of all people, for does not Gayev declare that his sister is an immoral woman? It is true that such idiocies are rare, though not so rare as an attempt to raise a laugh in the audience by making Arkadina destroy the whole meaning of the first scene of the second act of The Seagull by sagging and holding her side after trying to convince everybody how young she still is.

Stanislavsky was fully aware of the uncontrollable impulses of actors and directors to contrive something 'new', to give full scope to some new trend, some passing whim, some gimmick that might provide publicity and help to furbish their reputations. His remedy can be summed up in one word: subtext—undertext, which does not mean reading between the lines of the text, but an attempt to reconstruct the life of the characters from the sometimes insufficient data of the text. Unfortunately, the subtext does not prevent a director who is ignorant of the back-ground or the genesis of the play or of the dramatist's intention in writing it, from superimposing his own ideas on it and in this way distorting both its meaning and the motives of its characters. Chekhov himself was loath to discuss his plays with the actors. But he did say something to them that sounds so simple that very few people have paid any attention to it. 'Why don't you read my play? It is all there!' In fact, it is all there. The trouble is that in reading a Chekhov play, directors and actors seem to be bereft of all commonsense by the nonsense that has been written and accepted by critics, academics and directors for the past seventy years. When urged that new movements in drama justified a new approach to his plays, Chekhov's reply was that no conditions justified a lie.

Siegfried Melchinger (essay date 1972)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6485

SOURCE: "Chekhov and the Craft of Theater," in Anton Chekhov, translated by Edith Tarcov, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1972, pp. 62-84.

[In the essay below, Melchinger investigates the ways Chekhov overthrew the theatrical conventions of his day.]

In 1902, Chekhov wrote to Alexander Tikhonov:

You say you wept over my plays. You are not the only one. But I did not write them for this. It was Stanislavsky who made them so tearful. I intended something quite different.

Chekhov's judgment of Stanislavsky's productions of the Chekhov plays—as numerous passages from letters and witnesses' observations testify—can be summarized in a sentence he wrote about the production of The Cherry Orchard a few weeks before his death: "Stanislavsky has ruined my play."

It is said that dramatists cannot judge the productions of their plays. That may be true of those who do not understand the theater, but not of Chekhov, who knew and understood the stage. When he was still an adolescent in Taganrog his favorite pastime was attending the theater. When he went to Moscow as a nineteen-year-old, to study medicine and to rescue his family from their poverty-stricken life, the theater attracted him more than anything else. He wrote his stories to earn a living. Now that a heavily edited draft of Play without a Title (Platonov)—on which he must have worked for a long time and with much passion—has been found among his posthumous papers, we know what really was in his thoughts.

When Chekhov was writing this play, he had a plan, a program for the theater. Later, for a while, he abandoned this plan and made concessions to the conventional stage. But in his major works he returned to his Platonov plan. His contemporaries found the newness and innovation of this plan so strange and shocking that they hooted two Chekhov plays off the stage on opening nights. Not one of his plays was a success in its first production. His works needed time to succeed. The reason was not, as their later success has proved, a lack of dramatic effectiveness, but rather their unusualness. There were times when Chekhov went daily to the theater, to study the conditions of the stage and the conduct and attitudes of the actors. One of these periods occurred while The Sea Gull was in rehearsal. His understanding of actors was extremely astute. After all, he eventually was to be married to an actress. One of his contemporaries who worked in the theater reported: "Every false note, every cliché, every fatuous or vulgar nuance made Chekhov wince.… Often he would interrupt the actors and plead, 'Please, no theatricality! Let it be simple, just simple!'"

So far, Chekhov's judgment of Stanislavsky's Chekhov theater has not been taken seriously. The Chekhov tradition as originally conceived by the Moscow Art Theater became dated not because there was a quest for the kind of theater Chekhov really had in mind, but rather because of the great changes in theater in general throughout the world. Surprisingly, some of the Chekhov productions in recent years are closer to the concepts of the true Chekhov theater than is the conventional style for producing Chekhov, whose alleged authenticity originated with Stanislavsky. I have in mind: the Milan production of Platonov, directed by Giorgio Strehler; the Stock-holm production of The Sea Gull, directed by Ingmar Bergman; The Three Sisters, produced in Stuttgart under the direction of Rudolf Noelte and, also produced in Stuttgart, The Cherry Orchard, directed by Peter Zadek; and the Prague production of The Three Sisters, under the direction of Otomar Krejča.…

While Chekhov was still alive, the true plan and character of Chekhov's work was recognized by some of the younger people. Among those who early appreciated the true Chekhov was Vera Kommissarzhevskaya. She was Chekhov's favorite among the actresses who worked in his plays. (She was the first Sea Gull in the unfortunate Saint Petersburg production that was booed off the stage.) She was among the young rebels who broke early with Stanislavsky. Chekhov wanted to write a play for her after she had left Stanislavsky's ensemble. In her own theater, which she and her brother directed, she provided Meyerhold with a chance for his revolutionary experiments. Meyerhold, another of the young rebels, also had been an actor of the Art Theater and a student of Stanislav sky. He had portrayed Treplev in the famous Sea Gull production of 1898. Meyerhold discovered in Chekhov's dramatufgy "new paths that are closed to the methods of psychological realism." He sharply criticized Stanislavsky's overuse of the scenic details that he loved so (an "ocean of objects"), and the sentimental atmosphere, which had made Stanislavsky's production of The Cherry Orchard so intolerable to Chekhov. For the third act, in which a ball is taking place while the news about the sale of the cherry orchard is expected, Meyerhold demanded a cold and hard delivery, the projection of a "nightmare," a "horror"; he wrote to Chekhov, "Your play is abstract like a symphony." When Meyerhold in the style of that period spoke of "symbolism" or even "mysticism," he meant to characterize the antirealistic element in Chekhov's plays, the "rhythmic movement" of the work as a whole.

Especially revealing are the observations of Gorky, whom Chekhov loved as a human being, whose talent he recognized at once, and whom he reprimanded for his carelessness as an artist (he has no sense of architecture, doesn't know how to build). "Do you know what you are doing?" Gorky wrote to Chekhov in 1900. "You are flogging realism to death! And it will soon be dead for a long time." Gorky sensed the fundamental tension between the musicality and the coldness in these plays and recognized, above all, their great art of simplicity: "You are a man who can create a character with a mere word, and with a sentence tell a story." This brings to mind Chekhov's words: "The most important thing is to construct a sentence." Gorky said of Uncle Vanya that he saw more meaning in this play than others did, something "powerful," which he too called "symbolism." Chekhov, in turn, wrote that Gorky deserved great merit for being the first writer in Russia and in the whole world to express contempt and revulsion for the meshchanstvo (usually translated as "petty bourgeoisie," or as "that conservative stratum of society that stagnates in personal egotism," or as "the establishment") and so stimulated the protest of others. Chekhov shared in this protest, but he wanted to do more—he wanted to provoke this protest in the audience. After writing the lines to Tikhonov, quoted at the beginning of this chapter, Chekhov continued:

I wanted to say simply and honestly, "Look at yourselves, look how badly and boringly you lead your lives!" The most important thing is that people come to recognize this. As soon as they understand it, they will have to live differently and better. I will not live to see it, but I am convinced that life will be quite different then, not to be compared with that of today. But in the meantime I will not stop from repeatedly saying to people: "Just look how boringly and badly you are living!" Yet what is there to weep about?

Chekhov's is "a theater that shows, that exposes," to quote from Ilya Ehrenburg's essay, in which he pleaded that the modern and contemporary quality in Chekhov be recognized.

Gorky expressed it thus:

Chekhov understood, with a high measure of art, how to recognize and describe the trivial in life.… "The trivial always found in him a severe critic.… This great, wise man, who observed everything, who encountered this boring, gray mass of weak people, looked at the lazy inhabitants of his homeland and said to them, with a sad smile and in a tone of mild but profound reproach, with an expression of hopeless sorrow,—"Ladies and gentlemen, you are living badly!"

Vakhtangov, another revolutionary of the Russian theater, who directed Gerhart Hauptmann's Friedensfest ("the Feast of Reconciliation") in the Studio, was reprimanded by Stanislavsky's partner Nemirovich-Danchenko because he brought out the "shrill tones" too sharply. Gorky stood by the young director. Gorky severely opposed the "mania to muffle and mute everything," which had angered him previously in Stanislavsky's production of The Lower Depths. He demanded instead, in the sense of Chekhov, "genuine art"—the art of protest.

But we must beware of being unjust. Stanislavsky's historical merit cannot be ignored. It will not be diminished by the observation that he led the Russian theater in a direction different from the one Chekhov had in mind. Perhaps even, considering the course of history, his was the only direction possible. Chekhov's goals were perhaps too much in advance of the times to be comprehensible to his contemporaries. His aggressive opposition to the theater as he found it was as clear as that of Stanislavsky. It was the aggressive opposition of their generation—that of the youth of that epoch in Europe. In 1881, when Chekhov was in the process of finishing his work on Platonov, Zola wrote, urging that naturalism be utilized for the stage. He expressed what moved them all: anger toward the pompousness, the dishonesty, the cor ruption of the theater, a theater that was dominated by the pathos with which the tragedies were presented and the overacting of the stars. The new password was: reality and truth. But years were to pass before reality and truth would reach the Russian stage: in 1887 it would reach the Théâtre Libre in Paris (Antoine); in 1889, the Freie Bühne in Berlin (Otto Brahm, Hauptmann); in 1892, the Independent Theatre in London (Grein, Shaw); in 1896, the Moscow Art Theater. Reading Stanislavsky's memoirs, one gains some insight into the many difficulties and obstacles he had to overcome, from the day he founded the Moscow Society for Art and Literature (in 1888), whose niveau Chekhov hardly took seriously, until he could finally back up his opposition to the present state of the theater with a viable program for the future. Perhaps he would not have been able to achieve this had he not met Nemirovich-Danchenko, his intellectual and literary collaborator. Taking all this into account, one has to admire even more the genius of Chekhov. The Platonov play of the twenty-one-year-old Chekhov was written before the publication of Zola's pamphlet, and at a time when Stanislavsky was still dreaming of nothing but operettas and vaudevilles.

The Russian theater, of course, had an advantage over that of the rest of Europe. Since Gogol and Stchepkin, and the first production of Gogol's Government Inspector in 1836, it had a tradition of realism. This satirical comedy was even part of the repertoire of the Imperial Theater. It is indeed astonishing that its performance was tolerated in this land where despotism ruthlessly suppressed the slightest expression of an independent impulse. But the Czar was amused when he saw civil servants satirized. The aristocracy, more and more hard-pressed by the rising bourgeoisie, encouraged derision of the new capitalist class. And so Ostrovsky could become the program director of the Imperial Theater. It was in the year of Ostrovsky's death that Tolstoy wrote the naturalistic peasant drama The Power of Darkness. However, it was not to be performed until 1889, and then in Paris, by Antoine, not in Russia.

The form of satire seduced the Russian dramatists and actors into caricature. But in Chekhov's plan there was no place for caricature. "Even if it were in the interest of the theater to caricature human beings, it would be a lie. It is simply unnecessary. A caricature, of course, will sharpen an image and so be more easily understood. But it is better to work out the drawing of a sketch with care than to smear it up with showy and shoddy strokes."

Caricaturing actors have a tendency to hamming. In their indignation at the low niveau of the Russian theater Stanislavsky and Chekhov were in agreement. The actors were despised by society and often led slovenly, debauched lives. Many of them became alcoholics. Only those who were able to rise to a position in the Imperial Theaters were guaranteed a measure of respectability. But even there conditions were in an unbelievable state of muddle and slovenliness. Chekhov believed, … that the major cause of the scandalous uproar and failure of the 1887 premiere of Ivanov was that the actors did not know their lines and that they were drunk by the last act. He reported that what had been recited on the stage was unbelievable. In 1882 this was his judgment: "The Russsian actor has everything—except education, culture, and manners, in the good sense of the word." Besides the slovenly bungling, he found the stars' method of upstaging the rest of the cast, the acting up front before the footlights, especially distasteful. And exactly this, despite all his admiration, he had already criticized in 1881 in the acting style of Sarah Bernhardt, who was the rage of the Moscow audience when she played there on tour: "She wants to be striking, to amaze." It was the style of the coup de théâtre, the objective of which was to exhibit the virtuosity of the stars. The coup de théâtre was the style of La Tosca and La Dame aux Camélias and other plays by Sardou and Dumas fils. These writers had given up romantic melodrama and were devoting themselves to what was considered realistic theater at the time. But what they deemed "dramatic" was identical with effect. The material was taken "from life," not because it was life that was to be shown, but because this material yielded effects with which a Bernhardt could bring an audience to their knees. The same exaggeration that blurred and hammed up what was truly comic also blurred and hammed up the tragic. With the one it became carica ture; with the other it resulted in coup de théâtre.

One can imagine what a great impression the Meininger troupe, during their 1885 tour, made on the young Russians, who had read Zola and wished to see resurrected on the Russian stage what once Pushkin, Gogol, and Turgenev had realized—and what Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky now were achieving in the novel (1877, Anna Karenina; 1880, The Brothers Karamazov; 1886, The Death of Ivan Ilyich). In the troupe's performances seriousness, accuracy, and discipline worked in ensemble: it was a "holiday of art," as Stanislavsky wrote. Their productions, with their spirit of solidity and seriousness, made a lasting impression on the young Russians interested in drama. Yet people, even Stanislavsky, also took exception to the exaggeratedly emotional acting of the Germans.

These two principles—solidity and seriousness—were to form the cornerstone of the Moscow Art Theater. And Chekhov understood well what an advance these new standards would bring about in the Russian theater. To have them succeed was a historical feat and accomplishment, and Chekhov did not withhold recognition of this achievement. He never did like Stanislavsky, though he later respected him, but he felt warm sympathy for Nemirovich-Danchenko. He felt even more warmth for the actors, whose esprit de corps and sense of ensemble-playing he praised. He would have felt much warmth toward them even if he had not found his future wife, Olga Knipper, among them. What these actors did on the stage for the sake of art and truth moved him deeply. "One must wrest the stage out of the hands of the merchants," he said, "and give it over into the hands of literary people; otherwise it will perish." Yet it was clear to him, from the time of the production of The Sea Gull in 1898 to that of The Cherry Orchard in 1904, that the director and the actors of the Art Theater took the path to his plays "without me." They believed they knew bet ter than he did. And their success seemed to prove them right. Stanislavsky—who always thought of himself as "a slow one"—deserves respect for describing the late insight he gained while writing his memoirs in 1925—an insight that, as he wrote, gave him "new horizons":

The works of all geniuses who, like Chekhov, represent a cornerstone, outlive generations; generations do not outlive them.… It is possible that some of what is Chekhov, in this or that work, may appear dated and for the postrevolutionary era no longer valid—yet Chekhov, in how he has presented his material, has not even begun to come to full flower in our theater. The chapter about Chekhov in the history of our theater is far from finished; we have not yet studied him thoroughly enough, have not yet penetrated to his inner essence. We have closed the book prematurely. We must open it anew, to study it thoroughly and read to the end.

Stanislavsky had not understood the how in Chekhov. He had distorted the how because of his fixation on elements that, though contained in Chekhov's work, he had interpreted wrongly. He directed theater of atmosphere—mood theater—and the mood, which dominated this theater, was that of ennui. In Chekhov, mood is an element among others, though one he knew how to use as few have before him. And ennui was for him the opposite of what Stanislavsky made of it. That is, it was not to Chekhov tearful, melancholic, elegiac, sentimental. It was something hateful, as it would be for a man who suffered bitterly from ennui after he was forced (by his physicians) to endure it—a man who, according to Gorky, conceived of work as the basis of all culture and civilization. What Chekhov brought to the stage as boredom or "ennui" is best translated as "emptiness." This ennui, this boredom of his epoch, is only superficially different from that of today: we, of course, have the added element of noise.

The consciousness of emptiness, then as today, is numbing. And it is as hateful today as it was then because those who suffer it have no desire and no courage to face the truth, as it is, and to draw from that the necessary conclusions. It is this which Kierkegaard calls "indifference"—and nothing enraged Chekhov more, as we know, than to be accused of "indifference": "I hate lies and violence in any form.… Don't I protest, from the beginning to the end, against the lie?" This hateful thing has to be protested, as Gorky had demanded and Vakhtangov had done. The worst one can do with it is to transform it into mood. To lull the audience into a sniveling, tearful sentimentality relieves it of the task which Chekhov meant to confront it with. As he so often said,

They [the audience] shall be the jury: they have to reach the verdict. The artist's task is to observe, to choose, to unmask, to sum up. And these tasks pre-suppose a question. If there is no question asked to begin with, there is nothing to unmask, to expose, to select.… Those are right who demand that the artist must have a conscious relationship to his work. But they often confuse two concepts: the solution of the question, and the right way of asking it. The commitment of the artist is only to the second task.… It is the duty of the court to formulate the problem correctly, but it is up to the members of the jury to solve it, each according to his own insight.

Chekhov once observed that it would seem very agreeable to combine art and sermon, and then to put the whole burden on "the gospel" that is being preached, without first bringing the reader or the audience to the point where they can believe in that gospel. For him, he said, this would be simply "technically impossible." He said, "When I present a horse thief, they want me to say, it is bad to steal a horse. But everyone knows that well enough, without my saying so."

Chekhov's basic principle is scientific: it is objectivity. Its application demands extreme coolness. "Only he who is cool is just." True justice determines the organization of the material, which has to be presented both objectively and convincingly, if "the jurors" are to discover the truth. In this, above all, the controversy with Stanislavsky came to a head. For Stanislavsky believed that it was the task of the director to reinforce the mood, to make it as inescapable as possible, through details and stage effects.

Meyerhold reported that in the scene in The Sea Gull in which Arkadina says farewell to the servants, Chekhov had specified that there be three of them. Stanislavsky, however, had a whole mass of people come onto the stage, among whom was a woman with a crying baby in her arms. "Why this?" Chekhov asked him. The answer was, that this was "just like in real life" and "realistic." Chekhov laughed, "So, this is realistic!" After a brief silence he continued: "But this is the stage—and the stage is art! If you take a good portrait painting, cut out the nose, and put into the hole a real nose, that is realistic—but the painting is ruined."

As for the crying baby Chekhov said, "This is superfluous. It is as if you play pianissimo on the piano and the lid falls, crashing down on the keys." Again, the answer was that it was often like this in real life, and that often a forte, suddenly, breaks into a pianissimo.

"Undoubtedly," Chekhov replied. "But the stage has its own conditions. Don't you know that you don't have a fourth wall? The theater is art; it expresses the quintessence of life. It is unnecessary to fill it up with superfluous details."

The quintessence is contained in the text. What is not in the text must not be brought onto the stage. He was cross when the actors begged him to explain their parts to them. "It is all written down in the text. I am just a doctor." It was indeed all written down in the text.

This is how Chekhov described one part of his Platonov plan:

In real life people don't spend every minute shooting each other, hanging themselves, or making declarations of love. They don't dedicate their time to saying intelligent things. They spend much more of it eating, drinking, flirting, and saying foolish things—and that is what should happen on the stage. Someone should write a play in which people come and go, eat, talk about the weather, and play cards. Life should be exactly as it is, and people should be exactly as complicated and at the same time exactly as simple as they are in life. People eat a meal, and at the same time their happiness is made or their lives are being ruined.

That has sounds of Zola. But what is decisive is not the goal, not the imitation of reality, but the method. It is the opposite of the "well-made play," the piéce-bien-faite, as, from Eugéne Scribe (1791-1861) to Henrik .Ibsen (1828-1906), it has been "dramatically" developed.

Chekhov was not fond of Ibsen: "He doesn't understand anything about life." Ibsen himself admitted that he had learned his dramatic technique from that of the well-made play. According to its pattern, he had constructed his plot, which, by means of its dramatic climax, proved its effectiveness as theater. Chekhov believed that plot is unimportant for the stage. He rejected "the dramatic" when it was the result of calculated effect. His friends in the theater rebuked him because, allegedly, he did not understand "dramatic" as they understood it. Six years after writing Platonov he was ready to make a compromise—in Ivanov. It failed—because the gap between the truth he sought to show and the stage effects he was utilizing could not be bridged.

The method Chekhov discovered as he designed the Platonov plan (more correctly, he rediscovered it, for the Greeks and Shakespeare had known this plan before him) was that of the dual planes of the stage—one of which is indirect. When people talk to one another, the truth usually is not contained in what they say but rather in what they do not say. They talk in order to talk. They talk, often without answering each other. They talk past each other, each preoccupied with himself. They talk, in order to deceive themselves. There is always a pause, because they either don't understand one another or they don't really hear one another. But in these pauses life goes on; decisive things can happen in these intervals of silence. And so Chekhov discovered (rediscovered) the dramatic meaning of silence.

This was both understood and misunderstood in the Moscow Art Theater. Indeed, Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavsky recognized the uniqueness in Chekhov's indirect method. Chekhov's method was to bring about a revolution in the art of the theater and was even to shed new light on the presentation of the works of a Sophocles or a Shakespeare. A contemporary of Chekhov's described the technique that evolved from this indirect method:

The inner dialogue, and the charm of that which is only half-expressed—this was what the performers of the Art Theater projected. Chekhov had abolished the old concept of plot and action, and now the theater discovered that the word is far from being the most important element in the art of the theater. The word is only an indication of inner emotions, one that is neither complete nor perfect but only a guide that can lead to the soul of the character. But often and at the most dramatic moments the word becomes mute and yields to silence. This silence is full of meaning, full of the whole energy of the spoken words that have gone before, and of the latent presence of the thousands of words that are to follow or that perhaps will never be said. This silence is stronger than the most violent scream, and it contains more meaning than a hundred words that are determined by a defined meaning. Thus the goal of the drama becomes his silence. And it must be acted out and projected so that it resounds and breaks out into a thousand colors.

The Moscow Art Theater staged Chekhov's silence in exaggerated ways. First, they padded it with innumerable details of silent acting, with such effects as the crying baby in the farewell scene in The Cherry Orchard, in their effort to achieve the "purest" reality. Second, they strove with all their resources to express emotions through silent acting, so that the audience simply could not overlook what went on in the "inner dialogue." Chekhov felt that this was not his but another kind of theater, and exactly the theater he wanted to avoid. Here is an example.

In the last scene of Uncle Vanya there occurs, again, a leave-taking. Astrov, the doctor, a central character, steps up to a map of Africa that hangs on the wall and says, "The heat must be awful in Africa now—just awful!" Olga Knipper wrote to her future husband how marvelously Stanislavsky played this scene: "How much bitterness, how much experience of life he expressed in that line! And how he pronounced the words, with a kind of bravura that was most exciting!" And she reported that he had also played the preceding love scene in this way. Chekhov was horrified. He answered:

You write that, in this scene, Astrov turns to Yelena like a passionate lover—"He holds on to his emotion like a drowning man to a straw." But that is wrong, all wrong! Astrov likes Yelena, he is attracted by her beauty. But in the last act he knows very well that nothing will come of it, that Yelena will disappear from his life, and he speaks in this scene in the same tone he uses when talking of the heat in Africa. He kisses her merely to while away the time.

Later, Chekhov wrote directly to Stanislavsky: "Astrov whistles, you see. He whistles. Uncle Vanya weeps, but Astrov whistles." After this Stanislavsky (and it indeed speaks well for him) changed his interpretation of the role. Yet this example demonstrates how right Chekhov was when he said that Stanislavsky was still seeking to present "old theater." The acting-out of silence was for Stanislavsky what once had been the old coup de théâtre.

Chekhov hated overexplanations; he admonished the young Meyerhold not to exaggerate in presenting the nervousness of a lonely man. "Let it be in the tone of your voice and in your eyes, but don't project it with your hands and feet. Do it with grace, with sparse, expressive gestures." On the same subject he wrote to Olga, "Most people are nervous, most of them suffer, and only a few feel acute pain. But where—on the street or in the house—do you see people nervously running back and forth and constantly clutching their heads?"

The word "grace" is curious and noteworthy. This is how Chekhov defined what he meant by the word "grace": "When a person performing a particular action uses a minimum of movement—that is grace."

The silence Chekhov prescribes is exactly the opposite of "the acting out of silence." It is nothing other than silence, motionlessness, concentration. The Japanese actors of the No theater have developed this art of "doing nothing" to its highest level. Chekhov surely never saw them. But for many years he had studied actors on the stage, and he knew how much they were able to say when they were silent. He had seen Eleonora Duse; and perhaps Yermolova, too, had done similar acting. He knew how ambiguous spoken words could be. He fashioned his dialogue with this in mind. His dialogue consists of what is said and what is not said (perhaps what cannot be said).

People have counted how often the word "pause" appears in Chekhov's stage directions. Yet such a count can only be superficial; the number of pauses in Chekhov is far greater than the overt instructions indicate. The pauses occur when the actor is walking or making gestures or emptily chattering away. Chekhov's "pauses" demand of the actor the highest degree of concentration, absolute motionlessness, a distillation of thoughts and emotions in which the character is to be immersed.

Stanislavsky's use of sound effects in the stagings of Chekhov's plays has become famous. In a play that was set on a summer afternoon in the country, the theatergoer himself was to experience the illusion that he himself was spending a summer afternoon in the country. And this is how Stanislavsky justified the innumerable details with which he elaborated Chekhov's stage directions.

Certainly, Chekhov's plays require more sound effects than were ever used before on the stage. However, the sound effects Chekhov prescribes are not illusion-creating but dramaturgic. They are not there to provide mood and atmosphere—they are there to "speak." By means of the Chopin waltz Treplev plays backstage in the last act of The Sea Gull, he is present on the stage—giving his commentary on the dialogue. The strange sound that is twice called for in The Cherry Orchard tears at one's nerves. It is, as Meyerhold has said, "symbolic," so far as the assonance to the "tearing of a string" [of a violin] is to be taken literally. It is part of the elements of a theater whose effects, exactly calculated, are chosen from all the possibilities available to the stage. This sound effect does not occur "by chance"; it is not an imitation of reality. It is part of a thought-out plan in a work of art, in which chance only exists when it is intended, in which everything superfluous has been eliminated.

As there must be no misunderstanding of Chekhov's concept and use of "mood" and "atmosphere," so there must be no misunderstanding of his concept and use of "simplicity," which is so prominent and important in his observations. He criticized the verbal "extravagance" of Gorky. "Strike out all adjectives … ," he said to him. "Write 'The man sat down in the grass.' Basta." Chekhov's simplicity is not the language of the "simple man"; it is, like his silence, a distillation.

Chekhov once wrote to the critic Menshikov apropos one of his articles: "There is something missing in your article. You have given too little space to the character of language. It is important for your readers to know why a primitive man or a madman will use only one or two hundred words, while a Shakespeare can make use of tens of thousands."

Gorky wrote to Chekhov, observing that his language had a "magical quality, both terse and powerful." Gorky also said that Pushkin, Turgenev, and Chekhov created the Russian language.

The art of Chekhov's language lies in its terseness and brevity—"The art of writing consists less in good writing than in cutting out what is bad writing." As he so often said, everything superfluous has to be cut out. When Olga wrote to him that she was coining to grips with a monologue in The Three Sisters, he cabled her, "Omit everything except one sentence: 'A woman is a woman.'" When the superfluous was cut away, what emerged was not naturalism but art.

His contemporaries, Stanislavsky among them, began early to perceive the musical quality of his dialogue. As Chekhov wrote to a woman writer, everything depends on the construction of the sentence. "One must take care," he added, "that it be musical." This musicalness is neither romantic nor sentimental. He hated prose that sounded like "poetry." And the always low-keyed tone in which the actors of the Moscow Art Theater spoke their lines got on his nerves. Like music, there is contrast in speech: there is forte, piano, diminuendo and crescendo, accelerando, ritardando and rubato. Whole scenes are as tightened and unified as one single bow and have to be played as such, while others are divided into exactly delineated, carefully composed parts. Pauses are parts of the composition—they are its fermatas and caesuras. Chekhov's plays have to be performed like musical compositions. (This was a goal that Stanislavsky, according to the report of his students, also set himself in his later years.)

Chekhov's structures are so terse and severe that any tampering will shake their frame. Just as Stanislavsky failed because he padded out these concentrated forms, so modern directors have failed because of their rearrangements and deletions. When Chekhov said, "It is all written down in the text," he meant not only that nothing should be staged that was not written down, but also that nothing should be left out that was written down. How could he have reproached Gorky for understanding nothing of the architecture of writing, if he had not known so exactly what meaning good architecture has for a play?

The only material of which Chekhov's plays are built are life and truth. "In art, only in art," he used to say, "one cannot lie." The plan he set himself when he wrote Platonov, which developed in opposition to both the idealistic and the conventional theatrical styles, culminated in bringing onto the stage an "encyclopedia of life"—as he said at the time, of Russian life. Even in his later years he did not think it possible that his plays could be performed outside Russia. It is absurd to maintain that he wished to present a naturalistic picture of his epoch (Ehrenburg commented on this refreshingly and clarify-ingly), but it is equally absurd to assume that he wanted to bring the whole of Russia onto the stage. His was quite a different kind of material—and material that he knew exactly. When he criticized Tolstoy for being "ignorant," his argument was that Tolstoy wrote about syphilis while not knowing anything about how and what syphilis was. Behind the Russian foreground Chekhov presented the quintessence of all human life. Thomas Mann spoke of his uncanny gift for identifying himself with other human beings, for putting himself into their situations and condition. The writer Alexander Kuprin, who knew him well, said, "He saw and heard while looking into a person's face, hearing his voice, watching his walk, that which was hidden." Out of all this grew an "amalgam of personal observations and feelings, and of his experiences, his conjectures, and his power of imagination" (Ehrenburg).

Chekhov took over nothing exactly as he found it in life. He detested both subjectivism and naturalism. The art of composition for him boiled down to what he called his "encyclopedia," which he brought onto the stage in sparse and concentrated form. His models were Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Pushkin. Platonov got out of hand because the young Chekhov lacked the experience and mastery of so concentrating his material. In the next plays he was to write—Ivanov and The Wood Demon (out of which Uncle Vanya was to emerge)—he made up for this youthful lack of experience with concessions to the contemporary conventional theater's "dramatic" demands for "melodramatic" effect-filled scenes.

Finally, in The Sea Gull he succeeded in wringing out of his "encyclopedic" intention the conciseness that his vision demanded. He knew that the images that now emerged were truly art. Through distillation he shaped the rambling and accidental in true life into a form that enabled him to project the quintessence of life's truth. He let it show through the nonexisting fourth wall of the stage, so that the audience could see and recognize it. So the quintessence was brought before the audience, the jury that had to reach its verdict. Chekhov's theater, then, is one of showing, exposing.

Nothing is to be omitted if the encyclopedia is to be complete. Not illness, not chance, not dirt ("To the chemist nothing is dirty; the writer must be just as objective as the chemist"). The method of Chekhov's art was like that of a science, whose goal is the exact, precise, and subtle presentation of truth. He stayed cool as he wrote, though he loved the material with which he worked: human beings and life.

Whatever is said about Chekhov must be said in contradictions. He was a physician, yet he was also a patient and seriously ill. He "laughed through tears," as Gorky said. He wrote comedies, and they were played like tragedies. He looked through the manner and pretensions of his time and knew, and hoped, that everything was going to be different in the future, everything except that which no one can change: nature, the nature of mankind, and the nature of life.

In 1933 Gorky wrote of him:

He had such tired hands; when they touched things, they often seemed half reluctant, half unsure. This was also the quality of his walk. He moved like a doctor in a hospital in which there are many patients but no medicines—a doctor who is not really convinced that the patients should be cured.

Janko Lavrin (essay date 1973)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3352

SOURCE: "Anton Chekhov," in A Panorama of Russian Literature, Barnes & Noble, 1973, pp. 175-86.

[In the following excerpt, Lavrin investigates Chekhov's "method of showing the tragic nature of everyday existence in its ordinary everyday conditions. "]

The impact of Chekhov on world literature seems in some respects stronger than that of any other modern Russian author after Dostoevsky. This applies to his plays even more than to his stories,1 since he happens to be one of the reformers of the modern theatre and drama. Chekhov himself proclaimed (in one of his letters) the theatre of his time a 'skin disease, a world of muddle, of stupidity and high-falutin' which should be swept away with a broom.' He did not mind being such a broom even in the late 1880s when the only conspicuous reformer in this respect was Henrik Ibsen. Chekhov's inauguration of drama devoid of traditional plot and big theatrical gestures, not to mention the old declamatory pathos, was a courageous feat in those days, although he may have faltered now and then under the weight of his own experiments. His Ivánov, for example, was given a brilliant first performance in the Alexandrinsky theatre at St Petersburg on 31 January, 1889. Its reception was favourable, which, however, could not be said of his next play, The Seagull (Cháika), produced in October 1896. Chekhov felt so depressed by its failure that he thought of giving up the theatre altogether. But on 17 December 1898, a very successful production of The Seagull took place in the Moscow Art Theatre. Less than a year later another triumph was scored in the same theatre by Chekhov's Uncle Vanya (Dyáyda Ványa)—a modification of his less pessimistic play The Wood Demon (Léshiy).2

Chekhov thus became closely connected with the Moscow Art Theatre, run by Stanislavsky and NemirovichDanchenko. In 1900 he wrote for it The Three Sisters (Tri sestrý) and in 1903—roughly one year before his death—he completed The Cherry Orchard (Vlshnyóvy sad). In addition, he was responsible for several one-act plays some of which are dramatised short stories. They abound in farcical situations, quite in the tradition of the old vaudevilles which were always great favourites with the Russian audiences. Such of his one-act plays as The Proposal (Predlozhénie) and The Bear (Medvédvéd') are of international repute.

Chekhov's plays, like so many of his stories, depict the blind-alley of the rootless and decaying intelligentsia either against the background of their country estates, as In Ivanov, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, and The Cherry Orchard, or against the provincial town atmosphere as in The Three Sisters. His characters are 'superfluous' individuals in a more acute sense even than those of Turgenev. They do not know what to do with themselves, and their minds are further complicated by the strange inner barrier separating them even from those whom they had once regarded as their nearest and dearest. Such is Ivanov, the principal character of the play under the same title. Treplev In The Seagull, Voinitsky, Dr Astrov, and Sonya in Uncle Vanya belong to the same category, not to mention, Masha, Olga and Irina in The Three Sisters (first performed on 31 January, 1901).

According to Chekhov a sensitive person, confronted by the rough and ready style of life he has to face or contend with, is almost doomed to failure, and a failure of this kind, morally speaking, may not be to his credit, since success is only too often a prerogative of pushful vulgar types. This is why Chekhov looks with sympathy upon those hommes manqués who have been crushed because they expected from life more than it could give. Some of them still cherish hopes for a better future by trying to believe that the price they have to pay is not entirely in vain. Maybe they are paying the bill for the happiness of future generations whose lives will be less muddled and stupid—a thought which by no means alleviates their own ordeals, but may at least prevent them from slamming the door on the last glimmer of hope. Still, Chekhov's characters have to foot the bill. Quite a few of them accept the bill in this spirit simply in order to avoid the danger of utter nihilism and despair.

Those who will live a hundred or two hundred years after us, and who will despise us for having lived our lives so stupidly and tastelessly—they will, perhaps, find a means of being happy, but we.… There is only one hope for you and me. The hope that when we are asleep in our graves we may, perhaps, be visited by pleasant visions.3

Such is Dr Astrov's comment in Uncle Vanya. But the same emergency faith is voiced by Vershinin in The Three Sisters and by Trofimov in The Cherry Orchard. Amidst all his despondence Chekhov himself arrived at a solace of this kind, as one can judge from his letter to Diaghilev (December, 1902), in which he says:

Modern culture is but the beginning of a work for a great future, a work which will go on, perhaps, for ten thousand years, in order that mankind may, even in the remote future, come to know the truth of a real God—that is, not by guessing, not by seeking in Dostoevsky, but by perceiving clearly, as one perceives that twice two is four.

Flashes of such faith did not redeem, however, that quag-mire of Russian reality which Chekhov had to endure and which he used as the raw material for his stories and plays. The surprising thing is that he was able to transmute it into perfect art, the devices of which are also worth studying in connection with his dramatic technique.

Chekhov did his best to 'de-theatralise' the theatre by depriving it of everything 'heroic', noisy and artificial. But in doing this he increased the effect of his plays in a strangely suggestive manner. In his early play, Ivánov,4 he still depended on tradition, albeit he purposely abstained from a worked-out plot and made use of what he called the 'belletristic', as distinct from the dramatic, method in the old style. 'Each act I finish as I do my stories,' Chekhov says in a letter; 'I develop it quietly and calmly, but at the end I give a slap to the spectator. All my energy is centred on a few really strong passages, but the bridges connecting these passages are insignificant, weak and old-fashioned.' The main hero, Ivanov, is an unheroic 'superfluous' intellectual—a victim of those Russian circumstances he is unable to overcome. He has lost his hold upon life and feels, at the age of thirty-five, an old man.

Exhausted, overstrained, broken, with my head heavy and my soul indolent, without faith, without love, without an objective in life, I linger like a shadow among men and don't know what I am, what I am living for, what I want.… My brains do not obey me, nor my hands, nor my feet. My property is going to ruin, the forest is falling under the axe. My land looks at me like a deserted child. I expect nothing, I regret nothing; my soul shudders with the fear of the morrow.… What is the matter with me? To what depths am I making myself sink? What has brought this weakness on me?

But there is no answer. Surrounded by fools and nonentities, Ivanov—an essentially decent fellow—sinks deeper and deeper into the morass of his own despondence. In his bewilderment he does not mind offending even his consumptive wife who adores him and whom he used to adore. After her death he is free to marry Sasha, who had been secretly in love with him all that time; but for no apparent reason he shoots himself, when on the point of taking her to the altar. His is the tragedy of a sensitive man doomed to failure, although he himself does not know why. There is no plot in the play and even the normal logical causation (the 'bridges' connecting the passages) seems to be absent; yet as a picture of life transformed into art the play is convincing and impressive.

In The Seagull, written some eight years later, Chekhov's peculiar technique is more pronounced than in Ivanov. This time, too, the plot is replaced by a string of seemingly casual happenings, cemented by that lyrical 'atmosphere' which became—both in his plays and narratives—the principal if not the only unifying factor. Here the tragedy of frustration in Treplev and Nina is the more poignant because of all the trivialities leading up to it. While Nina, after her disappointments, finds shelter in the profession of an actress, Treplev cannot fill the void of his life even with his initial success in literature. These are his parting words to Nina, after she had vainly deserted him for the writer Trigorin who cared for her as little as for a shot seagull:5 'You have found your path, you know which way you are going, but I am still floating in a chaos of dreams and images, not knowing of what use it is to anyone. I have no faith and I don't know what my vocation is.' Chekhov once again made use of the 'belletristic' method, but was not quite sure whether to approve of it or not, and he said so in a letter to Suvorin (November 1895): 'I began it forte and finished it pianissimo against all rules of dramatic art. It came out like a story. I am more dissatisfied than satisfied with it, and, reading over my newborn piece, I became once more convinced that I am not a playwright at all.' He certainly was not a playwright in the traditional sense, some further proof of which he gave in Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard.

In Uncle Vanya we meet the same type of intellectual gentleman victimised by a trivial existence, as in Ivanov and The Seagull. The plot as such is replaced by a series of 'scenes of country life in four acts'. The 'atmosphere' is all important, while the subject-matter is as simple as it can be. A famous but now retired university professor, suffering from conceit and gout, comes with his beautiful second wife Elena to settle down on his estate, where his brother-in-law, Voinitsky (Uncle Vanya), and his daughter from a first marriage, Sonya, have been toiling for years in order to add to his income. Much admiring the professor's fame and learning, Voinitsky has spent the whole of his adult life in serving him—only to discover at the age of forty-seven that the supposedly great man was nothing but a puffed-up ignoramus. Voinitsky, now a weary middle-aged man, realises his mistake, but the lost years cannot now be retrieved. To make things worse, he is in love with Elena, who is too indolent to respond even to the advances of the younger and more interesting wooer, Doctor Astrov—a man still in the process of going to seed. As though lost in his own void, Voinitsky is frightened of the present and the future. 'I am forty-seven. If I live to be sixty, I have another thirteen years. It's a long time. How am I to get through those thirteen years? What shall I do? How am I going to fill them up? …' In his rancour he fires two shots at the pitiably frightened celebrity and, having missed, thinks of suicide. But it all ends pianissimo, that is peacefully. The learned professor and his frigid wife depart. Life returns to its old routine. Both Sonya (whose love for Astrov is now frustrated for good) and Voinitsky find a questionable escape in accountancy and petty drudgery about the estate in order to in-crease, once again, the professor's income.

The Three Sisters is written in a similar vein, but with a greater amount of lyrical touches. Again there is no plot. We are introduced to three sisters—members of the intelligentsia. After the death of their father (a cultured high-ranking officer) the sisters and their brother have remained stuck in a provincial garrison town which they loathe. Their determination to return to Moscow, where they were born, only expresses their desire for a fuller life. But the provincial mire is stronger. Neither they nor their brother, who is preparing for a university career, succeed in extricating themselves. Instead of living, they are compelled to vegetate. 'I am nearly twenty-four,' complains Irina. 'I have been working for years, my brains are drying up, I am getting thin and old and ugly and there is nothing, nothing, not the slightest satisfaction, and time is passing, and one feels that one is moving away and being drawn into the depths. I am in despair and I don't know how it is I am alive and have not killed myself yet. ' It is no fault of theirs that all their efforts are futile and that things go from bad to worse. Their broth er, moreover, marries a mean and vulgar petite bour geoise who openly deceives him with another man. And as in Uncle Vanya, Chekhov ends this play pianissimo, with apparent resignation camouflaged by hard work.

The tone is somewhat gayer in The Cherry Orchard—a cleverly dramatised string of comic and semi-tragic incidents. The bankruptcy of the irresponsibly carefree, or rather careless, Ranevskaya and her brother Gayev is here symbolic of the inner as well as the outer inefficiency of that landed-gentry class which, not so long ago, had dominated Russian life. Ranevskaya's country-house, together with its magnificent cherry orchard, is bought by the self-made businessman Lopakhin—the son of a former serf. And the first thing the new owner does is to fell the orchard in order to make room for a suburban housing-estate, planned out on a most profitable basis. Lopakhin thus emerges as the new social force—a capitalist on a large scale. But the 'eternal student' and revolutionary Trofimov has little respect for him. 'I can get on without you. I can bypass you.' He and the girl he loves are still young enough to flatter themselves with the illusion that they, and not the money-grabbing Lopakhin, are in the front rank of humanity; nevertheless Lopakhin is the only one who triumphs at the end of the play.

The Cherry Orchard was written especially for Stanislavsky. But Chekhov himself did not approve of the interpretation the Moscow Art Theatre gave it. He actually complained in a letter to his wife that its two directors, Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavsky, had never read his plays properly, and least of all The Cherry Orchard.

Chekhov's technique stands outside that tradition of the Russian dramatic art which goes from Fonvizin—via Griboyedov—to Gogol's Government Inspector, although his small farcical pieces may be reminiscent of Gogol. On the other hand, his 'belletristic' method had an interesting Russian precedent in Turgenev's A Month in the Country which, like Uncle Vanya, could be called 'scenes from country life' rather than a play in the traditional style. Finally, the playwright Alexander Ostrovsky contributed certain elements to the Chekhovian drama, however different Ostrovsky's aims and reasons may have been from those of Chekhov's. As an innovator Chekhov also had some features in common with Ibsen, but with reservations.

Like Ibsen in his later plays, he reduced the external action to a minimum. He replaced it not so much with Ibsen's psychological inner tension as with an accumulation of those lyrical-impressionistic touches which keep the seemingly disjointed incidents together. But the similarity between the symbolic use of the seagull in Chekhov's play of the same title and that of the wild duck in the well-known drama by Ibsen is hardly accidental. Analogies could also be found elsewhere, especially in Chekhov's frequent use of the double dialogue, the spoken words of which serve only as a mask for what one wants, or rather does not want, to say. However, there are essential differences between these two pioneers of modern drama. As a rule Ibsen relegated the tragic guilt of his main characters to the past (i.e. to the time before the play began) and gave all his attention to the psychological dénouement as seen through the workings of the hero's conscience, tossed between two contradictory sets of values. Even in his realistic middle-class dramas he was still rooted in the romantic tradition. His characters show a strong will opposing or fighting the surrounding conditions to the end. Thus Stockmann in An Enemy of the People is the bourgeois equivalent of such a heroic-romantic figure as Brand. The ex-Pastor Rosmer in Rosmersholm is also a romantic idealist. Even Nora in A Doll's House rises to the stature of a rebel determined not to put up with her position of a doll petted by a smug philistine husband. And as for the master-builder Solness, Borkmann, and the sculptor Rubek, they all perish in an attempt to assert their own will and freedom against fate; but their very defeat, however catastrophic, can be regarded as a romantic self-affirmation. In each case we watch how the inner change of the hero is due to a sudden perception of a truth which gives a new direction to his will even if he may no longer be destined to live up to it.

Chekhov proceeds differently. Having discarded the old plot, he does not replace it by a conflict of values in the manner of Ibsen for the simple reason that his very point of departure is the bankruptcy of all values. Nor do we find in him that logical and psychological consistency of characters in which Ibsen excelled. Chekhov depicted a disintegrating life in that seemingly casual way to which Tolstoy once referred (with disapproval) as a 'scattered composition'. Tolstoy himself greatly admired Chekhov's stories, but was somewhat critical of his plays. 'As you know,' he once told him, 'I do not like Shakespeare; but your plays are even worse'.… Yet there was a system in Chekhov's method of cementing the 'scattered' bits and slices of life together and he did so with a skill in which he proved to be master of his art.

By his method of showing the tragic nature of everyday existence in its ordinary everyday conditions Chekhov also made a contribution to the new style of acting. The success of Chekhov's plays depended and depends largely on all sorts of nuances, of psychological imponderables, not to mention the importance of pauses, of tempo, as well as of the deeper 'symbolic' side of words, gestures and inflections. After all, it was not for nothing that Chekhov was proclaimed by Andrey Bely a precursor of Russian symbolism.

Chekhov's symbolism is more vague and elusive than, say, that of Ibsen. Also his characters are too fatalistic or else too pathetic in their passivity to be tragic in Ibsen's sense. They have neither enough faith nor enough stamina to fight for, let alone shape, their own destinies. The originality of Chekhov is in fact due more to the way in which he showed that the very drabness of life can be turned into significant art. And he did this not only in a new light, but also with that peculiar understatement which, together with his short-hand realism, could not help influencing a number of other literary and dramatic creations of our era.


1 In England it was Katherine Mansfield in particular who wrote her stories under Chekhov's stimulus.

2 This play which, incidentally, has a happy ending, was subsequently excluded by Chekhov from the collected edition of his works.

3 All quotations from Chekhov's plays are taken from Constance Garnett's translation of Chekhov's works (Chatto and Windus).

4 Chekhov's first long and not very successful play Platonov (1881) remained in manuscript, but some of its characters and themes served for his other plays, especially for Ivanov.

5 The tragedy of Nina with Trigorin was partly based upon an actual love affair of the singer Lika Mizinova (one of Chekhov's friends) and the writer Potapenko.

Peter Mudford (essay date 1979)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4166

SOURCE: "Anton Chekhov," in The Art of Celebration, Faber and Faber, 1979, pp. 110-22.

[In this excerpt, Mudford explores how Chekhov's characters struggle between present despair and hope for the future.]

What beautiful trees—and how beautiful, when you think of it, life ought to be with trees like these!

Three Sisters, Act Four

Tolstoy once complained to Chekov in conversation: 'You know I cannot abide Shakespeare, but your plays are even worse.1 Chekov's plays lacked, in his opinion, a point of view. Chekov, who felt an unequalled love and affection for Tolstoy, admitted the truth in what he was saying; but could not do anything about it.

I have often been blamed, even by Tolstoy, for writing about trifles, for not having any positive heroes … but where am I to get them! Our life is provincial, the cities unpaved, the villages poor, the masses abused. In our youth we all chirp rapturously like sparrows on a dung-heap, but when we are forty, we are already old and begin to think of death. Fine heroes we are!2

In Chekov's view, the life of the individual was all too often unfulfilled and impoverished, spiritually as well as materially. If he had probed more deeply, he might have reached a view of character not unlike Ibsen's in his later works. But Chekov depicted that frustration as the result of forces at work in life and time, without involving himself in its particular emotional or psychological causes. Again, he placed more emphasis on the Russian temperament as an explanation of the tendency to philosophise and delay action, than, for example, upon the influence exerted by heredity which preoccupied Ibsen throughout his life. Chekov's characters too can perceive their defects; and knowing they will not change, they look to future generations to avoid their errors. 'Humanity is perpetually advancing, always seeking to perfect its own powers,'3 says Trofimov in The Cherry Orchard. 'One day all the things that are beyond our grasp at present are going to fall within our reach, only to achieve this we've got to work.…4 Hope for the future only partly conceals the 'lacrymae rerum'. Although the individual may not be rewarded, he must continue to work, search and hope. Chekov's recognition—not without irony—that this was how many people lived aroused his love and admiration for human beings in their hard and often thankless pilgrimage; this in turn gave to his works a more compassionate tone than was present in Ibsen's.

Unlike Tolstoy, Chekov had none of the advantages of social position to protect him in his youth from coining to know how hard life was for the majority of men. In the small town of Taganrog, on the sea of Azov, where his father kept a general store, Chekov was schooled by the daily struggle for existence. His father worked him long hours in the shop, and bullied the family at home. His incompetence in business, and his religious zeal, inspired mainly by his love of church music, brought neither material comfort nor spiritual joy to his family's life. Compulsory attendance at church made Sundays and holy days dreadful occasions for his children. Anton Chekov was later to say: 'I was brought up in religion, and received a religious education … And what is the result? I remember my childhood as a pretty gloomy affair, and I'm not a bit religious now.'5 In his art, as in his life, Chekov derived no consolation from traditional belief; what he asserted as positive good had to be won against the hard and dull facts of life, as he knew it. The slave, he said, had to be squeezed out of him drop by drop. The characters he created reflected his experience of how much depended on the inner resources of the individual.

After the death of his father, when he was nineteen, Chekov assumed responsibility for his family's finances. While training to become a doctor, he started to write the stories that were later to make him famous. Throughout his life, he continued to believe in the benefits which people would derive from scientific progress and education. Although he came to see himself first as a writer, he continued to practise medicine in times of epidemic, or in cases of want. He was active in setting up local libraries and creating improved facilities in schools. By travelling to the convict settlement on Shakhalin, off the coast of Japan, he sought to bring about an improvement in the conditions he found there. All these activities extended what he wanted to achieve in his writing:

I only wished to tell people honestly, 'Look at yourselves, see how badly and boringly you live!' The principal thing is that people should understand this, and where they do, they will surely create for themselves another and better life.6

Nothing that Chekov experienced—not even the filth, disease and drunkenness of the peasants—tempted him to feel that things could not be improved, but only to question how the same waste might be avoided in the future. The answer which he reflected in his art was a personal one, and depended upon individual endeavour: the will to endure so that in the future life might be better.…

Chekov's view of the individual admits the recurrence of failure and waste. But being the least doctrinaire of writers, he does not conceive this as the result of cold and impersonal forces, which stand in the way of human endeavour, so much as the operation of life upon the individual, fashioning him in a particular way, and often rendering him impotent in relation to what he most desires. Chekov was also able to bring to most of his characters an affectionate warmth, because his observation of their failings did not destroy his sense of humour. Since he recognised so much to be immutable within the brief course of an individual life, he could only regard the discrepancy between what people wanted, and what they achieved, as finally comic. His knowledge of provincial life also sharpened his eye for the unsophisticated and ludicrous attempts which human beings make to put things to rights; and this matched a style which never became over-complex, or, in the bad sense, urbane. However brief his stories, they focus upon incidents which reveal the quality of life, and its limited possibilities at a particular moment of time.…

Chekov's characters appear to a greater degree than Ibsen's the product of their choices; their decisions, often lightly taken, lead to more serious consequences than they could have foreseen. Chekov's irony is directed against the resulting waste; but it is tempered by his awareness of how swiftly life's opportunities disappear, and by the irrevocable consequences which flow from trivial acts. Sometimes, as in "The House with a Mezzanine," the opposition of the stars, as much as missed opportunity, causes the lack of fulfilment, but again time only offers very fleetingly a change of potential happiness. A young landscape painter, staying in perpetual idleness on a friend's estate, meets the Volchaninovs, who live nearby. The family consists of a mother and two daughters. The painter recognises the limitations and inadequacies of his existence. He feels pain, sadness, loneliness, and uncertainty of direction. For one night, his love for the younger sister, Zheyna, transforms his pain:

… I dreamed of her as my little queen, who together with me would possess those trees, those fields, this mist, this sunset, this exquisite, wonderful countryside, in the midst of which I had felt till now so hopelessly lonely and unwanted.…18

But the following day, Zhenya has vanished for ever.

What people feel themselves to have missed forms at the centre of their lives a depressing hollow, making them appear to themselves and to others ineffectual and incomplete. The transience of opportunity also in varying degrees absolves them. Like the house itself, with its attic storey and green-shaded light, love is briefly seen, and never forgotten. While Chekov extends the interest of the story by the argument between the painter, and Lydia, the elder sister, as to the relative importance in an impoverished country of medicine and art, their debate remains a battle of words, less important than the stifled relationship. In the late plays he adds another dimension to the gentleness and discrimination with which his characters had always been portrayed, by emphasising their desire for the future to be brighter for all men than the fleeting and incomplete present, and by highlighting the courage with which they confront their contribution to that end.

In these plays, Chekov developed a style of dramatic writing that enables us to see, without being told, how distraught people are; and how hard, in spite of their ineffectualness, they try to find a way of resolving their grief. Some, like the unloved and unsuccessful Trepliev in The Seagull, cannot bear their inability to do so. Others, like Nina who cannot reciprocate Trepliev's love, learn through suffering 'how to endure things … how to bear one's cross and have faith.19 In the last three plays, Uncle Vania, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, the most subtle and painful feelings within the characters are made clear to the audience by Chekov's artistry; and they see, sometimes with almost unbearable clarity, why things cannot be changed, however much people desire them to be. Nothing can turn Trepliev into a successful writer, or make Trigorin faithful to Nina. Chekov's art is wrought from present feeling, and is unconcerned with experiences long since passed. Lacking a historical perspective, he can concentrate on the immediate experience, and perceive its value in relation to the quality of a continuing life. The moments as they pass in Chekov's drama form a pattern of growing aware ness of what each character is, and must endure—apparent to themselves, as to his audience.

The Seagull is somewhat less refined in technique than the last three plays; and because of that the theme of self-fulfilment stands out the more starkly. Inability to reciprocate love, and a lack of equivalence in people's desires, convey incompleteness. Masha is touched by Medviedenko's love, but cannot return it. Trepliev adores Nina, who does not care for him; and Masha loves Trepliev, who scarcely notices her. But the seagull symbolises another kind of frustration, and of fulfilment: that of the creative life itself. Trepliev, when he enters with the dead seagull, prophesies that he will soon kill himself; and at the play's end he does so. Thwarted in his love for Nina, he also fails to find himself as a writer; floating about in a world of dreams and images, he lacks any sense of direction, or the power to impose the new artwork of which he dreams on his audience. Poor as Trigorin's writing may be, when compared, as he compares it, with that of Dostoevsky, he is supported by fame, wealth and popularity; and short-lived as his own affections may be, he is nonetheless adored by Nina. Trepliev does not enjoy his good fortune in love or work. He tries to fly but cannot. Nina suffers no less when Trigorin deserts her after the death of their child; but she turns her suffering to creative advantage; and while achieving scarcely more success as an actress than Trepliev does as a writer, she 'grows stronger in spirit every day'. She becomes the seagull that flies, as opposed to Trepliev's seagull that destroys itself.

Chekov portrays them both with more sympathy than Trigorin or Arkadina who, in spite of their public success, display an unchanging self-regard and lack of concern for others. All that has happened to them in the two-year interval between Acts Three and Four has left them the same. Chekov often used fixity in character for comic effect—as he does here in the case of the retired lieutenant, Shamrayev—but also to convey a humanity restricted by lack of any deep feeling. The importance of matching one's dreams to one's possibilities, and accepting the consequences, is suggested in the contrast between Nina's and Trepliev's end; but Chekov still attaches more importance to the individual who endures and searches than to the person whose experience of living does not run deep. In The Seagull, as in the later plays, he also uses Nature in its permanence and stillness to create a contrast with the distress of human life, and implicitly to suggest through it a beauty which human life ought to contain.

Like several of Ibsen's plays, Uncle Vania derives its dramatic tension from the effects of disruption upon an established way of life. The retired Professor Serebriakov and his young wife, Yeliena, return to the estate which the Professor owns; the estate is run by Vania, the brother of the Professor's first wife, and Sonia, his daughter. Vania is upset by the Professor's disturbance of their routine, by the youth and beauty of his wife, and by the fact that in spite of his eminence he is obviously a nincompoop. Vania is forty-seven, and knows that life is slipping him by, that he has achieved nothing. 'It would even be pleasant to hang oneself on a day like this,' he says. The old nurse comments, indirectly, as she feeds the chickens: 'Chook, chook, chook!'20 All this 'pother o'er our heads' is insignificant. Vania is in love with the Professor's young wife, Yeliena (or thinks he is); Sonia loves Dr. Astrov, a regular visitor to the estate—but the doctor, through the endless monotony and fatigue of his work, has grown dead to feeling (though he too is attracted by Yeliena). All except Serebriakov sense the emptiness and incompleteness of their lives; and he has a pain in his left leg. As Vania says to Yeliena (not without bathetic humour): 'My life, my love—look at them—where do they belong? What am I to do with them? My feeling for you is just wasted like a ray of sunlight falling into a well—and I am wasted too.'21 To Yeliena this talk of love is just stupid. Astrov's confession to Sonia is painful in a different way:

Astrov: I don't love human beings … I haven't cared for anyone for years.

Sonia: Not for anyone?

Astrov: No one. I feel a sort of fondness for your old nurse—for the sake of old times.…22

He goes on talking, but his loquacity conceals as much as Soma's silence. The real dialogue between them, which we can read in their tone, expression and gesture, remains unspoken.

In Act Three, Serebriakov clumsily announces his intention of selling the estate which Vania has looked after for so long. Vania attempts to shoot him, and repeatedly misses. At the opposite extreme to Soma's stillness, Vania's frenzied excitement suggests how deeply these lives are shaken by their desires, and the misfortunes of existence. When finally the storm has passed, and the sound of the Professor's carriage recedes once more from the house whose tranquillity it shattered, it carries away Vania's love, just as Astrov's decision not to come to the house till summer buries Sonia's. It is an ironic and painful irrelevance that at the moment of departure Astrov should stare at the map of Africa and remark: 'I suppose down there in Africa the heat must be terrific now.'23 There can be nothing more personal for them to say to each other. But Sonia and Vania, in spite of all they suffer, and must endure in the future, do not quite despair:

Sonia: Well, what can we do? We must go on living! We shall go on living, Uncle Vania. We shall live through a long, long succession of days and tedious evenings … we shall work for others, now and in our old age, and we shall have no rest … Over there, beyond the grave … we shall rejoice and look back at these troubles of ours with tender feelings, with a smile—and we shall have rest.24

In these moments when Sonia has finally lost hope in the fulfilment of her love for Astrov, she has to construct something upon which to rejoice. However much truth we may or may not feel in Sonia's general view of things, we cannot, after what she has suffered, doubt either her courage or her sincerity. Sonia's sorrow belongs to a heart that remains glad; in her hope and steadfastness she symbolises a sustained goodness at the centre of harsh and suffering existence. This is not lack of viewpoint, but a confident assertion of those values which are stronger than the arbitrariness and unhappiness of the world.

Chekov's tone has become more sombre in Three Sisters, the least comic and most tautly structured of his plays. In Uncle Vania, people are often blind to the effect of their actions, but not deliberately malicious. In Three Sisters, Solyony cannot accept that Irene does not love him, and even less that the Baron is his rival. In the first act he threatens to put a bullet in the Baron's head out of ill temper (a threat which is sometimes in production meaninglessly directed at Chebutykin); and in the fourth act he does so out of jealousy. Solyony, humourless and destructively mean, is only worse in degree than Natasha, the wife (after Act One) of Andrey, brother to the three sisters. Incapable of seeing how cruel she is to her husband, whom everyone knows she deceives, and to the old servant Anfisa, whom she wants turned out of the house, relentlessly and apparently unknowingly she takes over her husband s home and life, destroying him with her vulgarity, and shallowness of spirit. As Andrey is forced to admit by the end of the play, something about her 'pulls her down to the level of an animal—a sort of mean, blind, thick-skinned animal—anyway not a human being.…'25 Chebutykin, one-time doctor, and now alchoholic, destroys in another way. Not having done a stroke of work since he left the university he feels that nothing is worth the effort, and that, anyway, nothing matters.26 He makes no attempt to stop the duel between Solyony and the Baron; and when the Baron is killed, consoles himself with the newspaper: 'Let them cry for a bit.…' 27

These three characters in different ways represent the negative and destructive self, incapable of looking beyond themselves for a justification of their present suffering. Work, tedious and spiritless though it may be, is seen both as a palliative for that pain, and as a hope. Vershinin exclaims: 'We've just got to work and work … All the happiness is reserved for our descendants, for our remote descendants.'28 But that scarcely balances the hardship it causes in the present. Andrey finds no satisfaction in his work for the Council Office, and regrets increasingly his missed academic career. Irene, who begins with a longing for work, cannot bear what she has to do in the post office: 'It's the sort of work you do without inspiration, without even thinking.…'29 Olga is worn out by her work at the school: 'Tomorrow I'm free,' she says. 'Heaven, what a joy!'30 Masha, married to a master at the High School, is 'so bored, it's simply disgusting'.31 In love too they are equally unhappy and unfulfilled. Masha's affair with Vershinin (himself married to a woman he finds despicable) is doomed to end when his regiment is posted away; Irene agrees to marry the Baron, admitting she does not love him, but promis ing to be loyal and obedient—only to have him killed in a duel by Solyony; and Andrey's love for Natasha is ended by their marriage. In such a world what people say to each other often sounds irrelevant and absurd, and their hopes for the future, whether in Moscow or lives still unborn, sound like a means of cheering themselves up. But they are not only that. In Chekov's high art the distinction between good and bad is that between those who have the faith to go on working, searching and hoping, and those who do not care, or do not think it worth the effort. His vision of reality is nourished by a belief in people who suffer and do not give up, while conscious that any rewards will not be for them to enjoy.

The Cherry Orchard (1904), Chekov's last play, expresses in its most poignant and subtle form his attitude to time. He regarded the play as a comedy, and so in the divine sense it is. What seems so important and permanent to individuals at the time, like this family's love of the cherry orchard, must inevitably undergo change. Madame Liuba cannot grasp this. Almost penniless, and compelled to sell her estate, she insists upon giving a gold coin to a passing tramp, and behaving as though the orchard is not going to be sold. Even when both silly and misguided, characters in Chekov's plays have the ability, as Liuba does, to convince one of their basic goodness. And it comes across the more strikingly for the irrelevance which threatens to overrun everything.

Act Two, in particular, impresses this upon us. The action takes place at an old wayside shrine in the country which suggests a state of limbo—the place where these people happen to be. At the opening, Charlotta, the governess, takes a shotgun off her shoulder and says thoughtfully: 'I don't know how old I am. I haven't got a proper identitycard, you see.'32 Later Lopakhin, destined to buy the estate, reminds Liuba and Gayev: 'We must decide once and for all: time won't wait.…'33 But in limbo time doesn't exist: 'Who's been smoking such abominable cigars here?'34 Liuba asks in reply to Lopakhin, and goes on to admit how senselessly, recklessly she is spending her money. Lopakhin complains that they don't seem to understand the estate is up for sale, Liuba asks, 'What are we to do? Tell us, what?'35 They way of life they have always known will never be changed, and disappear; and Trofimov, the eternal student, will always be present to comfort as well as chide them: 'The whole of Russia is our orchard. The earth is great and beautiful, and there are many, many wonderful places on it.'36 In a world so entrenched in a sense of its permance, the remote sound of a string, snapping—perhaps a cable in one of the mines—causes the most disturbance. Like the Serebriakovs, though far less obtrusively, it suggests the raid of time upon stillness. In that stillness the voices of the unfulfilled—Sonia, Anya, Liuba, Gayev—desirous, if not capable, of faring forward, are heard. Like the cherry orchard itself, time overtakes them; but not before their uniqueness and the 'ground of their beseeching' has been portrayed with all the fineness and subtlety of Chekov's art. The cherry orchard is an image of great beauty: doomed to be cut down, but remaining memorable as something which Time cannot change or touch. The curtain of the theatre itself discovers it every time that it rises: 'It is May, but in the orchard there is morning frost.… '37

Chekov is like Hardy in that his mastery comes from a quality perceived within people. Without Hardy's elaborate stage-setting, his characters appear to us more directly as 'only undefeated because they have gone on trying'. Both through his work as a doctor and through his imagination, Chekov knew how much poverty, boredom and indifference worsened the quality of people's lives. His art, in its content and formal beauty, speaks quietly and resiliently against such things; and the brighter future for which his characters work and hope expresses the nature of their particular quests. Time and circumstance operate against their chance of fulfilment. While recognising the amount of waste in all existence, Chekov celebrated its goodness, not only in what people are, but in what they intend.


1 Quoted by Emest Simmons in Chekov, A Biography, London, 1963, p. 495.

2Ibid., p. 581.

3 Chekov, Plays, translated by Elisaveta Fen, Penguin Classics, Harmonds-worth, 1959, The Cherry Orchard, Act II, p. 363.

4Ibid., pp. 363-4.

5 Simmons, op. cit., p. 17.

6Ibid., p. 581.

7Lady with Lapdog, and other stories, translated by David Magarshack, Penguin Classics, Harmondsworth, 1964, Ward Number Six, p. 143.

8Ibid., p. 143.

9Ibid., p. 175.

10 The Oxford Chekov, Vol. 6, Stories 1892-93, translated by Ronald Hingley, London, 1971, Neighbours, p. 104.

11Ibid., p. 115.

12Ibid., p. 117.

13The Darling, translated by David Magarshack, op. cit. (note 7), p. 255.

14Ibid., p. 260.

15Ibid., p. 263.

16lonych, op. cit. (note 7), p. 243.

17Ibid, p. 250.

18The House with an Attic, op. cit. (note 7), p. 228.

19Plays, op. cit., The Seagull, Act IV, p. 181.

20Plays, Uncle Vania, Act I, p. 195.

21Ibid., Act II, p. 205.

22Ibid., Act II, p. 211.

23Ibid., Act IV, p. 244.

24Ibid., Act IV, p. 245.

25Plays, Three Sisters, Act IV, p. 318.

26Ibid., Act I, p. 266.

27Ibid., Act IV, p. 329.

28Ibid., Act II, p. 281.

29Ibid., p. 278.

30Ibid., p. 293.

31Ibid., Act III, p. 304.

32Plays, The Cherry Orchard, Act II, p. 354.

33Ibid., p. 357.

34Ibid., p. 357.

35Ibid., p. 359.

36Ibid., pp. 367-8.

37Ibid., Act I, p. 333.

Irina Kirk (essay date 1981)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12790

SOURCE: "Chekhov's Plays," in Anton Chekhov, Twayne Publishers, 1981, pp. 126-56.

[Kirk provides a detailed examination of each of Chekhov's full-length plays.]

Chekhov wrote his first plays at the age of eighteen, but all that survived of those efforts are the titles: a drama Without Fathers, a comedy Laugh It Off If You Can, and a one-act comedy "Diamond Cuts Diamond." (These titles are mentioned by Chekhov's eldest brother, Aleksandr, in a letter of October 14, 1878.) The manuscript of the earliest preserved play by Chekhov was discovered after his death and published in 1923. Because of the missing title page it was published as A Play without a Title,1 but later it was named Platonov after the play's main character. Although the manuscript is undated there is evidence that the play was written in 1881, since Chekhov's brother Mikhail refers to it in his introduction to the second volume of Chekhov's letters. Apparently Chekhov took this play to the then-famous actress Mariya Yermolova with hopes that it would be performed at the Maly Theatre, and its rejection caused him great disappointment.

The play lacks artistic merit. It is too long, melodramatic, and as Mikhail wrote, "unwieldly," but it does offer interesting material for a study tracing some of Chekhov's themes and characters to their original sources. It is also significant as Chekhov's first effort to portray those sociological problems and conflicts that resulted from the emancipation of the serfs in the last two decades of the nineteenth century.

As in any period of transition there was uncertainty and confusion among the land-owning class, and many felt a helpless frustration at their inability to cope with change. Platonov, formerly a rich landowner and now a village teacher, is, in the words of one of the characters, "an admirable representative of our modern uncertainty."

To escape his frustration, Platonov involves himself with different women. Married to Sasha, a pious and innocent woman, he is having an affair with Anna, a general's widow. On discovering this, Sasha throws herself under a train, but is saved by the horse thief Osip. In the third act, she finds out that her worthless husband has also been trying to revive his old love for Sonya, who viewed him in her student days as a second Byron.

Sonya decides to "save" Platonov, and she offers him a new, meaningful life with her: "I'll make a worker out of you. We'll be decent people, Mikhail. We shall eat our own bread. We shall live by the sweat of our brows. We shall have calloused hands. I shall work, Mikhail" (p. 116). Platonov agrees to this scheme without much conviction or enthusiasm, but just as he prepares to leave, he is summoned to court "in the case of an assault committed upon the person of Mariya Grekhova daughter of Councellor of State." The summons does not deter Platonov, but at this point he finds it convenient to spend two weeks with Anna, prior to leaving with Sonya forever.

The last act is filled with every theatrical cliché and melodramatic device possible. Sasha poisons herself with matches, Sonya throws herself on her knees in the presence of Anna and begs Platonov to leave with her, and Mariya Grekhova comes in to announce that she is withdrawing her summons and that she too loves Platonov.

Exasperated, Platonov vows to revenge himself on all these loving women: "They all love me. When I get well I'll corrupt you. Before I used to say nice things to them, but now I'm corrupting them all" (p. 162). Sonya relieves him from the necessity of fulfilling such an ambitious vow by shooting Platonov with a pistol and wounding him fatally. The play ends with a lament of Colonel Triletsky, Sasha's father: "The Lord has forsaken us. For our sins. For my sins. Why did you sin, you old jester? Killed God's own creatures, drank, swore, condemned people … The Lord couldn't put up with it any more and struck you down" (p. 165).

Such lamentations were not part of Chekhov's later art, but the spiritual bankruptcy, the destructive forces of ennui, and the idea that work is man's salvation were to become some of his recurring themes. The figure of a bored, impoverished landowner unable to revive his youthful ideals and resentful of any efforts to save him appears again in Chekhov's next play, Ivanov.

I Ivanov

It is apparent that Chekhov himself rejected Platonov so completely that he considered Ivanov his first play. In a letter to his brother Aleksandr in October of 1887 Chekhov said, "It is the first time I have written a play, ergo, mistakes are unavoidable. The plot is complicated and not stupid. I end each act like a short story. All the acts run on peacefully and quietly, but at the end I give the spectator a punch in the face. My entire energy is concentrated on a few really powerful and striking scenes; but the bridges joining them are insignificant, dull, and trite. Nevertheless, I am pleased, for however bad the play may be, I have I think, created a type of literary significance."2

The type Chekhov created was not new in Russian literature. Aside from the fact that Ivanov was a reworked version of Platonov, he was similar to many so-called superfluous men who dominated Russian novels since the early nineteenth century. Behind his melancholy, boredom, and cosmic fatigue stood his idealistic past, where his powers were directed toward passionate speeches about progress, human rights, and agricultural improvements. It is the discrepancy between what he had dreamed he would become and what he actually did become that lies at the source of his illness. As a part of his rebelliousness and youthful dreams, Ivanov married a Jewish girl, Sarah, who gave up her inheritance and her faith to become his wife. As the play opens, Sarah is suffering from tuberculosis, Ivanov's lands are mortgaged to Lebedev, and he himself is about to become involved with Sasha, a young and idealistic daughter of Lebedev who is bent on saving Ivanov. Chekhov said of Sasha (letter of Dec. 30, 1888 to Suvorin), "She is the type of female whom the males do not conquer by the brightness of their feathers, their fawning or their bravery, but by their complaints, their whining, their failures. She is a woman who loves a man at the moment of his downfall. The moment Ivanov loses heart, the girl is at his side. That was what she was waiting for … She is not in love with Ivanov but with that task of hers."3

Ivanov's relationship to his wife is seen and evaluated by different people: by common gossipers (act 2), by Dr. Lvov, by Sarah, and by Ivanov himself. The issue becomes a catalyst that reveals the degree of honesty each character has toward himself and others.

According to gossip, Ivanov is a murderer, a blood sucker, and a thief: an opinion that is a crude distortion of the truth. Dr. Lvov pronounces a similar judgment on Ivanov. Unlike the gossips, Lvov is motivated by sincere honesty and by a genuine concern for Sarah's health. Dr. Lvov correctly sees that Ivanov's lack of reaction to the fact that his wife is dying and his behavior with Sasha are largely responsible for Anna's death. Still, he fails to take into account Ivanov's idealistic past and his present ennui. Chekhov writes of the doctor: "He belongs to the type of honest, straightforward, excitable, but also narrow-minded and plain-spoken man."4 As the count says of Lvov, he is "like a parrot who thinks of himself as a second Dobrolyubov." His role is thus a caricature of the liberal narodnichestvo (populism) dramas popular at the time.

Ivanov's reaction to Dr. Lvov is indicative of his attitude toward himself. Ivanov is not intentionally evil, but he feels himself powerless to resolve all the contradictions and complexities of his weak nature. Thus he admonishes Dr. Lvov for his harsh judgment, which is lacking in depth and perception:

No, doctor. We all have too many wheels and gears for us to be judged by first impressions or by a few external traits. I don't know you, you don't know me, and we don't know ourselves. Isn't it possible to be a good doctor—and at the same time not understand people? You'll have to admit that, unless you're blind.

(p. 43)5

Although Ivanov does not fully accept Lvov's definition of him, he realizes that he alone is responsible for his life. Still he cannot reconcile himself to his present ennui:

I can stand all these things! Anxiety, depression, bankruptcy, the loss of my wife, premature old age, loneliness, but I just can't bear the contempt I have for myself. The shame that I, a strong, healthy man, have somehow become a kind of Hamlet, a Manfred, just about kills me! Oh, I know there are fools who are flattered when you call them a Hamlet, but to me it's an insult! It wounds my pride, I'm oppressed with shame, and I suffer …

(p. 29)

Ivanov agrees with the doctor that his passivity is the indirect cause of both his wife's death and of his financial problem.

The dramatic action of this play is developed in accordance with the painful self-revelation which in the end drives Ivanov to suicide. Ivanov's psyche is revealed through his own remarks about himself, his gestures, his reactions, and the pauses in his speech.

Each act places an emphasis on Ivanov's estrangement from his surroundings. This is frequently comic, as in the contrast between Ivanov and Borkin, but it is just as often tragic. The comic episodes balance the tragic ones and serve as parodies, reflecting as if in a distorted mirror the plight of the main character. Both Count Shabelsky, Ivanov's uncle, and Lebedev, chairman of the County Council, speak of their idealistic past with humor, yet Ivanov cannot feel indifferent to what he has become, and hence he suffers. Ivanov's relationship with Sasha is parodied by Shabelsky's vacillating intention to marry the rich young widow Babakina. Just like Ivanov, the count reasserts his honesty at the end of the play, telling Babakina he hates her. However, Ivanov must pay a tragic price to extricate himself from his marriage to Sasha. Lvov's aggressive honesty is a parody of what Berdnikov calls Ivanov's "subjective honesty." Although the doctor acts honorably, Ivanov's passive honesty enables him to judge himself and others with more insight than Lvov.

Chekhov wrote to Suvorin about Ivanov on January 7, 1889: "In the conception of Ivanov I hit approximately on the dot, but the performance is not worth a damn. I should have waited."6 Chekhov's conception was to portray the "superfluous man" of the 1880s in all of his psychological complexity, but he had not yet mastered the dramatic subtleties of characterization. The excess of monologues and self-explanatory speeches in Ivanov kept it well within the bounds of the traditional theater, while Chekhov was striving to achieve something new. In a letter of October 10-12 to his brother Aleksandr he says of Ivanov, "Korsh hasn't found a single mistake or fault in it so far as stage technique is concerned which proves how good and sensible my critics are."7 Korsh hadn't found a mistake because Ivanov conformed to the requirements of the conventional play.

Ivanov is certainly a vast improvement over Platonov. It is much more concise, and Chekhov realized the importance of ending each act definitely. At the end of the first act Sarah leaves her house to follow Ivanov, and at the end of the second act she appears at the very moment of Sasha's and Ivanov's kiss. The third act ends with Ivanov's rebuke to Sarah that she will soon die, and the fourth act with his suicide.

Chekhov failed to make an original creation out of a character that had become stock in Russian literature. As Suvorin said, "Ivanov was a ready-made man." Chekhov denied the charge and replied (February 8, 1889) that Ivanov was not static because he was "ready-made" but because the author's hands were unskillful. Chekhov obviously tried to portray the inner emotional life of his hero, but didn't know how to do it except with worn-out devices.

II The Wood Demon

While Chekhov was writing The Wood Demon he was at the same time at work on "A Boring Story." However, whereas "A Boring Story" displays all the control of an admirable craftsman, The Wood Demon confirms Chekhov's own suspicion that he was not yet a playwright. When the play was passed by the censor in October, 1889, it was rejected by the Literary-Theatrical Committee of St. Petersburg, among whose members was Grigorovich. Lensky, an actor of the Moscow Maly Theatre for whose benefit night the play was submitted, wrote Chekhov two weeks later, "Write stories. You are too scornful of the stage and the dramatic form. You respect these things too little to write plays."8 Nemirovich-Danchenko was more charitable and more perceptive. He wrote, "You ignore too many of the requirements of the stage, but I have not observed that you scorn them; simply, rather, that you don't know what they are."9

In December, Chekhov finally sold the play to the private Abramov Theatre in Moscow, and it was presented on the Moscow stage on December 27th. The criticism of the play was singularly severe. The kindest review came from a magazine The Actor, No. 6, 1890 which said, "Chekhov's talent, without a doubt, is above the play he wrote, and the play's strange qualities are explained, probably, by the speed of the work and a sad delusion regarding inescapable qualities of every dramatic work." Chekhov added his personal criticism of The Wood Demon, which had also failed his own artistic expectations. In a letter to Urusov, literary critic and chairman of a drama society, he stated, "I cannot publish [The Wood Demon]. I … am trying to forget it."10 (The play was in fact later revised and staged as Uncle Vanya.)

Chekhov did succeed in removing the conventional plot from The Wood Demon, but he had not yet mastered the technique of portraying inner psychological action. The play is too mechanical, undisciplined, and verbose. The inner psychological moments which in later plays would be depicted by a suggestive line of speech or a mere gesture, are expressed in loud monologues or bathetic dialogues. The play is also undermined by unconvincing coincidences and melodramatic situations. Letters and diaries serve to communicate information in a contrived manner, characters appear on stage at the proper moments as if by chance, and in Act Four a fire is created to get Khrushchev off stage. The play ends with the clown Dyadin's remark which ironically defines not only his own absurdity but also the play's: "That is delightful—Just delightful" (p. 124).

The theme and characterization are developed in accordance with the love relationships in the play. Serebryakov, an old and insufferable professor, is married to a very young and beautiful woman, Elena. The stupid boor Orlovsky and the Byronic rake Fedor both crudely attempt to seduce Elena, but receive only moral lectures for their pains.

Chekhov was obviously under the influence of Tolstoi's teachings at this time. The passive but virtuous Elena delivers speeches on the sanctity of marriage, purity, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. Although Elena is unjustly maligned throughout the play she is inwardly sustained by her false belief that she is the paragon of Russian womanhood:

Oh, to be free as a bird, to fly away from all your drowsy faces and your monotonous mumblings and forget that you've even existed at all! Oh, to forget oneself and what one is … But I am a coward; I am afraid, and tortured by my conscience. I know that if I were to be unfaithful, every other wife would do the same thing and leave her husband, too. But then God would punish me. If it weren't for my conscience, I'd show you how free my life could be.

(p. 96)

There is another love triangle between the professor's spoiled daughter Sonya, the idealistic "wood demon" Dr. Khrushchev, and the scoundrel Zheltukhin. Khrushchev eventually proposes to Sonya, who accepts his offer, at which point she too starts mouthing Tolstoian precepts: "There is no evil without some good in it. Our sorrow has taught me that we must forget our own happiness and think only of the happiness of others. Our lives should be a continual act of self-sacrifice" … (p. 113).

All the characters are united by the thematic leitmotif of their wasted lives, and by their attempt to delude themselves with rationalizing philosophy. The "wood demon" Khrushchev sums up the lives of everyone in the play as follows:

We say that we are serving humanity, but at the same time we inhumanly destroy one another. For instance, did you or I do anything to save George? Where's your wife, whom we all insulted? Where's your peace of mind, where's your daughter's peace of mind? Everything's been destroyed, ruined. You call me a Wood Demon, but there's a demon in all of you. You're all wandering lost in a dark forest, you're all groping to find a way in life. We know just enough and feel just enough to ruin our own lives and the lives of others.

(p. 117)

Voinitsky has sacrificed his entire identity to Serebryakov, whom he has worshipped as a great genius for years, only to discover his mistake when it is too late. Serebryakov, whose entire youth was devoted to work, tries desperately to achieve happiness as an old man by exercising the power of his position, but he only succeeds in destroying those around him. Elena is proud of her "virtue," but she is a failure in her inability to love anyone and quite rightly defines herself as a "worthless, empty and quite pathetic woman" (p. 93). Fedor and Zheltukhin are leading senseless lives, and justifying themselves with cynicisms modeled after Lermontov's Byronic hero Pechorin.

Though The Wood Demon was a failure in terms of its artistry, its conception of form revealed the trend toward dramas of "inner action" which was to become fully actualized in Chekhov's later plays. Uncle Vanya, which was modeled after The Wood Demon, will give the most concrete example for studying the development of Chekhov's technique from banal melodrama to masterful dramatic art.

III The Seagull

Perhaps it is fitting that after the failure of The Wood Demon, Chekhov would want to write a play about art and the nature of artists. The Seagull marks Chekhov's maturity as a playwright, and it is also the most innovative of his plays. Chekhov wrote The Seagull in 1895, and in a letter to Suvorin (October 21, 1895) he said that he was working on it with pleasure, "though I sin terribly against the conventions of the stage. It is a comedy with three female parts, six male, a landscape, a view of a lake, much talk about literature, little action, and five tons of love."11

It was the "sinning against convention" that was most probably responsible for the scandalous failure of The Seagull at its first performance on October 17, 1895. The play's initial engagement lasted only five days, and it was greeted with satirical invective from the St. Petersburg audience, as well as from the art critics who reviewed it. Very few people were astute enough to appreciate The Seagull's innovative use of mood, subtext, and symbolism as a new dramatic form.

The theme of The Seagull deals with the complex relationship between art, love, and life. Konstantin's play in the first act serves to polarize the characters' feelings around this subject, and to reveal the role of each individual in both a thematic and a dramatic sense.

At the beginning of The Seagull Masha, Medvedenko, and Polina are united by their total unconcern with the content of Treplev's play. They are all totally immersed in love conflicts and art has no relevance to their lives. On the other hand, for Sorin, who has failed in his ambitions to be a writer as well as in love; for Nina, who aspires to be a great actress; for Treplev's mother Arkadina, who is' a famous actress; for the idealistic Dr. Dorn; and for the popular author Trigorin, there is an intimate relationship between art and personal identity.

Arkadina views her son Konstantin's attempt to create "new forms" in the theater as both a personal and a professional threat. Treplev is aware of his mother's animosity toward this assertion of his rebellious individuality, and he mockingly recites Queen Gertrude's lines to Arkadina before his play is performed. The oedipal power struggle between Konstantin and his mother is thus transferred onto the more abstract level of art, where it can be interpreted as the battle waged by every new generation to replace worn-out art forms.

Arkadina's lover, Trigorin, also feels no affinity for Konstantin's play. He confesses to understanding neither its abstract symbolism nor its emotional intensity. For Trigorin creative writing is not a dynamic process of discovery, but rather it is a rational process with a given methodology: "I take every word, every sentence I speak, and every word you say, too, and quickly lock them up in my literary warehouse—in case they might come in handy sometime" (p. 148). Like Arkadina, Trigorin desires to dominate the young, creative energy which he himself cannot generate. His destructive love relationship with Nina parallels Arkadina's power over her son.

Dorn is the only member of the "older generation" who truly understands, and sympathizes with Treplev's efforts. It is interesting that Dorn, who is an experienced man, shares the same abstract notion of art as the naive and alienated Konstantin. Dorn's remarks to Konstantin are supportive, but at the same time they offer valuable critical advice:

There must be a clear and definite idea in a work of art—you must know why you're writing—if not, if you walk along this enchanted highway without any definite aim, you will lose your way and your talent will ruin you.

(p. 139)

Treplev asserts that "one must portray life not as it is, not as it should be, but as it appears to be in dreams" (p. 131). Nina replies that, on the contrary, art must express life's strongest emotion, love. Nina not only has a strongly idealistic vision of the role of love in art, she also sees it as paramount in the life of the artist himself. And, although Treplev and Nina disagree on the focus of art in human relationships, they are both united by their naive dreams and by the shock of reality they must suffer.

Nina's and Treplev's parallel struggle to overcome the frustrations of reality and to establish a real artistic identity is symbolized by the central image of the seagull Treplev has wantonly killed. The impetus for this symbol was an incident that occurred when Chekhov's friend Levitan and he were walking in the wood and Levitan shot a woodcock. Chekhov picked up the wounded bird and Levitan asked him to crush its head with a gun stock. Chekhov replied he could not do it, but Levitan continued to plead with him to end the bird's suffering. Chekhov wrote to Suvorin on April 8, 1892: "I had to obey Levitan and kill it. One more beautiful, enamored creature gone, while two fools went home and sat down to supper."12

Nina's identification with a seagull is mentioned when she first arrives at the Treplevs' in Act One. Although her family has forbidden her to visit there, she longs "for this lake, as if I were a seagull" (p. 130). Later, at the end of act 2, the writer Trigorin interprets the dead seagull as a premonition of Nina's own fate in love: "A young girl like you has lived in a house on the shore of a lake since she was a little girl; she loves the lake like a seagull. Then a man comes along, sees her, and having nothing better to do, destroys her like this seagull here" (pp. 150-151). When Nina's unhappy romance with Trigorin, as described in act 4, becomes an actualization of this "fiction," Nina associates her identity entirely with a wounded seagull and even signs her letters to Treplev "the seagull."

But Nina's dedication to art ultimately reverses her fate. In her last speech she declares her triumph to Konstantin with the following words:

I've become a real actress. I enjoy acting! I revel in it! The stage intoxicates me, and on it I feel very beautiful. While I've been here, I've spent a lot of time walking and thinking … thinking … and I feel that my spirit's growing stronger every day. I know now, Kostya, that what matters most for us, whether we're writers or actors, isn't fame or glamor, or any of the things I used to dream of. What matters most is knowing how to endure, knowing how to bear your cross and still have faith. I have faith now and I can stand my suffering when I think of my calling, I'm not afraid of life.

(p. 174)

Thus, although Trigorin's interpretation of the seagull correctly foretold Nina's tragedy in love, it failed to take into account her success as an artist.

On the other hand, the seagull assumes an entirely different symbolic meaning in terms of Trigorin's fate. In the second act Konstantin shoots the seagull as a demonstration of his failure in love, and as a symbolic act to Nina that he might be his own next victim. Thus, Konstantin's ultimate failure is ironically not in his unrequited love for Nina. Rather, it is the result of his inability to find a direction in art. In the last act Konstantin says to Nina of himself:

Treplev, sadly. You've found your road, you know where you're going—but I'm still floating about in a maze of dreams and images, without knowing what it is I am to do … I have no faith, and I have no calling.

(p. 174)

Konstantin has become his own victim because he is caught between the power of his imagination to visualize and his impotence to actualize that vision into art. His final self-destructive frustration is resolved in the act of suicide, where his identification with the seagull becomes complete.

There are other symbols in the play that evoke different responses from the characters and are related to the thematic development. The lake on Arkadina's estate represents a promise of fulfillment: to Treplev it is associated with his play and with his love for Nina, to Trigorin it offers the solace of fishing (p. 168), and to Nina it is the lure that she will become a great actress. At the end of act 1 Dorn speaks to Masha of "sorcerer's lake," remarking on its power to evoke dreams. In the last act the lake's glassy surface is ruffled by chaotic, stormy winds, just as the dreams of each of the characters have been thrashed about by the forces of reality.

Flowers are also used as a symbol of the beauty and tender fragility of dreams. Polina jealously destroys the flowers that Nina presents to Dora (p. 145), which parallels Arkadina's attitude toward Treplev and Trigorin's attitude toward Nina. Trigorin speaks of his wasted dreams as being like "flowers, torn from their roots" (p. 148), and at the end of the play Nina reminds Treplev of their youth, when feelings were "like tender, exquisite flowers" (p. 175). In The Seagull it seems that flowers, like youthful dreams, are destined to be trampled on or destroyed by time and indifference.

There are no real dramatic climaxes in The Seagull until Treplev's suicide at the end of the play. The plot develops with the introduction of the major characters in act 1, focuses on the love triangles between Trigorin-Nina-Treplev, Nina-Trigorin-Arkadina, and MedvedenkoMasha-Treplev in acts 2 and 3, and shows the resolutions of these conflicts in act 4. At the end of the play Treplev has abandoned Nina to return to Arkadina, Masha has married Medvedenko although she still loves Treplev, and both Nina and Trigorin have been jilted. Chekhov did not even portray Nina's affair with Trigorin on the stage, but used the messenger technique to report it to Dr. Dorn, and thus to the audience, in act 4.

Both David Magarshack in his book Chekhov the Dramatist and Maurice Valency in The Breaking String emphasize that The Seagull is the first of Chekhov's plays to use the dramatic technique of indirect action. Unlike Ivanov and The Wood Demon, where thoughts and ideas were revealed through standard plot developments, The Seagull highlights the more subtle psychological reactions of its characters through dialogue and symbolism.

Another innovation in The Seagull is Chekhov's wedding of comic and tragic elements. Although Arkadina's egoism, Treplev's fanatical attachment to his mother, and Trigorin's passion for fishing evoke a comic response, the reader understands each character too well to laugh without sympathy. The humor in The Seagull, which has its source in the frequent absurdity of human behavior, is never without a sadness that dreams very rarely come true. This thematic focus will be repeated in Chekhov's three later plays Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard.

IV Uncle Vanya

Having failed in the first two plays, Chekhov worked on Uncle Vanya without sharing his conception of it with anyone. Thus there are no indications anywhere as to when the play was written. Chekhov mentions its existence for the first time in a letter to Suvorin dated December 2, 1886: "Two long plays have to be set up still; The Seagull which is known to you, and Uncle Vanya, which is not known to anyone in the world."

The play first appeared in the anthology of plays and then in a provincial theater, where it was an immediate success. Chekhov was surprised at the favorable reception of the play and wrote to his brother Mikhail on October 26, 1898:

My Uncle Vanya is being performed throughout the provinces and is a success everywhere. So you see, one never knows where he'll make it and where he won't. I never counted on this play at all.13

It appeared first at the Khudozhestvenny (Art) Theatre in Moscow on October 26, 1899. The critics of the capital were impressed. It was said that in the play, "the terrible prose of life has been elevated into a chef d'oeuvre of poetry." Perceptive critics like Ignatev noticed the absence of action, and wrote that "Uncle Vanya is significant in that the heroes have no will, no goal, do not know whether the circumstances are profitable for them or not, nor what kind of behavior will be theirs in the next moment. They are passive … Here the unity of action is substituted by the unity of mood."14

In fact, all but a few critics approved of the play. Tolstoi summed up the play in the following way to the actor A. A. Sanin, "Where is the drama? In what does it consist?"15

The action of Uncle Vanya consists of the movement from an established routine to the brief disturbance of that pattern, which contains a moment of illumination for the characters and a return to routine. The impetus for the shift in consciousness is the presence of Professor Serebryakov and his young wife Elena, whose extraordinary beauty arouses a longing for life in the others. Only they prove unequal to the challenge, and must deal with the failure of their dreams. The moment of illumination shows the characters that their inability to truly live has already determined not only their present, but their future, and this knowledge becomes an irrevocable part of their being. The question is no longer how to live, but as Voinitsky expresses it, "with what to fill the passing years?" (p. 216).

The themes of self-destruction and the violation of beauty are introduced at the beginning of act 1. In the opening scene, Dr. Astrov (the rewritten Dr. Khrushchev from The Wood Demon) asks the old nurse, Marina, whether he has changed in the eleven years she has known him. Her answer is the first expression of the theme which will be restated throughout the play on different levels: "Oh yes. You were young, handsome then, and now you seem like an old man. And you drink too" (p. 178). The nurse uses the Russian word krasota, "beauty," for "handsome," and it becomes a thematic leitmotif which is very prominent in the first two acts, subsides in the third act, and is totally absent from the last act, except in Sonya's final speech.

The two central images embodying physical beauty are the Russian forests and Elena. The idealistic Dr. Astrov plants new trees every year because, as Sonya says:

He claims that forests beautify the earth, and so teach man to understand the beautiful, and instill in him a feeling of respect and awe. Forests temper the severity of the climate. In countries where the climate is warmer, less energy is wasted on the struggle with nature and that is why man there is more gentle and loving; the people there are beautiful, supple, and sensitive, their speech is refined and their movements graceful.

(p. 185)

Astrov believes that man's creative and rational powers should be devoted to the preservation of that which is aesthetic in the environment, so that in a thousand years' time the earth might still retain its loveliness.

On the other hand, Vanya has a cynical attitude toward the preservation of forests. He is much more interested in the utility of the trees on his estate than in their beauty, and feels no compunction in burning logs in his fireplace or using wood for his barns. This attitude is not surprising in view of his physical appearance, which is described as "disheveled" (p. 179).

Both Astrov and Voinitsky are united in their love for the beautiful Elena. When Astrov realizes that he is infatuated with Elena he abandons his forest and medical practice to "seek her out greedily" (p. 207). Yet Astrov's tragedy is that while his attraction to Elena reveals his lack of a personal life, it does not involve his emotions. At the beginning of the play he says, "I don't love anyone" (p. 178), and this becomes the leitmotif which is confirmed in the last scene. His parting kiss to Elena is one neither of love nor of passion, but simply a gesture toward a momentarily aroused feeling that at one time in his life could have been real. Astrov's nature, as indicated by his desire to heal and to preserve the beauty of forests, is creative, yet he fails in the design of his own life.

Apparently Stanislavsky did not understand that point, for in his letter to Olga Knipper Chekhov writes in regard to the last scene:

In accordance with your orders I hasten to reply to your letter where you ask about the last scene of Astrov and Elena. You write that Astrov in that scene behaves with Elena as with someone madly in love, that he clutches at his feeling as a drowning man for straw. But this is incorrect, completely incorrect. Astrov likes Elena, she overwhelms him with her beauty, but in the last act he already knows that nothing will come of it, that Elena will disappear from him forever—and he talks with her in this last scene in the same tone of voice as the heat of Africa, and kisses her, just simply out of nothing to do. If Astrov plays this scene violently, then the entire mood of the fourth act will be destroyed.

(September 30, 1899)16

In opposition to Astrov's character, Uncle Vanya could perhaps be called destructive. Astrov accuses him of harboring this quality in respect to the forests, and Elena remarks on it in regard to other people:

As Astrov said just now, see how thoughtlessly you destroy the forests, so that soon there will be nothing left on earth. In just the same way you recklessly destroy human beings, and soon, thanks to you, loyalty and purity and self-sacrifice will have vanished along with the woods. Why can't you look with calm indifference at a woman unless she belongs to you? Because … the doctor is right. You are all possessed by a devil of destructiveness; you have no feeling, no, not even pity, for either the woods or the birds or women, or for one another.

(p. 187)

Yet just as Astrov fails to create, Uncle Vanya does not succeed in culminating his destructive impulses. He has already sacrificed the greater part of his life in a false dedication to the professor, who is a fraud. When Vanya becomes aware of the implications of his wasted life he attempts to shoot the professor and then himself. Both times he fails, and as a further insult to his masochistic pride, no one attempts to arrest him. Uncle Vanya is denied even the comfort of being thought of as a madman or a potential murderer; he is just a jester, devoid of any distinguishing personal trait. In his failure to destroy lies his inability ultimately to act out anything at all.

Uncle Vanya does not arouse anyone's sympathy. There is something comic in his love for Elena and in his homely dreams of a mediocre life with her. It is also obvious that while Elena responds to Astrov as a man, she does not to Uncle Vanya. Elena succeeds in resisting the temptation to consummate her attraction to Astrov, but in the best Freudian fashion takes his pencil as a souvenir of the possibility of an affair.

Astrov is said to be Chekhov's favorite character. Indeed, he is close to Chekhov in the lack of sentimentality with which he treats his profession as a doctor, in his lack of illusions, in his interest in alleviating the ills of Russia, in his desire to preserve the beauty in the world, and in his uncommitted personal life. (Chekhov wrote Uncle Vanya before he married Olga Knipper.)

The secondary characters seem superfluous at first glance, and apparently add nothing to the action of the play. As in other Chekhov plays, they serve as distorting reflections of the main characters, parodying their essential traits. Marina's main function in life is to feed others: she is perfectly satisfied with the routine and is disturbed only when something interferes with it. After Sonya has been rejected by Astrov, she settles down in the same routine and her function in life becomes the feeding of others. Telegin gave his property for the sake of strangers (his wife's children); and Uncle Vanya, like Telegin, can say at the end of his life, "I did not forsake my duty." The irony in both cases lies in the fact that neither Uncle Vanya nor Telegin had any duty toward the people for whom they gave up their own lives and that thus they failed in their duty to themselves. Mariya Vasilevna, with her perennial reading and note taking in the margins of books, is a parody of Professor Serebryakov, who writes books that have as much value to others as reading does to Mariya herself. Marina, Telegin, and Mariya Vasilevna represent the unaware, who apparently settled into a pattern very early in life and who would never question its merits or the possibility of anything else. Juxtaposed to the indifference of these people are the longings of Uncle Vanya, Astrov, Elena, and Sonya. They too finally accept the routine of their lives. The difference is that they are conscious of their fate, whereas the other three remain ignorant.

Structurally Uncle Vanya is a very carefully wrought play. The particularly Chekhovian innovation is in the author's ability to combine all the elegiac elements and at some point to turn them into a comic situation. The tragic elements that constantly verge on the comic, and the ridiculous scenes that often inspire melancholy are probably what is meant by a special Chekhovian mood. It remains to examine how this particular mood is created. The details, though realistic in nature, make an appeal to the imagination. They illuminate the characters beyond their words and actions, and at times reveal their destiny. In addition, Chekhov uses landscape or simple objects for the same purpose of indirect dramatization.

Seemingly, nothing important is said in the opening lines of the play. On closer examination, it becomes obvious that those few lines already contain not only an introduction of the characters, but also the direction of the action and a hint of the outcome. The opening scene takes place in a garden. Cosy routine is indicated by the table set for tea; and the guitar, an accompaniment to the play, is there. It is cloudy. Marina offers tea to Astrov, and on his refusal, some vodka. To her offer he replies that he does not drink vodka every day. He adds that it is stifling. All these small details will receive amplification later: the cloudy weather will turn into a storm symbolic of the psychological storm gathering among the characters; it will be shown how the life on the estate is the kind that stifles human beings; and the vodka will become a means by which the self-destruction of Astrov will be accomplished.

Significantly, the insensitive characters do not notice the weather, so that the effect is one of two contrapuntal voices expressing the awareness and unawareness of the spiritual stifling. Upon entering, Serebryakov exclaims, "Superb, superb, what glorious views!" (p. 180); Voinitsky says, "It's hot and humid" (p. 180); and Telegin, the unconscious voice, says (although not in answer) "The weather is enchanting, the birds are singing, we all live in peace and harmony … what else do we want?" (p. 180). These remarks about the weather are a method of characterization, and they reveal as much about the characters as any of their speeches on profound subjects. Elena, who reconciles herself to life rather than actively reacting to it, says at the moment of tension between Voinitsky and his mother, "What a fine day. Not too hot." Uncle Vanya reples, "Yes, a fine day to hang oneself" (p. 184).

In act 2, the wind rattles the window and the sounds of the approaching storm alternate with the tapping of the night watchman, a sound that signifies the security of the household routine. Lightning strikes once, as the revelation of their destinies will later strike the participants. They begin to express their frustrations and their longings in various ways.

Serebryakov complains of being old and sick; Uncle Vanya laments his wasted life; Astrov (awakened by the storm) expresses his bohemianism by ordering Telegin to play his guitar when everyone is asleep and by asking for cognac. He also talks about beauty, and promises Sonya that he will never drink again. Sonya confesses her love for Astrov to Elena and Elena expresses her gathering frustration by wanting to play the piano: "I shall sit and play and cry, cry like a small child" (p. 200). But before she hears the answer of her husband, "It is forbidden," the pause is filled with another sound, that of the watchman, signaling the predominance of domestic routine over poetic longings. Elena tells him to stop his knock, but she herself is forbidden to express her own longings in the sounds of music. As Astrov says, "the storm passes us by, it only touched us by its tail." And so it does, except that the air is not cleared; it is heavy with unexpressed sounds.

In act 3, the storm moves inside. From act 1, which takes place in the afternoon, we move to the second act that takes place at night. In act 3, which will contain the central illumination, we are back in the daytime. At the beginning, Voinitsky announces the impending meeting at which the professor will make some kind of announcement. Yet before this announcement, which later elicits a violent reaction from Uncle Vanya, there is a scene that further motivates that response: Voinitsky sees Elena in Astrov's arms. A vision of his own happiness with Elena that had once been possible, together with the professor's ensuing speech concerning the sale of the estate, ignites Vanya's pathetic anger, although it resolves nothing.

As the Soviet critic, Ermilov noted, there is "a correlation of the final act with that earlier life on the estate, which existed here 'beyond the limits of the play,' even before Act One and the Serebryakovs' 'intrusion.'"17 Every character says in his own way what Uncle Vanya said to the Professor: "All will be as before." Act 1 is set in the garden, an enclosed space. Act 4 takes place in Uncle Vanya's room, which is significantly both his bedroom and the office of the estate. All avenues of escape are obstructed; at the window stands a big table with account books, papers, and other objects that signify the estate. Both doors lead not outside but into some other enclosed spaces. The unexplored life is symbolized by a map of Africa hanging on the wall, which as Chekhov says is "apparently not needed by anyone here." It is an autumn evening and all is quiet. Thus the scene is set for the future arrival of winter, of death; it is recomposed "beyond the limits of the play."

The offer of a glass of tea which Astrov refused in the opening of the play is here again declined, but the glass of vodka refused earlier in the play is accepted. Astrov thus breaks his pledge to Sonya, but that was made in act 2 before the storm and the revelation that self-destruction was inevitable.

Right after Astrov accepts the vodka he begins talking as in the opening scene, but his subject matter is not his passing youth, nor generalizations about the trivial life. Rather, there follows a mundane conversation about his horse's lameness and the blacksmith. It is at this point that the famous remark about heat in Africa is made by Astrov. The existence of the faraway, sunny, unexplored continent is dismissed by a banal and meaningless remark: "I suppose it is terribly hot in Africa now." (p. 221). Probably it is in this same manner that the unexplored regions of their lives have also been dismissed. Those unknown regions with all their potentialities are not needed here, as the map itself is not needed. When Maksim Gorky saw Uncle Vanya he wrote to Chekhov:

In the last act of Vanya when after a long pause, the doctor speaks of the heat of Africa, I trembled with admiration of your talent and with fear for people and for our colorless wretched life. How magnificently you struck at the heart of things here, and how much to the point!18

The routine has returned, and the predominant voices in this act are those concerned with routine: noodles, accounts, twenty pounds of oil, and Sonya's last speech that contains words like "bearing the trials that fate sends us," "humbly," "the long, long chain of days." Earthly dreams have finally been substituted by those that have nothing to do with life or people, those of skies alight with jewels and angels. There is a need to have faith. Against the familiar sounds of the night watchman, Telegin's guitar, and Mariya Vasilevna's scribbling in the margins of the book, Sonya's closing words, "We shall rest," (p. 223) sound like a death sentence.

V Three Sisters

The success of Uncle Vanya, together with pressure from the Moscow Art Theatre for another play, prompted Chekhov to start serious work on Three Sisters. Chekhov labored over the manuscript from August to November of 1900, during which time he was very skeptical in his appraisal of its artistic merit. He was afraid that there were "a great many characters" and that it would "come out indistinct or pale." Tolstoi agreed with this appraisal of the play, complaining that "nothing happened" in it. After Chekhov visited Tolstoi in the Crimea during the winter of 1901-1902, he described the great artist's criticism of his plays as follows:

He was still confined to bed but talked a great deal about everything and about me, among other things. When eventually I get to my feet and make my farewells, he pulls me back by the arm, saying: "Kiss me!" and after giving me a kiss he suddenly bends over swiftly to my ear and says in that energetic quickfire old man's voice of his: "But I still can't stand your plays. Shakespeare's are terrible, but yours are even worse!19

"Indistinct" and "pale" can hardly be applied to the final manuscript of Three Sisters. To begin with, Chekhov's innovative conception of dramatic structure differs radically from that of the traditional play with three or five acts that places the climax in the middle act. In contrast to this, Chekhov portrays the effects of passing time with an evenly balanced dramatic structure, in which the first two acts form a contrasting mirror to that which will follow.

The play begins in a spring that is full of hope for the three sisters, who have faith that they will return to Moscow before the fall. When the curtain goes up, Olga, Masha, and Irina are framed on stage alone together, but gradually the other major characters join them to celebrate the youngest sister Irina's name day. The tone is optimistic and it is clear that the sisters feel they will soon move to Moscow with their brother who they hope will become a university professor. The arrival of Vershinin, an old acquaintance from Moscow, further raises their spirits, acting as a link to them between the past and future. But at the beginning of act 2 these lighthearted feelings and hopes have been dispelled because of Andrei's unfortunate marriage to the vulgar, materialistic Natasha.

Significantly, the season is now winter, a time of sterility and barrenness, which is indeed the effect of Natasha's dominion over the household. In act 3 the season is not mentioned but there is a fire raging that is a symbolic representation of the destructive havoc being wreaked in the lives of the Prozorov sisters. The last act is set in autumn, which ironically recalls Irina's original prediction four years earlier that they would be settled in Moscow by the fall. The wide range of possibilities that life in Moscow represented has been permenently placed out of reach, and the sisters must adjust to the confines of a provincial existence.

Natasha, who in act 1 was a guest in the house, has now succeeded in evicting the sisters from the premises altogether. Natasha's final smug assertion of power over the sisters avenges her for her earlier position of servility to them. Natasha criticizes Irina's belt, which directly echoes Olga's admonition to her in the first act concerning the bright green belt she was wearing. However, although Natasha has attained material power, she has instilled neither respect nor even fear in the sisters. In the end they remain spiritually unified as in the beginning by a faith in life and in the possibilities of human nature. In the last scene Olga, Masha, and Irina are framed together on the stage, mirroring the first representation of them in the play and underlining the fact that their spiritual unity can not be destroyed by personal hardships.

The play is also united by imagery that runs throughout its four acts. In the beginning of the play Irina says she feels as if she were "sailing along, with a great blue sky above me and huge white birds soaring about." Tuzenbakh responds by calling Irina his "little white bird," and the association of a bird's freedom of migration with Irina's desire to fly away to Moscow is thus implied. Tuzenbakh uses the image of a bird again in act 2, although this time the context of his speech forms an ironic comment on Irina's feelings of identity with a bird. In an argument with Vershinin, who argues for faith in the future, Tuzenbakh responds with a metaphor that people are like migrating birds: to the unknowledgeable observer a bird's flight might seem free, yet even these creatures are constantly obeying laws of nature that bind them to pre-established patterns:

And life won't be any different, no, not only a couple of hundred years from now, but a million. Life doesn't change, it always goes on the same; it follows its own laws, which don't concern us and which we can't discover anyway. Think of the birds flying South in the autumn, the cranes, for instance: they just fly on and on. It doesn't matter what they're thinking, whether their heads are filled with great ideas or small ones, they just keep flying, not knowing where or why. And they'll go on flying no matter how many philosophers they happen to have flying with them. Let them philosophize as much as they like, as long as they go on flying.

(p. 250)

Irina will never reach Moscow because her life is governed by certain arbitrary laws of fate, and hence any identification of her with a bird is tragically closer to this interpretation than the optimistic one she originally conceived. In act 4 Chebutykin again compares Irina to a bird, stressing that she is free of him because she can fly faster than he:

Chebutykin, moved. My precious little girl, my dear child! You're gone on so far ahead of me, I'll never catch up with you now. I've been left behind like a bird that's too old and can't keep up with the rest of the flock. Fly away, my dear, fly away, and God bless you!

(p. 276)

Clothing imagery also unites this play. In the beginning Olga, the eldest, is wearing a blue school uniform, Masha a black dress, and Irina a white frock. These costumes are not only indicative of each woman's character, but also of their future fate. In act 4, after a lapse of four years, Olga is involved with teaching to the exclusion of everything else, Masha is mourning Vershinin's departure, and Irina is planning to be married. Nothing has changed.

The narrative technique employed by Chekhov is disjointed conversation between characters, which sometimes points to their isolation from one another, but which can also be used to develop a series of associations that are united subtextually. A good example of this device is given in the following lines:

Masha But man has to have some faith, or at least he's got to seek it, otherwise his life will be empty … How can you live and not know why the cranes fly, why children are born, why the stars shine in the sky! … You must either know why you live, or else … nothing matters … everything's just nonsense and waste …A pause.

Vershinin Yes, it's sad when one's youth has gone.

Masha "It's a bore to be alive in this world, friends," that's what Gogol says.

Tusenbach And I say: it's impossible to argue with you, friends! Let's drop the subject.

Chebutykin reads out of the paper. Balzac was married in Berditchev.

(pp. 250-251)

Vershinin responds to Masha's generalizations about waste in a personal sense, commenting implicitly that, for them at least, only the timing of their meeting has blocked fulfillment. Masha responds with another generalization, that the course life takes is often boring, and at that moment Chebutykin comments that Balzac was married in Berdichev, which although seemingly unrelated to Masha's statement, serves as evidence of its veracity. This technique will later be used even more effectively in The Cherry Orchard.

Olga, Masha, and Irina are united by a longing for the excitement and love that is lacking in their lives, and to them Moscow is a sort of "earthly paradise." As the other characters are introduced, it is revealed that they too are searching for fulfillment in life: whether it be of the most base, materialistic sort, as in the case of Natasha, or the most abstract form of a "dream for mankind," in the case of Vershinin. Masha and Vershinin are the most idealistic characters in Three Sisters. The lyrical mood associated with Masha is first developed with her recitation of the first two lines from Pushkin's RusIan and Ludmila: "A green oak grows by a curving shore, / And round that hangs a golden chain." Masha's melancholy longing for beauty and for a more poetic life finds its echo in Vershinin's abstract vision of the future:

Why in two or three hundred years life on this earth will be wonderfully beautiful. Man longs for a life like that, and if he doesn't have it right now he must imagine it, wait for it, dream about it, prepare for it: he must know more and see more than his father or his grandfather did.

(Act 1, p. 237)

A love affair develops between the two of them despite the fact that they are both married and that their ephemeral, lyrical happiness will have the same doomed fate as all their dreams. Masha and Vershinin's love has a fairytale quality, and they often communicative with snatches from a melody which expresses the poetic quality of their feelings for one another.

The youngest sister, Irina, also longs for a different sort of life, which will be enobled by meaningful work and beautified by a passionate love. She feels sure that fulfillment awaits her in Moscow, if only she could break away from the dreary provincial town which binds her to a boring, mechanical job and to relationships with men to whom she is indifferent.

Three men are in love with Irina: the elderly Dr. Chebutykin, the young profligate Soleny, and the dependable but unexciting Count Tuzenbakh. Dr. Chebutykin was once the unsuccessful suitor of Irina's mother, and he has transferred his unrequited affections to her. The inappropriate and slightly unpleasant quality of the doctor's attachment to Irina are underlined by two symbols that draw attention to his ignorance and to his old age. The samovar that Chebutykin presents to Irina on her twentieth birthday is the traditional gift for a silver wedding anniversary, and it causes consternation among the sisters rather than pleasure. Later, the doctor breaks the clock that belonged to Irina's mother, symbolizing his desire to erase time and also his carelessness toward other people's deepest feelings. Chebutykin's constant reading of the newspaper and quoting of trifles from it draws attention to the poverty of his mind, and again to his old age.

Irina's other unsuccessful suitor, Soleny, is much more dangerous and evil than the doctor. Whereas the doctor is indifferent to those around him, Soleny views himself as a second Lermontov, who has the right to harm others. When Irina refuses to return his love, he tells her that she shall have no successful suitors, and determines to kill Tuzenbakh. Soleny is identified with the animal violences of a bear from the beginning of the play. He attempts to defend himself against Masha's just criticism of him in the first act with lines from Krylov's fable: "He had hardly time to catch his breath, Before the bear was hugging him to death." However, it is clear in the last act that Soleny himself is the bear, and Tuzenbakh his victim. Before accompanying Soleny to the duel, Chebutykin recites these same lines back to Soleny, making the identification absolutely clear. Another symbol that delineates Soleny's character is the bottle of scent which he constantly sprinkles over his hands and chest, an act which indicates his desire to expiate himself from guilt.

Like the three sisters, their brother Andrei is a refined idealist who dreams of becoming one day a professor at Moscow University. He is constantly associated with his violin and with the books he reads even after all hope for an academic career has vanished. Andrei is the victim of his own inaction, as well as of his coarse wife Natasha and her lover Protopopov. Natasha is a woman with neither refinement nor kindness, who is interested only in advancing her material position in life. After her marriage to Andrei, she exercises despotic control over the household, makes a cuckold of her husband, and finally evicts the three sisters from their own house althogether. A lighted candle, symbolizing destructive fire, becomes Natasha's leitmotif as she gradually gains more power. Although her lover Protopopov never appears on the stage, it is clear that this influence is likewise evil. Masha's initial mistrust of Protopopov and her association of him with the bear of Russian folklore prove to be well founded.

Three Sisters further develops the theme of the meaning of human life which was broached by Sonya at the end of Uncle Vanya. The only two characters in the play who are not philosophically inclined, Natasha and Protopopov, are those who are shortsighted enough to triumph in temporal power relationships. All the other characters are in some way caught in a web of dreams that makes them more ineffectual in life than they might otherwise be.

In the end, all these characters must adjust to the frustrations of life in some way: for the doctor it is with indifference, for Andrei it is with resignation, and for Soleny it is with violence. Irina, Olga, and Masha must abandon their dreams of going to Moscow and must also deal with life as it is. At the end of the play Irina again speaks of work, and Masha and Olga advocate devoting themselves to improving life for future generations. There is a dignity in the three sisters' struggle to create meaning in life after it has been stripped of their most beautiful illusions, which makes this Chekhov's most serious play. It is a drama with comic elements rather than vice versa.

VI The Cherry Orchard

After the success of Three Sisters in Yalta, Chekhov wanted to write another play that he said would be a joyful comedy. He wrote to his wife on March 7, 1901: "The next play I am going to write will be funny, very funny, at least in conception."20

Chekhov took two years to write The Cherry Orchard. Perhaps his illness slowed his pace, or maybe he sensed that this would be his last major work, and he wanted to make it a masterpiece. At any rate, while Chekhov was writing The Cherry Orchard he surrounded it with an aura of mystery that indicates his own very personal attitude toward the play. By the summer of 1902, Chekhov still had not told anyone the title of his forthcoming play, and it was only to comfort his ill wife that he told her and she was the first to know. "Do you want me to tell you the name of my new play?"21 he asked her. Olga later recalled that even though they were alone in the room, Chekhov would not say the title out loud, but whispered it to her.

Apparently the prototypes that would later be developed into the characters of The Cherry Orchard were in Chekhov's mind for some time. When he was in Europe in 1901, Chekhov wrote his wife about the Russian women living a dissipated life there, and singled out Monte Carlo as a representative city. Originally, Ranevskaya was designated in Chekhov's notebooks as just such an elderly Russian woman. Chekhov also told Stanislavsky about a Russian landowner who stayed in bed all day if he was not dressed by his servant: an obvious exaggeration of Gaev's passive personality. Several people whom Chekhov knew had Epikhodov's qualities, although each of his friends thought they recognized someone else in this figure. Sharlotta was modeled on an English governess who was Chekhov's neighbor; although to that woman's cheerful, goodhumored, and eccentric nature, Chekhov added a dimension of loneliness and alienation.

Chekhov considered Varya as "a fool, but a kind fool." He thought of Lopakhin as perhaps being the main character, and designated this role for Stanislavsky right from the beginning. Chekhov did not conceive of Lopakhin as simply a vulgar representative of capitalism and the new bourgeois class. He made the point in one of his letters that a serious, pious girl like Vavara couldn't have fallen in love with Lopakhin as she did if he were just an insensitive merchant.

When The Cherry Orchard was first produced on January 17, 1904, it was not greeted as a success. Some complained that "nothing happened," others remarked that the theme of the decaying landowning class was already exhausted by playwright Alexander Ostrovsky. These criticisms totally overlooked Chekhov's intention to address the audience on the subtextual level of unconscious sensibility, rather than on that of surface dramatic action.

Francis Fergussen sees the four acts of The Cherry Orchard in classical terms.22 He identifies the first act as the prologue (the stating of necessary facts: in this case the cherry orchard's imminent scale); the second act as the agon (the conflict of characters in a drama: here between the values the characters attach to the cherry orchard and their efforts to save it); the third act as the peripety (when the cherry orchard is sold and the fact is announced at the party); and the fourth act as the epiphany, or completion of action, which occurs when the characters must accept the loss of the cherry orchard.

The plot structure is not nearly as meaningful as the impact of events on the inner sensibilities of the characters. The loss of the cherry orchard serves as a catalyst that elicits revealing responses from each of the characters.

Mrs. Ranevskaya and her brother Gaev are totally without practical ability, yet both pride themselves on their refinement and appreciation of beauty. Neither of them is capable of acting like a merchant, and thus even as their world crumbles beneath them they continue to uphold the same values. Lyubov squanders her remaining money on luxuries, and Gaev insulates himself from the world by playing an imaginary game of billiards. Likewise, the old servant Firs makes the cherry orchard an inviolable aesthetic symbol of the traditional order. He fondly remembers days of prosperity when the sale of the sweet dark cherries yielded enough income to support the entire estate in splendor. However, these memories will die with Firs' generation, and offer no philosophy to the young people in the play.

Trofimov and Anya have adopted a more impersonal and optimistic view of the cherry orchard's loss. The student Trofimov argues at the end of act 2 that "The whole of Russia is our orchard. The earth is great and beautiful and there are many wonderful places in it" (p. 316). Trofimov and Anya thus view the loss of the orchard as the inevitable and positive redistribution of resources from a privileged class to the whole Russian people. However, the irony will be that the profiteering merchant Lopakhin rather than "the people" will benefit from the sale of the property and that, furthermore, his plans for "development" will destroy its beauty.

Character portraits are further developed by the parodies that exist between the gentry and their servants. Sharlotta's lack of identity and her ludicrous behavior are a satirical reflection of Ranevskaya. Dunyasha is a parody of the whole idea of the delicate young noblewoman. Epikhodov with his twenty-two miseries is a parody of Gaev, as too is the "spoiled" Yasha, who insists "How uncivilized this country is."

Yasha's coarse words to Firs, "Nadoel ty ded, xot' by ty skoree podox " ("How you bore me, old man. Why don't you just go away and die. It's about time.") (p. 325), are a parody of the irresponsible attitude which Ranevskaya, Varya, Gaev, Anya, and Trofimov later show toward the old servant. Although they wouldn't be capable of consciously sharing Yasha's cruel attitude, at the end of the play, not one member of the family is concerned enough to ascertain that Firs has actually been sent to the hospital, and he is left alone to die.

The characters are also depicted through Chekhov's astute description of their speech peculiarities. Ranevskaya's dialogue is composed of emotional, sentimental, and at times melodramatic expressions which convey her helplessness. Such lines as: "I dream," "I'll die," "Have pity on me, my darling table"; and the repetition of the phrases "Perhaps it would be good to," "I don't know what to think," and "I'm expecting something" underline her feeling of insecurity. On the other hand, Ranevskaya's warmhearted nature is expressed in her speech by the constant use of endearing terms. She often addresses people as "my darling, my friend, my dear," and repeats these words tenderly.

Gaev's speech is at times prosaic, repetitive, and empty of meaning. His diversion of imaginary billiards is a defense against reality which preoccupies and soothes his mind, and it is highly fitting that he always seems to be sucking a gumdrop as he describes fictive games. However, Gaev is sentimental, and he periodically pronounces lyrical apostrophes to the past, to nature, and even to an old bookcase he is fond of. Although these oratorical speeches are scorned by the younger generation, there is much truth in them, especially in his declamation to nature:

Oh nature, glorious nature, shining with eternal light, so beautiful and indifferent … you whom we call Mother, you unite within yourself both life and death, you create and you destroy.…

(pp. 314-315)

Lopakhin's speech is predominantly practical, although folk words such as nebos', prorva, and ob tu poru intrude into his conversation. He often refers to numbers, and his vulgarity is reflected in his use of such words as "pig," "idiot," baba, and bolvan. On the one occasion that Lopakhin quotes from Hamlet his lack of education is further evident in the error, "Okhmeliya, get thee to a monastery!" (p. 316).

The student Trofimov's speech is educated and refined, and it is filled with imagery and metaphors. Like Vershinin, Trofimov has faith in the future, and his words to Anya are reminiscent of those spoken to Masha in Three Sisters:

To free ourselves of all that is petty and ephemeral, all that prevents us from being free and happy, that's the whole aim and meaing of our life. Forward! We march forward irresistibly toward that bright star that shines there in the distance. Forward! Don't fall behind, friends!

(p. 316)

Trofimov's effeminate appearance and his rationalization of celibacy with the line, "We are higher than love" (p. 322) render him comic. In act 3 he chides Ranevskaya for not being able to accept the truth about her lover, yet he himself can't face the implications of the fact that he has never had a mistress.

These very peculiarities which are so important to Chekhov's characterization do not serve the plot but rather play a vital role in the development of the play's comedy. Each character's idiosyncrasies are amusing in themselves, and everybody is preoccupied with his own subjective view to the point that communication becomes comic. Conversations have the quality of a mosaic, and the juxtaposition of phrases is artistically arranged to underline the absurd tragedy of human isolation. The following passages serve to illustrate this point:

Lyubov: The nursery!

Varya: How cold it is! My hands are numb! [To Lyubov] Your rooms are the same as always …

Lyubov: The nursery, my dear, beautiful room! …

Gaev: The train was two hours late. Just think of it! Such efficiency!

Sharlotta: And my dog eats nuts, too.

(p. 292)

Firs: I've lived for a long time. They were planning to marry me before your father was born … I remember everyone was happy at that time …

Lopakhin: That was the good life all right! All the peasants were flogged.

Firs: [not having heard him] That's right! The peasants belonged to their masters, and the masters belonged to the peasants; but now everything's all confused.

Gaev: Be quiet, Firs. Tomorrow I've got to go to town …

(p. 312)

The use of symbolism is as important in this play as in Three Sisters. The significance of the cherry orchard itself has already been discussed. The color white is used to draw attention to the purity and beauty of Gaev's and Lyubov's past. In act 1 Varya mentions that one of Lyubov's favorite rooms is white (p. 292), and later when they look out at the orchard Gaev and Lyubov remark upon its whiteness, imagining their mother among the trees (p. 301). Firs, who lives according to the old traditions, is often dressed in a white waistcoat, and on one occasion he is wearing white gloves. Varya is constantly carrying a ring of keys, which draws attention to her position of practical authority in the house. At the end of the third act, when Lopakhin announces that he has bought the orchard, she flings these keys at him.

The most important symbol in The Cherry Orchard is the breaking string that is sounded first near the end of act 2, and then again at the end of the play. In his book The Breaking String, Maurice Valency says of it:

The symbol is broad; it would be folly to try to assign to it a more precise meaning than the author chose to give it. But its quality is not equivocal. Whatever of sadness remains unexpressed in The Cherry Orchard, this sound expresses.23

Valency adds that the breaking string is associated with the melancholy of a passing generation. He notes that in act 2 it is heard after Gaev's apostrophe to nature has been rejected by the young people listening to him, and again at the end of the play, after Firs has been abandoned.

The melancholy fatalism that is a constant undercurrent in The Cherry Orchard enlarges the scope of its comedy.

It is not a funny play in the traditional sense of the word, but rather in the framework of a more conscious, modern concept of humor of Henri Bergson's conception. The isolation that every human being lives in, the passing of time, and the imminence of death are cosmic tragedies. Only a great artist such as Chekhov could succeed in portraying the comic aspects of metaphysical questions which have been plaguing man for centuries.

VII Epilogue

In the recollections of those who were professionally involved with Chekhov's creations, actors and directors, the playwright emerges in the same light as the author of short stories who is able to zero in on a small part to reveal the whole.

"When we asked him," writes Olga Knipper, describing the actors' interaction with Chekhov, "he replied suddenly, as though not to the point, as though he was speaking in general and we did not know whether to interpret his remark seriously or in jest. But it seemed so only in the first minute, and then instantly we sensed that this remark, seemingly uttered in passing, began to penetrate the brain, the soul, and from a barely perceptible human character trait all the essence of Man began to emerge."29

K. Stanislavsky recalls that when he first played Trigorin in The Seagull, Chekhov praised his acting ability highly yet added that "but it isn't my character. I didn't write that."

To Stanislavsky's question in what did he err, Chekhov replied, "He has checkered pants and his shoes have holes in them." And he refused to elaborate.

"And he always made his remarks in this manner, briefly and imagistically. They surprised one and remained in one's memory. It was as though A. P. gave us charades from which it was impossible to rid oneself until one could fathom them."25

"I deciphered this charade only six years later," writes Stanislavsky, "when we performed Seagull again."

Stanislavsky says that even when he directed one of Chekhov's plays for the hundredth time he never failed to discover something new in the well-known text and in the well-known feelings evoked by the play.26

It is this immeasurable depth of a writer that affords his readers the joy of perpetual discovery and that makes Chekhov alive today, the only immortality to which he would aspire.


1 A. P. Chekhov, Polnoe sobrante sochinenii i pisem, vol. 12 (Moskva, 1949). In this edition the play appears as P'esa bez nazvanija (A Play without a title). All references are to this edition, pp. 7-165 .

2Pis 'ma, vol. 12, p. 58.

3 Ibid., p. 117.

4 Ibid., p. 116.

5Six Plays of Chekhov, New England versions and introduction by Robert W. Corrigan (New York, 1962). All of the following page references to Chekhov's plays refer to this edition.

6Pis'ma. vol. 12, p. 120.

7 Ibid., p. 58.

8 Gitovich N. I., Letopis' Zhizni i tvorehestva A. P. Chekhova (Moscow, 1955) p. 245.

9 Ibid., p. 246.

10 Avrahm Yarmolinsky, Letters of Anton Chekhov (New York, 1973) p. 353.

11Pis'ma, vol. 12, p. 248.

12 Yarmolinsky, Letters, p. 209.

13 Ibid., p. 319.

14Russkie vedomosti, 1899, No. 298.

15 Quoted in Chekhov by Ernest J. Simmons (Boston, 1962), p. 495.

16Pis'ma, vol. 12, p. 311.

17 Ermilov, "Uncle Vanya: The Play's Movement," in Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. R. L. Jackson (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1967), p. 119.

18 M. g. A. Ch., Perepiska, stat'i, vyskazyvaniia, (M-L, 1937), p. 11.

19 Recalled by Bunin, Chekhov "Vospominanlay I. A. Bunina" in Chekhov Literature Nashedstuo, vol. 68 (Moscow, 1960) p. 660.

20 A. I. Reviakin, Vishnevyi Sad A. P. Chekhova (Moskva, 1960), p. 43.

21 Ibid., pp. 45 - 46.

22 Francis Fergussen, The Idea of a Theater (Princeton, N.J., 1949), p. 163.

23 Valency, The Breaking String (New York, 1966), p. 287.

24 Olga Knipper, A. P. Chekhov v vospominaniiah sovremennikov (Moskva, 1960), p. 686.

25 Ibid., pp. 379 - 380.

26 Ibid., p. 397.

J. L. Styan (essay date 1981)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4128

SOURCE: "Chekhov's Contribution to Realism," in Modern Drama in Theory and Practice, Volume 1: Realism and Naturalism, Cambridge University Press, 1981, pp. 81-91.

[In the excerpt below, Styan views the inducement of ironic detachment in the audience as Chekhov's most important contribution to realist theater. Styan states: "It is this effect of distancing, together with the troubling relevance of his human and social themes and the elusive lyricism of his stage, which has made Chekhov an immeasurably pervasive influence on the form and style of realistic drama in the twentieth century."]

The Moscow Art Theatre went on to produce the last plays of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), each with a structure more fragile than that of The Seagull with its comparatively conventional plotting. These were Chekhov's masterpieces, Uncle Vanya (1899), Three Sisters (1901) and The Cherry Orchard (1904). Whereas Stanislavsky largely developed his thinking about the art of the theatre after Chekhov's death, it was during the production of these plays that Chekhov increased his understanding of stage realism. He learned by experience and largely taught himself.

Three Sisters was the first play he wrote knowing who might play the parts. This factor might be thought to make it easier to write 'to the life', but in practice the availability of a company who could be counted on to indulge his experiments presented him with the greater challenge. After seeing this play in rehearsal and performance, he continued to worry at its text to get it right. The Cherry Orchard gave him even more trouble. He cast and recast the parts in his mind, and the play was three years in the writing. However, he was a dying man by the time it was produced, and he was spared the work of rewriting it. As a result of his agonizing, his achievement was of such a stature as called for a redefinition of naturalism, and made Ibsen's look old-fashioned. Stark Young spoke for the post-Ibsen generation when he found that only Chekhov's plays as performed by the MAT gave him 'the thrill that comes from a sense of truth', for only they carried realism 'to an honest and spiritual depth and candour'.

Chekhov's comment on the actors of the St Petersburg Seagull had been, 'They act too much', for, like his contemporaries in the west, he was in full revolt against the popular drama and its style of acting. He was particularly incensed at the derivative nature of the traditional fare on the Russian stage: a French or German piece would be merely translated into Russian and have its characters' names changed accordingly. He also deplored the kind of false, external acting which went with this kind of shallow dramatic enterprise: after Bernhardt's visit to Moscow in 1881, he took even the divine Sarah to task, saying, 'Every sigh of Sarah Bernhardt—her tears, her death agonies, all her acting—is only a cleverly learned lesson … There's not a glimmer of talent in her acting, only a lot of hard work.'

At this time, the physical conditions of performance prevented any fundamental improvement. In a letter to his brother Alexandre of 20 November 1887, Chekhov described the opening night of an earlier play, Ivanov, in Moscow:

Curtain rises. Enter the person for whom the benefit is being given. Diffidence, ignorance of the parts, presentation of the bouquet, combine to make me unable, from the first phrase, to recognize my play. Kiselevsky, on whom I placed great hopes, did not pronounce a single phrase correctly. Literally: not one. In spite of this, and the prompter's mistakes, act I was a great success. Many curtain calls.

(Translated Avrahm Yarmolinsky.)

There was little hope of an actor's catching the subtleties of the new dialogue when he expected to take a bow upon entrance before stepping into the action, and even then to stop to receive applause for his points throughout the scene. Nor was there much chance of conveying an ensemble quality in the portrayal of family life when each speaker drifted downstage centre to hear the voice of the prompter. Chekhov and his drama badly needed the reformed stage of the MAT.

In his last years Chekhov knew a little of Ibsen from Moscow productions, but he made it clear that he did not approve of Ibsen's kind of realism. Doubtless Chekhov recognized the forms and trappings of the well-made play still presented in the Norwegian: the big conflicts, the scènes à faire and the preconceived roles and attitudes, all lacking the quiet irony with which Chekhov himself saw human behaviour. He saw Hedda Gabier in 1900 and thought Hedda's suicide too sensational—'Look here', he said to Stanislavsky, 'Ibsen is not really a dramatist.' At that time, Chekhov had already learned to write an objective, underplayed curtain scene. Even the most Chekhovian of Ibsen's plays, The Wild Duck, which Chekhov saw in 1901, he found 'uninteresting'. He saw Ghosts just before his death in 1904, and again the curt verdict: 'A rotten play'. It was Ibsen's lack of humour and his posture as a moralist which disturbed the Russian, whose aim was to keep his characters flexible and his mind open.

Chekhov himself pursued a unique objectivity in his naturalism. 'Freedom from force and falsehood, no matter how they manifest themselves', he wrote to his editor Pleshcheyev on 4 October 1888. He refused to moralize, and part of the discomfort of watching Chekhov on the stage comes of having no moral position to espouse. 'I have not introduced a single villain nor an angel, although I could not refuse myself buffoons; I accused nobody, justified nobody' (this in a letter of 24 October 1887). So it is that we can be angry with Mme Ranevsky for letting the orchard slip through her fingers, like the money we twice see her give away so recklessly, but we can also understand her inability to manage a situation wholly foreign to her nature and upbringing. The well-known assertion by Chekhov that 'a writer should be as objective as a chemist' (14 January 1887) could sum up the reasons why he goes beyond Ibsen and Strindberg in his realism. Chekhov had been trained as a physician, but his pursuit of a scientific ideal of truth, one in which the writer was required to be as impersonal as a doctor examining a patient, really came of his extraordinarily sharp eye for spotting incongruity in human behaviour. This kind of objectivity forced upon the audience a role equivalent to that of a jury presented with a mass of circumstantial and contradictory evidence—it must stand back and coolly sort it out.

By the time Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard, the last vestiges of romantic sensationalism had disappeared from his playwriting. There is no shot fired on or off the stage, no death of one of the characters to upset the balance of interest. Epihodov's pistol is all for laughter, and Charlotta's hunting gun amusingly illuminates her character. Every love scene in the play, Anya with Trofimov, Yasha with Dunyasha, Varya with Lopakhin, is designed for an incisive moment of comic irony. The triumph of Lopakhin, who becomes the new owner of the very estate where his family had formerly worked as serfs, is undercut by his drunken good humour, and any grand and knowing statement in his public announcement of the purchase in act III is not to be found. There is no villain, no hero, no moral, just a calm and amused treatment of a potentially enormous and explosive situation, that of the breaking up of the old order and the disintegration of a whole class of society. In form and style, The Cherry Orchard was a final rejection of the ways of the nineteenth-century stage and drama.

Chekhov had unwittingly prepared himself to become Russia's greatest playwright by writing hundreds of short stories to order: it was the kind of particularity and economy that could serve the stage well. The stringent requirement of no more than 1,000 words for each of his early stories taught him to work by a highly selective and impressionistic method, pruning ruthlessly at every opportunity. 'Brevity is the sister of talent', he wrote in a letter of 11 April 1889, and his stories are little jewels of compressed character and suggested situation. His regular advice to the new authors who regularly flooded him with their manuscripts was to avoid generalizations, acquire a glancing style of writing, and deal in fine details: observation and the study of actual life, he reiterated, were the essential pre-requisites of a good writer. So in The Cherry Orchard Chekhov discovered that a caramel popped into Gaev's mouth could illuminate the man's character in a flash, as well as neatly undermine what he had just said; or the brash handling of a Parisian cigar could indicate vividly that Yasha had ideas above his station, but knew how to flatter the servant girl sitting beside him even by puffing smoke into her face.

A richer, submerged life in the text is characteristic of a more profound drama of realism, one which depends less on the externals of presentation. In Chekhov's last two plays, the hints and suggestions are more minute and prolific, so that the spectator's attention to the surface clues becomes more intense: 'It is necessary that on the stage everything should be as complex and as simple as in life. People are having dinner, and while they're having it, their future happiness may be decided or their lives may be about to be shattered.' By applying this formula to Three Sisters, for example, we recognize the reason for Olga's horror at Natasha's ill-treatment of the old servant Anfisa from our sense of Olga's background; or we reach our own sceptical conclusions, from the youthful enthusiasms she displayed before, about Irina's ardent intention to earn an honest living; or we understand Masha's reluctance to pick up life again with her husband Kuligin from the abject pride he takes in his school and his headmaster.

Chekhov went much farther than Ibsen in providing suggestive settings for his plays, but without having any symbolic image intrude upon the realistic content. The progression of the scenes in Uncle Vanya takes us from outside the house deeper and deeper into the heart of the household, and finally into Vanya's own room—by which time his soul is bared. The sets in Three Sisters trace the dispossession of the family from the comfort of their drawing room to the confined action of act III in a bedroom, and finally in act IV to the garden outside the house, which is now occupied by the dispossessors Natasha and her lover Protopopov. In The Cherry Orchard we pass from the nursery, the one growing point for the life of the whole family, out to the orchard and a little beyond, almost to the fringes of a new industrial town, and then back again, as if to depict in the stage settings the cycle of the characters' existence, and perhaps the cycle of nature itself.

So, too, the weather and the seasons change significantly from scene to scene. The heat of a hot, humid summer afternoon in act I of Uncle Vanya reinforces the soul-destroying routine of life on the estate, until the storm breaks by act III and feelings spill out. In The Cherry Orchard, the chill of spring gives way to the warmth of summer, and then to the returning chill of incipient winter, suggesting a steady passage of time to match the cycle of the cherry trees from their blossoming to their destruction, as well as the change from hope to despair in the family. Meyerhold recognized afterwards that Chekhov's strength did not lie in such surface effects as the chirping of crickets and the barking of dogs; rather, the unique rhythms of his drama created a 'mystic lyricism' designed to feed the imagination of his audience.

Yet 'lyricism' is inadequate as a word with which to identify the Chekhovian drama. Just as the direction of Chekhov's art as a writer of stories was towards creative reporting, so his craft as a playwright was towards 'documentary'. His naturalistic ideal was to let actuality speak for itself without apparent manipulation or distortion for didactic purposes. In giving Uncle Vanya, the first of his wholly naturalistic plays, the subtitle Scenes from Country Life, he seemed to be declaring his new role as a descriptive recorder. This play, like the two that follow it, essentially lacks a central figure, and by the dry and untheatrical way it opens and then has the title character slump on a seat dishevelled and yawning as if he had just rolled out of bed, Chekhov was challenging, if not insulting, the Moscow audience and its expectations. Judged at a superficial level, the play seems to take for a theme the problem of absentee landlordism, the poverty of rural Russia, and the indifference of the Russian intellectual, so that its author could be a kind of social historian. At quite another level, he tries to probe the nature of day-to-day living in all its triviality and futility.

Chekhov brought the same objective approach to the petty life of provincial Russia in Three Sisters, and to the world of The Cherry Orchard a sense of the pressure of social change. In a hundred tangential details Chekhov is the sly social critic gently pricking the conscience of his audience. There is no better example of this facility than when he obliquely touches the Jewish question in The Cherry Orchard. We hear the pathetic Jewish orchestra scraping together a living on two occasions in the play: once in the distance across the fields, and once after Mme Ranevsky has hired them to play at her unfortunate party. She betrays her feelings of guilt towards the Jews in so doing, and even though she cannot pay them ('Offer the musicians some tea', she says in a sorry voice) and we do not see them, the incident is a reminder of the persecution of the Jews under the Tsars.

In rejecting the traditional structure of interest and excitement in his plays Chekhov took an extraordinary risk. He set himself the task of presenting mediocrity, futility and boredom to his audience without boring it, and of making a broad, general statement without losing the particularity needed to make a sharp and realistic impact. Chekhov's documentary method supplied a strong compensatory element, however, by showing him a technique of full and engrossing character-drawing. He created memorable characters, not by working on some sensational, larger-than-life eccentricity, but by his unusual gift for observing people. His aim was to bring about an audience's understanding and conviction. In lieu of a strong plot and striking events, Chekhov placed weight on a character's motives: from the start, the sisters' dream of Moscow is as hopeless as the redemption of the cherry orchard, and so the audience is persuaded to examine the behaviour of these people under commonplace and recognizable stresses.

Audiences accustomed to the traditional control of an unfolding narrative and provocative action on the stage—the imperatives of 'What will happen next?'—were naturally troubled. Without a central character upon whom to focus attention and whose moral guidance to follow, they had little to hold on to. One sister would have been a convenience, but three were a distraction. These qualities, together with Chekhov's oblique way of presenting the human comedy without explicit social commentary, were unprecedented in modern drama. Even Tolstoy was deceived into thinking that Chekhov lacked a governing theme or idea. For some playgoers, therefore, Chekhovian comedy has been relegated to the category of an acquired taste, for which an audience has to make a special effort of perception.

As for the actor, he is delighted to learn quickly that in the mature Chekhov play, every character has a complete life story embedded in his lines. Chekhov creates a rich and rounded character by supplying a hundred fragmentary impressions. And just as an audience has to decipher the code in the lines if it is to disclose the feelings and memories latent in them, so had the actor to decipher Stanislavsky's 'subtext'. The Chekhovian way with character was especially rewarding for actors who had acquired the skills of the Stanislavsky System: Chekhov never lets an actor down, and, like Shakespeare's characters, the larger parts are inexhaustible in their spectrum of possibilities. Even lesser semi-choric or background parts like Telegin, the guitar-playing parasite in Uncle Vanya, or the old nurse Anfisa in Three Sisters, invite the actor to contribute something of himself. No actor need feel like a supernumerary in a Chekhov play.

A singular problem for an audience watching a play by Chekhov, however, is to take in so large a group of highly individualized characters, for Chekhov habitually deals in whole families. Watching a play of his becomes an exercise in observing interactions and speculating upon interrelationships, constantly having to explain from the context of character and situation why something is said and done. In Three Sisters, Masha suddenly takes off her hat, silently indicating that she has decided not to leave: so we are compelled to seek the reason why she has changed her mind in what Vershinin has said or done. In The Cherry Orchard, Varya unexpectedly throws a pair of goloshes at Trofimov and, while it is true he is looking for them, she has no real reason to be so angry with him: we find the answer in her apparently unrelated disappointment in a character who is not even on the stage—Lopakhin, who has let her down again by failing to propose marriage to her.

The lack of focus on a single character after The Seagull is also compensated for by the proliferating patterns into which Chekhov contrived to have his characters fall. If his three sisters are each carefully contrasted in age and position, their attitudes nevertheless intersect at the mention of their old home, and they share a common nostalgia for Moscow. In Uncle Vanya, the characters fall easily into opposing parties of tormentors and victims, masters and slaves, and were it not for the ironic chorus of the Nurse, the old mother and Telegin, the melodramatic conflict of opposites would have been less muffled. By the time of writing The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov has subtly made each character at war with itself, so that a small cast represents a large variety of other discords—of youth and age, of financial solvency and insolvency, of contrasting social classes of complacency and ambition, of marital needs. A few people become a microcosm of society, and introduce an unending complexity of interwoven thematic threads into the play. The patterns of accord and contradiction into which Chekhov's creatures fall increasingly affect the structure of rhythm and mood on his stage from moment to moment, and produce a new kind of 'poetic' drama.

Because of Chekhov's submerged character relationships, few other dramatists have demanded ensemble playing of such a high order. Epithets like 'orchestrated' and 'symphonic' began to creep into Stanislavsky's critical vocabulary, while discussion and rehearsal prior to a production took longer and longer. Today only a truly repertory company can blend the ingredients needed for a successful Chekhov production, for it takes time, not only to individualize character, but also to relate two or more such individuals: group acting can be convincing only if every character has drawn completely upon his history, and has developed an affective relationship with every other. And only if the group forms a unified whole can an audience assimilate the human values in the play feelingly. The implications of the Professor's announcement that he is going to sell the estate in Uncle Vanya touches every person in the family differently, and only the audience, perceiving the whole, can see how the proposal joins and divides each one, and how they support and fail each other in their moment of need.

Chekhov's method of juxtaposing individual attitudes in order to reveal an incongruous situation in its entirety is also one reason for his keen impact as a comic artist. Only by writing comedy did he maintain his objectivity in the face of the great social changes of his age, but his idea of the comedy suitable for a realistic play was by no means based upon the traditional exaggeration of character and the incongruity of situation. Chekhov's characteristic way of securing a balanced view was not to exaggerate but to undercut. The Seagull achieved this balance less well because it was constrained by the powerful ingredients of an earlier melodramatic form—in a realistic context, seduction and suicide are impossible to undercut. The relationships in the play are emotionally too intense, especially coupled as they are with the distracting suggestion of a conflict of innocence and evil among the principals. When Chekhov came to write Uncle Vanya, the feelings of Vanya, a man who has given twenty-five years of his life to a false idol, Professor Serebriakov, are certainly as intense as those of Konstantin Treplev, but the detachment of the audience is wonderfully secured when Vanya fires at the Professor and misses: the anticlimax of this incident in the third act, with the great man cowering in fear and the middle-aged rebel throwing a tantrum and casting aside his weapon in disgust, is irreducible by any comic evaluation.

Chekhov wrote comedy, yet comedy with a bitter after-taste, again typical of his method. For we also like Vanya, and his cause is worthy. In a world where justice triumphs some of the time, Vanya should have shot the Professor. The juxtaposing of pathetic and ridiculous incidents, the thrusting of farcical elements into a tense emotional situation, suppress any moralizing tendency and repeatedly induce the ironic detachment of the audience. It is this effect of distancing, together with the troubling relevance of his human and social themes and the elusive lyricism of his stage, which has made Chek hov an immeasurably pervasive influence on the form and syle of realistic drama in the twentieth century.

This is not to say that many modern plays or productions have been able to keep the infinitely delicate balance without which Chekhov's kind of realism amounts to very little as good theatre. The bulk of twentieth-century realistic comedy swings crazily between the grim and the giddy.

Richard Peace (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6214

SOURCE: "Introduction," in Chekhov: A Study of the Four Major Plays, Yale University Press, 1983, pp. 1-15.

[In the following essay, Peace focuses on the "emotional atmosphere" or "mood" Chekhov evokes in his plays.]

Chekhov, as a playwright, is the inheritor of a Russian tradition which, deeply indebted to Western models, nevertheless has its own recognisable idiom; in the words of one critic it exhibits 'a magnificent picture gallery, but no great narrative ingenuity'.1 Although this characterisation specifically refers to the 'comedic tradition that leads from Griboyedov to Chekhov, the observation is broadly true for Russian literature as a whole, with its emphasis on character (i.e. psychology) at the expense of the neatly tailored plot.

Chekhov is also the inheritor of another Russian tradition, according to which seminal plays were written by authors excelling in other genres (Pushkin, Gogol, Lermontov, Turgenev, Tolstoy). Chekhov only achieved success in the theatre towards the end of his life, when he already enjoyed an established reputation as a writer of short stories. This fact undoubtedly conditioned his approach to dramatic art; his stage settings at times contain evidence of a striving for total authorial control more appropriate to description in the short story than to the business-like deployment of properties and scenery for a producer and actors. Thus in Act IV of Uncle Vanya the stage directions describe the map of Africa as: [obviously useless to anyone here]; the setting for the first act of The Three Sisters has the direction: [outside it is sunny, gay]; and Chekhov's prescriptions for the set of Act II of The Cherry Orchard (with its town 'which can be seen only in very good, clear weather') push the technology of scenic illusion to its limits.2 Such directions are at once specific and yet intangible. They recall the descriptive devices of Chekhov's short stories; for they are in essence indicators of mood.

'Mood' may seem a term over-used in Chekhovian criticism, but it is an indispensable concept. The very essence of mood is its lack of precision: it is a complex, emotional, only just subrational reaction to meaning and significance not clearly apprehended: a response to elusive suggestion rather than precise statement. Unfortunately its very vagueness has often led to its being used in criticism as a woolly dampener to further analysis and discussion.

Chekhov's preoccupation with the elusive, less dynamic emotions of 'mood' appears to cut across the traditional concept of drama as action. Thus Harvey Pitcher comments on the development implied in the reworking of the earlier Wood Demon into Uncle Vanya: 'What Chekhov has done is to replace a play of action by a play of emotional content.'3 The observation is good as far as it goes, but Pitcher (who wishes 'to bury alike both Chekhov the social partisan, and Chekhov the ironist') reduces everything to 'emotion' and is against 'vast coded documents which can only be deciphered with the utmost patience'.4 The truth lies somewhere in between: literature is not an abstract art—it cannot abrogate meaning. Chekhov's world is poised between emotion and reason, and his drama combines mood with action, much as his comedy mixes laughter with pathos.

The emotional atmosphere (mood) of a Chekhov play is achieved through numerous devices. His titles may call obvious attention to symbol (The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard) but for the creation of mood such symbolism must retain a degree of ambiguity throughout. The sets, in their evocation of significant place, are also redolent of symbolism (the nursery in The Cherry Orchard; the study-cum-estate office in Uncle Vanya; the garden and the trees in the final act of The Three Sisters). A natural setting may be conducive to a lyrical mood, and atmosphere can be evoked through sounds—some musical: piano, guitar, concertina, snatches of song; some ominous: a distant shot, a breaking string, the thud of axes. Omen itself has a distinct role to play in the building up of vague feelings of presentiment. Akin to this is the extensive use of literary quotation, which surrounds each play with a penumbra of partially stated meaning. This shadowy periphery is also the abode of nonappearing characters, whose influence upon those on stage may often be considerable, and from this realm beyond the wings there stray from time to time odd episodic characters, vatic vagrants whose presence is inexplicably disturbing.

Conversations, which seem disconnected and are interrupted by random remarks, contrive, nevertheless, to suggest some interrelated significance.5 The device is most obvious at the beginning of The Three Sisters, where two apparently unrelated conversations form a dramatically meaningful whole. Nonsense words (tram, tam, tarn or ta-ra-ra bumbiya) can also be imbued with significance, and gestures and small actions communicate meaning symbolically and visually (Gayev's imaginary billiard game, and the constant looking at watches). Above all there is the adroit use of pauses, where silence takes on an eloquence denied to mere words.6

All these devices have a common factor: they are referential and allusive—they suggest rather than state. As such they invite interpretation, and must have seemed to Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavsky ready-made material for the new director-dominated productions of the Moscow Arts Theatre. The interpretation of mood was one of the chief sources of disagreement between author and producer, but although Chekhov on occasion seemed to be in despair at the way his plays were being staged, the only advice he seemed capable of giving was to hint in the enigmatic, elusive spirit of the plays themselves. To Stanislavsky's appeals for elucidation Chekhov replied: 'But I have written it all. I am not a producer. I am a doctor.' Such observations as he did vouchsafe were felt by Stanislavsky to be 'puzzles' (rebuses).7 In this respect Chekhov's attitude to his later plays appears to differ markedly from his earlier urge to analyse and interpret Ivanov.8

Chekhov did not invent 'mood' in the theatre, but he brought its techniques to perfection. A. N. Ostrovsky's play The Thunderstorm (1859) has many of the lyrical, poetic qualities often associated with Chekhovian theatre. The symbolism of the title and the motif of birds are developed in the play itself. Ostrovsky's outdoor sets breathe an almost Chekhovian magic, and atmosphere is created through omens (the mural depicting Gehenna) as well as by episodic vatic characters (the mad noblewoman). Particularly Chekhovian are the sounds of the guitar, the snatches of song and the literary quotations: Ostrovsky's autodidact Kuligin seems to find at least a nominal echo in Chekhov's representative of provincial intelligentsia in The Three Sisters—Kulygin. Moreover, like Chekhov, Ostrovsky is interested in the psychology of his characters (particularly his heroine) rather than in dramatic action as such.

Turgenev's play A Month in the Country has also been seen as a forerunner of Chekhovian theatre. Here too action is subordinated to psychological portraiture. Valency, in comparing Chekhov's methods with those of Turgenev, has made a strong case for the innovatory nature of Turgenev's characterisation, which he claims is the technique of impressionism: the characters 'discover themselves little by little, and are constantly surprised at the things they feel and do'.9 Nevertheless for the purposes of his plot Turgenev relies on the well-worn device of eavesdropping—a stock situation also found in his novels. It is significant that Chekhov uses this theatrical cliché in his early plays Platonov and Ivanov, but in his later plays it is used only once (Uncle Vanya) and there its psychological role transcends any suggestion of a mere hackneyed mechanism of plot.10 Indeed the recur-rent situation of the true Chekhovian play is not overhearing but 'underhearing'—the inability, even refusal, of one character to listen to another. Such psychological 'deafness' had already been developed as a social theme in Griboyedov's Woe from Wit (1825), indeed Chekhov's comic characters Ferapont (The Three Sisters) and Firs (The Cherry Orchard) may owe something to Griboyedov's Tugoukhovsky, but, more importantly in The Cherry Orchard, as in Woe from Wit, the younger generation is the bearer of truths which an older generation does not wish to know; Lyubov Andreyevna, like Famusov before her, covers up her ears in a symbolic act of non-hearing.11

Nevertheless, A Month in the Country is obviously far closer than Woe from Wit to the later plays of Chekhov. It is closer in its naturalism as well as in its poetic symbolism. Turgenev, as he does elsewhere, uses trees symbolically. Thus Rakitin, whose very name is derived from a tree (rakita = 'willow') attempts to evoke a romantic mood in his wayward mistress by poetic words on nature, but his contrast of the strong oak to the radiant birch is obviously to be taken as a symbolic statement about himself and Islayeva. Like Gayev in The Cherry Orchard he is rebuked for such elevated thoughts on nature. The motif of trees recurs frequently in Chekhov's plays, but his symbolic use of the theme is at once more subtle and more generalised. This scene between Rakitin and Islayeva strikes yet another Chekhovian note in the 'silences' which Turgenev calls for in his stage directions.12

The allusive quality of Turgenev's writing is important. In Act IV of A Month in the Country Shpigel'sky seeks to explain himself through a song, but more significant is the use of literary quotation. Rakitin is the friend of Islayeva's husband, and when in Act I Islayeva tells Rakitin: 'You see, I, like Tatyana, can also say: "What's the point of dissembling?'" her fragment of quotation alludes to far more than it actually states: it indicates her love for Rakitin, whilst at the same time asserting her faithfulness to her husband. Every Russian audience would catch the reference to Chapter Eight, stanza XLVIII of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, would know what precedes these brief words and what comes after:

I love you (what's the point of dissembling)
But I have been given to another.
I shall be eternally faithful to him.13

The impact of any play depends as much on its audience as it does upon its performers, and the special susceptibilities of a Russian audience are often overlooked by Western critics. Education in Russia has traditionally been based on oral skills to a greater extent than in most English-speaking countries. Every educated Russian has a rich fund of poetry which he knows by heart, and public recitations of poetry, both classical and contemporary, are a prominent feature of Russian cultural life. Anyone who has attended such a recital, given perhaps by a well-known actor, will know that the performer has only to falter a moment for there to be innumerable voices from the audience prompting him with the correct lines, so that the impression may be gained that the audience knows the poem better than the reciter himself.

Far more, perhaps, than in any other culture, a writer in Russia can play upon the literary memory of his audience or of his readers. It is important to bear in mind this ability of a Russian audience to participate in the creative act through its literary memory, when we come to look at the use Chekhov makes of literary quotation in his own plays (such as the repeated quotation in The Three Sisters of lines from Pushkin's Ruslan and Lyudmila).

The tradition of censorship in Russia has been such that readers and audiences alike have long been attuned to the finer points of oblique statement and innuendo. Theatre in Russia can be particularly vibrant; producers and actors have a way of bringing pointed meaning to words which look innocuous on the printed page. Thus classics of the nineteenth-century repertoire, such as Woe from Wit, or the stage adaptation of Dostoyevsky's story The Village of Stepanchikovo and its Inhabitants can be played in such a way that without any deviation from the text a Soviet audience is aware of its relevance for contemporary life.14

Having said this, it must also be conceded that Chekhov could not always count on his audiences. The dispiriting failure of the opening night of The Seagull was as much due to the audience's expectations, as was its spectacular success when it was later produced by the Moscow Arts Theatre. Chekhov's plays were unfamiliarly new; but for all that, they built on the work of previous dramatists. When Styan lists among Chekhov's new techniques: 'experiments with the empty stage, his use of sounds to enlarge the area of our perception or to illuminate the condition of a character', we must not forget that, almost seventy years before, Gogol had shown him the way.15 At the end of Act IV of The Government Inspector the stage is left empty for the departure of Khlestakov, which is impressionistically conveyed through off-stage conversations, cries and the sound of troyka bells. Chekhov, like Gogol, shuns the subplot, but suggests intrigue beyond the confines of the stage through his use of non-appearing characters—a device which goes back, in fact, to Griboyedov.16

Elements of the Chekhovian play may even be seen in eighteenth-century comedy. Thus in Uncle Vanya Marina's 'comic' prop of the knitted sock, has its precursor in D. I Fonvizin's Brigadier (1769) which opens, like the Chekhov play, with one of its characters (the brigadier's wife) knitting a sock on stage.17 V. V. Kapnist had also experimented with the ironical effects of the interdependence of apparently unrelated conversations in his comedy Malicious Litigation (Yabeda) of 1798. In Act I scene viii of Kapnist's play an attorney conducts one conversation with the chairman of a civil court about his employer's litigation, whilst at the same time he carries on another with the chairman's wife concerning goods which he has brought with him as bribes.18

One can sense Chekhov himself experimenting with his techniques in the earlier playlets. Thus Swan Song (1887) which is the dramatic reworking of the short story "Kalkhas," can be seen as an exercise in the extended use of literary quotations, and Tatiana Repina (1889), which is Chekhov's theatrical reply to Suvorin the dramatist, has been seen by at least one scholar as: 'the first glimmer ings of the drama of mood'.19 The playlet is remarkable in that it is constructed entirely of parallel and apparently unrelated areas of speech, through which Chekhov suggests ironical commentary (scandalous gossip conducted against the background of the wedding service). A second Chekhovian feature is the centring of Tatiana Repina not on dramatic action but on a ritualised event, capable of charging the playlet with its own 'ready made' atmosphere and drama.

Success in the theatre for Chekhov was by no means immediate, yet he wished to write plays almost from the start of his literary career. His first attempt dates from 1878—a play without an authenticated title, which is usually referred to as Platonov in English (after its chief protagonist) but should perhaps be called Fatherlessness (Bezotsovshchina). It has a long rambling plot, but it is full of glimpses of the mature Chekhov, and Donald Rayfield is probably right to see it as the source of all his later plays.20Ivanov, Chekhov's next full-length play, certainly appears to be a reworking of Platonov. It exists in two versions (1887 and 1889) both of which, unlike the earlier play, were staged. In its revised version Ivanov enjoyed a measure of success, nevertheless it cannot be regarded as a truly Chekhovian play. Its hero, Ivanov, is married to a young Jewish heiress, who has not brought him a dowry because she has been disowned by her staunchly religious parents. Heavily in debt, Ivanov becomes involved in a liaison with another heiress, Sasha, the daughter of a friend and neighbour. Ivanov's behaviour drives his consumptive wife to an early death, but when he is free to marry Sasha he is denounced by his wife's doctor, and because of this, and the malicious gossip which surrounds him, he commits suicide (in the first version he succumbs to the pressure and dies a rather improbable natural death). Ivanov is hardly an edifying character, yet it is obvious that Chekhov is presenting him as a candidate for his audience's sympathy.

John Tulloch has persuasively argued that Chekhov based his portrait of Ivanov on the scientific theories of the time, and that the play has to be seen more as a socio-medical case study of neurasthenia. He stresses that Chekhov had the professional outlook of a doctor, which in the Russian tradition implied medicine with a sociological bias.21 Yet one might also quote the words of Ivanov himself: 'It is possible to be an excellent physician and at the same time not know anything about people.'22 If Ivanov shows evidence of Chekhov's professional outlook as a Russian doctor, it also bears the trade-marks of his other, and more important, profession—the calling of a Russian writer. His hero fits into that tradition of Russian writing (Griboyedov, Lermontov, Turgenev, Goncharov, Dostoyevsky among others) which sought to create typical 'heroes' of their time. Chekhov's very insistence on the name Ivanov seems designed to assert the typicality of his 'Russianness'.23

The decade of the 1880s, after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, was a period of political repression and stagnation in Russian intellectual life. It was a time when heroism seemed impossible; a period of so-called 'little deeds' (malyye dela). It is in these terms that Sasha angrily taunts local society, in her defence of Ivanov:

Or if you could all do something, something quite small, hardly noticeable, but something a bit original and daring, so that we young ladies could look at you and say 'Oh', admiringly, for once in our lives!24

Ivanov, himself, is a typical intellectual figure of his period, but as such he is aware of literary echoes from a previous age:

I'm dying of shame at the thought that I, a healthy, strong man, have somehow got transformed into a sort of Hamlet, or Manfred, or one of those 'superfluous' people, the devil knows which! There are some pitiable people who are flattered when you call them Hamlets or 'superfluous', but to me it's a disgrace! It stirs up my pride, a feeling of shame oppresses me, and I suffer.25

The term 'Hamlet' was almost synonymous with 'superfluous man' (cf. Turgenev's story The Hamlet of the Shchigrovskiy Region). References to Hamlet are particularly pronounced in Platonov (as well, of course, as in the later play The Seagull). Nevertheless the true era of the so-called 'superfluous man' had been the three decades be tween 1825 and 1855 which corresponded to the reign of Tsar Nicholas I. Like the period of the 1880s this was a time of repression, which had also been occasioned by a political event—the suppression of the Decembrist uprising in 1825. Ivanov exhibits the characteristics of key figures in the literature of this earlier period. Like Griboyedov's Chatsky he is at odds with local society.26 Like Turgenev's Rudin he is a man full of great potential, which he seems incapable of realising; and again like Rudin, he demurs when his 'heroine' suggests that they should abscond. Nevertheless the terms of his reply suggest yet another of these 'superfluous' heroes: 'I feel too lazy to walk to that door, and you talk of America … '27

The laziest man in Russian literature is the hero of I. A. Goncharov's novel Oblomov (1859). Like the other figures discussed above, Oblomov is incapable of forming a serious relationship with a strong heroine, yet she, Olga Ilinskaya, wishes to 'resurrect' him. In a similar way Sasha is accused by Ivanov of having set herself the goal of resurrecting the human being in him and he characterises their love affair as a literary stereotype:28

And this love affair of ours is all just something commonplace and trite: 'He lost heart and lost his grip on things. She appeared, cheerful and strong in spirit, and held out a helping hand.' It's beautiful, but it's only like what happens in novels. In real life you don't …29

In Goncharov's novel the psychological motivation of Olga Ilinskaya is equally as fascinating as that of Oblomov himself. Sasha provides us with an insight which could be just as valid for Olga:

There are a lot of things men don't understand. Every girl is more attracted by a man who's a failure than by one who's a success, because what she wants is active love.… Do you understand that? Active love. Men are taken up with their work and so love has to take a back seat with them. To have a talk with his wife, to take a stroll with her in the garden, to pass time pleasantly with her, to weep a little on her grave—that's all. But for us—love is life.30

In a variant of this scene Sasha actually calls Ivanov 'Oblomov', but Chekhov discarded such open identification.31 In reinterpreting Goncharov he undoubtedly wished to avoid the ready-made stereotype, and a polemical point is the disowning of positive features which certain critics had attributed to Oblomovism itself:

Ivanov. I can't enjoy spiritual idleness and see it as something noble and lofty. Idleness is idleness, weakness is weakness—I don't know any other names for them.32

Central to the play is the assertion that man is psychologically far more complex than the gossip-mongers of local society and the self-appointed moralist, Dr Lvov, can ever imagine. In an important speech in Act III, scene vi, Ivanov not only rebukes Lvov for his simplistic view of human motivation, but at the same time appears to take up Lebedev's observation in the preceding scene, that man is a mere samovar.33 This polemical point about the complexity of human psychology will be illustrated more impressively in the later plays: in Ivanov itself it has more the role of a programmatic statement.

Nevertheless it is national psychology and sociological interpretation which are uppermost in the detailed explanation of his play communicated to Suvorin in a letter of 30 December 1888. It appears from this that Ivanov is about the Russian temperament itself, which Chekhov sees as conditioned by periods of excitability followed by troughs of depression. He even draws a graph to illustrate his argument showing that with each sucessive phase the troughs of depression get lower:

Disillusionment, apathy, nervous instability, being easily tired are the invariable results of excessive excitability and such excitability is characteristic of our young people in the highest degree. Take literature. Take the present …34

Although Chekhov here seems to be offering a national and social account of the medical condition known as manic depression, his view of the polarisation of the Russian temperament between excitability and depression, bouts of activity and periods of lethargy, is not new. The critic N. A. Dobrolyubov, pointing to a similar pattern in Russian history, had likened the intelligentsia of his day to the legendary folk hero Ilya Muromets who slept for thirty years then awoke to perform doughty deeds.35

Chekhov's argument in his letter to Suvorin, as we have seen, is partly based on literature, and here he may have had Oblomov in mind; for there had also been 'high-points' of activity in Oblomov's life (initially, as a young man, under the influence of Shtolts and later in response to Olga). Indeed, in giving his hero both the name and the patronymic of Ilya (Ilya Ilyich) Goncharov may have been seeking to link him with the symbolic figure of Ilya Muromets.

In Ivanov, the aristocratic Shabelsky says of Ivartov's self-appointed critic Dr Lvov, that he thinks of himself as a second Dobrolyubov, and regards him (Shabelsky) as a rogue and a serf-owner, because he wears a velvet jacket and is dressed by a manservant.36 There are clear references in this to Dobrolyubov as the critic of 'Oblomovism'. In 1859 Dobrolyubov had written an extremely influential article on Goncharov's novel (What is Oblomovism?) in which he had argued that Oblomov was the summation of all the gentleman heroes in literature up to that point: that he was the quintessential 'superfluous man'. A similar objective seems to have been in Chekhov's mind when writing Ivanov:

I cherished the daring dream of summing up all that has been written up to now about whining and melancholy people, and to put an end to these writings with my Ivanov. It seemed to me that all Russian men of letters and playwrights had felt the need to depict the depressed man, and that they had all written instinctively without having definite images and a view on the matter. In conception I more or less got it right, but the execution is worthless, I should have waited.37

It is interesting that this same letter contains the often quoted statement about himself as a writer of lowly origin who had to squeeze the slave out of himself drop by drop and who one day woke up to find real human blood in his veins. His injunction to write a story about such a figure was never fulfilled. The nearest he came to depicting such a social parvenu in positive terms was in his play The Cherry Orchard. Lopakhin has certain autobio-graphical features and is a more credible version of Goncharov's Shtolts—the practical man of affairs of mixed social origin.

In 1886 Chekhov published a 'Literary Table of Ranks' in the humorous publication Splinters (Oskolki) (No. 19, 10 May).38 This parody of the hierarchy of ranks in the civil service left the top grade as yet unoccupied, but placed Tolstoy and Goncharov together in the second grade. Nevertheless in 1889, after the production of the second version of Ivanov, Chekhov reread Oblomov and, in a letter to Suvorin at the beginning of May, wrote of his disillusionment with the novel and its author: he had completely revised his views of its artistic merits. In his next letter to Suvorin (4 May 1889) Chekhov defends himself against the charge of laziness, but fears that he is like Goncharov: 'whom I do not like and who is ten times head and shoulders above me in talent'.39

In The Wood Demon (1889) Hélène is seen as the embodiment of laziness, and she is characterised by Voynitsky as an 'Oblomov'.40 This reference was removed when the play was rewritten as Uncle Vanya, and Chekhov strongly objected to critics who attempted to inter pret the play in terms of Goncharov's novel:

I have read reviews of Uncle Vanya only in the Courier and News of the Day. I saw an article about 'Oblomov' in the Russian Record, but I didn't read it. I can't stand this making something out of nothing, this forced linking with Oblomov, with Fathers and Sons etc. You can forcibly compare any play with what you want, and if Sanin and Ignatov had taken Nozdrev and King Lear instead of Oblomov, it would have turned out equally profound and readable. I do not read such articles, so as not to foul up my temper.41

Given such a categorical authorial pronouncement, it might seem that any critic would be foolish to draw further parallels between Oblomov and Chekhov's heroes, yet the echoes are there in the later plays; indeed in the recurrent theme of ineffectuality confronted by the exhortation to work we have something of the dilemma which lies at the heart of Goncharov's novel.

Chekhov felt the parallel with Oblomov even in his own life. We have already seen that in reply to Suvorin's charge of laziness, he conceded that he felt like Goncharov, and he made a similar excuse to Stanislavsky towards the end of his life as he was working on The Cherry Orchard:

I was ill, but am recovered now, my health has improved, and if I do not work as I ought, it is because of the cold (it is only eleven degrees in my study), lack of company and, probably, laziness, which was born in 1859, that is one year before me.42

The reference to the publication date of Oblomov is unmistakable, yet Chekhov was anything but a lazy man; he did, however, suffer from a debilitating disease, and did not wish to face up to it. A jocular condemnation of the 'Oblomov' within himself was one way of minimising his symptoms and coping with a problem he knew to be incurable. The charge of 'Oblomovism' from others was another matter—it touched on a sensitive area of his own life, even though the term was applied solely to his heroes. It is undeniable, nevertheless, that the protagonists of his plays lack drive: 'The usual Chekhovian character is a halfhearted participant in an action that barely excites his interest.'43 Through such heroes Chekhov was not merely purging an element which he most dreaded in himself, he was also portraying a state of mind endemic in Russian society at the end of the nineteenth century. In the political reaction which followed the assassination of Tsar Alexander II even the most energetic leaders of the intelligentsia suddenly felt them-selves superfluous. M. Ye. Saltykov-Shchedrin (of whose great output Chekhov felt envious)44 expressed this mood most strikingly in his Gogolian 'Fairy Tale' The Adventures of Kramolnikov (1886)—Kramolnikov wakes up one morning and suddenly realises that he doesn't exist.45 Such new and 'non-people' could obviously be related to the former 'superfluous men', of whom Oblomov had been seen as the epitome. But Oblomov is also a novel about social change (it purports to have been written in answer to the question: 'where do beggars come from?').46 The reforms of the 1860s, anticipated in Goncharov's novel, had resulted by the turn of the century in a rapidly changing society. The old landowning gentry were a waning social force, losing ground to the new and energetic entrepreneur, whom Goncharov had not so much depicted, as prophesied, in the figure of Shtolts. The social theme is important for all Chekhov's plays and it is significant that its dominant motif is dispossession.

It has often been observed that Chekhov's theatrical technique combines a subtle blend of naturalism and symbolism.47 He wrote at a time when the Russian theatre had found, in Stanislavsky, its great exponent of showing life as it is. The Moscow Arts Theatre productions stressed the naturalism of the plays to the point where, Chekhov felt, it became absurd. The naturalism of sets, acting and effects was boldly emphasised, and Stanislavsky was particularly fond of multiplying incidental, off-stage sounds far in excess of those called for by the author. Stanislavsky tells the following story against himself:

'Listen!' Chekhov told someone, but so that I could hear, 'I shall write a new play and it will begin like this: 'How marvellous, how silent! No birds can be heard, no dogs, no cuckoos, no owls, no nightingales, no clocks, no bells and not a single cricket.' Of course he was getting at me.48

Stanislavsky's philosophy of production, his famous 'method', was constantly developing. Later he would take a different view of his earlier Chekhov productions.49

Nevertheless, naturalism as such was not the order of the day. Throughout Europe the 1890s marked an almost universal flight from the humdrum and everyday; symbolism, decadence, impressionism dominated the fin de siècle mood. Chekhov was aware of these currents, and in his new theatre of the 1890s he contrived, whilst retaining the naturalistic surface, to incorporate an element of intangibility and mystery proclaimed in the new art forms—a dimension characterised by Valency as the 'Chekhovian "Beyond"': 'The strangely unreal atmosphere in which the realities of his later plays are suspended. It is an atmosphere less mysterious and less explicit than the Maeterlinckian au-delà, and certainly more intelligible.'50

Chekhov's earlier heroes, Platonov, Ivanov and Voynitsky (in the Wood Demon) are romantic figures alienated from the prosaic world in which they live. Not only do they convey a sense of looking back to an earlier period of Russian literature, but such self-indulgent, self-destructive romanticism is artistically at odds with the naturalistic vehicle of the plays themselves. It is significant that The Seagull, the play which gave Chekhov his first major success, and marked the onset of the theatre of mood, should project the romantic, alienated hero at odds not merely with the society around him, but more importantly with that society's concept of theatre. Treplev, in calling for new forms, is Chekhov struggling to find a way out of his own artistic impasse. The rivalry between Trigorin and Treplev reflects a debate within the author himself. The first 'Chekhovian' play is a play of re-evaluation and self-examination.51


1 M. Valency, The Breaking String: The Plays of Anton Chekhov, New York, 1966, p. 17 (cf. also ibid. p. 222).

2 Cf. Francis Fergusson, 'The Cherry Orchard: A Theatre-Poem of the Suffering of Change', in Chekhov, A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. R. L. Jackson, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1967, p. 152.

3 Harvey Pitcher, The Chekhov Play, London, 1973, p. 78. 4 Ibid, pp.4, 214.

5 Nils Ake Nilsson denies any significance other than compositonal to such remarks. See his 'Intonation and Rhythm in Chekhov's Plays' in Jackson, pp. 172-3. Valency, however, considers that 'it is seldom that the associative links are entirely lacking', but adds: 'It is entirely probable that the seemingly disjunctive nature of Chekhov's dialogue reflects his own habit of mind.' See Valency, p. 237. Pitcher considers such speech habits a trait common to Russians. See Pitcher, p. 28.

6 'During the pauses it is as though inaudible words are carried across the stage on light wings', Yu. Aykhenval'd (quoted in PSS, XIII, p. 510).

7 K. S. Stanislavsky, Moya zhizn' v iskusstve, Moscow, 1962, p. 328.

8 Cf. Chekhov's long letter to Suvorin on Ivanov (30 Dec. 1888) PSS (Letters), III, pp. 108-16.

9 Valency, p. 45.

10 Styan, however, sees Voynitsky's surprising of the 'amorous' scene between Astrov and Yelena as 'a grotesque stage trick'. See J. L. Styan, Chekhov in Performance. A Commentary on the Major Plays, Cambridge, London, New York, Melbourne, 1971, p. 126.

11 Harvey Pitcher denies 'lack of communication' as a theme in Chekhov's plays. See Pitcher, p. 25.

l2 Cf. I. S. Turgenev, Polnoye sobraniye sochineniy i pisem v dvadtsati vos 'mi tomakh (Sochineniya) III, Moscow, 1962, pp. 75-6.

13Ya vas lyublyu (k chemu lukavit'?)
No ya drugomu otdana,
Ya budu vekyemu verna.
Cf. Turgenev, Poln. sob. soch. (Sock), III, p. 58. Pushkin's 'Novel in Verse' is itself full of literary allusions. For Russians literary echoes not only permeate literature, they also permeate life. See Peace, Russian Literature and the Fictionalisation of Life, Hull, 1976.

14 In Ostrovsky's play The Forest an actor manages to pass an outspoken judgement on local society by reciting a speech from Schiller's Die Räuber, and cannot be brought to account because, as he says, it has been passed by the censor. See A. N. Ostrovsky, Polnoye sobraniye sochineniy v dvenadtsati tomakh, Moscow, 1974, III, p. 337.

15 Styan, p. 339.

16 For the influence of Gogol on Chekhov see Peace, The Enigma of Gogol, An Examination of the Writings of N. V. Gogol and their Place in the Russian Literary Tradition, Cambridge, 1981, pp. 52, 89, 150, 191, 204, 247, 299, 321 n. 31, 330 n. 38, 337 n. 16.

17 See Russkaya literatura XVII veka, compiled by G. P. Makogonenko, Leningrad, 1970, p. 290. Rayfield compares Platonov with The Brigadier. See D. Rayfield, Chekhov: The Evolution of his Art, London, 1975, p. 98 (but cf. Platonov's own rejection of the 'raisonneur' figures of Fonvizin, PSS, XI, p. 38).

18 Makogonenko, pp. 495-6. The following part of this exchange seems particularly pointed semantically:

Krivosudov. But I fobbed him off. He would have gone on with a whole lot of improbable things about the case, but I shut him up.

Naumych [to Fekla]. A pound of mustard.

Krivosudov. I got him off my hands.

Naumych. How much, sir, my master to you is indebted [to FEKLA] a skirt length of silk.

19 A. S. Dolinin (quoted in PSS, XII, p. 368; cf. also ibid. p. 316).

20 Rayfield, p. 94.

21 J. Tulloch, Chekhov: A Structuralist Study, London and Basingstoke, 1980, pp. 7,90.

22PSS, XII, p. 56.

23 Cf. Rayfield, p. 101. Chekhov spoke to V. G. Korolenko of writing a drama to be called Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov—'you understand. There are thousands of Ivanovs, an ordinary man, absolutely not a hero … ', PSS, XII, p. 412. Chekhov also commented: 'The word Russian often crops up when I describe Ivanov.' See The Oxford Chekhov, trans, and edit. Ronald Hingley, London, New York, Toronto, 1967, II, p. 295.

24PSS, XII, pp. 29-30.

25Ibid. p. 37.

26 His uncle Shabel'sky says that he himself played at being Chatsky as a young man, PSS, XII, p. 33. Rayfield notes the influence of Woe from Wit on both Platonov and Ivanov. See Rayfield, p. 98.

27PSS. XII, p. 38.

28Ibid. p. 72.

29Ibid. p. 57.

30Ibid. p. 59.

31Ibid. p. 250 (cf. Hingley on Chekhov's 'endearing distrust of clichés and literary stereotypes', The Oxford Chekhov, II, p. 6).

32PSS, XII, p. 71.

33 Cf. ibid. pp. 50, 54-6.

34PSS (Letters), III, p. 111 (a somewhat similar view on the Russian as a sieve was expressed to Gorky. See Jackson, p. 202).

35 N. A. Dobrolyubov, Sobraniye sochineniy, Moscow 1935, I, pp. 183-4 (cf. also the use of Dobrolyubov's term 'A Realm of Darkness'—temnoye tsarstvo—in Ivanov, PSS, XII, p. 34).

36PSS, XII, p. 33.

37PSS (Letters), III, p. 132.

38Ibid. p. 421.

39Ibid. pp. 201-2, 203.

40PSS, XII, p. 165.

41PSS (Utters), VIII, pp. 319, 596 and PSS, XIII, pp. 419, 459.

42PSS (Letters), XI, p. 142.

43 Valency, p. 246.

44PSS (Letters), II, pp. 332, 512.

45 Ye. M. Saltykov-Shchedrin, Sobraniye sochineniy v dvadtsati tomakh, Moscow, 1976, XVI(l), p. 197.

46 I. A. Goncharov, Sobraniye sochineniy v shesti tomakh. Moscow, 1972, IV, p. 510.

47 Cf. Stanislavsky, Moya Zhizn ', p. 275 and Vs. Meyerhold, 'Naturalistic Theater and Theater of Mood', Jackson, pp. 62-8.

48 Stanislavsky, Moya Zhizn ', p. 329.

49 VI. Prokofev, V sporakh o Stanislavskom, Moscow, 1976, p. 86.

50 Valency, p. 298.

51 'Written after a vow not to work for the theatre again, it is an act of vengeance', Rayfield, p. 202.

Leslie Kane (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12970

SOURCE: "Chekhov," in The Language of Silence: On the Unspoken and the Unspeakable in Modern Drama, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1984, pp. 50-76.

[In the following essay, Kane investigates Chekhov's use of language and silence in his plays, arguing: "Aware that speech, like time, is an anthropocentric effort to limit, control, and elucidate the chaos of experience, Chekhov relies on the unspoken to expose and examine the elusive and the enigmatic both within and beyond man. "]

Anton Chekhov, respected for the concision, objectivity, sensitivity, and humanity of his short stories, began writing for the theatre in the 1880s. He was, in the opinion of Robert Corrigan, "the first playwright who sought to create in his plays a situation which would reveal the private drama that each man has inside himself and which is enacted everyday in the random, apparently meaningless and undramatic events of our common routine."1The Sea Gull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard, written at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, represent perfection of the Chekhovian dramatic form: the subtle, complex interplay of expression and suggestion.

Chekhov achieves the coalescence of phenomenal and psychological experience by fusing thought and technique.2 His experimentation with dramatic form, content, and linguistic methodology results from his intention to present the complexity, universality, and essential mutability of life. Therefore, examination of Chekhov's symbolist and naturalist techniques, his use of the quotidian, and his apparently static structure can lay the foundation for an estimation of this playwright's distinctive use of the unspoken.

In The Breaking String Maurice Valency suggests that the dominant literary trend of the fin de siècle was symbolism and that Chekhov, responsive to literary experimentation, came very much under its influence.3 Affinity to symbolism is apparent in Chekhov's lyrical interpretation of experience, concern for the transitory nature of beauty, evocation of mood, literary reference, and use of nuance, intimation, and suggestion, as well as his exploitation of symbols and emphasis on imprecision. Indeed, it is the dramatist's reliance on introspection and the synthesis of concrete reality with interior mood that most clearly align Chekhov to symbolist techniques.

A skeptic living in an age characterized by doubt and unrest, Chekhov did not share the symbolist's mysticism but nevertheless maintained that there is discrepancy between what man has and what he strives for. Central to his mature work is a spiritual unrest, rooted in awareness of life's mysteries and incompleteness coupled with the expectation of something better.

It would be a mistake, however, to label Chekhov a symbolist, just as it would be erroneous to label him a naturalist or social critic.4 Chekhov wears all these hats and is defined by none. "Life as it is"—the barren facts of substantial reality and private, half-conscious perceptions, illusions, suspicions, and reveries of insubstantial experience—provide the content for this artist's drama; he provides the artistic form to realize and imaginatively distill its essence. Emphasizing the importance of artistic objectivity, Chekhov writes:

In life people do not shoot themselves or hang themselves, or fall in love or deliver themselves of clever sayings every minute. They spend most of their time eating, drinking, running after women or men, talking nonsense. It is therefore necessary that this be shown on the stage. A play ought to be written in which people should come and go, dine, talk of the weather or play cards not because the author wants it that way but because that is what happens in real life.5

Taking his cue from the authenticity of Chekhov's por-trait of reality and the dramatist's insistence on objectivity, John Lahr stresses the impact of Zola's naturalism on the naturalistic character of Chekhov's dramas.6 And Robert Brustein concurs that the seemingly "arbitrary landscape, character details, aimless dialogue, silences, shifting rhythms and poetic mood" which typify Chekhovian drama constitute the most convincing attempt at dramatic verisimilitude of the modern theater.7 However, we are admonished, by Chekhov's own correspondence, to distinguish between scientific accuracy and creative artifice. "I may note incidently," he writes to Grigori Rossolimo, "that artistic considerations do not always allow me to write in complete harmony with scientific data; on stage you cannot show death by poisoning as it actually occurs."8

Clearly, Chekhov is neither a symbolist nor a naturalist, but an astute artist who employs techniques peculiar to both schools of thought to create an "artifice of reality," to use Bernard Beckerman's term, which subtly balances subjectivity and objectivity, interiority and exteriority, vague intimations and clearly delimited detail, psychological time and anthropocentric chronicity in order to achieve emotional realism.9 The seemingly formless Chekhovian form is a meticulously constructed dramatic composition stripped bare of the lines of construction to convey naturally the desired effect of fluidity and fixity. Lacking in intrigue, complication, climax, and denouement, the mature plays are a sequence of scenes wherein spatial arrangement supplants linear arrangement and unity of mood supplants unity of action.10

Both Valency and F. L. Lucas have noted the importance of Maeterlinckien static drama to the development of Chekhov's methodology.11 Chekhov's plays employ the substitution of the effects of an event for the event itself, the use of nuance and suggestion to evoke mood, the use of quotidian dialogue, family gatherings in restricted areas, and an apparently quiescent structure that belies cyclical and chronological fluctuation.12 But Chekhov's is the more gentle, subdued, and deeply analytic art. Maeterlinck's static drama evokes an atmosphere of spiralling anxiety, but Chekhov's drama elicits sustained nastroenie; Maeterlinck's gatherings are excruciating and funereal, Chekhov's characteristically ceremonious, social occasions such as name day celebrations, summer reunions, and farewell gatherings. The focus of Maeterlinck's static plays is the silent progression, intrusion, oppression, and finality of death, but death is displaced in Chekhovian drama by the agonizing, progressively debilitating process of dying. Ossifying in their rural surroundings, Chekhov's characters eventually wither and waste away, witness to and participant in the destruction of themselves, their environment, their social order.13 Characteristically, in addition, Chekhov eschews the archetypes of young and old, preferring to reflect emotional, material, spiritual, and temporal dispossession through varying states of decrepitude. In Uncle Vanya, for example, Vanya and Sonya are threatened with the loss of their estate; in The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard eviction and dispossession are an accomplished fact. Spiritual deterioration is illustrated in these plays by Andrey's loss of hope, Nina's loss of innocence, Mme. Ranevsky's loss of beauty, Masha's loss of Vershinin. For all, the loss of time is the most shocking and the most difficult to accept. Vanya's reaction is typical:

Vanya: Day and night the thought that my life has been hopelessly wasted weighs on me like a nightmare. I have no past, it has been stupidly wasted on trifles, and the present is awful in its senselessness.


Significantly, epiphanic awareness comes to Chekhov's characters when it is too late to reverse their ossification and deterioration. They are, and remain, helpless and passive in the face of social and cosmic forces which determine their lives.

Like Maeterlinck's pilgrims, Chekhov's characters wait, but for the anxious wait for Sisters of Mercy, priests, news of death, and escape from entrapment the Russian static dramas substitute the less terrifying, but no less anxious, tiresome, and debilitating wait for trains, for carnival people, for auctions, for lovers, for duels, for the release from boredom, for the realization of dreams—and, always, for tea.

Unlike nineteenth-century playwrights for whom the quotidian either depicted customary manners and morals or was overshadowed by events, Chekhov moved events to the periphery, as if they were details, and brought the ordinary, constant and recurring to center stage. Like Maeterlinck, he exploited the daily flow of the customary and habitual, not as setting but as subject of his art. To support his artistic representation of "life as it is" and to dramatize continuity and perpetuity, Chekhov employed the four-act structure, preferring the elongated form to the Maeterlinckien one-act structure and the naturalistic quart d'heure.14 Emphasizing progression in time, rather than in action, Chekhov provides us with great specificity of detail: intricate arrival/departure patterns, pertinent "acts of God," the exact season, date, and age of the characters.15 Nature figures importantly in the Chekhovian tapestry, providing a beautiful background for the drab foreground and graphically showing the cyclical and degenerative pattern of life. For example, in the first acts of The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard the reunion coincides with the springtime; the mood is expectant and exultant. In Act 4, on the other hand, the mournful farewell is set against the autumn sky and the imminent destruction of the trees; the mood is one of distress and disillusionment. Similarly, in Act 1 of The Sea Gull the heat of the summer season mirrors the burning passion of the lovers Treplev and Nina who are united in the birth of their artistic creation; but by Act 4 we learn that Nina has carried, delivered, and buried Trigorin's baby. His career aborted and his love for Nina unrequited, a despondent Treplev takes his own life on a night when the wind howls through the chimney and windows are shuttered against the draft.

Simultaneous with chronological progression, Chekhov focuses attention on the changing state of consciousness of each character. By particularizing temporal details, the playwright fashions a fragment of time in which everything, or more accurately, nothing, takes place. And by subordinating plot to characterization and event to stasis, he diverts attention from process to motive, from phenomenal reality to psychological.16 The pervading effect, as William Gerhardi observes, is "at once static and transitory," indeed "static in its absolute transitoriness."17

However, the seemingly quiescent surface belies fluidity. The conclusion of each play (superficially similar to the beginning, but strikingly different in its lack of hope) confirms the swift passage of time which has gone unnoticed. Loss displaces promise; weariness displaces vitality; waste displaces beauty; resignation displaces hope.

Chekhov, cognizant of the iconoclastic nature of his structure and content, wrote to Alexei Suvorin in 1895, "I sin frightfully against the conventions of the stage … lots of talk on literature, little action and tons of love."18 Significantly, the playwright fails to note that love in his dramas is either painfully or perpetually unsatisfied and unsatisfying or, if satisfied, painfully transitory. Becker-man suggests that the number of transitory and unfulfilled love affairs, with the central position they occupy in Chekhov's plays, is notable when seen against the background of the decay of aristocratic society.19 But the number is crucial, less for its social relevance than for the multivalent human responses associated with it. Chekhov chose as central a universal emotion, ambivalent and evanescent in nature, which defies the limitation of time, place, and verbal expression. Unlike Maeterlinck's silent plays which primarily evoke the condition of fear, his drama elicits the vacillating, prismatic, confounding emotion of love tempered by joy, expectation, hope, disillusionment, and the searing pain of loss and rejection. Put differently, Chekhov's treatment of love is a function of his treatment of time: at once static and transitory, at once empirically verifiable and psychologically imprecise, at once measured and illimitable.

Because Chekhov's drama is a forum of emotion, not idea, the universal, evanescent, insubstantial, and undefinable emotions of loneliness and loss take their place with love in the broad spectrum of life experience that the dramatist impressionistically presents. Typically, Chekhov draws his content from life as it is; but the well he taps is deep and dark, and the emotions he evokes are inextricably linked to his use of the unspoken.

Chekhovian dialogue performs a great number of essential dramatic functions: revealing character, furthering the action (more particularly, inaction), uncovering theme, and arousing in the spectator a mood similar to that of the character.20 However, this playwright fulfills these dramatic necessities in an innovative way: by simulating aimless, fluid speech and thought. So convincing is the Chekhovian linguistic artifice that it may appear to be an irrational choice and accidental arrangement of words. But Chekhov is a consummate craftsman; what appears alternatingly fluid and fixed is in fact achieved by the intricate counterpointing of speech and silent response. Crucial to a study of Chekhov's use of the unspoken is the relationship of symbolist and naturalist techniques, deceptive stasis, cyclical flux, and the quotidian to this dramatist's linguistic innovations. The distinctive elements of his methodology may be considered under these topics:

  1. disjunctive, indirect speech
  2. colloquial dialogue
  3. negation
  4. repetition and echoing
  5. pauses
  6. counterpointing through overstatement and understatement
  7. silent scenes
  8. mute characters
  9. silence as a metaphor for isolation
  10. silence as a metaphor for evanescence
  11. silence of the playwright

Oblique disjunctive speech elicits imperceptible fluctuation both within the mind of the speaker and between speakers. Repetitions, recurring motifs, and pauses reinforce the apparent stasis suggested by the eventless drama, and the continued use of negations (which have the effect of nullifying the statement just made) effectively slow or reverse the progression of time. Overstatement and understatement, moreover, report, by their exaggeration, both the emotional condition of the speaker and the quotient of attention and reception his comments receive from the listener. Kahn observes that through antiphonal counterpointing the dramatist achieves the impact of ironic statement that has the "special effect of not actually being stated."21

Unlike his predecessor in the symbolist theatre, the Russian playwright did not wish to accentuate the distance between speech and silence, the quotidian and the profound, the human and the mystical. Demonstrating grace and artistry of concision, Chekhov softens the harsh lines of Maeterlinck's polarized portrait through resonance, achieving in language the indistinctness and imprecision which typify all of his art.22 The resonances produced by choral speaking, negative statement, understatement and overstatement, and the repetitive use of pauses narrow the gap between speech and silence while simultaneously revealing the distance between thought and meaning, between illusion and reality, between a person's conception of himself and the conceptions of his companions, and between speaker and listener. Indeed, Chekhov manifests his modernity by his awareness of man's essential fragmentation and isolation. Chekhovian characters escape to the relative security of memory or the relative promise of philosophy in order to forge a link in time and meaning. But as Corrigan observes, Chekhov, more than any other dramatist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, was very conscious of the existential loneliness of the human condition. In order for him to portray life as it is, Chekhov had to define his characters by their "solitude and estrangement from life " and not by their participation in it.23 Chekhov employs restricted settings to underscore the fact that his characters are always in close physical contact, but rarely, if ever, in emotional contact. Efforts to break out of the imprisonment of isolation are foiled or gently mocked: confidences are ignored, confessions fall on deaf ears.

Aware that speech, like time, is an anthropocentric effort to limit, control, and elucidate the chaos of experience, Chekhov relies on the unspoken to expose and examine the elusive and the enigmatic both within and beyond man. Disjunctive, indirect speech is particularly well suited to the dramatization of exterior and interior experience. Citations from the mature plays clearly illustrate the discontinuity in conversation when one voice drifts off and another picks up the dropped line, in situations of physical or emotional stress or exhaustion, in the reversal or corrected direction of a thought. In the arrival scene of The Cherry Orchard, for example, the thoughts of Mme. Ranevsky, Gaev, Charlotta, Pishtchik, Dunyasha, and Varya overlap and cut across one another. What the dialogue lacks in continuity, it gains in authenticity. Mme. Ranevsky, exhausted from the long trip and the trauma of returning from Paris nearly destitute, is nevertheless exhilarated by the sight of her beloved nursery. Memories of her childhood flood her mind and fill the moment. Time and speech momentarily stop for her, and then through tears she remembers the presence of her own daughter, Varya. "Varya's just the same as ever," she notes, but for Gaev, who has been impatiently waiting two hours for her delayed train, time did not stand still. Grumbling about the delay and the ineptitude of the rail system, Gaev demands, "What do you think of that," but he might as well be talking to himself. At the same moment, Charlotta informs Pishtchik that her dog "eats nuts, too." In all the confusion, both literal and linguistic, Pishtchik replies, "Fancy that," but one hardly knows whether this remark is to answer Mme. Ranevsky, Gaev, or Charlotta—or in fact all three (64).

Through the use of quotidian expressions and situations, this dramatist reveals disjunction not only between participants in a conversation, but also between the thoughts of one speaker. In the last act of The Cherry Orchard Pishtchik arrives in time to say farewell to the departing family; but in his effort to cover all the subjects on his mind he jumps from one to another without apparent logic or continuity:

Pishtchik: What! (in agitation) Why to the town? Oh, I see the furniture … the boxes. No matter … (through his tears) … no matter … men of enormous intellect … these Englishmen.… Never mind be happy. God will succour you … no matter … everything in this world must have an end (kisses Lyubov Andreyevna's hand). If the rumour reaches you that my end has come, think of this old horse, and say: "There was once such a man in the world … Semyonov-Pishtchik … the Kingdom of Heaven be his!" … most extraordinary weather … yes. (Goes out in violent agitation, but at once returns and says in the doorway) Dashenka wishes to be remembered to you (goes out).


The passage shows that disjunctive speech is often broken by negative statements which have the effect of linguistically erasing not only what has been said, but also the progression in thought and time that speech implies. Thus Chekhov dramatizes the flux between statement and counterstatement and the stasis achieved by nonprogres sional verbal action.

Although indicative of stress and discarded thought, negation also implies an imposition of silence on a subject that the speaker refuses to participate in and continue. An excellent illustration of this technique can be found in the beginning of act 4 of The Three Sisters when Tchebutykin is approached by Irina, Kuligin, Andrey, and Masha for information about the impending duel between Tusenbach and Solyony. To each who wants to continue the topic the doctor offers a variation of this negative statement: "What happened? Nothing. Nothing much (reads the paper). It doesn't matter!" (172-75). The newspaper provides escape for the doctor, but it is negation that short-circuits conversation.

In addition to the use of negatives to evoke the impression of stasis, Chekhov expands and sophisticates the technique of repetition, which had been used extensively, and obviously, by Maeterlinck to intensify mood and to reinforce fixity. Chekhovian repetitions, while admittedly tedious, do not intensify mood; rather, they elicit and continually perpetuate a condition such as entrapment, monotony, frustration, loneliness, despair. In these plays of "come and go" (structured around intricate arrival/ departure paradigms), motifs, phrases, and pauses repetitively come and go. Significantly, repetition, like other aspects of Chekhovian drama, works simultaneously on the realistic and psychological levels and, more importantly, is cumulatively effective. The speaker who reiterates a particular emotion or illusion reveals a compulsive pattern of behavior from which he is unwilling or unable to extricate himself. Thus Kuligin is "content, content, content," or at least he will steadfastly hold to that illusion, while Masha is "bored, bored, bored" with Kuligin. Olga and Irina are typified by their chant "to Moscow," its continued repetition gaining the impact of prayer. With each repetition, however, the disparity between the first expression and those which succeed it, as well as the emotional, spiritual, and linguistic deterioration of the speaker, is progressively laid bare.

The words repeated, moreover, are of less importance than the mental baggage which the reiteration conveys. This is illustrated by the central role that memory plays in the dramas. In memory images are neither recorded nor recalled in strict chronological or spatial order, but rather according to emotional impact and stimulus. Chekhov dramatizes the ability of broken shards of reverie to break through consciousness and find verbal form. A characteristic citation from The Three Sisters illustrates the cumulative effect of fragments intermittently reiterated: Masha, who continually recalls phrases from Pushkin's Ruslan and Lyudmila, tries to calm herself after Vershinin's departure by reciting the lines. The confusion of her words, however, reflects emotional chaos, signifying to her that she is not in control of her life. "What does 'strand' mean? Why do these words haunt me?" she mourns, seemingly aware for the first time of her entrapment (183). That the words lack meaning does not mean she will be freed from the grip they have on her mind.

Repetitions, however, need not be compulsive. "Echoing," a nuanced, associational variation of the technique of repetition, is particularly effective in these plays of come and go in which reunion and separation of the family are experienced differently by each member. In echoing, the same words are subject to multiple interpretations comparable to the refraction of light by a prism or to a symphonic theme and variation. In the farewell scene of Uncle Vanya, for example, Sonya, Marya, Marina, Astrov, and Vanya take note of the departure of Yelena and Serebryakov. The phrase "They've gone" is repeated in turn by each, but the unspoken emotions of loss, relief, and anticipated loneliness inform their mood more accurately than the words they all share. Similarly, the technique is masterfully employed in The Cherry Orchard, where, in the opinion of Francis Fergusson, each of the characters, in his own way, gains insight into his or her situation and that of the doomed estate.24 Essentially, Fergusson maintains by offering a multiplicity of nonverbal responses simultaneously with common expression, Chekhov evokes a condition or an emotion which precedes the emotionally charged attitude of the characters. Undoubtedly, the asso ciational effect of this technique derives in good part from undefined, infinite silence.

The principal recurring motif in Chekhovian theatre is the pause. Static and nonprogressional, and comparable to the rest in musical composition, the pause is an essential and integral element of structure which effectively stalls the advancement of thought, action, and time. Moreover, nonverbal hesitation is cumulatively effective and responsible in great part for the oppressive sense of timelessness in Chekhov's world. This dramatist's treatment of the unspoken includes the silence of impasse, anticipation, reflection, reverie, doubt, revelation and cover-up, helplessness, isolation, and complicity. Although interesting studies have been written on the quantitative nature of the Chekhovian pause, a simple count of pauses as they appear in stage directions constitutes a superficial examination of this dramatist's extensive use of the unspoken.25 Also to be considered are his use of silent scenes, such as those of Irina left alone at the end of act 2 of The Three Sisters and of Gaev and Mme. Ranevsky at the end of The Cherry Orchard, his use of mute characters, his use of silence as a metaphor for entrapment, evanescence, and isolation, and his own silence. These uses will subsequently be examined more fully; now, however, it is necessary to reiterate that nonverbal responses are inextricably linked to verbal techniques in Chekhovian drama, just as expression/suggestion informs all the elements of this dramatist's art. In these eventless plays attention must be focused both on all the events that are not explicitly dramatized and on many responses that are not explicitly communicated.

Crucial to an understanding of Chekhov's reliance on silent response is the centrality of the motifs of love, loneliness, and loss—all emotions, essentially untranslatable, which would be immeasurably reduced in significance, complexity, and verisimilitude if verbally defined and delimited. The following characteristic passage from Uncle Vanya illustrates both the coalescence of verbal and nonverbal discursiveness and the gamut of silent responses from revelation to impasse, doubt, anticipation, and reflection. Yelena, who has approached Astrov on Sonya's behalf, finds herself embroiled in a suggestive tête-à-tête with the attractive doctor:

Yelena (perplexed): Bird of prey! I don't understand.

Astrov: A beautiful, fluffy weasel.… You must have a victim! Here I have been doing nothing for a whole month. I have dropped everything. I seek you greedily—and you are awfully pleased at it, awfully.… Well, I am conquered; you knew that before your examination (folding his arms and bowing his head). I submit. Come and devour me!

Yelena: You are mad!

Astrov (laughs through his teeth): You—diffident…

Yelena: Oh, I am not so bad and so mean as you think! I swear I'm not (tries to go out).

Astrov (barring the way): I am going away to-day. I won't come here again, but … (takes her hand and looks round) where shall we see each other? Tell me quickly, where? Someone may come in; tell me quickly … (Passionately) How wonderful, how magnificent you are! One kiss.… If I could only kiss your fragrant hair …

Yelena: I assure you …

Astrov (preventing her from speaking): Why assure me? There's no need. No need of unnecessary words.…


Notably, Yelena leaves unspoken her attraction to him, as she leaves unspoken her assurances that, happy in her marriage, she has no interest in pursuing their blossoming relationship. Moreover, the pause which breaks the doctor's speech elicits the chaos of emotions breaking in his heart and mind: the relief of revealing his passion, the exhilaration of seduction, the sexual excitement of Yelena's presence, the frustration of her reluctance to agree upon a meeting place.

Yelena's laconism illustrates one of the most important applications of silence in Chekhovian theatre. It is through their muteness that some of Chekhov's characters, like Masha, Andrey, and Varya, maintain the privacy of their thoughts. It must be remembered that speech shares with time the characteristic of irreversibility; thus, we postulate that characters who prefer the silence of isolation do so to separate themselves not only from the judgment and recrimination of others, but also from a confrontation with the truth within themselves. We note, moreover, that when these withdrawn and normally taciturn characters participate in dialogue, the psychic distance between them and their external reality is emphatically underscored, not necessarily by what they say, but rather by the fact that they speak at all. Corrigan maintains that the use of muteness reveals Chekhov's modernity: his most profound insight is knowing each man is alone and that he seeks to maintain his solitude, though he also knows that for each man solitude is unbearable.26 Chekhov's characters alternatingly break out of entrapment in self to attempt to relate to others, only to comprehend once more the limitations of their ability to verbalize elusive emotions and the limitations of those who would hear, if they cared to. Thus, typically, Andrey holds his peace while Natasha torments him, questions him, emasculates him, bores him, and lectures him. His response, "I have nothing to say," is counterpointed by the conversation with Ferapont which immediately follows his passive conflict with Natasha (138-39). Significantly, duologue disintegrates into monologue, further emphasizing the solitariness of the individual and the willful or indifferent silent response of the other. Andrey's confession to Ferapont is met with the old man's reply, "I don't hear well" (140). In Chekhovian drama the silence of the mute, broken intermittently, is most often met with the silence of exclusion or incomprehension.

Inarticulateness informs Chekhov's characters and similarly informs the playwright himself. In a frequently quoted letter, Chekhov responds to Suvorin's criticism of his taciturnity, which the latter had equated with indifference and moral irresponsibility:

You scold me for objectivity, calling it indifference to good and evil, lack of ideals and ideas.… Of course it would be nice to combine art with sermonizing, but that kind of thing I find extraordinarily difficult and well-nigh impossible because of technical considerations.27

Admittedly, Chekhov valued restraint and concision in art, and in fact he often chided fellow artists for their excessive verbalism.28 Neither lack of space nor other "technical considerations," however, prevented Chekhov's subjective intrusion into his material. It is not the form which precedes the artist, but the artist who devises and controls the medium. Chekhov's style of compression, which eschews subjectivity, can be explained by his perception of the artist's role: distillation, not amplification of the complexity of life. He trusted the reader of his short stories to supply subjective observation; similarly, we can assume that he expected the audience attending the dramas to do likewise. But Suvorin failed to realize that the absence of verbalized commentary did not preclude nonverbal commentary. Unlike his stage characters who talk too much or too little, Chekhov maintains his silence. Employing imprecision delicately and evocatively to convey empirical and psychic experience, this playwright refuses to limit his world by defining himself or his art, because he believes that "the artist… must pass judgment only on what he understands."29 Siegfried Melchinger observes that Chekhov lived in a loquacious epoch, and his laconism was thus interpreted as harshness, but it might just as easily have been accurately interpreted as skepticism.30 The doubt which plagued Chekhov personally and clouded the historical period, shrouds his gray people and gray world. Compassion replaces indifference.

Chekhov's attitudes about the role of the artist and the interrelationship of speech, silence, and temporality can be traced directly to the professional and personal life of the artist, the socio-political milieu of fin de siècle Russia, the author's experimentation and expertise in the short-story form, and the literary heritage of Russian theatre which he inherited.

Chekhov's debt to his training and career in medicine is immense; it provided him with analytical methodology, subject matter, and firsthand exposure to inexplicable and irremediable suffering.31 Tuberculosis, which debilitated the playwright and finally claimed his life in 1904, increased daily his awareness of and sensitivity to man's vulnerability and ultimate mortality: in his mature plays the alternatingly static and transitory condition dramatized is one of suffering. Typically, Drs. Dorn, Astrov, and Tchebutykin lament their helplessness; Dorn cannot relieve Masha's pain, Astrov has no medication for Vanya, and Tchebutykin, drinking to kill his own pain, can neither help the wounded injured in the fire nor save the life of the Baron. Although Chekhov does not explicitly exploit the shifting political scene and the social depression in his Russia, the reality of the menacing and tedious situation provides the macrocosmic contrast for the unrelieved mental and physical suffering of his characters.

Valency maintains that Chekhov's drama profited most from his short-story writing (his most prolific period immediately antedates Uncle Vanya), in which he perfected the techniques of concision, portraiture, and imprecision, from the tradition of Ostrovsky, Tolstoy, and Turgenev and from the theatrical reform in 1882 which Ostrovsky initiated. Ostrovsky's emphasis on the quotidian and Turgenev's on life as a process of self-realization figured importantly in Chekhov's use of epiphanic structure and his portrayal of life as it is.32

Chekhov's success in the Russian theatre, however, cannot be directly attributed to his dramatic or linguistic versatility and innovativeness, but rather to the uneasy marriage of the avant-garde playwright with the fledgling Moscow Art Theatre in 1898. Nemirovitch-Dantchenko, noting in Chekhov's plays a release from antiquated stage clichés and a depth of psychological perception, encouraged the merger between Chekhov and Stanislavsky, who was less than enthusiastic about the playwright.33 Everything we know of this union, from Chekhov's correspondence, the reminiscences of Nemirovitch-Dantchenko, and the prompt-book of Stanislavsky, suggests a difficult but rewarding symbiotic relationship between Chekhov and the M.A.T. In Chekhov the ensemble acting company found a native playwright to whom they could readily respond, and Chekhov found a group of accomplished actors who could sensitively bring to life the nuance, resonance, and complexity of his eventless, quiescent dramas. However, Stanislavsky's definition and dramatization of Chekhov's modern realism differed so sharply from that of the playwright that Chekhov complained that Stanislavsky was ruining his plays. The most obvious and most crucial excess for which Chekhov faulted Stanislavsky was the latter's insistence upon natural noises to fill the absence of sound created by the pauses. What the artist had intentionally left evocatively undefined, imprecise, and unexpressed, he would too often find filled not with silence, but with sound.34

It is The Three Sisters, produced by the M.A.T. on 31 January 1901, which we will subject to exegesis to illuminate Chekhov's idiosyncratic use of the unspoken as it evolves and develops within the text. Although this play contains the greatest number of specifically indicated pauses, it is not for this reason that we look at its text but because, as has been argued, Chekhov's subtle and sophisticated treatment of silence entails in it a coalescence of explicit expression and implicit suggestion, an integral interplay of indicated silences and vague intimations. In this four-act drama duologues are linked by the recurring motifs of love and loss, by references to past and future time, and by the central symbol, Moscow. In order to appreciate the intricate texture of what is only superficially formless, we will need to establish the significance of, and the content and fluctuation both within and between, conversational units.

The initial conversation in The Three Sisters typifies the contrasting and associational nature of Chekhovian dialogue. Olga's monologue immediately focuses upon the dissimilarity between Irina's name day and their father's funeral one year ago, and in the pause necessitated by the clock's chiming twelve times, Olga moves deeper into the sadness and loneliness of that time. But the thought of loss and the beauty of springtime elicit still another memory of loss: Moscow displaces both father's death and the gloomy mood. With all that the city implies in terms of culture, vitality, and education, Moscow evokes an enthusiastic expression of longing in Olga, but characteristically Chekhov undercuts her words by the technique of choral speaking. Tusenbach, chatting in another room, answers Tchebutykin's comment with "Of course it's nonsense"; and although this statement is not intended to reply to Olga's, it has the effect of rendering ironic comment on it. Reiterating the longing to escape from provincial morass, Olga's words drift off into reverie, and Irina, echoing the dream of return to Moscow, finishes the statement left incomplete by her sister's silence. Similarly her voice drifts off into silent reverie.

Unlike her younger sister, Olga's longings are not limited to the return to Moscow. This twenty-eight-year-old spinster schoolteacher muses, "If I were married and sitting at home all day, it would be better." Pausing to reflect on the contentment, serenity, and inner peace that married life would offer her, Olga adds, "I should be fond of my husband." Once again Tusenbach's response, directed now to Solyony, cuts across Olga's statement and mocks her wistful ruminations (120-21). Intimated but left unspoken is Olga's awareness that at her age and in their financial situation, her opportunities for marriage are indeed meagre.

This initial dialogue has introduced several important, recurring motifs: loss/promise, death/birth, longing/disillusionment, purpose/uselessness, interiority/exteriority, light/darkness, coming/going, escape/entrapment, and joy/ sadness. The unspoken may be presented by silent response, overstatement undercut by negation, understatement, choral speaking, and silent protagonist. Significantly, Masha's refusal to join in the conversation of her two sisters or to respond to Olga's comments signals the lack of unanimity of the three sisters. The dream of Moscow is counterpointed by Masha's disillusionment, their joy by her sadness, their talk of escape by her entrapment in a marriage that yields none of the contentment about which Olga dreams, their faith in promise by her loss of innocence, their emphasis on memory by her forgetfulness. Masha's silent presence implicitly conveys that her sisters' expectations are illusory.

Typically, Chekhov juxtaposes the optimism of Olga and Irina with the cynicism of Tchebutykin, and the next conversational unit employs both fluctuation between one philosophical posture and another and within the mind of a single speaker. Tacitly, the motifs of promise, longing, escape, and purpose are juxtaposed to Tchebutykin's sense of loss, disillusionment, entrapment, and uselessness. One observes, moreover, that his disjunctive speech is continually punctuated by negative statements that have the effect of terminating discussion, rendering ironic comment, and providing figurative, if not literal, escape for the old doctor. The lethargy which typifies this character, however, is displaced by Irina's vitality. Overcome with her beauty and the depth of his love for the girl that might have been his daughter, Tchebutykin addresses Irina, "My white bird …" (p. 121). His voice drifts off, the emotions too diffuse to define. Their conversation is broken off by the doctor's departure to retrieve her name day present, and it is only after his exit that we understand that the old man has been impatiently and silently awaiting the arrival of the present. The silence of expectation and the paradigm of coming and going figure importantly in this act, as they inform the structural and linguistic methodology of the play. We await the arrival of Kuligin, Vershinin, and Natasha and the return of Tchebutykin, but while we wait, Masha, a nonparticipant in the conversation and the party mood, decides to go. Feeling the need to offer explanation to her sister Irina, she tries to explain that she is melancholy today, but in her disjunctive speech punctuated by pauses we understand that mourning, unexpressed and uncommunicated to the others, both for her father and for herself, prohibits her participation. Irina discontentedly remarks, "Oh, how tiresome you are … ," and Olga tearfully adds, "I understand you, Masha"; but what is clearly implied by the playwright is that neither sister conveys the disappointment she feels nor understands emotions that for Masha are elusive and enigmatic (124).

Masha repeatedly says, "I'll go," but she postpones her departure to make two observations; in stark contrast to her prior laconism, Masha fires a caustic retort to Solyony and renders negative judgment on Protopopov. Chekhov leaves unspoken any further comment on Protopopov, the intruder in this static drama who will menace both the family and the Prozorov homestead though he neither appears nor is heard in the play. This character, comparable to death in L'Intruse, makes his presence and power known through tangible and intangible effects on the other characters. Here, the casual and connotative mention of Protopopov in the conversational unit is particularly effective because it is delivered by Masha, who has so insistently kept her counsel, and because it is prophetic.

Attention returns to Tchebutykin, whose present, a samovar, is a most inappropriate gift for Irina. Each sister echoes reprimand and Tusenbach chimes in, "I warned you," but the doctor does not respond to their criticism. Rather he explains, "I am an old man, alone in the world, a useless old man.… There is nothing good in me except for my love for you, and if it were not for you, I should have been dead a long time ago …" (124-25). His voice drifts off, the thought left unfinished; confused, he has revealed his deep love for their dead mother, who obviously comes to his mind in an emotional moment eliciting birth and death, love and loss.

The awkwardness of the moment is displaced by the arrival of Vershinin, the new battery commander, known to General Prozorov and a regular visitor to the Prozorov home. He tries to place the women, whom he knew as three little girls, and simultaneously they try to place him in their memory. Once again memory links present and past, and once again the mention of Moscow subtly reiterates the motifs of joy and sadness, coming and going. Significantly, it is Olga and Irina who chat with him while Masha, silent and reflective, searches her mind. "Now I remember," she interrupts, but the picture her memory produces is one of a younger, more attractive man. Chekhov reintroduces the theme of love and loss as we learn that the "love-sick" major has not made a very happy match. The most essential and most elusive loss, that of time, to which Vershinin alludes, becomes the topic of a typical philosophical peroration. Tusenbach engages in conversation with Vershinin; but the conviviality of the moment is disrupted, as is their speech, by the intrusion of Solyony, whose "chook, chook, chook" is rude not only to Tusenbach, but also to Vershinin (128). No further comment is made by Tusenbach or the others gathered, but the silence of the group excludes Solyony, who, like Protopopov, will continue to intrude upon the lives of this family to weave, repetitively and inexorably, a web of disaster.

The only member of the Prozorov family who has not made an appearance is Andrey; his music precedes him. In his absence, his sisters take the opportunity to praise his many talents. Indeed, there is a most awkward silent moment when Irina shows Vershinin the present her brother has made for her birthday; in stark contrast to his usual loquacity, the battery commander is speechless. "Yes … it is a thing …" is all he can reply (129), his dumb silence conveying how little he thinks of Andrey's handiwork. Rather than speak of craft, the two men speak of education in an exchange that reiterates the theme of promise and foreshadowed loss. The playwright offers no comment on Andrey, but his pessimism with regard to the value of education renders ironic comment on his professed career goals. Andrey's pessimistic attitude elicits Vershinin's famous "future" speech, but what is most pertinent about their conversation is not the political positions each takes, but rather the emotional posture each reveals. Masha, who has been vacillating in her decision to stay or go, simply says, "I'll stay to lunch." Her understatement is startling and suggestive. It is for Irina, young, impressionable, romantic, to sigh and say, "All that really ought to be written down …" (130). Her older sister, however, conveys in her silence of communion, if not awe, a deep attraction to Vershinin.

Vershinin continues to speak about possibilities and promise, punctuating with a pause his desire to live again in a house like the Prozorovs' and to live as a bachelor. When at this moment Masha's husband, Kuligin, enters the room and joins in the conversation, for Masha it is an intrusion. The conversation immediately turns to "going," but it is not a departure which Masha welcomes. Whereas earlier in the afternoon she searched for excuses to leave, now with Tusenbach and Tchebutykin she distractedly searches for an excuse to prevent her departure. Anguished, Masha breaks down, "Oh yes, don't go! … It's a damnable life, insufferable … ," but her incomplete sentence emphasizes the fact that her verbalized despair is only the tip of the iceberg (133).

Masha's outburst is covered by the noise of the crowd entering the dining room for lunch. In the silence, made more apparent by the noise which precedes it, Tusenbach pauses to brace himself for his declaration of love to Irina. Repeatedly he asks, "What are you thinking of?" but her silent response conveys that she does not share his love. She tries to change the direction of his thoughts from love to work, and as her voice drifts off, Natasha, muttering to herself, arrives to intrude upon their privacy. Significantly, the last conversational unit of the act is a reversed replay of this romantic exchange between Irina and Tusenbach. Natasha, who has run from the dining room, embarassed by the teasing of the others, has Andrey in hot pursuit, assuring her of his ardent love and the playful affection of his family. His disjointed speech conveys the excitement and passion that he feels, and unlike Tusenbach Andrey is rewarded by a kiss. Intrusion marks this passionate moment, as the unseeing lovers are observed by Roddey and Fedotik, two officers arriving late for the luncheon. Their silence of amazement passes ironic comment on the passionate lovers, for intimations have been made throughout the act that Natasha would marry Protopopov and that Andrey's affection for the provincial girl is only a ruse to tease his sisters.

The silent, passionate scene which concludes act 1 is strikingly counterpointed by the initial conversational unit of act 2. Chekhov subtly and evocatively links the two acts through a common setting markedly different in mood. Springtime is replaced by a blizzard and sunshine by darkness. The noisy conviviality of the party and the silent affection of the lovers is juxtaposed with the uneasy silence of anticipation and tension which permeates the room, Natasha's calculated and purposeful intrusion upon Andrey's privacy, and Andrey's insistent laconism. Approaching Andrey's room, Natasha appears distracted. "Reading?" she inquires of her husband. "Never mind, I only just asked …"; but obviously she has something more on her mind than the late arrival of her sisters-in-law. Continuing to babble about their son Bobik, the carnival people, and his obesity, Natasha suddenly realizes that Andrey has maintained his silence throughout her speech. Affectionately she asks, "Andryushantchik, why don't you speak?" Tacitly Chekhov conveys, by innuendo and mincing tones, vicious quips, and emasculating comments that explain in good part Andrey's reticent response to his wife, that time passing has affected their relationship. We note that her shy affection has metamorphosed into assertive verbiage; and though he says he has nothing to say, his silence of complicity implies that he has no say. Indeed, carefully picking her moment and feigning absentmindedness, Natasha wonders, "Yes … what was it I meant to tell you? … Oh, yes; Ferapont has come from the Rural Board, and is asking for you" (138-39). Obviously, Natasha has al ready said what she "meant" to tell him, that she intends to dispossess his sister Irina and put baby Bobik in her room, but her disjunctive speech not only exposes emotional realism but also reinforces the impression of distance and lack of verbal communication between Andrey and herself.35

It is only in the duologue between Andrey and Ferapont that we learn that Ferapont has been kept waiting for hours, because no one told Andrey that he was there. Once again the motif of waiting reappears and informs the characters and their responses. Whereas Natasha had been agitated and anxious, the long wait seems to have little effect on the old servant and for Andrey tediousness characterizes life. "It's dull at home … (a pause)," he notes, but his few words addressed to the old man are emphasized by his inability to continue speaking. Getting a grip on his emotions, he tells Ferapont that for amusement he reread his university lecture notes. "I laughed.… Good heavens!" What he does not say is that he laughed until he cried, that boring reality is blessedly relieved by his nightly dreams. Pathetically, Ferapont replies, "I can't say … I don't hear well … ," but we surmise that he could not say if he could hear well. Andrey, understanding that he has sought protection from ridicule and condemnation by confessing to a deaf man, is agonizingly aware that, although he is among family and friends, he is "a stranger—a stranger … A stranger, and lonely.…" Ferapont's "Eh?" is underscored by a pause. Andrey has hesitated to verbalize his thoughts, then hesitated to find the proper word to describe his anguish, then repeated and conveyed his obsession with alienation, and Ferapont's monosyllabic response implies a silence of bafflement. The brief conversational unit advances the motifs of promise and disillusionment, coming and going, light and shadow, memory and forgetfulness. Andrey's parting words, "Goodbye (reading). Come tomorrow morning and take some papers here.… Go … (a pause)," significantly fall on deaf ears. Ferapont has already gone, leaving the distracted, disappointed young man alone with his pain (139-41).

After Andrey has again sequestered himself in his room, the audience hears a conversation between Masha and Vershinin obviously begun before their entry into the dining room. The formerly taciturn Masha is now loquacious. Relating her former respect for Kuligin, she continues, "And now it is not the same unfortunately.…" In the pause that follows, the absence of speech underscores the depth of her sadness at having to admit to Vershinin, and to herself, that "unfortunately" things are not what they once were. Compassionately and intuitively he replies, "Yes … I see … ," his voice drifting off to the picture she has wordlessly drawn of her marriage and wordlessly evoked of his (141). The motif of disappointment in love sounded by Masha is echoed by Vershinin, who speaks of his own marital relationship. Styan maintains that although Vershinin claims never to speak of it, he incessantly does and wins Masha by his confession: "Don't be angry with me.… Except for you I have no one—no one … (a pause)," maintaining, moreover, that this is a ploy to seduce Masha.36 But there is a pitiful aspect to this character which Styan fails to accept. If it is only to Masha that Vershinin confesses, then his is indeed the reverse of Andrey's confession to Ferapont, for Masha thrives on Vershinin's anguish and loneliness and reaps the benefits of his protestations of love. Laughing softly, Masha pleads, "Please don't do it again … (In an undertone) You may say it though; I don't mind … (covers her face with her hands), I don't mind.…" The pauses reveal that Masha's heart responds while her mind rejects; her contradictions reinforce her vacillation between reason and passion.

This private emotional scene is counterpointed by one with another couple, but they are unrequited lovers. The pause in Irina's speech reflects neither embarrassment nor infatuation, but rather exhaustion. Tusenbach's talk of joy is countered by her sadness and disillusionment with work. She attempts to explain that "It is work without poetry, without meaning … ," but weary in mind and spirit her voice drifts off. In the silence she hears the doctor's signal and entreats Tusenbach, "Do knock, dear … I can't … I am tired" (143). She is too tired to complete the sentence, too tired even to send a signal.

Tchebutykin joins them and quietly sits reading his paper while Masha and Irina lovingly tease him, but a silence settles over the group. In fact, it is so quiet that Irina inquires of normally talkative Vershinin, "Why are you so quiet?" He explains that he is longing for a cup of tea; what he leaves unspoken is that he is longing to be alone with Masha. Surrounded by family, Vershinin seeks to cover his emotions with silence, but this tactic becomes unbearable. Finally he suggests that Tusenbach and he discuss something, anything, while they wait for tea. Agreeably, Tusenbach concurs. "What shall we speak about?" he asks, but Vershinin answers his question with a question: "What?" "Let us dream … ," he suggests; and in the pause following the suggestion we are aware that this is what Vershinin has silently been doing while the others spoke. While the men philosophize about happiness, Masha counterpoints the seriousness of the topic with a joyful, private laugh. But her laugh turns to the silence of contemplation and metaphysical yearning when she intrudes upon the conversation to passionately assert, "One must know what one is living for or else it is all nonsense and waste." The pause which punctuates her protestation reveals the depth of her emotion and the need to believe what the words say rather than the truth she knows the silence suggests (143-47).

Fedotik, Natasha, and Anfisa join the group and the long-awaited tea arrives. Anfisa calls Masha to the table and to Vershinin she says, "Come, your honor … excuse me sir. I have forgotten your name." Anfisa hesitates, embarrassed by a lapse in memory that is realistically acceptable, but Chekhov pokes fun at Vershinin, who obviously has been a frequent visitor to the Prozoroz house for at least a year and a half. The mood has changed with the intrusion of the others, and Masha, reluctant to share Vershinin with the others, and unwilling to sit at the table with Natasha and Solyony, leaves her emotions unexpressed. Rather, she asks Anfisa to serve Vershinin and her separately; but alas, no sooner than Vershinin has said, "We have no happiness, and never do have, we only long for it," a letter arrives informing him that once again his wife has attempted suicide. Sadness silently intrudes upon joy, entrapment in marriage supplants escape in love affairs. Noting Vershinin's absence, Anfisa expresses r er annoyance that she has just served him tea, but Masha is unwilling to verbalize the cause of her anguish. Instead, she viciously snipes at Anfisa and all around her, leaving herself open to their criticism. Typically, Masha's emotions remain undefined, her distress and disappointment at Vershinin's abandonment unexpressed to her family and friends. Once again we note the motifs of coming and going, purpose and usefulness, longing and disillusionment, superficial conviviality and essential loneliness (148-49).

The motif of expectation is revived at the conclusion of this act as we remember that the carnival people have been expected. But Natasha, whispering to Tchebutykin, leaves it to him to convey to the others that they are not welcome. Masha, who does not accept Bobik's poor health as a credible excuse for Natasha's rudeness, searches for words to describe her sister-in-law. The motifs of escape and entrapment, promise and loss, light and darkness inform the conclusion of the act as they did the initial scene. Andrey sneaks away with Tchebutykin to lose himself gambling, while Solyony sneaks in to surprise Irina. When he inquires "Are you alone?" she responds "Yes," but quickly seeks to cut off conversation by an abrupt "Good-bye" (153). He professes his love as if he had not heard her response and speaks as if unaware of Natasha's intrusion into the room. The motif of coming and going characterizes the conclusion of this act, as the arrival of the carnival people, the arrival of Vershinin, Kuligin, Solyony, Roddey and Fedotik is counterbalanced by the departure of these, in addition to the departure of Andrey and Tchebutykin and the departure of Natasha for a sleigh ride with Protopopov. Primarily through counterpoint, disjunctive speech, and echoing Chekhov reinforces linguistically the physical oscillation and emotional fluctuation of his characters. Irina, left alone at the end of act 2, moans repetitively, "Oh, to go to Moscow, to Moscow!" Entombed in the desolate room now deserted by the others, she is walled in by loneliness.

Juxtaposed with the silent, empty scene which concludes Act 2 is the clutered, crowded bedroom which Irina and Olga share that, in a state of disarray, is the initial scene of act 3.37 In shifting the physical setting from the dining room to a more personal sanctum deeper within the house, Chekhov registers linguistically the literal and metaphoric disorder and disjunction. We observe that the act is composed of an intricate network of conversational units which overlap and cut across one another and essentially share the motif of confession and lack of comprehension. The initial conversational unit involves Anfisa, who has kept her deteriorating relationship with Natasha a secret. Succumbing to the mental and physical strain of the fire, she begs Olga to intercede on her behalf. Olga's disjunctive speech punctuated by pauses exposes the depth of her anguish at the physical deterioration of her beloved nurse and the linguistic barrage which Natasha fires at her. The motif of purpose and usefulness is reiterated as Natasha orders the "useless" Anfisa, whom Olga has had resting, out of the room. There is pause in which Natasha gathers her strength and arrogance: "Why do you keep that old woman, I can't understand!" Anfisa has just admitted to Olga that she is an old woman, Masha discourteously has called the nurse an old woman, and admittedly her visage reveals that she is an old woman; nonetheless, Natasha's use of the term shocks Olga. "Excuse me," Olga retorts, taking a moment to understand the full meaning of Natasha's intent, "I don't understand either.…" Understanding is epiphanic awareness; Olga sees as if for the first time Natasha's baseness and coldness, but her revulsion remains unspoken. Natasha characteristically pauses to change the subject and explain that as mistress of the house she must have order. She fails to explain the correlation between old age and disorder, except to imply that old can be defined as obsolete. Natasha maintains the flow of conversation while Olga, her mind spinning with the catastrophic events of the evening and the implication that she will be head mistress, finds herself unable to continue speaking with Natasha. Catching her breath with a drink of water, her words sticking in her throat, Olga responds to Natasha, "You were so rude to nurse now … Excuse me, I can't endure it … It makes me faint." She cannot endure callousness, she cannot endure Natasha, but her disgust will remain unspoken and her outburst unfinished. Natasha makes a feeble attempt at apology, and it is Masha's unverbalized disgust expressed through silent observation and then physical withdrawal that counterpoints Olga's complicitous silence. The duologue is concluded with the same note of lack of mutual comprehension on which it began. Olga observes, "This night has made me ten years older," but Natasha responds unhearing, "We must come to an understanding … that old witch shall clear out of the house tomorrow!" Obviously the old servant was the initial, superficial subject for this tête-à-tête between Olga and Natasha, but more was conveyed in the evocative, threatening, aggressive, and alternatingly placid moments which surround and inform the disjunctive speech (pp. 157-59). Natasha's dispossession of Anfisa anticipates and draws fire from the dispossession of Olga from her room, just as the dispossession of Irina in act 2 was prepared and adequately anticipated. Although she hesitates before changing her tone, Natasha intends to press on for full power of the upstairs management.

Natasha's departure and Kuligin's entrance reverse the tone and prepare for the drunken profundity of Tchebutykin. Significantly, the doctor's emotional confession is dismissed as drunken prattle, just as Gaev's perorations are dismissed as the gabble of a senile old man. Kuligin observes that Tchebutykin is a "bit fuddled," and this superficiality is typical of the comprehension of those gathered. The focus is empirical rather than psychological; Tusenbach is presently organizing a musical benefit for the fire victims. Similarly, Vershinin's comment that the brigade is being transferred goes almost unnoticed: what is intimated is characteristic of Chekhov's artistry. Vershinin's comment is not followed by any exclamation, but rather an evocative generalization. Tusenbach remarks wistfully, "The town will be a wilderness." A wilderness indeed. It is only in act 4 that we begin to perceive the consequences of this statement (159-61).

At this moment, as if to underscore the loss, disappointment, and despair all experience at the news of departure, but characteristically do not verbalize, Tchebutykin smashes the china clock. Returning to the same motif that he sounded earlier, the doctor affirms that negation is affirmation, but the others have been listening without hearing. Seeking to strike out at their deafness, he chants, "Natasha has got a little affair on with Protopopov, and you don't see it" (161). Offering Vershinin a date, Tchebutykin departs, having expressed for the first time a truth known by the others for some time though the silence of evasion afforded them comfortable escape from reality.

Reflecting on all that has transpired during the catastrophic blaze, Vershinin reiterates the motifs of promise and loss, joy and sadness, light and darkness, longing and disillusionment. Anxious and distraught over the proposed departure of the brigade, he speaks in order to control and to conceal his emotions. Masha, silent throughout the act, picks up her pillow and joins Vershinin, her silent response to his comments on the future implying support and compassion. Inspired, Vershinin continues, but knowing that his philosophizing is often annoying in its verbosity he apologizes: "I have such a desire to talk about the future. I am in the mood." The pause which follows underscores the depth of his despair, a despair he hopes to talk his way out of. Concluding his reverie, Vershinin notes, "I am in such a strange state of mind to-day. I have a fiendish longing for life … (sings)." No one, not even Tusenbach, answers Vershinin's proselytizing. All that remains unspoken in his speech is his fiendish love for Masha (162-63).

Although the others are present, this conversation appears to be understood only by Masha, for whom it is intended. Masha responds, "Tram-tam-tam!" to which Vershinin echoes, "Tam-tam!" In their special Morse love code, their unanimity is implicitly and nonverbally conveyed.

Solyony enters the room and the mood changes. He upsets Irina and awakens Tusenbach, who sleepily confesses to Irina all that Vershinin left unsaid when conversing with Masha. Unfortunately, his confession of love falls on deaf ears. It is Masha now who has something on her mind, and she encourages not only Tusenbach, but also her own husband, Kuligin, to go. Finally alone with her sisters, she blurts out her frustration at the injustice and waste of her brother's reckless gambling. She is obviously revolted by more than the loss of the family estate; her sense of injustice is related to the loss of her lover and her ultimate entrapment in the provinces with Kuligin. Masha's resentment is counter-pointed by Irina's confused, disjunctive speech reflecting a literal and emotional world in disorder. Even her illusion of Moscow seems to slip away as she sobs, "Life is slipping away and will never come back, we shall never, never go to Moscow … I see that we shan't go.…" Irina had dreamed of meeting her Prince Charming in Moscow; now her repetitions of the word nonsense and her incomplete phrases suggest that she wishes that it were not "nonsense." But the repetitive use of negations reinforces the circularity of the thinking as well as the nonprogression of time. Natasha crosses through the room during this emotional scene, and Masha, silent during her sister's confession, interrupts to note that Natasha "walks about as though it were she had set fire to the town" (165-66). Natasha's culpability for the destruction of the Prozorov home, however, goes unverbalized; it is only Natasha's adultery which pricks Masha's mind at this moment and inspires her to confess her sin of adultery to her sisters.

Masha encounters isolating and censuring silence, just as Tchebutykin, Andrey, and Irina have learned that one is essentially alone. A shocked Olga hides behind a screen refusing to hear, while Irina, who just confessed her despair and disillusionment, meets Masha's confession with the silent response of tacit approval. Her long-suppressed confession spent, Masha vows "silence … silence …" (166-67).

But if the night of raging fire is nearly over, the torrent of confessions is not. Andrey, who clearly had had and wasted potential, promise, and purposefulness, breaks his self-imposed silence about his wanton gambling and its concomitant threat to his sisters, his abdication of responsibility as the head of the family, and his cuckoldry. Initially, Andrey employs language defensively, but then his linguistic control is broken disjunctively by pauses. The sisters, exhausted by the long evening of calamities and confessions, refuse to listen to him. Powerless to respond in anger or to offer compassion, the sisters convey by their silence their annoyance with, and censorious exclusion of, their brother. Indeed, Andrey admits more to himself than to them that in marrying Natasha he had thought they would be happy, and we recall Andrey's passionate confession of love to Natasha which concluded act 1 and stands in direct contrast with this broken, disjunctive speech. Gone is the promise of love, the joy of marriage, the longing for future. Andrey negates all the positive qualities of Natasha which he has previously enumerated, and the negations serve to establish an era-sure of words in time, as he tries to erase their memory in his mind. Weeping, Andrey begs for the understanding and the forgiveness of his sisters, "Dear sisters, darling sisters, you must not believe what I say, you mustn't believe it … (goes out)." Because Chekhov has chosen a tumultuous night in which the family is thrown together in need and in trial to help themselves and others, their confessions, otherwise awkward and melodramatic, do not seem unnatural. However, repetitive confessions have a cumulative effect, so that the final prayer which Irina utters, "There's nothing in the world better than Moscow! Let us go, Olya! Let us go!" seems no more credible than Andrey's confession or Masha's assertion that she will maintain silence. Chekhov's characters can maintain neither silence nor speech; they inform by an integral interplay of both (168-69).

Act 3, characterized by its disorder, dispossessions, and dispersion, by its staccato confessions, its clanging fire bells and hysterical outbursts, by its claustrophobic entrapment in Olga's bedroom, is juxtaposed in Act 4 to the quiescent stillness of the autumnal garden, evoking an atmosphere of departure and death. Act 1, marked by the arrival of the soldiers, is complemented in act 4 by dispersion; the intricate paradigm of arrival/departure is reflected once again through echoing and choral speaking. Chekhov, a master of farewells, conveys unsuccessful attempts to communicate loss and forgetfulness and the sadness of departure by filtering the departure through several lenses. Just as in the conclusion of Uncle Vanya when Marya, Astrov, Vanya, Sonia, and Marina acknowledged the departure of Serebryakov and Yelena, similarly, Irina and Tchebutykin take note of the departure of Fedotik and Roddey. The mood is restive. Andrey quietly wheels the baby carriage while Irina confesses her uneasiness about Tusenbach to Tchebutykin. Moreover, Masha, anxious about the arrival and imminent departure of Vershinin, also seeks out the companionship of the old doctor. Whereas her baby sister, loquacious as always, chats with Tchebutykin about her anxiety, Masha, as in act 1, is taciturn, maintaining her withdrawal from conversation and obviously distracted by her thoughts. Sitting close to the doctor she hesitates and then decides against revealing her pain. Could words possibly define or delimit it? Instead of speaking of her agony, Masha changes the direction of her thoughts and asks the old doctor a question which has probably been in the recesses of her mind for years that is dredged to the surface by present events. "Did you love my mother?" she inquires. The response is immediate: "Very much." But to her next question: "And did she love you?" Tchebutykin's silent response communicates his unwillingness or inability to reveal that confidence. His refusal to give an immediate, affirmative reply suggests that the love was unrequited, but essentially Tchebutykin maintains the enigma by leaving the past love undefined. Trying to conceal her personal loss through language, Masha attempts to speak about Andrey, but her voice breaks off.

She can neither be quiet nor concentrate on one subject. The wait is agonizing. Reiterating the motif of departure, Masha takes note of the birds escaping. Distraught about the duel, Masha links her personal loss to that of the Baron and by implication, although unstated, to her sister Irina, so happily expecting to depart tomorrow to marry Tusenbach and begin a new life. Characteristically, Tchebutykin responds, "It doesn't matter," but he pauses, as if to imply that Masha is not to believe him. Postponing his departure for the duel, Tchebutykin appears to contribute to the eventless atmosphere in act 4 which is building into an intolerably static and emotionally suffocating one.

After much intimation, Tusenbach arrives to speak to Irina, but they succeed in talking about nothing. His parting speech to her is poignant and emotional, broken by pauses in which he seeks to cover up the truth of the duel and reveal the truth of his love. On the subject of the duel he is silent; on the subject of her love for him she is silent. Both silences, however, stunningly underscore the lack of confirmation. Styan views the Baron's silence as a "gesture of helplessness," but I would add that his chosen silence is not one of dumb apathy.38 It is a fertile silence of awareness and acceptance. Indeed, so sensitive and perceptive does Tusenbach appear that Irina wants to accompany him, but in alarm he goes off, only to turn around and call "Irina" for the last time. She asks, "What is it?" but, covering up the fact that he has no one thing to say, he asks, in a magnificent Chekhovian touch, to have coffee made for him. Irina's silent response to his request and departure is crucial; Chekhov's directions are explicit: "Irina stands lost in thought," then silently sits in a swing, presumably to await his return (177-79).

Time has been of constant concern throughout this play: the specific time for departures, the time of the duel, the undefined passing of time indicated by Olga's new position as head mistress, and Natasha's new offspring, Sophie. Set against the coming and going in the garden, Andrey, normally taciturn with the others, converses with Ferapont, who has in the last four years lost even more of his hearing faculties than was obvious in his last têteà-tête with Andrey. The motifs of longing and escape, purpose and uselessness are reiterated, but Ferapont is unable to respond to Andrey. Finally the long-awaited Vershinin has arrived, but from the moment of his arrival we are made aware that time has been spent elsewhere. There are only a few brief moments for farewell. Using the stock phrase, "Forgive me if anything was amiss," Vershinin gives this commonplace a deeper resonance of implicit acknowledgment of self-deception by the pause which follows it.39 Olga, despite her refusal to face the fact of her sister's love affair with Vershinin, is deeply saddened and speechless at his departure. We note in her silence the agony of separation that she feels personally and feels vicariously for Masha. Awkwardly waiting now for Masha's arrival from the recesses of the garden where she has been secluded anticipating her lover's arrival, Vershinin asks, "What am I to theorize about? … (Laughs)." Without his philosophy, Vershinin is lost; it is his defense against vulnerability, despair, and the creeping ravages of time. Continually consulting his watch, he is anxious about time passing: the time which seemed to drag so long in anticipation is now contracted, compressed, and fleeting in departure. Masha sobs violently and Vershinin's characteristic articulate ness disintegrates into disjunctive phrases broken by si lences: "I … must go … I am late.…" The wrenching of separation is conveyed by their emotional, primarily nonverbal responses (181-82).

Vershinin's departure dovetails with the arrival of Kuligin; obviously Masha's husband had discreetly waited for the departure of her lover. Intending to console her and claim her as his wife, Kuligin is nonetheless embarrassed by Masha's breakdown, which anticipates and foreshadows that of Irina. In the excitement of Vershinin's departure, Irina, awaiting the arrival of her lover, is forgotten by the others who try to calm the distracted Masha muttering disjointed words from the refrain which has haunted her for years. Fluctuating between hysteria and emotional control, Masha struggles to resume or restore her former life. Irina comes to console Masha and to silently share a farewell embrace; ironically, within moments it will fall to Masha, the more experienced in love and loss, to embrace and console her bereaved sister. Similarly, it falls to Tchebutykin, the doctor, oldest friend, and pseudo-father, to convey the truth of Tusenbach's death. Reiterating his characteristic "it doesn't matter," the exhausted Tchebutykin sings, "Tarara-boom-dee-ay," while the three sisters huddle together. Essentially separate individuals, their words and silences echo the different way in which each perceives loss in love and in life, as well as the devices, linguistic and other, by which they attempt to shield themselves from the agony of separation and the absurdity of existence/

Gone is the promise of vitality and love and contentment, gone the dream of Moscow, gone the possibility of escape. Characteristically, Chekhov neither defines nor delimits their words and their silences. Maintaining the ambivalence of mood by which he has realistically and emotionally shown the psychic lives of these characters, Chekhov underscores the contrast between the words of the three sisters and their stillness, their earnestness, with Tchebutykin's careless singing. Styan accurately suggests that "to define our final sensations by the final words of the three sisters, simply because they speak, is to treat fictions as truths, characters as mouthpieces, and to disregard the contribution of the whole series of impressions."40

Chekhov symphonically concludes his masterpiece of mutability and perpetuity by linguistically reinforcing flux and fixity. Olga bravely and confidently declares, "We shall know what we are living for, why we are suffering," but her pause more honestly conveys the prevailing doubt and hesitation. The fervently hopeful words of the three sisters, like their embrace, are undercut by the silent response of resignation, anticipated loneliness, and retreat into illusion. Indeed, once again escape into the future obliterates present pain. The conclusion of this static drama is only apparently quiescent, belying cyclical, psychological, and social flux. By the masterful use of the specific and obvious in concert with the imprecise and tacit we learn that Natasha and Protopopov are securely entrenched within the Prozorov home and the three sisters will disperse, just like the brigade which has so recently departed. Thus this drama of coming and going ends by reflecting on the transitory nature of beauty, of life, and of love, ending as it began, by reflecting on the quotidian and the enigmatic.

The concluding scene of The Three Sisters beautifully illustrates the typifying characteristics of Chekhov's mature drama: resonance of impression, synthesis of expression and suggestion, silence of the playwright. Focusing on the motifs of love, loneliness, and loss, all emotions essentially untranslated, Chekhov delicately and implicitly conveys ontological solitude through suggestion and evocative pauses.

In dramatizing immediacy and unintelligibility through a language of silence, Chekhov has not only achieved verisimilitude in his own drama, but also prepared the way for subsequent linguistic innovation in modern theatre. Our attention first turns to the Theatre of Silence which emerged on the dramatic horizon after World War I, descendent of Maeterlinck and Chekhov and child of global hostility.


1 Robert W. Corrigan, "The Plays of Chekhov," in The Theatre in Search of a Fix (New York: Dell, 1973), 131.

2 A. Skaftymov, "Principles of Structure in Chekhov's Plays," trans. George McCracken Young, in Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Robert Louis Jackson, Twentieth Century Views (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967), 69-87. This valuable essay poses and attempts to answer the question of unity of form and content in Chekhov's plays.

3 See Maurice Valency, The Breaking String (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), for an excellent study of Chekhov's predecessors in the Russian theatre, influences on his oeuvre, the role of the short story, and his career as a playwright.

4 On the issue of Chekhov's social criticism, see Maxim Gorky, "Fragmentary Reminiscences," in Anton Tchekhov: Literary and Theatrical Reminiscences, trans, and ed. S. S. Koteliansky (1927; reprint, London: Benjamin Blom, 1965), 98-101. Gorky maintains that no one before Chekhov depicted bourgeois existence with such merciless truth. See also

5 Quoted in David Magarshack, Chekhov the Dramatist (New York: Hill and Wang, 1960), 84.

6 John Lahr, "Pinter and Chekhov: The Bond of Naturalism," Drama Review 13, no. 2 (Winter 1968): 137-45; rpt. in Pinter: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Arthur Ganz, 60-71, Twentieth Century Views (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968), hereafter cited as PCCE.

7 Brustein, Theatre of Revolt, 137.

8 Chekhov to Grigori Rossolimo, The Selected Letters of Anton Chekhov, ed. Lillian Hellman, trans. Sidonie Lederer (New York: Farrar, Straus, 1955), 252-53.

9 Bernard Beckerman, "Artifice of 'Reality' in Chekhov and Pinter," Modern Drama 21, no. 2 (June 1978): 153-61.

10 See Magarshack, Chekhov the Dramatist, for a distinction between plays of a "direct" and "indirect" action; see also

11 Regarding Maeterlinck's contribution to Chekhov's evocative, eventless drama, see Valency, The Breaking String; F. L. Lucas, The Drama of Chekhov, Synge, Yeats and Pirandello (London: Cassell, 1963).

12 Chekhov's muted images, gray landscape, tonal resonance, and the evocative mood of memory and melancholy are reminiscent of Verlaine's symbolist poetry.

13 See Brustein, Theatre of Revolt, for an interesting discussion of those forces of darkness (such as mediocrity, vulgarity, and illiteracy) which "intrude" into the Chekhovian world and displace accomplishment, humanity and education (148-50).

14 Beverly Kahn, Chekhov: A Study of the Major Stories and Plays, Major European Authors (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 312.

15 Corrigan, Theatre in Search of a Fix, 131-33.

16 Brustein, Theatre of Revolt, 153.

17 William Alexander Gerhardi, Anton Chekov: A Critical Study, rev. ed. (1923; reprint, London: MacDonald, 1974), 28.

18 Chekhov to Alexei Suvorin, Selected Letters, 189.

19 Beckerman, "Artifice of 'Reality,'" 155.

20 Brustein, Theatre of Revolt, 155.

21 Kahn, Chekhov, 10.

22 In a letter to Maxim Gorky, 3 January 1899, Chekhov defines grace: "when a person expends the least possible quantity of movement on a certain art" (Selected Letters, 239).

23 Corrigan, Theatre in Search of a Fix, 133.

24 Fergusson, Idea of a Theatre, 172-73.

25 For further consideration of the quantitative nature of the pause, see James Kolb, "Language, Sounds and Silence" (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1974), especially chap. 2. Regarding the multivalent use of the unspoken in Chekhovian drama, consult Siegfried Melchinger, Anton Chekhov, trans. Edith Tarcov, World Dramatic Series (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1972). For perceptive commentary on the interplay of structure, setting, symbol, and language, see J. L. Styan, Chekhov in Performance: A Commentary on the Major Plays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971).

26 Corrigan, Theatre in Search of a Fix, 133-34.

27 Chekhov to Suvorin, 1 April 1890 (Selected Letters, 98).

28 Chekhov to Gorky, 3 January 1899 (ibid., 230). Regarding Chekhov's insistence on laconism, see Ivan A. Bunin, "A. P. Tchekhov," in Anton Tchékhov: Literary and Theatrical Reminiscences, trans, and ed. S. S. Koteliansky, wherein the poet quotes Chekhov, "It is very difficult to describe the sea. Do you know the description a schoolboy gave in an exercise? 'The sea is vast.' Only that. Wonderful, I think" (87).

29 Chekhov to Suvorin, 1888 (quoted in Brustein, Theatre of Revolt, 147).

30 Melchinger, Anton Chekhov, 4.

31 Ronald Hingley, Chekhov: A Biographical and Critical Study, rev. ed. (1950, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1966), 49.

32 See Valency, The Breaking String, 32-47.

33 Vladimir Nemirovitch-Dantchenko, "Tchekhov and the Moscow Art Theatre," in Anton Tchekhov: Literary and Theatrical Reminiscences, trans, and ed. S. S. Koteliansky (1927; reprint, London: Benjamin Blom, 1965), 135-38.

34 Vladimir Nemirovitch-Dantchenko, My Life in the Russian Theatre, trans. John Cournos (Boston: Little, Brown, 1936), 162-63. See also

35 Regarding the brilliance of revelation by innuendo, see Styan, Chekhov in Performance, 182-83.

36 Ibid., 186.

37 See Kahn, Chekhov, 303-4, for an interesting discussion of the interrelationship of compressed space and the interminable night. See also

38 Styan, Chekhov in Performance, 214-15.

39 Ibid., 225.

40 Ibid., 236.

Pyotr Palievsky (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2718

SOURCE: "Chekhov's Realism," in Soviet Literature, No. 1 (442), 1985, pp. 154-60.

[In the following essay Palievsky discusses Chekhov's positive depiction of the common people, maintaining that the writer "formed an invisible link between a high ideal and the perceptions, requirements, tastes and foibles of the ordinary man. "]

Chekhov, viewed in historical perspective, gives the ideal of Russian literature a new impetus or, perhaps, considering the distinctive features of his work, one should say that he gives it new substance. In him, literature regains its primary solidity, restores and develops its sovereign mode of thought and image of life, and its objectivity is strengthened. Life (in all its fullness and through artistic imagery) comes into its own, asserting its primacy over dreams, negations, fantasies, impulses of the moment and projects no matter how wonderful they may be. Much more wonderful than all this is Chekhov's infinite truth of reality.

However, Chekhov, like other Russian classics, is inconceivable and puzzling outside the common ideal of Russian literature. Not to be aware of this in Chekhov is like failing to see the light that snatches Nikolai Gogol's exaggerated, grotesque characters out of unfathomable darkness or the underlying positive thrust of all the ideas that crowd Fyodor Dostoevsky's works.

And yet Chekhov's realist writing uncannily predisposes us for just that kind of self-deception. It is the price he has to pay for his objectivity at the first encounter with the reader. The reader's sense of being completely understood by the author creates an illusion that the writer is entirely on his, the reader's, side and sees the harsh world through his eyes. The author's sympathy is there all right, but it is only gradually that the reader becomes aware of a stern eye which is comparing man as he should and certainly could be with what he is.

Dostoevsky used to say that beauty would save the world, and he agonised in his search for beauty, not stopping at melodrama or stylised "lives of saints" in pursuit of the elusive beauty. These great outbursts of fantasy prompted by a distant ideal were accompanied by frustrations and failures. Chekhov, not retreating from life, discovered beauty in the most humdrum reality. He offered it for everyone to see, beauty that is unaware of itself but is perfectly real. All of a sudden, we become aware of beauty growing out of every chink and curbstone, no matter how crippled its form.

Tolstoy's perception of Chekhov's "Darling" as a "positive" character is highly revealing. To be sure, she was never "positive" in the sense of being a model to emulate; but there was indeed something irresistibly sympathetic about her, something profoundly genuine that had been superficially distorted by circumstances, lack of self-awareness, thoughtlessness, carelessness, etc. Tolstoy divined specific gift of Chekhov with amazing sharpness. Chekhov invests hundreds of similar characters, almost all the characters that come within his purview, with some "positive" and "beautiful" quality. This is true not only of his favourite type of an average member of the intelligentsia—doctor, officer, student, teacher, etc.—but also, in a rather odd way, in the most contrived and quaintest of his characters.

It is another question that these people prove to be un-worthy of themselves, so to say. They often failed life's tests, compromised, succumbed to circumstance, squandered their fortunes. But there was an element of beauty in every ordinary person (a crucial word for Chekhov), or rather, Chekhov revealed it for us. He made the ideal and the beautiful shine within them, and around them in ordinary life.

Chekhov advanced farther than other Russian classics in his formulation of "a fine man". He managed to discern the latent potential in the infinite variety of ordinary "souls", and he found a remarkable form for persuading us of this ideal, combining in a mysterious way the sternest of attitudes with great sympathy. The inspiring example of his own personality that shines through his every line and the unassuming but salutary beauty contained in each of his characters prove the reality of "the fine man" given a person's conscious will to become such.

The late J. B. Priestley wrote: "Other writers may have been as acutely observant as he was, others may have known his wealth of social experience, others again may have shared his broad compassion, his tenderness with all genuine suffering; but where else is all this combined with so exquisite a sense, amounting to genius, of what must be said and what can be left out, of a setting, an atmosphere, a situation, a character, all presented in the fewest possible strokes? We have then at one end of this man's personality the approach and methods of science and at the other end the most delicate antennae in Russian literature. He is lancing (for nothing) peasants' boils in the morning, planning a garden, a school, a library, in the afternoon, and writing a little masterpiece at night. And all done without dogmatism and theorising and bitterly-held ideology; all done with delicacy and gentle humour and compassion. So I say again that here was the model for a new kind of man, but the mould was broken before our blind mad century was five years old. There has only been one Anton Chekhov."

One can agree with everything said above except one thing: that the mould was broken. What we are dealing with is a historical task and not a fashion for Chekhov pincenez, like, say, a fashion for the Hemingway sweater and pipe. And it is a task that takes time to carry out. No one can say exactly how much time has been allotted. Gogol thought it would take two hundred years. But perhaps his romantic enthusiasm made him shorten the time? Chekhov's characters kept saying—almost a century after Gogol—that "life will be unimaginably beautiful in two hundred or three hundred years". The important thing is that the Chekhov phenomenon and his artistic world marked a dramatic step forward, towards the implementing of that task and convinced people that it was indeed possible. Moreover, Chekhov demonstrated that the accomplishment of the task and the time in which it can be coped with, depend on our awareness of its realistic nature, on our active and responsible attitude, in short, on ourselves: there can be no such thing as a definite, say, "two-hundred-year-long" period set before-hand.

Chekhov's recipe for the ideal man was self-perfection. He came to grips with that task earlier on in life than Tolstoy (as a schoolboy, some attest) and he proved by his life that a) such an attitude was absolutely necessary in a changing society, b) that it was a hard and often daunting task, and c) that notwithstanding all this, it was a feasible task.

The programme was all-embracing, and, most important of all, he fulfilled it. Bit by bit, Chekhov purged literature of lies: highfaluting, exalted, ingratiating, stilted, didactic, rhetorical, romantic, decadent, liberal, conservative, etc. (their name is legion). And he purified and cleaned the image to full transparency which some people in his time, and even today confuse with blandness and colourlessness ("he has no ideas"). Meanwhile he had all the ideas but they were blended together just as all colours are contained in invisible "white": the fullness and integrity of truth and the historical road of that truth. In this sense he was perhaps the only artist of his time who achieved a perfect balance, even in comparison with Tolstoy.

Echoes of other major writers found in Chekhov are often interpreted as influences that he gradually overcame. This is true, but it is only part of the truth. Chekhov learned from Turgenev, Leskov and Gogol (see for example, his story "The Steppe") and, most revealingly, from Tolstoy ("The Wager"). Far more important, though, was the fact that these were not just influences but intellectual encounters in which Chekhov probed the main ideas of Russian literature, testing their universality, like Pushkin, and offering new answers of his own. In doing so, he transferred them from "the realm of rarefied conjectures" into ordinary reality and, without rejecting them, corrected them in keeping with this infinite reality; through this process of interaction he pursued one big objective truth, the main goal of his searches. He undoubtedly put to the test "the superfluous man" by shifting him from the realm of "intellectual self-development" to ordinary life (the play, Ivanov), Shchedrin's "trifles of life"; some of the visions of Dostoevsky from whom he is traditionally considered to be very remote, as for example the type of Nikolai Stavrogin (in Ivanov and also in Dymov, a character in "The Steppe") and Smerdyakov (in Yasha, a character in The Cherry Orchard).

Chekhov determined the "historical age" (the literary critic Dmitri Urnov's expression) of the traditional recurring characters of Russian literature, traced their social consequences and in a way brought them to their logical conclusion. This is not to say that he robbed them of their universal human relevance; on the contrary, it became more transparent and evident; but the concrete human substance of these characters was manifested in such a historical form that the inner problems of almost every such type reached a tragic pitch and, as it were, demanded a change in the very mode of existence of the type, even if nothing dramatic seemed to happen on the surface and the "type" himself was unaware of all this.

Chekhov never imposed his views, and he avoided "conclusions", leaving every character with new possibilities to which they were drawn by circumstances and the general drift of the author's thought. But this yardstick was constantly present in the general historical direction of his characters' evolution. We could trace, for example, the evolution of Pushkin's Savelych (The Captain's Daughter) into Firs (The Cherry Orchard); the idea of loyalty as embodied in the latter character was deprived of all social meaning and foundation, and suddenly all the roles were switched.

Chekhov used the same yardstick to test ideas which were still on their way, the roads of the future.

And here the most interesting instance was Chekhov's attempt to travel the Gorky road—a whole decade before Gorky appeared on the literary scene.

Chekhov is the most consistent artist among the Russian classics. He argues only through his images. Obviously, he considers these to be the most convincing and at the same time non-obligatory arguments, leaving the reader the necessary freedom, which Chekhov himself is known to have valued above all. Such an approach was intended to evoke a response from the reader thereby educating him culturally.

Chekhov's modesty as an integral part of his personality had above all an aesthetic significance. Modesty of na ture—an old Shakespearian ideal—found in him the most consistent exponent among the world classics. His originality lay in the strictest adherence to this ideal. And even as he followed that road he revealed and formulated new principles of art.

"People are having dinner, just having dinner, and in the meantime their hapiness is being born or their lives are being broken." Or: "One must write simply: how Pyotr Semyonovich married Maria Ivanovna. That is all." These ideas of Chekhov's mean deliberate dissolving of "conceptual" thought in an image and the most rigid and disciplined control of thought by the reality of the image. The energy of the artist's thought, according to Chekhov, had to be fused, included in a network of relations, important and trivial, characteristic of given circumstances; the possibility of tracing the idea through all the trivia was a measure of its validity. In the world art of the 20th century, which was beginning in his lifetime, Chekhov went largely against the current, and this was probably a conscious decision in view of the experience of new writers like Ibsen whom he knew well.

It has often been noted that instead of writing a novel which, by all the canons of modern literature, a serious writer should have written (and which he seemed to have meant to write) Chekhov eventually chose drama as the vehicle for the important message he wanted to convey. The subsequent development of world art has shown that this too was a conscious decision of Chekhov's.

Without any doubt, he was aware of the demands of the new reality with its dramatically increased volume of knowledge that necessitated brevity of form, and together with Tolstoy, he set out to meet that challenge. It may be said that he met these new demands earlier than others by compressing his novel into a povest (long short story). "The Steppe," for example, is quite clearly a Bildungs-roman, a novel concerned with a person's formative years, which shows a great variety of roads stretching before Egorushka—something the critics at the time did not notice or did not want to notice. In prose, dramatic breakthroughs in this direction were being made by other people who wrote some unsurpassed masterpieces, for example, Tolstoy in his "Hadzhi Murad," which encompassed a whole epic within a story. But this was not so in stage drama where a new impetus was badly needed.

In drama, there was the biggest untapped potential for the "subtext" method pioneered by Chekhov in which what is left unsaid is often more important than what is said. The form of drama which did not allow the author to make any comment, the very conventionality of that form suited him best in order to introduce his innovations. Here again, as in everything, he did not follow the "synthetic" approach of poaching on other arts, but preferred to tap the inner potential of the genre. Chekhov extended all the elements of dramatic form, including action, in order to accommodate the underlying message. The message was often conveyed through an apparent discrepancy between elements (e.g. between words and actions or actions and content). On the other hand, this discrepancy indicated that all these elements are just external boundaries, outlines of the whole. And the whole, if it was to be expressed, needed something else, something that moved between these boundaries, something contained in the actor, his face, and inflections of his voice, in the translucent mise-en-scène reproducing life, the atmosphere.

In other words, his plays could not be acted poorly. Oddly enough, this was another specific trait of Chekhov's plays. He forced the stage director and the actor to be creative, but (and this is very important) not independently of the author, as in the avant garde theatre, not through "variant interpretations", but only in collaboration with the author in revealing the whole given in outline.

"You cannot judge a play without seeing it on the stage," said Chekhov.

He was particularly thorough and careful in getting rid of superfluous words, editing the monologues, as in the celebrated case involving Three Sisters when he cabled to an actor to replace an explanatory monologue with the words "A wife is a wife."

Whenever monologues appeared they expressed the opinion of the character and not the central idea of the play, although their vividness often led people to believe that it was the author's idea. For example, if a person proclaimed that "in two hundred or three hundred years, life on earth will be unimaginably beautiful" that, according to Chekhov, did not mean that this would really be so in three hundred years, but that the person did not wish to notice the life around him and, under various rhetorical pretexts, turned away from life or disdained it.

The main message was to be conveyed not through the words, but through a dramatic image augmented by various words.

Chekhov's principle, which he doggedly implemented, was that words are nothing but an empty husk without the people who utter them and who invest them with important meanings. Of course, he needed a new theatre to prove that idea, a theatre that could be called an "art" theatre in the true meaning of the word. And such a theatre was created.

Chekhov, for the first time since Pushkin, formed an invisible link between a high ideal and the perceptions, requirements, tastes and foibles of the ordinary man. Chekhov's words, "we all are the people" was no trite remark, but an expression of a well-thought-out historical programme which he pursued in his art and his life, never straying from his chosen path.

Martin Esslin (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5144

SOURCE: "Chekhov and the Modern Drama," in A Chekhov Companion, edited by Toby W. Clyman, Green-wood Press, 1985, pp. 135-45.

[In the essay below, Esslin assesses the impact of Chekhov's revolutionary dramatic technique on the history of Western theater.]

Anton Chekhov was one of the major influences in the emergence of a wholly new approach to the subject matter, structure, and technique of dramatic writing at the end of the nineteenth century. It can be argued that he, in fact, occupies a key position at the point of transition between a millennial convention of "traditional" and the emergence of "modern" drama.

What was it that the "modern" drama replaced? What was it that the multifarious types of traditional dramatic fiction, however different they might appear, had fundamentally in common—from Greek tragedy and comedy to the well-made play of the nineteenth century; what were the characteristics that all these shared that were so decisively displaced by the new elements of the "modern"?

It was not what had so long been regarded as the hall-marks of the truly correct and classical form of drama: the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action. After all, medieval drama, the Elizabethans, and the Romantics had superseded those by constructing rambling, epic plot-lines. But Greek drama and the French classical tradition, the medieval mystery plays and the Spanish theatre of the "siglo d'oro," Shakespeare and commedia dell'arte, Restoration comedy and the well-made play, do have a number of characteristics in common. Foremost among them is the assumption that the audience must be explicitly and clearly told what the principal characters' state of mind is at any given moment in the play, whether through the monologues of Shakespeare and the Elizabethans that are directly addressed to the audience, or the use of confidants in French classical drama, or, in deed through "asides" uttered in the presence of other characters who, by convention, were assumed to remain unaware of them.

Even more important perhaps was another basic assumption that underlay all language used in drama: that what a character said was not only what he or she meant to say, but that he or she was expressing it as clearly and eloquently as possible. Dramatic speech was deeply influenced by, and obeyed the rules of, the classical tradition of rhetoric as practised and formulated by Demosthenes, Cicero, and Quintilian, and as it was taught in the schools from the time of Socrates to the nineteenth century and beyond (in the United States, in public speaking courses in some colleges and universities to this day).

Similar ideas of a clear, transparent structure (derived from the rhetorical rules of statement of theme, development, and conclusion) also governed the construction of the plot from exposition through complication and reversal to a definite and conclusive ending.

That the theatre should attempt to present a picture of the world as it really is never occurred to the theoreticians or practitioners of pre-modern drama. The theatre was an art—and art was artifice, quite apart from the practical impossibility of creating a true facsimile of human life under the technological conditions of a stage in the open air, or lit by candles, with painted scenery, or no scenery at all. The theatre could only present the essential aspects of the human condition, compressed and idealised, according to a firmly established set of conventions (just as, for example, painting eliminated pubic hair in nudes and showed crowds of people in neatly stylised groupings).

It was the great change in the technology of theatre (with gas and later electrical lighting, hydraulic stage machinery, and so on) which, combined with the rise of the scientific world view, led to the idea that the stage could not only reproduce an accurate image of "real life," but should also become like an instrument of scientific inquiry into human behaviour, a laboratory in which the laws governing the interaction of human beings and social classes could be studied.

Yet Zola who first formulated the theoretical concept of the theatre of Naturalism and Ibsen who was the first to gain gradual acceptance for it—through scandal and the violent partisanship of radicals—found it very difficult to liberate themselves from some of the old conventions. Although Ibsen did away with the soliloquy and the "aside," although he tried to create, in his socially oriented drama, stage environments of the greatest possible realism—rooms with the fourth wall removed—structurally, he tended to adhere to the convention of the well-made play. Ibsen's analytical plots developed toward a climax with the relentless logic and compressed time-scale of French classical drama. Even so, his failure to let his characters explain themselves to the audience mystified even intelligent playgoers. As Clement Scott, in reviewing a performance of Rosmers-holm in 1891, put it:

The old theory of playwriting was to make your story or your study as simple as possible. The hitherto accepted plan of a writer for the stage was to leave no possible shadow of doubt concerning his characterisation. But Ibsen loves to mystify. He is as enigmatic as the Sphynx. Those who earnestly desire to do him justice and to understand him keep on saying to themselves, "Granted all these people are egotists, or atheists, or agnostics, or emancipated, or what not, still I can't understand why he does this or she does that."1

It was Chekhov who took the decisive step beyond Ibsen. He not only renounced the convention of characters who constantly explain themselves to the audience, but he also discarded the last remnants of the plot structure of the well-made play. As a natural scientist and physician, Chekhov rebelled against the artificiality of the conventional dramatic structure. As early as 1881, when he was embarking on his first full-length play, which he discarded (the untitled manuscript, usually referred to as Platonov) after it had been rejected by Ermolova, he formulated his ideas as follows:

In real life people do not spend every minute in shooting each other, hanging themselves or declaring their love for each other. They don't devote all their time to trying to say witty things. Rather they are engaged in eating, drinking, flirting and talking about trivialities—and that is what should be happening on stage. One ought to write a play in which people come and go, eat, talk about the weather and play cards. Life should be exactly as it is, and people exactly as they are. On stage everything should be just as complicated and just as simple as in life. People eat their meals, and in the meantime their fortune is made or their life ruined.2

It took Chekhov some fifteen years before he himself succeeded in bringing this theoretical program to full practical realisation and fruition with The Seagull. For it was not easy to work out all the implications of the endeavour to present real "slices of life" on the stage. It meant, for one, that the action on stage would have to get as near as possible to "real elapsed time," that is, that an hour on stage would have to correspond to an hour of "real life." How could one tell a story with a scope larger than that of one-acts (such as Chekhov's own The Proposal and The Bear) by adhering to this principle? The solution that emerged was to present a number of significant episodes showing the characters and their situation in detail and in as near to "real time" as possible in widely separated segments extracted from the flow of time (usually four acts)—so that the events of months and years became visible by implication through the way in which the situation in each vignette differed from the previous one. Thus, the relentless forward pressure of the traditional dramatic form was replaced by a method of narration in which it was the discontinuity of the images that told the story, by implying what had happened in the gaps between episodes.

Even more decisive, however, was the demand that the characters should not be shown in unnaturally "dramatic" and climactic situations but pursuing the trivial occupations of real life—eating, drinking, making small talk, or just sitting around reading the newspaper. The state of mind of the characters, the emotional tensions between them, the subterranean streams of attraction and repulsion, love and hate, now frequently had to be indicated indirectly, so that the audience would be able to apprehend them by inference. In other words, the playwright had to supply the signs from which the spectators, having been turned into equivalents of Sherlock Holmes, would deduce the meaning of seemingly trivial exchanges, and, indeed, the meaning of silences, words that remained unspoken. This, after all, is what happens in real life: we meet people and from the cut of their clothes, the accents of their speech, the tone of voice with which they address remarks to us about the weather, we have to deduce their character or their intentions toward us. In our small ways each of us has to be a semiotician decoding the signs supplied to us by our fellow human beings and the environment.

Another consequence of this program for a new drama was the abandonment of the central figure—the hero—of the drama. There are no subsidiary characters in real life, no Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns whose presence in the play is merely dictated by the requirements of the plot and who therefore remain uncharacterised. In the traditional drama such characters were emotionally expendable. It was the hero or heroine alone with whom the spectator was meant to identify, from whose point of view he or she was supposed to experience the action, living through, vicariously, the emotions felt by such central characters. The new drama required a far more detached, clinical attitude that would allow the audience to look at all the characters with the same cool objectivity.

Characters viewed objectively, from the outside rather than through identification, tend to appear comic. If we identified ourselves with the man who slips on a banana peel we would feel his pain; if we viewed him from the outside we could laugh at his misfortune. The characters in Chekhov's mature plays, in which he succeeded in putting his program into practice, are thus essentially comic characters, even if what happens to them (frustration in love, loss of an estate, inability to move to Moscow) is sad or even tragic. Thus, Chekhov's program for a new approach to drama implied the emergence of tragi-comedy as the dominant genre.

Chekhov's conflict with Stanislavskii about the production of his plays centered around this demand for a cool, sharp objectivity that would preserve the essentially comedic form of the tragic events, while Stanislavskii wanted to milk the tragic elements to produce an elegiac and as Chekhov felt "larmoyant" effect.

The demand for absolute truth, full conformity with the randomness and triviality of "real life," from which Chekhov started out, was clearly inspired by the same positivist, scientific ideas that had led Zola to proclaim the program of Naturalism. But, paradoxically, the resolve to reproduce the casualness and triviality of ordinary life led to a higher rather than a lesser degree of "artificiality." For, if meaning was to emerge from the depiction of people pursuing commonplace activities, if the spectator was to be enabled to deduce significance from the multitude of signifiers offered by decoding what they revealed, every move, every word, every object had to be carefully planned and designed as a bearer of such meaning. In other words, as real randomness would be totally meaningless, it was merely the appearance of randomness and triviality that had to be evoked by creating a structure of which every element contributed to the production of meaning. This type of drama thus required a far greater degree of skill in weaving an intricate texture of great complexity which could, nevertheless, add up to the intended effect and meaning.

This also was the reason why Chekhov so strenuously objected to Stanislavskii's overloading his productions with a clutter of details not indicated in the text. The proliferation of off-stage sound effects and other naturalistic detail brought in for the sake of mere "reality" smothered the structure of the signifiers Chekhov had carefully written into his scripts.

The dense texture of signifying detail within each segment of seemingly "real time" and the building of a sense of larger time-spans through a discontinuous four-act structure require a very high degree of control over the expressive means at the disposal of the playwright, a sense of rhythm and orchestration that would unify the seemingly casual and disconnected elements and transform the text into a texture as complex as that of the counterpoint of an orchestral score. Thus, the program that started from a rejection of "the poetic" on stage paradoxically led to a new kind of more complex poetry. Chekhov himself, in his acrimonious discussions with Stanislavskii, repeatedly insisted that the theatre was an art, striving to produce the appearance of reality, but it was never to be confused with reality.

On the other hand, the cold, objective nature of this art makes it impossible for the playwright to take sides or to offer solutions to the problems posed in his or her work:

You are right to demand that an author take a conscious stock of what he is doing, but you are confusing two concepts: answering the questions and formulating them correctly. Only the latter is required of an author. It is the duty of the court to formulate the questions correctly, but it is up to each member of the jury to answer them according to his own preference.3

Chekhov's drama thus rejects all moralising, just as it eschews the neat solutions that were required by the playwrights of traditional drama. With him "open form" entered the theatre.

It took a long time for Chekhov's revolutionary innovations to be recognised, let alone generally accepted outside Russia, where the successful production of his plays by Stanislavskii's and Nemirovich-Danchenko's Moscow Art Theatre (however much Chekhov himself disagreed with them) had established him as a major playwright.

In Russia Gorkii was deeply influenced by Chekhov's technique, although his plays were far more partisan and explicitly political than Chekhov's. But it was only after the discomfiture of the revolutionary avant-garde and the introduction of socialist realism as the leading aesthetic doctrine in the Soviet Union in the 1930s that the Moscow Art Theatre was elevated into the model for Soviet drama, and Chekhov became the official model, at least as far as the superficial and external aspects of his "realistic" technique were concerned. In spirit the stereotype of the contemporary Russian "realistic" play, with its openly propagandistic message, is far removed from Chekhov.

Western Europeans found it difficult at first to understand Chekhov's intentions. Early performances of Uncle Vania in Berlin (1904) and Munich (1913), The Seagull in Berlin (1907), Glasgow (1909), and Munich (1911) and The Cherry Orchard in London (1911) remained without lasting echo. There was one major exception: Bernard Shaw was so deeply impressed that he modeled his own Heartbreak House (1919) on The Cherry Orchard. He clearly saw the parallel between the death of the Russian upper classes and the inevitable decline of English society.

After World War I, tours by the Moscow Art Theatre to Germany, France, and the United States spread the Russian playwright's fame. In France the Pitoeff family, exiled from Russia, consolidated his reputation, but there too they only gained general acceptance for him after World War II.

It was in England that Chekhov first achieved recognition as a classic and one of the great innovators of drama. A production of The Cherry Orchard by J. B. Fagan (with the young John Gielgud as Trofimov) at the Oxford Playhouse in January 1925 was so successful that the play was transferred to London and ran there for several months. Yet the real breakthrough for Chekhov came with a series of productions of his late plays by the Russian emigré director Theodore Komisarjevsky at the small Barnes Theatre in London in 1926. By the end of the 1930s Chekhov had become a recognised classic in the English theatre. Since then Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Chekhov have been regarded as the standard classics of the English repertoire. No British actor or actress can lay claim to major status without having successfully portrayed the principal parts created by these playwrights.

The reasons for Chekhov's spectacular rise to the status of a classic in Britain are complex. The fact that pre-revolutionary Russia and England were both societies in which the upper classes spent a great deal of their time in country nouses populated by a large cast of family members and guests may well have something to do with it. In these plays theatre audiences in England recognised their own way of life. Similarly, Chekhov's use of "subtext" has its affinities with the English penchant for "understatement." English audiences may thus have been more skilled than those of other countries in the art of decoding subtle nuances of utterance. The fact remains that actors like Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Peggy Ash-croft, Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave, and Alec Guinness made Chekhov their own and that he has remained one of the most performed standard authors over a period of 50 years.

That an author so favoured by major actors would have an influence on the writing of plays in Britain was inevitable. Among the many direct, if shallow, imitators of the Chekhovian style are playwrights like N. C. Hunter (1908-1971) whose Waters of the Moon (1951) scored a big success by providing fat parts for "Chekhovian" actors; Enid Bagnold (1889-1981); or Terence Rattigan (1911-1977) who used Chekhovian techniques in plays like The Browning Version (1948) and Separate Tables (1954).

In the United States Chekhov's influence spread indirectly through the success of Stanislavskii's approach to the technique of acting, not least through the efforts of Chekhov's nephew Michael Alexandrovich Chekhov (1891-1955) who had emigrated to England in 1927 and moved to America in 1939. Undoubtedly playwrights like Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, William Inge, or Clifford Odets absorbed at least some of Chekhov's ideas about the "subtext" and the emotional overtones of seemingly trivial conversation.

Yet to look for the direct influence of Chekhov on individual playwrights is perhaps futile. His real influence, though mainly indirect, goes far deeper and is far more pervasive. For he was one of the major innovators who changed the basic assumptions upon which the drama of our time (and "drama" nowadays includes the dramatic material of the cinema, television and radio) is founded.

Many influences, often of a seemingly contradictory nature, have shaped present approaches to drama. George Buechner (1813-1837), also a physician and natural scientist, but almost certainly unknown to Chekhov as he was only being rediscovered at the turn of the century, in many ways anticipated the technique of discontinuous plot development and the use of a type of dialogue that was both documentary and poetically orchestrated. The Naturalists—Ibsen, Strindberg, Gerhart Hauptmann, Arthur Schnitzler—eliminated the conventions of the soliloquy and aside; Frank Wedekind was a pioneer of dialogue in which people talked past each other, neither listening nor answering their interlocutor's points; the German Expressionists, following the lead of Strindberg in the last phase of his career, shifted the plane of the action from the external world to the inner life of the leading character so that the stage became a projection of his or her fantasies and hallucinations; Bertolt Brecht rebelled against the theatre as a house of illusions, the tight construction of continuous plot-lines and developed his own, discontinuous "epic" technique of storytelling; Antonin Artaud tried to devalue the word as an element of drama; and the "Absurdist" playwrights of the 1950s and 1960s (Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov, Eugene Ionesco) created a non-illusionistic theatre of concrete stage metaphors.

Many of these tendencies seem to be in direct contradiction to Chekhov's program of a theatre that would faithfully reproduce the appearance of real life, its casualness and its seeming triviality. Yet, paradoxically, his example and his practise contributed a great deal to developments that, at first sight, may seem very far removed from his ideas and intentions.

Above all, Chekhov, more than any other innovator of drama, established the concept of an "open" form. By putting the onus of decoding the events on the stage on the spectators, by requiring them to draw their own conclusions as to the meaning as well as the ultimate message of the play, and by avoiding to send them home with a neatly packaged series of events in their minds, Chekhov anticipated Brecht's "Verfremdungseffekt" (which he may well himself have inherited from the Russian formalists' concept of "defamiliarisation," in turn directly related to Chekhov's practise). And at the other end of the spectrum a play like Beckett's Waiting for Godot carries Chekhov's technique of characters in apparently idle and trivial chatter to its extreme, creating a dramatic structure without action and completely open-ended. Here the trappings of Realism have fallen away, but the Chekhovian principle remains triumphant.

Chekhov's renunciation of high-flown poetic language and rhetorical explicitness (which went much further than Ibsen's attempts at realistic dialogue) produced another paradoxical consequence: the need to orchestrate the seemingly casual conversations, and the silences and hesitations in the characters' speech produced a new kind of poetry, a lyricism in which the rhythms and pauses coalesced into a new harmony. This created an emphasis on mood, on atmosphere, that was very different from the conscious lyricism of Symbolists like Maurice Maeterlinck or Neo-Romantics like the young Hugo von Hofmannsthal, a texture of often bitter ironies and counterpoints between the overt meaning and the subtext. Chekhov's practise opened the way for a new concept of the "poetic" in the theatre, what Jean Cocteau has called the "poetry of the stage" as against mere "poetry on the stage": the formally prosaic statement that acquires its poetry from the context in which it is pronounced, its position within the rhythmic and semantic structure of a situation.

The new type of "lyricism" has become the main source of "the poetic" in contemporary drama, not only in stage plays but also in the cinema, where a host of great directors, from Jean Renoir and Marcel Carné to Anjonioni and Robert Altmann have extracted poetry from the trivial dialogue and objects of real life situations.

By reducing the importance of overt action and "plot" Chekhov created a new focus of attention: the situation itself, the conjunction of characters, the subtle use of seemingly incongruous detail (like the map of Africa on the wall of Uncle Vania's study), the sparing use of sound (like the strumming of a guitar) put the emphasis on the complex audiovisual image of the stage and made the stage itself into a poetic metaphor. Chekhov was one of the pioneers in moving the theatre away from putting its main emphasis on action in the simple, literal sense. A great deal is still happening in the seemingly static stage images of Chekhov, behind the apparently trivial dialogue. But it is complex and covert rather than on the surface and direct. Much of contemporary drama derives from this use of ambivalence and irony. Sonia's last words in Uncle Vania in a seemingly idyllic situation, with Maria Vassilevna working on her pamphlet, Marina knitting, Telegin softly playing his guitar, and Sonia herself kneeling before Vania, "We shall rest!" seem hopeful and the situation idyllic. Yet, at the same time, Sonia may not really believe what she is saying, and the idyllic situation enshrines, in reality, the horror of endless boredom and futility. Compare this with the last line of Waiting for Godot: "Let's go," followed by the stage direction "(They do not move)" to see a much reduced, almost minimalist, version of the same technique.

Chekhov's refusal to depart from the mere objective delineation of people and events in their inherent inner contradictions and ambivalences made him the pioneer of another main characteristic of contemporary drama: the emergence of the tragicomic as its prevailing mode. That the "death of tragedy" derives from the loss of moral certainties and metaphysically grounded principles is clear enough. Chekhov was one of the first to see this and to embody its consequences in devising a new genre of drama. As Friedrich Duerrenmatt has argued, modern people are far too deeply enmeshed in society's organisational framework ever to exercise the heroic privilege of assuming full and proud responsibility for their acts, to allow their misfortunes ever to be more than mere mishaps, accidents. Chekhov was the first to cast his drama in this mode of tragicomic ambivalence; the three sisters' inability to get to Moscow, the ruination of their brother's talents, the death of Tuzenbakli—all are prime examples of just such socially determined inevitabilities, such mishaps and accidents. Vania's failure to hit the professor is comic, although the situation is tragic. But even if Vania did shoot the professor it would still not be tragedy, merely a regrettable incident. If Harold Pinter speaks of his plays as being meant to be funny up to that point where they cease to be funny, he was formulating a perception of the tragicomic that directly derives from Chekhov.

There is only a small step from Chekhov's images of a society deprived of purpose and direction to the far more emphatic presentation of a world deprived of its "metaphysical dimension" in the plays of Beckett, Genet, Adamov, or Ionesco. Admittedly, the dramatists of the Absurd have left the solid ground of reality behind and have taken off into dreamlike imagery and hallucinatory metaphor. Yet it can be argued that Chekhov himself, by his very realism, blazed even that trail. In creating so convincing a picture of the randomness and ambivalence of reality, he, more than any other dramatist before him, opened up the question about the nature of reality itself. If every member of the audience has to find his or her own meaning of what he or she sees by decoding a large number of signifiers, each spectator's image of the play will be slightly different from that which his or her neighbour sees, and will thus become one's own private image, not too far removed from being one's own private dream or fantasy. The Theatre of the Absurd merely builds on that foundation by posing, less subtly, more insistently than Chekhov, the question: "What is it that I am seeing happening before my eyes?"

The Brechtian theatre, insisting as it does on the solid material basis of the world, also requires the audience to decode the signifiers of its parables by themselves. It also derives its poetic force from the ironic juxtaposition of ambivalent and contradictory signs to produce an ultimately tragicomic world view. While it is almost certain that Brecht was not consciously or directly influenced by Chekhov, his ideas pervaded the atmosphere of theatrical and literary modernism and, indeed, more complex lines of interconnectedness can be traced. Brecht's "Verfremdungseffekt," as has already been mentioned, owed a great deal to the Russian formalists' concept of ostranenie (defamiliarisation). Moreover, Brecht was a great admirer of Vsevolod Meierkhold, who, before he broke away from Stanislavskii and the Moscow Art Theatre had been the first Treplev in Stanislavskii's Seagull and the first Tuzenbakh in the Three Sisters (it is said that Chekhov had written the part for him). Meierkhold's modernism thus derives indirectly from, and is an extrapolation into more daring innovation of, the demand for ruthless objectivity and open forms in the theatre. Meierkhold once sent Chekhov a photograph of himself, inscribed: "From the pale-faced Meierkhold to his God."

The greatest and most directly discernible impact of Chekhov's innovation on the modern theatre, however, is undoubtedly to be found in the field of dialogue. The concept of the "subtext" has become so deeply embedded in the fabric of basic assumptions of contemporary play-writing and acting that, literally, there can be hardly a playwright or actor today who does not unquestioningly subscribe to it in his or her practise.

Chekhov's ideas have not only been assimilated, but they have also been further developed by dramatists like Harold Pinter, whose use of pauses, silences, and subterranean currents of meaning clearly derives from Chekhov but goes far beyond him in the exploration of the implied significance of a whole gamut of speech-acts, from the use of trade jargon to that of tautology, repetition, solecisms, and delayed repartee.

Pinter's linguistic experiments, so clearly derived from Chekhov, have engendered a host of followers in Europe and the United States (where perhaps David Mamet is the foremost practitioner of this type of linguistic exploration).

The concept of the "subtext" has also led to attempts to bring onto the stage characters whose linguistic ability is so low that they are unable to express themselves clearly. Here the playwright, through the rudiments of a vocabulary they may still possess, has to show what goes on in their minds and emotions. The English playwright Edward Bond, in a play like Saved (1965), made extremely successful use of a technique clearly derived from Chekhov, by making fragments of illiterate speech and silences reveal the characters' thoughts and feelings.

In the German-speaking world the Bavarian playwrights Franz Xaver Kroetz and Martin Sperr, the Austrians Wolfgang Bauer and Peter Turrini, have also become masters of this type of highly laconic dialogue in which silences and half-sentences are used to uncover the mental processes of tongue-tied individuals.

It is only since the end of World War II that Chekhov has been received, by general consensus, into the canon of the world's greatest dramatists that extends from the Greek tragedians to Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Calderon, Racine, Corneille, Moliere, to the great moderns—Ibsen and Strindberg. Today Chekhov may well be regarded as being even more important and influential than Ibsen and Strindberg.

His output of only four major, mature plays may be much smaller than theirs, but, in the long run, its originality and innovative influence may well prove much greater.

Chekhov's determination to look at the world not merely with the cool objectivity of the scientist but also with the courage to confront the world in all its absurdity and infinite suffering (without flinching or self-pity and with a deep compassion for humanity in its ignorance and helplessness) led him to anticipate, far ahead of all his contemporaries, the mood and climate of our own time. That is the secret of his profound and all-pervading influence on the literature, and, above all, the drama of the century that opened so soon after his early death.


1Daily Telegraph, February 24,1891, quoted in Michael Egan, ed., Ibsen: The Critical Heritage (London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), p. 168.

2 Quoted in Siegfried Melchinger, Tschechow (Velber bei Hannover: Friedrich Verlag), p. 68.

3 Chekhov's letter to Suvorin, October 27, 1888, in Letters to Anton Chekhov, trans. Michael H. Heim and Simon Karlinsky (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).

J. L. Styan (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8021

SOURCE: "Chekhov's Dramatic Technique," in A Chekhov Companion, edited by Toby W. Clyman, Greenwood Press, 1985, pp. 107-22.

[In the following essay, Styan looks at the characters, settings, plots, and moods of Chekhov's plays.]

As the years pass and as Chekhov's plays are given different treatments and exposed to new and larger audiences, it grows increasingly clear that Chekhov was the complete playwright. In his awareness of the needs of the stage and its actors it might be said that he was also a complete man of the theatre. He held to a minimum of rules for writing a play, and he ruthlessly abandoned others that had been sanctified by centuries of tradition, but he could only do this because he enjoyed a full sense of the theatre. A sense of the theatre embraces not so much its mechanics of acting and staging, plotting, and character-drawing as the way a playwright may exactly manipulate an audience for its strongest, yet its subtlest and most rewarding, response. This account of the method by which Chekhov put his major plays together, therefore, will emphasize how he made them work in performance. Only once before in the story of the theatre, in the plays of Shakespeare, do we find such a bold sequence of experiments to secure an audience's maximum participation in the workings of the stage. On these grounds alone it is arguable that not only is Chekhov Russia's greatest dramatist and the consummate realist of the modern theatre, but also that he must rank with the two or three best the theatre has known.

We cannot know the limits of Chekhov's skills of the stage, nor exhaust his secrets. As with Shakespeare, the unknown remains constantly to be discovered: each play is worth seeing again, and new insights are possible each time it is played. One reason for this phenomenon may be that Chekhov always works with a multitude of the most delicate details of human behavior, the finely perceived elements of speech and action, and compounds them in so infinite a variety of ways that the dramatic imagination of the spectator is unpredictably expanded. Thus, like the actor and the director, the student of Chekhov's plays must begin to approach them through those details and elements.

His first major play, The Seagull, is by no means his most subtle, and it is introduced by two lesser characters, Medvedenko the schoolmaster and Masha the girl he wishes to marry. Yet this play captures its audience immediately on the rise of the curtain with two challenging lines:

Medvedenko Why do you always wear black?

Masha I'm in mourning for my life.1

The lines catch the audience by surprise, and in performance they echo in the mind through the scene. When, later in the first act, we see Arkadina in light summer clothes, we will be reminded of Masha's dress and Medvedenko's question. Meanwhile, the first decision for the actors must be how to speak the lines. Is Masha tearful and sad, or angry and sarcastic?—two quite opposed notions, and either of them possible. It is especially necessary to see the characters in their setting, in the garden, having returned from a walk on a hot evening. It is a quite romantic setting: this part of Sorin's park near a lake in the moonlight will seem enchanting and beautiful. Does this pair of lovers therefore enter with their arms about one another, and when they sit on the bench do they sit side by side? The ambiguity in the opening lines hardly permits such romantic behavior. In the production of the play at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898, Konstantin Stanislavskii had Medvedenko and Masha stroll about the stage, the man smoking and cracking nuts. But this too could be wrong, since, although he has been wooing Masha for some time, he surely must not seem to be indifferent to her. How far is their entrance a comic one? Is it intended that they enter with Masha walking a little ahead of Medvedenko, as if she were trying to escape his attentions? He certainly is a bore who complains constantly about his life as an underpaid schoolteacher. In any case we soon learn that Masha has her eye on another man, Konstantin Treplev. Thus, if she is in fact running from him, her remark about being in mourning for her life may be spoken as an irritated rebuff or with a teasing laugh, depending on the degree of comedy perceived in the scene. The truth is that we cannot be sure, in their uneasy relationship with each other and their enigmatic relationship with the spectator, that any of these treatments is intended. Yet none can be ruled out.

Something of each approach is implied, and the audience is intended to be left in tantalizing uncertainty. The element of doubt is characteristic of the basic ingredient with which Chekhov works as a playwright in matters large and small. He sustains an ambiguity in tone and mood, character and incident, for as long as he dares—chiefly to engage his audience in the effort of participation, which will ensure that we have reexperienced as closely as possible the life of his stage, but also to strike a note of indeterminacy that we cannot easily identify as tragic or comic, but that certainly captures the ironic feeling of real life. In the first act of The Cherry Orchard, Lopakhin pops his head round the door and moos like a cow at Varia. With no more than this brief signal, Chekhov indicates the miserable situation that spinster finds herself in, aware that the family is in debt and unable to get Lopakhin to make the proposal of marriage that would solve her problems. At the same time, the trick undercuts with our laughter the solemn news that the orchard will be sold that very August. In the next act Ania and Trofimov separate for their "love scene" in the moonlight, but while the romantically inclined Ania waits in anticipation of a kiss, the inept "eternal student" can only make an irrelevant speech to an imaginary crowd of fellow Trofimovs, "Forward! Do not lag behind, friends!", a speech that quite passes over the girl's head; "How well you speak!" (Act II) is all she can say. Again the audience laughs, for she can think only of pleasing him; yet it also recognizes that another hope of saving the family's fortunes has been dashed. "God defend you from generalizations," wrote Chekhov in a letter to his brother Alexander (May 10, 1886).2 His effort to avoid stereotypes of character or situation, to achieve a fresh observation of true human relationships, repeatedly required him to work for a particular effect that did not admit simple classification. He did this by a hundred and one touches in which the very process of our interpretation called for a new effort of understanding of a character in its situation. The pretty girl Natasha, who makes a late entrance into Irina's party in Act I of Three Sisters, is wonderfully young and shy—embarrassed at being late, checking in a mirror that her hair is in place after hurrying, uncertain of the right color to go with her dress, ready to burst into tears. We forgive her everything, even her lack of taste, although we may remember that Masha thought her cheeks were rosy because she had resorted to the Victorian practice of pinching them to make them red. Perhaps we forgive her this too, until we see her evolve into the ruthless little hausfrau of Act II. Even then we may excuse some of her treatment of the sisters, who in their pretensions must have been difficult to live with.

By such minutiae of ordinary life Chekhov controls the response of his audience. He eschewed the traditional methods of critical and satirical comedy, like the exaggeration of character and the eccentricity of behavior, even though he had mastered this kind of stagecraft in the five short "vaudevilles" he had written between 1888 and 1891, The Bear, The Proposal, A Tragic Role, The Wedding, and The Anniversary. In the mature plays there is no Gregory Smirnov to fly into a rage when thwarted by a pretty widow with dimples (The Bear) and no Ivan Lomov to clutch at his heart and fall into a faint when insulted (The Proposal), unless we except the obsequious Waffles and his pathetic history in Uncle Vania or the lovelorn Epikhodov with his bookishness and his squeaky boots in The Cherry Orchard. Yet even these caricatures enjoy a three-dimensional quality that would satisfy many realists. Chekhov makes a point of creating every character, major or minor, with a complete life history. No two are alike, so that every line of dialogue contributes to the imagined whole, although the final character is unpredictable until we have pieced it together at the end of the play. Thus, the maidservant Duniasha in The Cherry Orchard has just sprung from young girlhood, so much .so that Mme. Ranevskaia only just recognizes her after a five-year absence. At the beginning of that momentous summer in which the family is broken up, she cannot resist excitedly telling everyone of the proposal of marriage she has received from Epikhodov. When Iasha's pseudo-Parisian sophistication magnetizes the girl, she promptly forgets Epikhodov and tries to impress Iasha by aping the ladies with a powder-puff and a pretense to refined ways, "I'm going to go faint. I'm fainting!" (Act I). She is overwhelmed when the post office clerk calls her a "flower," and she offers herself to Iasha as someone "grown sensitive and delicate" (Act III). Thus, before the summer is over, we have the strongest suspicion that Iasha has seduced her and is leaving her pregnant. Duniasha's little drama is slight indeed, but it is complete and woven subtly through the stronger warp and woof of the play, one more illustration of the breaking up of the social structure represented there.

Character, however deceptively realistic, is in this way part of a guiding pattern. It is first a pattern of checks and balances achieved by carefully setting one character off against another. In Three Sisters, the reticent, doomed Baron Tuzenbakh is placed in contrast with his voluble Colonel Vershinin, who will survive his troublesome marriage and his tour of duty in the provinces. Natasha the intruder slowly gains ascendancy over the family as Olga's authority and security slip. In The Cherry Orchard, Mme. Ranevskaia's fecklessness is brilliantly in parallel with the landowner Pishchik's empty optimism, and while she loses everything he at the last moment has a stroke of sheer good luck when the Englishmen "come along" and find on his land "some sort of white clay"; or the vapid idealism of Trofimov, the son of a chemist, is in nice counterpoint with the practical, but equally inappropriate, thinking of Lopakhin, the son of a peasant. In Uncle Vania, the plain Soma's unselfish altruism sits in pathetic contrast with the self-serving of the beautiful Helena who apparently can whistle up any man she chooses; and Telyegin supplies a bleak image of miserable dependency for Vania, who himself is shortly to recognize his powerless slavery to the professor. This device of implicit character comparison and contrast both undermines and controls the sentiment and emotionalism in each play, and encourages a subtle ambivalence in the action played out before the audience.

A powerful dramatic strategy came of Chekhov's decision never to allow us a simple or comforting moral response to a character's actions. He accepts unreservedly that the human personality is complicated, and he demonstrates his point again and again. At the time of writing the early Ivanov (1889), he wrote to Alexander,

Present-day playwrights begin their plays solely with angels, villains, and buffoons. Now, search for these characters in the whole of Russia. Yes, you can find them, but not such extremes as are necessary for a playwright.… I wanted to be original; I have not introduced a single villain nor an angel, although I could not refuse myself buffoons; I accused nobody, justified nobody.

(October 24, 1887)

He is particularly careful to prompt contradictory, impersonal feelings about those who might otherwise have served him powerfully as villains. In The Seagull, the famous author Trigorin is the man who is responsible for the seduction of the aspiring young actress Nina, but we are never to see him as the elderly rouȩ, or as the matinee idol of modern melodrama. From the start he is shown wearing old shoes and checked trousers, dissatisfied with his own success, trying to flee his responsibility to Arkadina by, of all things, going fishing, finding in Nina at best some copy for his next story. When Nina so romantically offers her life to him by drawing his attention to a line in one of his own books, he is arguably more the seduced than the seducer. In The Cherry Orchard, the merchant Lopakhin is the son of a peasant who has the opportunity to buy the very estate on which his ancestors were serfs, "where they weren't even admitted into the kitchen." What a sensational avenger this character could have been, and what a strongly satirical point Chekhov could have made! But Lopakhin is no stereotype. If he has made his money by hard work, it is a sensitive man who regrets the loss of the fields of poppies he must harvest for their oil. If it is his destiny to be the one to dispossess the family, he has always loved Ranevskaia like a mother, from the time when she comforted him as a little boy with a bloody nose. He buys the orchard almost reluctantly, as if unintentionally, even protectively, from under the nose of Deriganov—the unseen villain.

We think of Chekhov's characters before his plots, not because their dialogue is easy to read, but because they so readily come alive and are so rewarding to actors in the many submerged hints and suggestions of psychological depth with which their author has endowed them. As a result, each character, like Shakespeare's, is wholly individualized, never interchangeable, and in a good performance quite unforgettable. Nevertheless, Chekhov probably did not construct a play by elaborating his characters first. With the objectivity of a true comedian, he envisioned them as a group in a realistic situation, not so much a plot as a set of circumstances. It is a commonplace that Chekhov's plays present us with families, in which even the servants are part of the group. From the start he works for the conflicts and contradictions of a group reaction, one that embodies the same principles of balance and control in order to command his audience's unemotional, but not unfeeling, understanding and judgment.

In all this he was working determinedly against the theatricalism of the nineteenth-century stage—hence his frequent clashes with his director Konstantin Stanislavskii, who was essentially a product of his period, albeit an outstanding and intelligent actor and manager. But Chekhov was demanding and far ahead of his time. Along with the star system and the flamboyant style of speaking and acting, the "well-made" ordering of events, and the overdramatic scene, which Stanislavskii and his partner Nemirovich-Danchenko had themselves rejected when they agreed on their plans for the Moscow Art Theatre, Chekhov also found himself disapproving of the stage practice of Henrik Ibsen. The Norwegian playwright's major contribution to stage realism was to require a more natural prose dialogue and to choose subjects that illuminated more honest human problems, those unencrusted with melodramatic characters and incident; but he was largely unable to avoid building his plays as a series of duelling duologues, and dealing in big conflicts and obligatory scenes of crisis. Chekhov does not have much to say about his famous counterpart in the naturalistic movement, but when he saw The Wild Duck, probably Ibsen's most Chekhovian drama, he declared he found it "uninteresting"; Ghosts was a "rotten" play; and the suicide in Hedda Gabier was for him too sensational.3 Chekhov's increasing impulse was to outlaw the obligatory scene and contrive to undercut what was potentially sensational, always moving closer to an ideal of balanced realistic theatre.

It is true that we can find certain Ibsenesque moments in the earlier Chekhov. The quarrel between Arkadina and Treplev, mother and son, in Act III of The Seagull, with explosive lines like "You are nothing but a Kiev shopman! … You miser! … You ragged beggar!" may be considered to have been written in the older tradition, as may the quarrel between Arkadina and her lover Trigorin later in the same act ("You won't abandon me? … I have no will of my own.… Now he is mine!"). But when a comparable scene between Mme. Ranevskaia and Trofimov surfaces in the third act of his last play, The Cherry Orchard, when the student accuses the older woman of having led an immoral life, the incident is neatly turned for comedy, so cooling the emotionalism and distancing the audience. As Trofimov storms out of the room, crying, "All is over between us!" Chekhov adds the reductive stage direction, "There is a sound of somebody running quickly downstairs and suddenly falling with a crash. Ania and Varia scream, but there is a sound of laughter at once":

Liubov What has happened? (Ania runs in.)

Ania (laughing) Petia's fallen downstairs! (Runs out.)

Liubov What a queer fellow that Petia is!

As a result of this ambiguous encounter, Liubov and Trofimov are seen to be no less fond of one another, since she dances with him immediately after, while the incident has served to illuminate the weakness of both characters in a purely comic way and to keep the moral issue of Liubov and her French lover in critical perspective. The exchange follows the perfect pattern of anticlimax: the building of dramatic tension is swiftly undercut for laughter, but without wholly destroying the basic purpose of the heated confrontation when the excitement is defused. A residue of deeper feeling and a fuller understanding of the difference between the two generations are subtly carried over into the next segment of the play.

It would not be too much to say that the characteristic device in Chekhov's mature plays is indeed that of anti-climax, implying his deliberate refusal to allow the pathos beneath his scenes to dictate the response of his audience for very long. He was not always successful. At the end of The Seagull, he aimed to undercut the sensationalism of Treplev's suicide by arranging that it should take place offstage, but in so doing Chekhov found himself inadvertently building up a sensationalism by default. The very absence of direct comment on the sound of the offstage shot, and the careful underplaying of Dr. Dorn's information to those who heard it on the stage ("It must be something in my medicine-chest that has gone off), followed by his aside to Trigorin ("The fact is, Konstantin Gavrilitch has shot himself), called for the audience itself to supply the missing emotional response. The rule that "a writer has to be just as objective as a chemist," as proposed in Chekhov's letter to M. V. Kiseleva (January 14, 1887), would not serve in all cases in the theatre. The effect of the next shot fired in a Chekhov play, that of Vania's attempt on the life of Professor Serebriakov at the end of the third act of Uncle Vania, is more precisely regulated. The gun is now visible; but not only does the bullet miss its target, but also the ridiculous behavior of the principals to the affair is fully written in, so that little of the intended effect is left to chance. Serebriakov has run in "staggering with terror" and Vania has run in looking for him: "Where is he? Oh, here he is! (Fires at him) Bang! (a pause) Missed! Missed again! (Furiously) Damnation—damnation take it. (Flings revolver on the floor and sinks on to a chair, exhausted)" With the professor running in panic and ducking the shot, possibly behind a chair, in an uncharacteristically undignified fashion, and with Vania childishly crying "Bang!" before he flings his gun down in a tantrum of frustration, Chekhov guaranteed that a scene which carried a potentially tragic explosion of feeling must create a decisively comic image of Vania's ineffectuality.

As a naturalistic dramatist concerned to reveal the forces of the environment and the circumstances of ordinary people working on their lives, Chekhov's greatest achievement was this controlled objectivity. Nowhere does it prove its worth more than at the crisis of The Cherry Orchard in Act III. During the ill-timed party flung by Mme. Ranevskaia at the time of the sale of the orchard, both the audience in the theatre and that on the stage are awaiting confirmation of what is a long foregone conclusion, that the orchard has been lost. To look again at Lopakhin's "triumph": insofar as this representative of the peasant class will buy the estate, he could have been used to make a powerful political point, one that a lesser playwright might have exploited. Not so Chekhov. Here was to be no triumph for the forces of "justice," only an occasion, long anticipated, that would bring sorrow to everyone concerned, and Chekhov used it to mark the uneasy end of an era. The ironic moment of Lopakhin's entrance into the party foreshadows the whole anticlimactic treatment of the end of the play. Varia, who as housekeeper holds the keys to the family and who still cherishes the hope of marrying him, offers a blow with Firs's stick at Epikhodov, but almost hits Lopakhin on the head. The incident is turned for a joke at which everyone laughs, but it ensures that the new owner is to make no grand entrance. Instead, it touches the edge of symbolism. While the gesture with the stick reminds Lopakhin and us of his peasant boyhood and shows him more as an intruder than as a tyrant, it releases for comedy all the tension of the auction. The moment is laughable and fleeting; it is lightly done, yet it is full of meaning.

From total anticlimax to the persistent undercutting of fine detail, Chekhov's method as a comedian was consistently deflationary. The Seagull was composed of many aborted affairs between the sexes (I try to avoid the term "love-affairs"), those between Treplev and Nina, Nina and Trigorin, Trigorin and Arkadina, Masha and Treplev, Masha and Medvedenko, Polina and Dorn: so many, indeed, that they would seem to identify the play as a farce as they proliferate and cancel one another out. "How hysterical they are," says Dorn at one point, "and what a lot of love" (Act I). Yet the general tenor of these affairs, felt through the realistic interaction between each pair of lovers, teases us with tragedy. In The Cherry Orchard, eight years later, Chekhov again compounds his love-affairs, between Ania and Trofimov, Charlotta and Pishchick, Epikhodov and Duniasha, Duniasha and Iasha, Varia and Lopakhin, but of these not one allows a true pathos. Even in the case of Varia and Lopakhin, Chekhov was careful to avoid building sufficient sympathetic feeling to color with any sense of disaster that delicious moment when Lopakhin bolts from Varia's presence rather than propose to her. If Nina of The Seagull can be admitted as a pathetic figure, the cry-baby Varia can never be.

Communication from stage to audience by a host of fleet ing but suggestive details was a method that Chekhov learned in the hard school of short story writing, and it served him well in the theatre where an economy of means is de rigueur. For the writer of fiction, Chekhov's well-known mot occurs in a letter to Alexander on May 10, 1886: "You will get the full effect of a moonlight night if you write that on the mill-dam a pin-point of light flashed from the neck of a broken bottle." This statement in part explains the brevity and immediacy of his glancing, impressionistic style of prose. On the stage, the smallest and simplest element of voice, or pause, or gesture, can in its context have a momentous impact, and the slightest hint on the surface of the dialogue can plumb a profound subtext. Three Sisters is particularly rich in Tittle lines that guide the listener toward the hidden life of the family. The following unforgettable touches are presented here without comment:

Natasha I was saying to your sister this morning, "Take care of yourself, Irina darling," said I. But she won't listen.

(Act II)


Olga Whoever proposed to me I would marry him, if only he were a good man.… / would even marry an old man.…

(Act III)

and in Act IV

Masha Did you love my mother?

Tchebutykjn Very much.

Masha And did she love you?

Tchebutyktn (after a pause) That I don't remember.4

On the stage the technique also appears in Chekhov's choice and use of props and costume. In Act I of The Seagull, Masha's defiant little habit of taking a pinch of snuff (evidently used to keep Medvedenko at bay) subtly descends to become her new drinking habit in Act III; by then she has married him, and her slight tipsiness neatly understates her resignation to her new condition. In the same play, the decline in old Sorin's health is marked out by his progress from a limp and a shuffle with a stick in Act I, to his appearance followed by Medvedenko pushing a wheelchair in his wake in Act II, to his attack of dizziness in Act III, until in Act IV we finally see him confined to his chair. Thus have the two years passed for him. In Uncle Vania, we note the hypochondriacal professor's inability or unwillingness to make the adjustment when he leaves the city for the heat of a rural summer: Vania reports, "It's hot, stifling; but our great man of learning is in his greatcoat and galoshes, with an umbrella and gloves too" (Act I). Through those summer months the old nurse Marina's endless knitting of woollen stockings against the arrival of the Russian winter warns us, as they grow in length from scene to scene, of the relentless cycle of the seasons which govern the lives of Vania and Sonia. In Three Sisters, it is the silence and soft whistling of Masha, together with her attention to her hat, which tells us how her mind is working in Act I: at one point she puts it on to indicate her boredom with the company and her intention of leaving in the middle of Irina's party, then, long after the appearance of the new Colonel Vershinin with the information that he has come from Moscow ("Tuzenbakh: Aleksandr Ignatevitch has come from Moscow. Irina: From Moscow? You have come from Moscow?"), Masha suddenly takes off her hat again as she makes a quiet decision that no one seems to hear, "I'll stay to lunch." By such oblique indications does Chekhov tell his story.

The technique brings the feel of actual life to the stage, almost a "documentary" touch, in which the actuality of speech and behavior seems to dictate what happens, and the pursuit of its authenticity becomes for the dramatist almost an imperative in itself. Indeed, with Uncle Vania, which Chekhov subtitled "Scenes from Country Life" after Aleksandr Ostrovskii, he seems to aim at an ideal of realistic objectivity in which he promotes his balance of compassion and detachment by letting actuality speak for itself. This play above all his others presents a group of trivial people in order to show the dullness of life in provincial Russia. The challenge for the playwright is to prove that even if they are dull, an audience need not find them uninteresting. Uncle Vania takes the first important step toward a "documentary" representation of life, and this, in the memorable words of the Scottish documentary film pioneer, John Grierson, implies "the creative treatment of actuality."5

A critical crux in Uncle Vania may well be resolved by reference to the latent principles of documentary in the play. At the end, when Vania and Sonia must patch together their former lives after the visitors of the summer have departed, the girl tries to comfort her uncle with a moving speech which nevertheless remains wickedly ambiguous, and any director of the play must decide whether or not his actress will play for a rousing and optimistic ending. Such lines as "We shall rest, we shall rest!" must be tested by performance: is Sonia expressing the hope of all downtrodden people in need of courage to face the future, or are her words to be heard as painfully ironic, mere pieties that offer hope only in the next world? As usual, Chekhov is careful to leave the matter in doubt. Yet the student of the stage should not overlook the fact that Sonia and Vania are not alone. Chekhov once said that it is the day-to-day living that wears you down, and at the end of Uncle Vania he arranges that four others besides Sonia and Vania will contribute to the uncertain spirit of his curtain scene. The Watchman resumes his tapping offstage, Maria takes up her pen again and be-gins to scratch her notes, Marina continues to click her knitting needles, and Telegin quietly tunes and strums his guitar. These four are all making the faint sounds that are to form a dry, melancholy background to Soma's speech, pacing and commenting on the scene as a whole—like Andrei who aimlessly pushes his baby-carriage across the back of the stage at the end of Three Sisters, or like the noise of the axe that falls with monotonous regularity on the trees at the end of The Cherry Orchard. The "silent" characters at the end of Uncle Vania represent the day-to-day living and provide a chilling perspective on Sonia's innocence.

Uncle Vania is "about" the socio-economic conditions in rural Russia at the end of the nineteenth century, but the toll paid by the human mind and spirit is conveyed as a sensory experience constructed out of noises heard in counterpoint with words, and neither words nor noises can be escaped by their audience. Chekhov's social criticism thus remains tangential and elusive, and properly so, and thus documentary becomes drama. Three Sisters exactly documents the nature of provincial life in a small town many miles from the great metropolis of Moscow. Its fragile cultural life depends on the presence of the officers from the regiment of artillery stationed nearby. It is easy to recognize that the chorus of voices crying for a return home to Moscow is ineffectual, and it is even easier to pass some sort of judgment that the three women should apply themselves and take a more positive attitude to life. It is Chekhov's purpose to show how the weight of trivial living bears down on the three of them remorselessly. While Irina clings hopelessly to her romantic notions of love, Masha settles for a shabby affair with the colonel of the regiment and Olga sacrifices herself to play the double role of breadwinner and mother to the family. As the audience comes to acknowledge the sisters' limitations as human beings and theatrically reexperiences, as it were, the increasing pressure of their circumstances, its criticism will be muted.

The general framework of Chekhov's balanced comedy admits a remarkable variety of muffled, but subversive, social criticism, and at unexpected moments he will disrupt the apparent calm of his scene. In that balmy sum mer afternoon of Act II in The Cherry Orchard, for example, Firs expresses his disapproval of the Emancipation in his longing for the past, and Lopakhin catches us with a throwaway line, "Those were fine old times. There was flogging anyway." Or Chekhov contrives to insert an oblique reminder of the Jewish persecution under Nicholas II when the pathetic Jewish orchestra is heard faintly and is then later hired for the ball in the next act by Mme. Ranevskaia, suggesting her sense of guilt and obligation. Or he introduces the disagreeable image of the drunken beggar who comes upon the family group sitting in the dusk, frightening Varia and affording them and us an ugly glimpse of what could happen to them all. In the same letter to Kiseleva mentioned above, Chekhov had insisted that "To chemists there is nothing unclean on earth," and with no jot of sensationalism his comedy admitted both the ugly and the painful. When near the end of the play Gaev volunteers that he has taken a job as a bank clerk, "I am a bank clerk now—I am a financier—cannon off the red" (Act IV), Chekhov's intention is more than to provoke a facile laugh. Gaev's line fits into the pattern of the play's constant reference to money and points to a devastating change in the social order: "How am I going to feed the servants?" demands Varia.

The fabric of Chekhov's drama is thus slyly interwoven with an acute commentary on the times. In his foreword to Miss Julie in 1888, Strindberg outlined an appropriate method for writing the dialogue of naturalism when he described how in his own play "the dialogue wanders, gathering in the opening scenes material which is later picked up, worked over, repeated, expounded, and developed like the theme in a musical composition."6 If this sounds altogether too deliberate to describe Chekhov's way of working, it nevertheless implied that writing realistic dialogue was a matter of great discipline. The commonplace that Chekhov offered his audience "a slice of life" was always inadequate, since what appears to be an image of desultory and humdrum existence in fact carried a purposeful and meticulously designed "subtext" that moved relentlessly to a point. In another of Chekhov's famous assertions, "In life people don't shoot them-selves or fall in love every minute.… They spend more time eating, drinking and talking nonsense, and while they're doing it, their lives may be shattered."7 The method deceived Tolstoi, who thought of him as an impressionist painter for whom "it is all only mosaic without a governing idea," but it should not deceive the spectator in the theatre.8 If there is no obvious "hero" on whose fortunes it might have been possible to focus attention, if there is no discernible issue of right or wrong in the representation of events on the stage, and if there is no "plot" in the Aristotelian sense, Chekhov achieves the dramatic unity these classical concepts all imply. If there is little plotting, there is much planning.

The unity of a Chekhov play arises when all its parts come together to form an experience greater than their sum. We look for this unity, therefore, in those elements that determine the rhythm of the experience and control the processes of the play in performance. They are the elements that can be seen to regulate both the actors on the stage and the responses of the audience. They can be found in every stroke of character and incident, but let us conclude this essay by indicating what may be most easily missed in reading the text of the plays.

Chekhov was well aware that the setting on his stage could speak powerfully to the spectator, who could not avoid seeing it, and he perfected a way that drew a partly realistic, but equally symbolic, visual pattern from act to act. In The Seagull, the scene changes from the romantic to the almost sordid: from Sorin's glorious park with its setting sun and rising moon reflecting the youthful idealism of Treplev and Nina in Act I, to the pretty croquet lawn bathed in sunlight outside the house, the domain of Mme. Arkadina and her little social circle in Act II; Act III takes us inside the house for the first time, and we see it disordered by the preparations for leaving; and Act IV moves still further into the heart of things, into the world of books and careless furniture that Treplev miserably inhabits. Uncle Vania follows a comparable pattern, beginning outside the house, but this time set on the edge of a plantation that lacks all romance; thereafter, Acts II and III move each time deeper into the house, until Act IV finds out Vania's own room, his bed and his personal jumble of account-books, scales, and papers, together with a starling in a cage and a map of Africa on the wall, all lightly suggesting the clutter of his mind and his ineffectual longing for escape.

The setting for Three Sisters is different by beginning inside the house and embracing us with its main public room for the first two acts. Columns suggest a former grandeur, and the partly seen dining room hints at the scale of the house. However, in Act II the evidence of Natasha and her baby is everywhere, and many subtle changes in the scene tell us of the passage of time. Act III continues the process of dispossession by confining us to Olga's bedroom, now shared with a displaced Irina, so that the confusion of beds and screens looks and feels uncomfortable. With Act IV, the sisters are finally found outside the house, with Natasha and her lover Protopopov inside, so that the visual symbolism of exclusion is complete. The Cherry Orchard dares a circular pattern of scenes in order to symbolize the cycle of life. It begins in the nursery, the one room where every member of the household has a rooted memory. It then passes to a spot beyond the orchard which manages to include in one composition a little of the rural estate and a glimpse of urban and industrial growth, with the family caught between the past and the future as it lolls about in a disused graveyard: the set seems required to bear too heavy a weight of meaning. Act HI returns us nostalgically to the ballroom of the house as a background for the incongruity of the party, and Act IV comes full circle to the nursery of the first act, although it is now a scene of desolation: bare trees, furniture covered over, heaps of luggage—a setting that holds out no hope.

In parallel with each visual setting, mood and atmosphere are precisely adjusted, and Chekhov makes use of the seasons, the weather, and the time of day to regulate our changing image of the action. The Seagull begins in the twilight of a hot summer's day—"How stifling it is!", says Masha—and the heat seems to provide an excuse for the ruffled feelings which next afternoon explode in ill-temper and direct confrontation. In the last act, the final pathos of Treplev and Nina is set against a dark, wild night of wind and rain. Uncle Vania also begins sluggishly in the sultry heat of summer and proceeds through a restless night until the storm breaks, all to prepare the audience for the shock of the professor's announcement that he is planning to sell the estate which precipitates Vania's brainstorm. The last act dips down anticlimactically to the painful time when autumn is changing to winter in a characteristically Chekhovian going-away scene of bitter reflection and regret.

Three Sisters makes some use of the seasons, beginning in spring sunshine with the optimism of an impending party in the air; but in Act II the mood is utterly different as reality begins its advance with the gloom of a winter evening. In Act III, we feel the tensions and hostility arising from the sleeplessness and exhaustion of the fire in the night. For Act IV, Chekhov tries a new device: he ends his play in midday sunshine, al though there is a touch of autumn in the air (Stanislav skii had leaves falling throughout the act), the better to capture the sisters' regret at the departure of the regiment, ironically colorful in dress uniforms and marching to the spirited music of a military band. In The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov falls back on the cycle of the seasons, which extend from the last frost of May to the first of the winter, matching the cycle of the orchard itself all in white blossom, in the brilliant light of the early morning sun as it rises in Act I, to the time when the trees are glimpsed standing starkly through the bare windows of Act IV. So the summer months of the calendar are quietly marked off as the sale of the estate approaches in Acts II and III, until the cold returns in Act IV—"three degrees of frost," remarks the practical Lopakhin. The story of the family's fortunes seems to be told by the changes in the cherry trees themselves, as if they were sentient creatures.

By such devices of setting and atmosphere Chekhov unifies his play and focuses on a central theme. The dramatic surface of non sequiturs and brilliant pauses, of centrifugal incidents and tangential comments, is misleading, like much else of his dramatic method. He suddenly fills his stage with people and as quickly empties it in the first acts of Uncle Vania and The Cherry Orchard—against all the "laws" of drama. Indeed, he works with an empty stage as effectively as with a full one. He appears to give as much time and attention to "minor" characters as to "major" ones. He scatters his scenes with distracting cues for music and song, some twenty or so in each of his last two plays. He loads his lines with two or three times as many unseen characters as are in the cast itself, and until one counts them it is hard to believe that there are 50 or so "offstage" characters in each of Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. So Chekhov's picture of humanity is infinitely extended by offstage mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, grandfathers and aunts, friends and acquaintances, servants and work men, porters and peasants, musicians and nurses, and cooks and gardeners. Who can ever forget Telegin's courageous wife, who ran away from him the day after their wedding "on the ground of my unprepossessing appearance" (Act I). Or Natasha's persistent lover Protopopov, or Kulygin's intimidating headmaster, or Pishchik's long-suffering daughter Dashenka?

This rich abundance in Chekhov's world of people is part of his illusion of reality, providing family backgrounds, giving depth to the lives of the few we see. Yet his most deceptive technique may be that of arranging for his characters to fall into patterns that indicate order in what otherwise seems to be at random—a kind of dramatic Gestalten awaiting the perception of an audience watching a performance. In Uncle Vania, each of the eight principals falls into a category of what might be thought of as a master-and-slave relationship. There are those who exercise a power over others without thought: Professor Serebriakov through his position in society and his ownership of land, and Ielena through her sex and her beauty. There are those who are as yet unreconciled to their servitude and see some possibilities of change: Vania, Sonia, and Astrov. And there are those who have succumbed to the dead hand of routine and the pressures they have no control over: Maria, Marina, and Telegin. In Three Sisters, the fortunes of the family change as the self-centered ones, Natasha, Solenyi, and perhaps Vershinin, prevail over the weaknesses of others, particularly the sisters and their brother Andrei.

It is with The Cherry Orchard that Chekhov perfects his magical technique of character patterning, and, had he lived, he would no doubt have explored further. In this play twelve characters appear to make ten times that number as each serves as a representative of more than one aspect of society. Thus, each is a richly individualized composite of many elements, while being at the same time one of a group identified by social or economic class, or sex, or age, and more, as each group is affected differently by the sale of the orchard. As members of the landowning class, Gaev and Mme. Ranevskaia lose their place in society, and pull down with them their immediate dependents, Ania and Varia. Meanwhile, the former peasants, Lopakhin and Iasha, acquire new economic and social responsibility, so that the financial distress of some is seen to be to the advantage of others; two generations after the Emancipation, the results of the upheaval on the changing structure of society are still being felt. If the cast is divided by sex, the loss of the orchard places a marital urgency on the spinsters, Varia, Duniasha, and introduces a human need that Lopakhin, Iasha, and Pishchik cannot understand and to which they cannot respond; Ania and Trofimov still move in an unreal, romantic fog where they are as yet content to remain "above love"; and Liubov, now a rather desperate lady, is thrown back on the resource of her Paris lover. If the cast is divided by age, those of the older generation whose lives are locked in the past view change as the loss of a whole way of life too precious to be contemplated; for those of the youngest generation, Ania, Trofimov, Iasha, and Duniasha, the sale of the orchard is a neces sary break with the past and an opportunity for a new life; and those of middle years, Lopakhin, Varia, and Charlotta, are the realists who must face the demands of the moment, take stock of their financial position, find work. Such differences between the generations bring time alive on the stage. Only Firs, aged 87, is beyond class, sex, and time: he is the near-absurd chorus who is able to survey all the others, unaffected by events, and even as those he has loved forget him at the last, so the play ends on a crashing irony.

By Chekhov's dramatic techniques the audience is placed in the classic comic role of objective observer. It is finally academic to ask whether these plays are tragedies or comedies when their fugitive methods in performance call at one moment for the audience's compassionate understanding of the human condition and at the next for its unemotional judgment. Faced with the mass of de-tailed evidence, we the jury must temporarily withdraw and calmly try to reach a verdict. Our ambivalent, tragi-comic response to the multitude of Chekhov's signals from the stage, apparently all at odds like the contradictions of life, reflects a process at the heart of his dramatic method and amazingly corresponds to the actual experience of living. In his Preface to Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson recognized that "the real state of sublunary nature … partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination,"9 and thus justified the dramatic mixture in Shakespeare. In the world of his plays, Chekhov; like Shakespeare, generously embraces human life and does so with a little of the same impulse toward creative variety.


1 Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard, and Other Plays, trans. Constance Garnett, Phoenix Library Edition (London: Chatto and Windus, 1935). Further quotations from The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard, and Uncle Vania are from this edition.

2 S. S. Koteliansky and Philip Tomlinson, eds., The Life and Letters of Anton Tchekhov (London: Benjamin Blom, 1965). All subsequent citations from Chekhov's letters are from this edition.

3 See Ernest J. Simmons, Chekhov: A Biography (New York: Little, Brown, 1962), p. 542; S. S. Koteliansky, ed. and trans., Anton Tchekhov: Literary and Theatrical Reminiscences (London: Routledge, 1927), pp. 156, 161; Anton Tchekhov, The Letters to Olga Leonardovna Knipper, trans. C. Garnett (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1966), p. 368.

4 Anton Chekhov, Three Sisters and Others Plays, trans. Constance Garnett, Phoenix Library Edition (London: Chatto and Windus, 1935), pp. 30,68, 80, emphasis added. Further quotes from Three Sisters are from this edition.

5Grierson on Documentary, ed. Forsyth Hardy (London: Collins, 1946), p. 11.

6 August Strindberg, Six Plays, trans. Elizabeth Sprigge (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1955), p. 69.

7 Quoted in David Magarshack, Chekhov the Dramatist (London: John Lehmann, 1952), p. 118.

8 Quoted in Dmitri Chizhevsky in Anton echov: 1860-1960: Some Essays, ed. T. Eekman (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1960), and reprinted in Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. R. L. Jackson (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967), p. 53.

9 Samuel Johnson, Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Walter Raleigh (London: Oxford University Press, 1908), p. 15.

Péter Egri (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12790

SOURCE: "The Mosaic Design," in Chekhov and O'Neill: The Uses of the Short Story in Chekhov's and O 'Neill 's Plays, Akadémiai Kiadó, 1986, pp. 68-117.

[In the following excerpt, Egri demonstrates how themes and motifs from Chekhov's short stories are incorporated into "mosaic patterns " in Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard.]

The most intricate and refined strategy of composing a dramatic whole out of short-story-like units is the application of the mosaic design. It represents a total integration of short-story-oriented elements, minor motifs, even fragmentary motives, into a dramatic pattern. How conscious Chekhov was of the nature and merits of the procedure is witnessed by his letter of May 8, 1889, to his brother, Alexander Pavlovich: "The large number of re-visions need not trouble you, for the more of a mosaic a work is, the better. The characters stand to gain by this. The play will be worthless if all the characters resemble you.… Give people people, and not yourself."1 It is worth bearing in mind that for Chekhov the plasticity, objectivity and variety of the characters in a play can be obtained by the dramatic adoption of the mosaic technique, and conversely, the mosaic principle is applied to reach these very effects. Describing The Wood Denton (then a play in progress) in a letter of May 14, 1889, to A. S. Suvorin, Chekhov calls it "something of a mosaic", but this quality of the drama does not prevent him from stating: "it leaves upon me an impression of accomplishment."2

Unity created of seemingly accidental fragments is a familiar and recurring trait of Chekhov's epic works ("The Steppe," "The Duel," "Three Years" "A Nervous Breakdown," "My Life," "Gooseberries," "On Official Duty");3 the technique also crops up in his early long plays,4 and it reaches the stage of perfection in the last two dramas, Three Sisters (1900) and The Cherry Orchard (1903).

The mosaic composition of Three Sisters can partly be explained by its strong and multiple reliance on a number of narrative works by Chekhov. In "My Life" (1896), a short novel consisting of short chapters not infrequently following a short story design, the thematic nucleus of Three Sisters may be discerned. Describing general conditions in the small town he lives in, Poloznev complains of the wide-spread bribery and corruption from which only very young girls surrounded by the atmosphere of moral purity and characterized by a noble spirit and high aspirations are exempt. They, however, do not know much about real life, and are threatened by the morass of petty bourgeois banality. The predicament of the three sisters in general and the plight of Masha married to the provincial schoolmaster Kuligin in particular can clearly be recognized.

"My Life" also anticipates the play by its heavy emphasis on the redeeming necessity of (physical) work. Poloznev, the son of an untalented architect, hates mechanical office work, becomes, like Irina, weary of being a telegraph clerk, and finds satisfaction in becoming a house-painter. Baron Tusenbach, who resigns his commission as a lieutenant and decides to start a new life in a brick-yard, strikes the reader as a dramatic variant of Poloznev. Dolzhikova, the daughter of a well-to-do railway engineer, condemns the idleness, boredom and spiritual emptiness—in part Masha's condition—that attend wealth (the alienation of the rich), runs a farm, patronizes the building of a school, and when she feels overwhelmed by the dead-weight of almost insurmountable difficulties, becomes a singer and moves to the United States. Even Poloznev's sister, Cleopatra makes up her mind to work, to lead an independent life and earn her living as a teacher—like Olga and Irina—, or as a nurse, or to take on washing and scrubbing. In the end, however, her dreams and plans are thwarted; she—not unlike Masha—becomes the mistress of a married man, Dr. Blagovo, bears him a child, is deserted by him, and dies of tuberculosis.

The discussions between Poloznev and doctor Blagovo about the aims of mankind and the prospects of progress towards the indistinct happiness of a distant future antic ipate the ethical conversations between Lieutenant Tusenbach and Lieutenant-Colonel Vershinin. So do the occasional changes of stances which are also responsible for a short-story-tinted oscillation. When (in Chapter 7) Poloznev is talking with Blagovo, he points out that although serfdom has been done away with, and capitalism is spreading, the majority feeds, dresses and defends the minority in the name of liberty and remains as hungry, underdressed and defenceless as it has been since the time of Batu Khan. The idea of progress seems to involve the development of the art of slavery. When, however, (in Chapter 8) he is having a conversation with Dolzhikova, Poloznev gives voice to the view that comfort and good life should be considered an inevitable concomitant of capital and culture. Similarly, in Act II of Three Sisters "Tusenbach professes to have no faith in the future, and it is Vershinin who is the apostle of work. But in the first act, we find Tusenbach on the windward track, and it is his words which have the proper prophetic ring."5 Such oscillations, modifications, adjustments and readjustments of attitudes do not simply express the indecision of characters; they also transmit the contradictory character of the social process itself, whose objective pattern consists of mosaic pieces of this kind.

In "Gooseberries" (1898), a short story both eloquent and ironic, Ivan Ivanich, an enlightened veterinary surgeon, attacks the narrow provincialism of his younger brother, Nikolay, a one-time financial clerk, who has resigned from the hurly-burly of everyday life, has moved out of town to seek refuge on a farm, to starve his wife to death, and to find his life's satisfaction in growing and relishing gooseberries, and professing "aristocratic" views: the time is not yet ripe for the people to be cultured, and occasional corporal punishment may be useful. The difference between life in the city and in the country prefigures the three sisters' longing for Moscow, just as the picture of petty provincialism appears to be a preparatory sketch for the portraits of Natasha, Kuligin and Chebutykin.

The distance between the city and the country are represented in Chekhov's short story, "On Official Duty" (1899), in terms of the contrast between Moscow (or St. Petersburg) and Sirnya, the small village where Lesnitsky, an impoverished nobleman, dissatisfied with life as an insurance clerk, commits suicide in one of the rooms of the local zemstvo. Lyzhin, the young magistrate, sent out to investigate the matter on the spot, yearns for Moscow with no less intensity than Olga, Masha and Irina in Three Sisters; for him Moscow and St. Petersburg represent the fatherland, the real Russia, whereas Sirnya is only the provinces, the colonies. When Lyzhin spends a night in the warm and comfortable house of the local squire, Von Taunitz, and meets his cultured and attractive daughters (who are not unlike the sisters in the play), as he waits for the blizzard to be over, he is overpowered by disconcerting ideas. He feels there is no life in the place, only bits of life, accidental fragments without meaning. He feels sorry for the girls, who are compelled to live cut off from the centre of culture, where nothing happens by chance, where even a suicide fits into the general scheme of things. The theme of Three Sisters is audibly sounded in the short story.

As if to underline the fortuitousness of life in the country, Lyzhin sees in a restless dream Lesnitsky, the dead clerk, and Loshadin, the miserable old peasant constable, struggling together through the snow. The sight of Loshadin (who foreshadows Ferapont, the old porter from the Rural Board in Three Sisters), and of Lesnitsky, whom he has so far seen only as the repellent object of an unpleasant investigation in an impossible place, arouses the young magistrate's social conscience. He feels responsible for their fates. Like Vershinin and Tusenbach in the play, Lyzhin experiences an insight into something more significant, broad and meaningful than his immediate interests; and like Chekhov, the short story writer, and Chekhov, the dramatist, composing a meaningful whole out of apparently mosaic-like fragments, the magistrate realizes that the unhappy clerk and the old constable appeared accidental and unrelated only to one who saw his life as a fragment, but would be seen as parts of a single organism, marvellous and rational, by one who had the insight to see his life as part of the universal whole. Perceiving, through the operation of social conscience, the significance even of rural existence, observing the general in the particular, the necessary in the accidental, the whole in the fragments, the pattern in the mosaic pieces is the major artistic achievement of the author of "On Official Duty" and Three Sisters.6

Chekhov's preliminary studies for the play were completed by a long short story divided into short-story-shaped chapters, "In the Ravine" (1899). The narrative is concerned with the way in which Aksinya, the serpent-eyed daughter-in-law of the merchant, Tsibukin, gradually and ruthlessly gains sway over the household. She deliberately scalds Nikifor, Tsibukin's infant grandson, when she learns that the old man has bequeathed him one of his estates (on which she happens to have a brickyard); she ousts Nikifor's mother, Lipa, from the house (as Natasha does Anfisa, the old nurse in the play); and practically starves Tsibukin. With her uninhibited drive and unscrupulous energy, she is the prototype of Natasha in Three Sisters.

Short story motifs and fragments of this kind combine into a mosaic composition in Three Sisters. The nature and function of the mosaic pattern emerges at the very opening of the play. No sooner has Olga remarked that the sunshine warming their home in this provincial town reminds her of the sun bathing the streets of Moscow than Chebutykin, the boorish doctor, gives his answer "The devil it is!", and Baron Tusenbach adds "Of course, it's nonsense."7 They are not addressing their words to Olga; in fact, they are retorting to Solyony; yet the onlooker, who has not been given a chance to listen to Solyony's story, has the half-conscious impression that these words also refer to Olga's attitude, and thus constitute a comical check on the upsurge of desire. A direct reply would, at this point, have been farcical and crude. The absence of all rejoinder might have given a sentimental emphasis to Olga's day-dreaming. The juxtaposition of longing and laughter, of desire and derision, establishes an intricate relationship between the two poles: Olga's ideals are qualified as elegiac illusions by the soldier's sobriety; but these illusions are, to a certain extent, also justified and enhanced by Chebutykin's vulgarity. The doctor's attitude also appears in a double light: it is both "real" in the sense of being free of all illusions, and crude in the way it cynically relinquishes all ideals. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Tusenbach, who with his casually condescending, scornful remark seems at the beginning to belong, along with Chebutykin, to the pole of unadorned truth, later proves to be an idealist dreamer himself, and takes a position very different from Chebutykin's. It is, of course, only in the total design of the dramatic mosaic that the viewer becomes fully conscious of the wider implications of such tiny steps from mosaic piece to mosaic piece; a carefully, if seemingly casually, built design, in which subjective intentions and objective conditions are realistically related, and the elegiac and the coarse, the high and the low, the tragic and the comic mutually counter-point, delimit but also highlight and intensify one another. The apparently loosely laid out darker and lighter pieces form a unified pattern in the concept of the author and the vision of the viewer in such a manner as to focus the human essence of the characters and their situations. This outlook and view, therefore, with its admitted naturalistic informality and impressionistic scintillation, define and follow the formal principles of a realistically arranged modern composition.

With the basic note thus struck, the dramatic composition reinforces the pattern. What could be more commonplace than a casual remark about some member of the family staying to lunch? When, however, it is Masha who makes the remark in the opening conversation in the play,8 it assumes a special dramatic significance. This is because of the mosaic principle: the seemingly trivial statement, in fact, marks the point at which an attitude is reversed, a hidden psychological process breaks through, an emotional relationship is established.

Not long before her remark, Masha said she was going home and was not staying for Irina's name day party. She was glum and depressed, remembering the old days in Moscow, when her father, General Prozorov, was still alive, and at least thirty or forty officers came to a nameday party. When, however, the new battery commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Vershinin, newly come from Moscow, arrives and says he recalls Prozorov's home and his three daughters, and starts talking about the importance of the contribution intelligent and educated people living in a dull and dismal town make to rendering life unimaginably beautiful and marvellous in two or three hundred years, the sisters are animated—and Masha stays to lunch. A man has turned up with a presentiment of the future, with a sense of morality, and with an encouragement giving justification for suffering. Masha is on her way to falling in love with someone worthy of her love. This is an exceptional moment presented without rhetoric; a piece of mosaic preceded and prepared by Masha's initial sadness and ennui; by her remark that she does not remember Vershinin; by her statement that she can recall him after all as the young lieutenant she used to tease as the love-sick major; by her observation to the effect that to know three languages in a provincial town is an unnecessary encumbrance like a sixth finger; and finally by his reassuring vision of how future happiness may justify present suffering. He has a notion of the meaning of life; he may become the meaning of her life. There is no way she can miss that lunch.

Tusenbach develops Vershinin's idea of the beauty of the future, and starts speaking about his own chief moral concern, the necessity of work to achieve it. Vershinin agrees with an absentminded and curt "yes", and praises the lovely flowers and delightful rooms the sisters have. The abrupt change of subject, another mosaic piece, leads the conversation back to normal, prevents daydreaming from becoming pathetic, and reestablishes the balance between what, by this very act, is proved exceptional and the sphere of everyday utterances. When Tusenbach tries to resume his favourite topic, he already feels he has to defend himself against the possible charge of being a sentimental German and assures everybody present that he is Russian, cannot even speak German, and had a father who belonged to the Orthodox Church …

The contradiction between Andrey's imaginary and real prospects is also brought home to the onlooker or reader by a mosaic motif. His sisters hope, and sometimes he himself trusts, that he will continue his studies and will become a professor. In fact, he is only the secretary of the Rural Board, and his sole prospect is to become a member of the Board. He grumbles to Ferapont about how life thwarts one's desires. The old, half-deaf porter from the Board admits he does not hear Andrey well. Andrey is pleased: "If you did hear well, perhaps I should not talk to you",9 he sums up paradoxically his position characterized by loneliness, timidity, inability to establish human contact with anyone, absent-minded weakness and non-committal passivity—with which he encourages, without knowing it or wishing to do so, the predatory inclinations of his ruthless and vulgar wife, Natasha …10

In Andrey's and Ferapont's conversation, running on parallel lines interrelated but not intersecting, Moscow is evoked several times. The psychological reality and the physical unreality of its magic attraction are rendered in a fine movement and counter-movement: the nearer the image of Moscow floats in their desires, the farther it recedes in its tangible reality. For Andrey, it is a most desirable city, where one can sit in a huge restaurant not knowing anyone and still not feel like a stranger; for Ferapont, it is an anecdotal town where some merchants allegedly ate forty or fifty pancakes at a sitting, and ultimately it appears as a legendary, fabulous, mythical habitation where, as some contractor says, a rope is stretched right across the place …

That Moscow is, in fact, the recurring symbolic leitmotif of the reality of desires and the unreality of their fulfilment is made explicit in yet another microscopic mosaic scene: Irina, playing patience, exclaims happily that it is coming out right, and so they will go to Moscow, but Vershinin, newly come from there, replies: "you won't notice Moscow when you live in it. We have no happiness, … we only long for it."11

Act III of Three Sisters provides a tragicomic cluster and a whirling cavalvade of mosaic events. The longer the mosaic sequence is, the stronger the tragicomic effect turns out to be. The reason is illuminated by the devastating fire raging in the town. The spectator sympathizes with Vershinin, who rescues his two frightened little daughters, brings them to the sisters' house, and muses about the repulsiveness of the present and the beauty of the future; he sympathizes with Masha, who confesses her love for Vershinin to Olga and Irina, and yearns for Moscow; he feels sorry for Kuligin, who is cuckolded; he understands Tusenbach, who awakes from a dream and praises Irina's beauty glimmering white in the dark room, and wishes to work on her side; and to a certain extent, the spectator can even accept Andrey, who would withdraw from the insults of the outer world to the sheltered intimacy of his room and to the music of his violin; or Chebutykin, who has forgotten all he ever knew of medicine and, reduced to a semblance of life, considers life a mere appearance and drinks himself into oblivion.

But into the turmoil of smouldering desires, sufferings and grievances an inextinguishably comic ingredient is mingled by the circumstance that none of these persons, so desirous of a meaningful life and a valuable form of activity, bother to make an attempt to put out the fire. Vershinin even praises the soldiers out fighting the flames as splendid fellows, he gets dirty all over, but he only takes his daughters from his house (already out of danger) and runs away with them to the sisters—to find his hysterical wife there, screaming and angry. He desperately longs for real life, and sings out his "tam-tam!" in answer to Masha's "tram-tam-tam!", but this is about all he actually does. Somewhat incongruously, Kuligin finds it reassuring that, in spite of the wind, "only one part of the town has been burnt."12 Baron Tusenbach is enchanted by Irina's melancholy paleness, declares he is going to the brickyard directly to start a new life devoted to physical work, and invites Irina to work with him—but in spite of their apparent agreement, neither stirs a limb to quench the fire or help its victims. Tusenbach's rival for Irina's love, or at least attention, Captain Solyony, when asked by Vershinin about the fire, casually answers that it is said to be dying down; what he does fume over is why he may not stay in the house if the Baron may, sprinkling himself with a bottle of scent the while. When asked for the eleventh time by Ferapont to give permission to the firemen to go through his garden on their way to the river, Andrey first bawls at the porter not to call him Andrey Sergeyevich but to address him as "your honour", then gives his leave, absent-mindedly adding that he is sick of the firefighters; he asks for Olga's key to the cupboard, declares Natasha is a splendid woman, claims that his sisters are against her only because "Old maids never like' and have never liked their sisters-in-law";13 states peremptorily that he considers his membership at the Rural Board just as sacred and elevated as if he were a university professor; confesses he has mortgaged the house because he has lost thirty-five thousand roubles gambling; repeats that Natasha is an excellent, conscientious, honourable woman—and starts crying: "Dear sisters, darling sisters, you must not believe what I say, you mustn't believe it …".14 Chebutykin cannot cure anyone any more: a woman he treated died a few days before, and she has come back to his mind; he finds everything nasty and disturbed in his soul and so gets drunk. That is why he cannot help the victims of the fire, and Olga—the only member of the company helping the helpless—cannot put them into his room because of his drinking bout.

Chekhov is far from exaggerating the contrast between the personal suffering of those safely ensconced and those afflicted by the fire; nor does he overdo the contradiction between what his characters should do, do not do, and do do. The fire is only a backdrop to the desires and hopes entertained, to failures and sufferings in the foreground. But since the characters consider the fire only a back-drop to their personal affairs, these affairs—despite the sincerity with which they are experienced and pursued—take on a tragicomic quality. To dream of the good life to come and to do nothing about it in an emergency is tragicomically incongruous. The seemingly disintegrated informal casualness and the cumulative effect of the mosaic scenes serve this purpose with a brilliant formal clarity.

It is in Act IV that the elegiac-tragic and the trivial-comic threads of the action are woven into an extremely evocative and unified pattern. The mediating agent is again the mosaic design. With the artillery brigade being transferred to another post, the sisters are heart-broken. Irina still has her chance for happiness: Tusenbach has resigned his commission; they are planning to marry the following day; then Tusenbach hopes to start working at a brickyard, and Irina wishes to take up teaching at a school. But the jealous and irritable Solyony is threaten ing to kill Tusenbach in a duel. When Masha suggests that Chebutykin ought to prevent the duel, his answer is negligently cynical and nihilistic: "The baron is a very good fellow, but one baron more or less in the world, what does it matter?"15 The interaction of pathos and bathos mutually limit, but also strengthen, one another.

To drive his point home effectively, yet unobtrusively, Chekhov actually gives a kind of ars poetica of the possible function of using apparently insignificant mosaic units in the framework of a drama. When taking leave of Irina, immediately before going to his fatal duel with Solyony, in the presentiment of death, Tusenbach is overwhelmed by the intensity with which he experiences all the beauty and promise of life which are now at stake. His emotional concentration raises a trifle into a poetic image, which in turn becomes a lyrical symbol:

What trifles, what little things suddenly à propos of nothing acquire importance in life! One laughs at them as before, thinks them nonsense, but still one goes on and feels that one has not the power to stop. Don't let us talk about it! I am happy. I feel as though I were seeing these pines, these maples, these birch trees for the first time in my life, and they all seem to be looking at me with curiosity and waiting. What beautiful trees, and, really, how beautiful life ought to be under them! (A shout of "Halloo! Aa-oo!") I must be off; it's time.… See, that tree is dead, but it waves in the wind with the others. And so it seems to me that if I die I shall still have part in life, one way or another.16

Irina offers to accompany him, but Tusenbach will not let her, and goes off quickly in alarm. Yet he stops in the avenue and calls her name. Upon Irina's question his answer is simply: "I didn't have any coffee this morning. Ask them to make me some."17 The sentences sound commonplace and trivial; and in this sense, they consti tute a low-key counterpoint to the elevated poetic lan guage he was using a moment before. At the same time, however, they represent such trifles as suddenly acquire importance in life. In the given dramatic context their bathetic tone expresses passionate questions such as why Irina cannot love him; when, if ever, they will meet again; what, if anything, they can tell one another at the crucial moment of their final farewell.

The dramatic significance of Chekhov's contrapuntal style unfolding in juxtaposed and confronted mosaic units lies in rendering his human and artistic credo authentic, which without his reservations and qualifications would seem merely an empty ostentation, an example of sentimental or dry didacticism: "A time will come when everyone will know what all this is for, why there is this misery; there will be no mysteries and, meanwhile, we have got to live … we have got to work",18 Irina says. The play comes to an end, as it began, on a dual note. Thus in the last mosaic unit, in Olga's tragic and Chebutykin's comic utterances, the drama acquires a rondo form. His "Tarara-boom-dee-ay! … It doesn't matter, it doesn't matter"19 and her "If we only knew, if we only knew!"20 put a joint question about the meaning of a form of existence. The greatness of the play is manifest in its ability to question in this manner; its consistency lies in the fact that this very question is put with each of its scenes and mosaic pieces.

Chekhov's lyrical tragicomedy becomes fully developed in The Cherry Orchard. The drama partly continues, partly summarizes the playwright's earlier aspirations. Like so many of his former plays, The Cherry Orchard is also closely connected with a short story. The full elaboration of the dramatist's last play was preceded by the composition of his last short story, "The Betrothed" (1903). The story concerns a significant peripeteia in the life of a highly-born young lady, Nadya, who lives on the family estate, and is to be married to the bishop's son, Andrey. When, however, a poor, young lad, Sasha, enlightens her as to how dull, useless and worthless her idle life at Andrey's side would be, Nadya escapes from home, flies to Petersburg, and enrolls at the university.

The juxtaposition of wealth, comfort, culture and their source—the toil of deprived servants living in utter misery, sleeping on the bare floor of the kitchen in filth, stench and among vermin—anticipates the contrast between the parasitic lives of the father and grandfather of Ranyevskaya (Lyubov Andreyevna) and the subjugation and deprivation of their serfs. Sasha's diatribes against Nadya's mother and grandmother, whose leisurely manner of living presupposes and requires the hard work of their servants, give a taste of Trofimov's views, just as his belief in the future foreshadows Trofimov's faith in the advent of a better life. And like Nadya, affected by Sasha's ideas and finding the very ceiling of her room lower and oppressive, Anya, too, comes under Trofimov's influence, and when he explains his position to her, she finds, somewhat to her own surprise, that she does not love the cherry orchard as she used to. Dreaming about the time when not a trace of Granny's house will remain, in which four servants must live in one dirty room in the cellar, Nadya outlines the fate of Ranyevskaya's house as well. Nadya's mother and grandmother also realize that they have lost their past position, authority, influence and rank.

Even if Sasha represents the ideal in the short story, Chekhov is far from idealizing him. When Sasha criticizes the outmoded way of life of the landed aristocracy, he is always right; and when expresses his belief in the future of mankind, he is invariably attractive, yet there is something tentative in his aims and awkwardly impractical in his performance. He has the reputation of being an excellent painter, and is sent to study at the Komisarov Institute in Moscow; but he leaves the place in two years and goes over to the Academy of Fine Arts where he spends almost fifteen years and, with great difficulty, finishes a course in architecture; nevertheless, he fails to become an architect and starts his career as a printer. Thus he prefigures Trofimov, the perennial student, who at the age of twenty-seven is as yet unable to complete his studies at Moscow University.21 Sasha exposes the awful conditions the servants in Nadya's home are forced to live in, but his own room in Moscow is also filthy, slovenly and neglected, and after her return from St. Petersburg to Moscow, Nadya finds him much less interesting and intelligent than before. All the same, his death from consumption has a cathartic effect on her: she realizes that her life has changed in the direction Sasha meant it to change. His function was that of a catalyst; he precipitated Nadya's recognition of the truth. In this, too, Trofimov appears to be Sasha's successor. Refusing Lopakhin's money, Trofimov speaks, somewhat rhetorically, about humanity advancing towards the highest truth and his marching in the front ranks. Upon Lopakhin's question whether he will get there, Trofimov answers in the affirmative, then, after a pause, he adds a qualification: "I shall get there, or I shall show others the way to get there."22 This is Sasha's role, too.

How reminiscences of Three Sisters and premonitions of The Cherry Orchard occupied Chekhov's mind while he was writing "The Betrothed" can be sensed in several motifs pointing backwards and forwards. The Andrey of the short story, who had graduated from the philological faculty of the university ten years before, but refused to undertake any kind of job, had no definite profession and liked to play his violin, is an echo of, and a variation on, the Andrey of Three Sisters, who had never even taken his degree, and tried to find consolation in playing his violin. The snapping of a string on Andrey Andreyevich's violin at midnight, causing general laughter, but in the given narrative context also suggesting the impracticability of his plans to marry Nadya, would seem to point forward to the mysterious sound of the breaking harp-string in The Cherry Orchard, so rich in symbolic over-tones of the passing away of things.

The little boys banging the fence and teasing Nadya by calling her a bride prefigure the people who take Varya's betrothal to Lopakhin for granted.

Chekhov's mosaic technique, raised to a high level of perfection in his late plays and put to very effective use in The Cherry Orchard, also appears in "The Betrothed." Hinging on the central mosaic piece of Nadya's sudden change of mind, and subdivided into six small chapters, themselves almost reading like miniature short stories, the narrative of "The Betrothed" contains a number of minor but telling mosaiclike details. When Nadya realizes that her life is shallow and her fiancé is silly, and plucks up courage to say so to her mother, Nina Ivanovna, she, with an unexpected fit of temper, complains that Nadya and Granny torment her to death, and declares that she wishes to live and to be free. At first glance, her somewhat incongruous vehemence seems to be strange; after all, it was she who only a short while before was trying to convince Nadya that she must marry Andrey. All the same, Nina's reaction is psychologically perfectly understandable. As a mother, she wishes Nadya to marry the bishop's son. As a woman, she feels insulted at the thought that she has a marriagable daughter. Nadya's refusal to marry Andrey shocks her in her social function; her daughter's prospect of marriage upsets her body and soul; she abhors the idea of being made an elderly lady. The two insults intermingle since they threaten the same person, the psychic protests they elicit are but negative reactions of the same personality, and in this sense they are interchangeable. That is why Nina emphasizes with such passion that she is still young when Nadya speaks against marrying Andrey. The woman is speaking, as it were, through the mask of the mother. Nevertheless, even if the vexation is the same, yet the incongruity is there; the two contiguous mosaic pieces are deliberately and ingeniously ill-fitting.

Nadya is a rational being, she sees the incompatibility of Nina's attitude with the situation, and finds her crying and cuddling mother small, pathetic and silly; in fact, a further argument to leave home and go to university. Chekhov saves the reader the explanation; he is content to show the maladjustment of the two mosaic pieces and by implication reaches a true dramatic effect.

In their general psychology, the two short scenes in the story bear some resemblance to an equally—and equally unexpectedly—passionate exchange of words between Ranyevskaya and Trofimov in The Cherry Orchard. The conversation is also based on the mosaic principle. Ranyevskaya complains to Trofimov that her lover is a mill-stone about her neck, drawing her down, but she loves that stone, and cannot live without it. Trofimov displays a rational attitude, though it is emotionally motivated, stating that Ranyevskaya's lover has robbed her, is a worthless creature and a despicable wretch. Though Ranyevskaya admitted her lover was a savage creature only a moment before, Trofimov's words hurt her innermost feelings no less than Nadya's do Nina's, and she (Ranyevskaya) calls Trofimov a prude, a comic fool, a freak, who at twenty-seven still behaves like a schoolboy, and who at his age, were he a man, ought to have a mistress. A beautiful woman is talking, as it were, from behind the mask of a dutiful lady;23 a personal offence is avenged by a personal affront; a rational remark causes an emotional eruption whose blast sends an outraged Trofimov down the stairs at a speed greater than he wished to go.

Another characteristic example of Chekhov's application of the mosaic principle of composition in "The Betrothed" is the seemingly innocent juxtaposition of a ponderous statement and a casual—and apparently inappropriate—question. Nina declares that lately she has been dealing with philosophy and makes a pronouncement to the effect that in her opinion the most important thing is that all life should flow, as it were, through a prism. Nadya, for her part, asks Nina about Granny's state of health. No long explanation is needed to express Nadya's (and the author's) opinion about the value of Nina's philosophizing.

Connected by numerous threads to the short story, and dramatizing various kinds of short-story-related motifs, The Cherry Orchard may be considered a summary of the main uses of the short story in Chekhov's dramatic art.

The technique of his mostly funny one-acters, especially those dramatizing an accidental yet telling story-like turn in a farcical manner, is recapitulated in Act III of The Cherry Orchard. In the scene in question, Varya becomes furious with Epikhodov, the counting-house clerk nick-named two and twenty misfortunes, who plays billiards, breaks the cue, goes wandering about the drawing-room like a visitor when there is a dancing party going on, protests against being taken to task, and further outrages Varya, who has expelled him from the room, by talking back from behind the door threatening to lodge a complaint against her. Thinking Epikhodov is coming back, Varya snatches a stick, and swings it heavily—at the very moment when Lopakhin is entering the room. He receives the blow, rapidly develops a bump and greets Varya with an ironical "very much obliged to you."24

If, however, the scene is viewed in a broader dramatic context, for all its farcical, indeed slapstick quality, it can be recognized as part and parcel of a more complex and grim situation characterized by tragicomic overtones. Before quarrelling with Epikhodov, Varya was teased by Trofimov as Madame Lopakhin, and since she takes Lopakhin quite seriously, while he only takes her lightly, Trofimov's tactless joke cuts deep. Varya considers Epikhodov a mere servant, and his awkwardly circumstantial courting of Dunyasha hardly serves to calm Varya's nerves. And, last but not least, the uncertainty surrounding the fate of the estate causes an increasing nervous tension which is soon exploded by Lopakhin's terse statement, appropriately expressed in a fearfully short, silence-provoking sentence, that he has bought the cherry orchard. The scene is rounded off by Varya taking the keys of the household from her waist-band, and flinging them on the floor in the middle of the drawing-room. Thus the scene she leaves with a broken heart is very different from the one she entered with comic anger.

The cascade connection of short-story-oriented dramatic units is also recognizable in the structure of the play. The framework of the drama is provided by the arrival (Act I) and departure (Act IV) of Ranyevskaya, which—like those of Arkadina and Trigorin in The Sea-Gull, of Elena and Serebryakov in Uncle Vanya, and of the soldiers in Three Sisters—upsets the semblance of naturalistic and impressionistic stasis and sets the action of the play into short-story-inspired capillary motion.

In Act II Ranyevskaya tells the story of her life: how she married a man who made nothing but debts, and drank himself to death; how she became the mistress of another man and lost her son, who was drowned in the river; how she fled to France, nursed her sick lover, was robbed and abandoned by him for the sake of another woman; how she tried to poison herself unsuccessfully and, yearning for her homeland, returned home to the old family nest, the cherry orchard. Although nobody seems to listen very attentively to her words, her narrative gives the pre-history of the dramatic plot, motivates her general attitude, subsequent deeds and even the lack of them (her inability to part with the orchard), and charges the atmosphere with dramatic tension.

Her past-oriented stance is counterpointed by the future-looking attitude of Trofimov, who also has a strong influence on Ranyevskaya's daughter, Anya. The truths expressed in the former plays by Treplev and Nina, Voynitsky and Astrov, Tusenbach, Vershinin and Irina, are proclaimed in The Cherry Orchard by Trofimov. If for Ranyevskaya the "all, all white"25 orchard with its fairy-like radiance is the very image and symbol of beauty, purity, childhood and innocence beckoning from a faded past, for Trofimov the symbol changes its meaning, turns towards the future, becomes enlarged and is transsubstantiated:

All Russia is our garden. The earth is great and beautiful—there are many beautiful places in it.… Think only, Anya, your grandfather, and great-grandfather, and all your ancestors were slave-owners—the owners of living souls—and from every cherry in the orchard, from every leaf, from every trunk there are human creatures looking at you. Cannot you hear their voices? … We are at least two hundred years behind, we have really gained nothing yet, … we do nothing but theorise or complain of depression or drink vodka. It is clear that to begin to live in the present we must first expiate our past, we must break with it; and we can expiate it only by suffering, by extraordinary unceasing labour.… my soul was always, every minute, day and night, full of inexplicable forebodings. I have a foreboding of happiness, Anya. I see glimpses of it already.… Here is happiness—here it comes! It is coming nearer and nearer; already I can hear its footsteps.26

For the time being, however, only Varya, the narrow-minded, kopek-pinching housewife, is coming, putting an abrupt end to Trofimov's overflowing effusion and somewhat exaggerated vision of a bright future, and giving a short-story-like, ironic twist to the surging enthusiasm of the perennial student. The reminiscences from the short story "The Betrothed" are unmistakable. The irony is also fostered by the fact that Trofimov's ideal of a life of work is, for the moment, put into practice by the profiteering Lopakhin, just as Gregers Werle's idealist claims concerning mutual sincerity are realized by his father, the cynical merchant, and Mrs. Shörby in Ibsen's The Wild Duck, and like the way in which Hickey's aim to get rid of lying pipe-dreams is put into effect in his act of murdering Evelyn in O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. All the same, Trofimov's idealism is not annihilated by the irony of his position; the idealism and the irony in the play only qualify but do not extinguish one another. Trofimov's credo may be impracticable in terms of its immediate implementation, but it is as imperishable as the social and moral trend it expresses.27

Act III represents an important narrative-dramatic unit in the action of the play. Against the background of a dancing party, which—for all its apparent casualness and merry-making—strikes the spectator as a dance of death, a strong tension is built up. While Ranyevskaya is dancing, her brother Gaev is attending an auction at which the cherry orchard is sold. The new owner of the orchard, Lopakhin, has good reasons to gloat: he has become sole master of an estate where his father and grand-father used to be slaves, where they were not even allowed to enter the kitchen. He loses no time in taking the axe to the cherry trees, turning a beautiful landscape into a lucrative business venture.

In Act IV the dramatic momentum of the play is enhanced by the energy of yet another short-story-slanted twist. Ranyevskaya is taking leave of her home, garden and friends, and starts back to Paris to squander what little money she has got left. Lopakhin is also leaving; he orders the house to be locked for the winter, and moves to Harkov to look after his business affairs. Neither the former nor the present owner of the house knows that Firs, the 87-year-old, seriously ill valet, has been left locked up in the house. Is this an accidental event?

It is certainly not a deliberate action. Before her departure Ranyevskaya is possessed by two major worries: she has to look after Firs, and she ought to find a husband for Varya. Looking at her watch five minutes before leaving the house, she actually asks Anya what has happened to the old valet, and Anya reassures her that the young valet, Yasha, took Firs to the hospital in the morning. Upon Ranyevskaya's further inquiry even Lopakhin gives her an encouraging answer: he seems to be willing to marry Varya—although later, in a scene finely and effectively understated, he avoids making a proposal. Varya also asks Anya whether Firs has been taken to the hospital, and when she is assured that Firs has been cared for, she warns Anya that the note for the doctor must also be sent. Before locking the door, even Lopakhin asks whether they have all assembled.

In spite of all this, leaving Firs behind and locking him up in the deserted house is a kind of accident which generalizes the relation of lord and servant, is dramatically necessary and socially typical. The universality of the scene is by no means impaired but rather increased by the fact that Firs served his lords most willingly, stayed on with his old master even after the emancipation of the serfs, is of the opinion that those were the happy times when both the peasants and the masters knew their places, and even in his last words grumbles anxiously that Gaev has not put his fur coat on and has gone off in his thin overcoat. The realistic depth and the neatly stratified objectivity of Chekhov's dramatic art are apparent in his ability to realize and represent with a tragicomic clarity the fact that the fundamental nature of the relationship between lord and servant is not changed by mutual goodwill, and the problem cannot be solved by the capitalist development represented by Lopakhin either.28 It is this insight which gives an ironic quality to the tragically tinged elegiac words of Ranyevskaya as she is saying good-bye to her one-time home and to the dis-integrated values of her life: "We are going—and not a soul will be left here."29 Not a soul, save for the officious, helpful valet locked up by his well-meaning masters, left behind and condemned to slow death through long starvation by both his former and present lords. Chekhov's tragicomic view confronts Ranyevskaya's and Firs' patriarchal illusions with the essence of reality. It retains, magnifies, and even exaggerates them in the fancies of the characters, but disclaims, deflates and dispels them before the judgement of the audience. It is from the si multaneity of intuition and judgement that the Chekhovian unity of psychological portrayal and social representation is derived.

From these cascade connected short-story-like dramatic units it is the narrative-dramatic twist in Act III (the revelation of the sale by auction of Ranyevskaya's cherry orchard to Lopakhin) that has been given the greatest prominence. Here Chekhov's dramaturgy incorporates the third conspicuous use of the short story design: the coincidence of a short-story-oriented and a dramatically constructed turn at the apex of the play, usually at its penultimate structural division.

The presence of the mosaic composition is to be witnessed practically everywhere in The Cherry Orchard.

With sudden changes of emphasis, direction and evaluation, this strategy exposes the non-viability of a past turned into a beautiful but impracticable illusion. The result is usually a tragicomic interpretation of the fanciful and the real, the high and the low, the elegiac and the prosaic, the pathetic and the ridiculous.

After her return from Paris, Ranyevskaya greets her country, house and home, her people, relatives and servants with tears. Far from doubting in the slightest the subjective sincerity of her momentary feelings, Chekhov makes the audience feel their objective flimsiness. Ranyevskaya loves her country so tenderly that returning after her long absence, she could not look out of the window of the train: she kept crying; and when she is beside herself with joy that she finds Firs alive, the old and deaf valet's answer is simply: "the day before yesterday."30 In Chekhov's early one-act plays utterances of this kind remained on the level of farcical situations or stereotype caricature. In The Cherry Orchard, however, they separate illusion from reality while maintaining the appearance of illusion. Since the characters are the captives of their illusions, they are not aware of the discrimination they are making themselves. The dramatist understands his dramatis personae, but he also takes an external view of them.

When Lopakhin suggests to Ranyevskaya that she should pay her debts by cutting the cherry orchard up into building plots and letting them for summer villas, his offer sounds reasonable. When Gaev calls Lopakhin's impassioned little speech "all rot",31 and Ranyevskaya retorts that the only remarkable thing in the whole province is the cherry orchard, Lopakhin seems to be cut down to size; his offer implying the cutting down of the orchard appears in a vulgar light. When, however, Gaev addresses a rhetorical speech to the hundred-year-old bookcase, Yasha hands Ranyevskaya her medicine, and Pishchik, the boorish and impecunious landowner, takes the whole boxful of pills with a mouthful of kvass, it becomes obvious that the old form of life possesses an outmoded, outdated, old-fashioned, imbecile, sick and crude face as well. The mosaic technique produces an effect of light and darkness providing the onlooker with what might be termed the pointillisme of value judgements. Neverthe less, the illumination of the whole of the mosaic pattern from the direction of the future renders the pointilliste relativity of evaluation itself relative, and establishes a reliable, if distant, point of reference.

This point seems to give coherence to the mosaic design, no matter how incoherent its separate elements may be. Lepikhodov, the garrulous clerk, cannot "make out the tendency"32 he is precisely inclined for; he does not know whether he wishes to live or to shoot himself. He always carries a revolver, but all the same, he appears to be no less cautious not to be overwhelmed by sorrow than Ranyevskaya, who actually attempted suicide but failed to kill herself. These figures already lack the intransigence of Ivanov, Treplev or even Voynitsky (in The Wood Demon). Anya talks from her heart of hearts when she comforts her mother, telling her she will work hard for her examination, and, having passed that, will set to work to be of help to her, but the spectator feels that Anya's promise remains unrealizable, and knows that while making it, Anya continues to build the kind of tragicomic conflict which burst out in Uncle Vanya. The mosaic pieces seem to be related to one another as much within as between the plays. Gaev making an ornate and sentimental speech to his old bookcase strikes the onlooker as a caricature of Ranyevskaya cherishing her dear old orchard; and when he becomes a bank clerk, calls himself with seeming reassurance and self-importance a financier, and—repeating one of his favourite billiard terms—immediately adds "cannon off the red",33 he involuntarily caricatures himself. When Anya's former governess, Charlotta, who does not even know her mother, and with the loss of the orchard loses her job and income, picks up a bundle, nurses, dandles and fondles it like a baby, imitates its crying only to throw it back among the other packages, then she, anticipating the grotesque gestures of the absurd drama, expresses what Gaev, representing a recurring type of 19th century Russian fiction and drama, formulates explicitly: "We have become of no use all at once."34

One of the most beautiful examples of the mosaic method in the Chekhovian oeuvre is the enigmatic sound of a breaking string evoking rich overtones. It is heard at a long-abandoned old shrine, near a well in the open country. Ranyevskaya and her company are sitting plunged in thought, perfectly silent. The general stillness is further increased by the monotonous muttering of Firs. "Suddenly there is a sound in the distance, as it were from the sky—the sound of a breaking harp-string, mournfully dying away. "35 Is it simply a snapped string on Epikhodov's guitar? The merchant-minded Lopakhin thinks it is a bucket fallen and broken in the pits somewhere very far away. His interpretation is practical, orientated towards everyday and industrial life; it is sober and obviously non-symbolic. The eccentric Gaev, who during lunch in a restaurant improvised an unsolicited lecture on decadent poetry for the waiters, still attempts to give a possible but more refined and imaginative explanation for the sound, guessing it might have come from a bird of some sort, possibly a heron. Trofimov, the truth-seeking perennial student supposes it must have been an owl. The sensitive and neurotic Ranyevskaya living in and from her past reaches out for an unreal cause suggesting a ghostly symbolic meaning when she shudders and finds the sound horrid. Firs, himself a ghost of the past haunting the present, reinforces the ominously weird and ghastly impression: "It was the same before the calamity—the owl hooted and the samovar hissed all the time."36 Upon Gaev's asking him before what calamity the signs had appeared, Firs is ready with the answer: "Before the emancipation."37

Considering that the emancipation involved the possibility of Firs' liberation (even if the valet did not take the opportunity and continued serving his lords), his remark brings the tragic poetic symbol down to earth with an unexpected comic fall. Nevertheless, the symbol retains its elegiac—tragic, symbolic-lyric connotations as well.

Firs' comment is followed by a pause rather than laughter on the stage: Chekhov's subtle humour based on a minor modification of the angle of vision is lost on Ranyevskaya's company; for them the emancipation was certainly not liberation, but rather a historical calamity indicating the decay of the old feudal order. Their inability to sense the comic incongruity of Firs' remark only strengthens the spectators' conviction that one of the functions of the mosaic technique is to relate the subjectively doleful to the objectively grotesque.

The establishment of a relationship of this kind, however, is not an irrevocable single act; it is rather a polarization within fusion, counteracted by fusion despite polarization. The sound interpreted so differently by the various characters rings in the distance, it seems to have come from the sky, it reminds one of a breaking harp-string, mournfully dying away, and leaves behind what it emerged from: perfect stillness. Appearing in a stage direction, it makes the author's voice audible, too. And, last but not least, it is heard once more, in a structurally emphatic position, at the very end of the play, after the last words of the locked-up Firs and followed by deep silence in which nothing is heard but "the strokes of the axe in the orchard."38 If the vegetation of the patriarchal illusion has an indelibly comic side to it, its death is not without elegiac and tragic overtones in the total pattern of the Chekhovian tragicomedy relying on so many uses of the short story design.39

Chekhov's great interest in short story techniques as dramatic devices was well-founded in his artistic outlook, his view of the world. On October 22, 1901, he wrote an enthusiastic letter to Maxim Gorky praising his first play Smug Citizens (or The Petty Bourgeois) of which he had read three acts. He would give, he stated, a greater emphasis to Nil's figure and part, but he also suggested to Gorky that he should render Nil more self-contained and modest:

do not contrast him with Piotr and Tatyana, let him be by himself and them by themselves, all wonderful, splendid people independent of one another. When Nil tries to seem superior to Piotr and Tatyana, and says of himself that he is a fine fellow,—the element so characteristic of our decent working man, the element of modesty, is lost. He boasts, he argues, but you know one can see what sort of a man he is without that. Let him be merry, let him play pranks through the whole four acts, let him eat a great deal after his work—and that will be enough for him to conquer the audience with.40

Chekhov was certainly right in censuring Nil's rhetoric, as Gorky himself acknowledged by return of post. But the difference between Chekhov and Gorky is not only that of the experienced master and the talented beginner; there lurks a difference of outlook in Chekhov's lines as well. Chekhov did not appreciate the fact that in Nil's figure Gorky had portrayed a plebeian hero with potentially revolutionary energies, and not just a modest and merry lad playing pranks and eating a great deal. It is the plebeian drive of his new historical type which was destined to decrease the isolation of people around him. Nil in Smug Citizens, as Satin in The Lower Depths, or Sintsov, Ryabtsov and Akimov in Enemies, represents the force of integration and solidarity criticizing and attacking the old order of disintegration and fragmentation.41

The failure to see in Nil's type the unifying force capable of fighting against the social and moral deadweight of alienation and fragmentation, and the claim that Nil should not be contrasted with such characters as Piotr and Tatyana, inevitably lead to the concept that each of the characters ought to be left by himself or herself, i.e. "independent of one another". In the narrative structure of the play such a sort of "independence" results in a short-story-oriented dramatic strategy, and, in its most developed form, a mosaic design.

But even if Chekhov found Nil's level of consciousness, self-expression and dynamism exaggerated, he, too, like Tusenbach, had a presentiment of the promise of the future; he, too, fostered sometimes weaker, sometimes stronger hopes that "The time is at hand, an avalanche is moving down upon us, a mighty clearing storm which is coming, is already near and will soon blow the laziness, the indifference, the distaste for work, the rotten boredom out of our society."42 This enabled him to see the independence and isolation of his figures as only relative, and to arrange the short-story-rooted fragments and mosaic traits of his characters in such a way that the total pattern, the dramatic design of a meaningful human truth is recognizable. The fragments may and do limit each other; they are not, however, mere splinters, unrelated chips, but interlocking parts of an emerging whole which they represent and present.

Besides the view of relative isolation, there is another feature of Chekhov's world concept which helps in understanding his preference for building up a drama out of short-story-shaped motifs. His manner of formulating a statement shows a conspicuous dichotomy.

He maintains that Russia is "an Asiatic country, where there is no freedom of the press and no freedom of con-science, where the government and nine-tenths of society regard the journalists as enemies, where life is so narrow and so abominable";43 but he also censures I. L. Shcheglov for considering modern life a miserable bungling and for allowing this attitude to pass in sickly convulsions through all his writings rather than doing justice to contemporary life. "I am far from being enthusiastic about modern times", he adds, "but one should be objective as far as is possible. If things are not agreeable now, if the present is unpleasant, the past was simply abominable."44

He complains that in contemporary Russia "there is little hope for a better day";45 but he also believes in individuals working for the future:

I see salvation in a few people living their own private lives, scattered throughout Russia;—whether they be intellectuals or muzhiks, the power is in them, though they are few. A man is never a true prophet in his own country; and the individuals of whom I speak play an obscure part in society; they are not domineering, but their work is apparent; whatever comes to pass, science keeps advancing, social self-consciousness increases, moral problems begin to acquire a restless character, etc. And all this is being done despite the procurators, the engineers, the teachers, despite the intelligentsia en masse, and despite everything.46

In Chekhov's condemnation of "doctors who own villas, greedy civil servants and bribe-taking engineers" that promising and honest students turn out to be as soon as they start their careers; in his indignation over a "hypocritical, and in his false, hysterical, ill-bred, lazy" intelligentsia;47 and his praise of straightforward, self-sacrificing individuals weathering the general storm, appreciating, constituting and increasing human values, awaiting and promoting better days to come, it is not difficult to rec ognize the future-oriented views of Vershinin and a number of similar characters.

Chekhov records the facts of isolation, alienation and uncivilized backwardness with bitter precision:

What is there to talk about? We have no politics, we have neither public life nor club life, or even a life of the streets; our civic existence is poor, monotonous, burdensome, and uninteresting.… We are stuck in our profession up to our ears, it has gradually isolated us from the external world.… In short, for our silence, for the frivolity and dullness of our conversations, don't blame yourself or me, blame the climate, the vast distances, what you will, and let circumstances go on their own fateful, relentless course;48

—but he ends the sentence with "hoping for a better future."49 He declares unambiguously:

It seems to me that the writer of fiction should not try to solve such questions as those of God, pessimism, etc. His business is but to describe those who have been speaking or thinking about God and pessimism, how, and under what circumstances. The artist should be, not the judge of his characters and their conver sations, but only an unbiassed witness.50

But he also points out no less unambiguously:

Let me remind you that the writers who we say are for all time or are simply good, and who intoxicate us, have one common and very important characteristic; they are going towards something and are summoning you towards it, too, and you feel not with your mind, but with your whole being, that they have some object, just like the ghost of Hamlet's father, who did not come and disturb the imagination for nothing. Some have more immediate objects—the abolition of serfdom, the liberation of their country, politics, beauty, or simply vodka, like Denis Davidov; others have remote objects—God, life beyond the grave, the happiness of humanity, and so on. The best of them are realists and paint life as it is, but through every line's being soaked in the consciousness of an object, you feel, besides life as it is, the life which ought to be, and that captivates you. And we? We! We paint life as it is, but beyond that—nothing at all.… Flog us and we can do no more! We have neither immediate nor remote aims, and in our soul there is a great empty space. We have no politics, we do not believe in revolution, we have no God, we are not afraid of ghosts, and I personally am not afraid even of death and blindness. One who wants nothing, hopes for nothing, and fears nothing, cannot be an artist.51

This is, clearly, an attitude fairly different from that of an unbiassed witness, even if partly seriously, partly humorously and politely, Chekhov includes himself in his cultural diagnosis.

Once he seems to accept the idea of specialization:

… it is not the artist's business to solve problems that require a specialist's knowledge. It is a bad thing if a writer tackles a subject he does not understand. We have specialists for dealing with special questions: it is their business to judge of the commune, of the future, of capitalism, of the evils of drunkenness, of boots, of the diseases of women. An artist must judge only of what he understands, his field is just as limited as that of any other specialist … you confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for the artist;52

at another time he appears to reject it: "We write mechanically, merely obeying the long-established arrangement in accordance with which some men go into the government service, others into trades, others write"53 and however much he is preoccupied in his works with stating his problems correctly, and refrains from didacticism or preaching, he certainly does not leave it to non-literary specialists "to judge of the future"; and he flatly condemns "the sluggish, apathetic, lazy, philosophizing, cold intelligentsia … who are unpatriotic, dreary, colourless … who grumble and hotly deny everything, because it is easier for a lazy brain to deny than to affirm".54

Throughout his career as a writer, Chekhov betrays an extraordinary and increasing ability to show the innermost feelings, desires, yearnings and illusions of his characters. Nevertheless, he often changes his perspective from the internal to the external view, and takes good care not to subjectify his figures: "to depict horse-thieves in seven hundred lines", he writes, "I must all the time speak and think in their tone and feel in their spirit, otherwise, if I introduce subjectivity, the image becomes blurred and the story will not be as compact as all short stories ought to be."55 The objective, external, or even cold glance may furnish a comical antidote against sentimentality, but, most characteristically of Chekhov, it may also serve the purpose of throwing an emotion into relief. Commenting on L. A. Avilov's story "On the Road," by way of advice, he remarks: "when you depict sad or unlucky people, and want to touch the reader's heart, try to be colder—it gives their grief as it were a background, against which it stands out in greater relief. As it is, your heroes weep and you sigh. Yes, you must be cold."56

Then, with a gracefully sudden and graciously reassuring turn, he adds: "But don't listen to me, I am a bad critic. I have not the faculty of forming my critical ideas clearly. Sometimes I make a regular hash of it."57

Chekhov's statements and counter-statements are, sometimes, derived from the same period; in other cases they are separated by a gap in time, showing a modification of concepts and attitudes. In his last creative phase, at the preparatory stage of the 1905-7 bourgeois democratic revolution, his views became radicalized. But throughout his creative life, his attitude was characterized by a counter-balancing duality, the dichotomy of belief qualified by doubt, scepticism tempered by trust.58 Such a stance involved constant changes of emphasis, attention and emotional disposition; presupposed incessant modifications in the direction of the argument, the thrust of the statement, and the outcome of the discussion; and resulted in repeated sparks flashed between the two intellectual and emotional poles of a case, the pros and cons of the matter.

It, therefore, created a very favourable climate for the short story which, with its pointed or more subdued turns in narrative or mood, transference of the artistic centre of gravity, and miniature dramatic peripeteia, is ideally suited for representing shifts of attitudes, modulations of moods, adjustments and readjustments of standpoints, or alterations in the angle of vision.

Where the outlook is marked by a careful deliberation of the various sides, merits and demerits of the given situation, the totality of the artistic view of the world, such as the genre of drama provides, is also bound to be composed of such units. This factor, besides the sense of relative isolation, goes a long way to explain why Chekhov transmitted his human, humane and dramatic message by incorporating the technique of the short story in his plays, and why in his hand this method, even the mosaic pattern, became a means to underline the com plexity of objective reality in its full richness and variety, with its occasional stasis, uncertain direction, osmotic movements, resignation, fears and hopes.


1Letters on the Short Story, the Drama, and Other Literary Topics by Anton Chekhov, selected and edited by Louis S. Friedland (New York, 1966), p. 171.

2 Op. cit., p. 125.—Leo Tolstoy also identified Chekhov's mosaic technique, related it to impressionism, and considered Chekhov's method a new manifestation of realism: "His mastery is of a high order. I have reread his stories, and with great enjoyment. Several of them, for example, 'Kiddies', 'Sleepy', 'In Court', are true pearls. I have read absolutely everything in succession with great pleasure. Yet, it is a mosaic, there really is no main thread."

An unusual technique of realism has developed in Chekhov, and in contemporary writers generally. In Chekhov everything is so true, it's like an illusion, his Works produce the impression of some sort of stereoscope. He throws down his words seemingly haphazardly and, like the impressionist painter, he achieves surprising results with his brush strokes." See in Aleksandr Goldenveizer, Vblizi Tolstogo (Moscow, 1959), pp. 68-9. Tolstoy also realized that, when viewed from a proper perspective, the seemingly disparate parts come to form a picture: "As an artist, Chekhov cannot be compared with earlier Russian writers such as Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and myself. Chekhov has his own particular form, like that of the impressionists. You watch the man seemingly indiscriminately spread his paints, whichever come within his reach, and those paints seem to have no interrelationships whatsoever. But if you stand back at some distance and look, a harmonious impression opens up before you." See in Petr Sergeienko, Tolstoy i ego sovremenniki (Moscow, 1911), 228-9.—Analysing Chekhov's story "On the Road," Savely Senderovich establishes the presence of a mosaic design: "From the very outset the narration is constructed as a chain of momentary impressions. The switch from one impression to another is brought about by means of a change in the view-points. The brevity of every separate impression and the frequency of change in viewpoint create an original mosaic.… The poetic function of the mosaic of viewpoints described above is to break the continuity of time-flow, to reprogram the latter into a series of individually distinct quasi-spatial elements, and to transform a successive into a quasi-simultaneous system." Savely Senderovich, "Chekhov and Impressionism: An Attempt at a Systematic Approach to the Problem", translated by R. B. Mathison and T. Eekman. In Paul Debreczeny and Thomas Eekman (eds.), Chekhov's Art of Writing: A Collection of Critical Essays (Columbus, Ohio, 1977), pp. 140, 147, cf. p. 149.—For some other treatments of Chekhov's relationship to impressionism see: Petr M. Bitsilli, Tvorchestvo Chekhova: Opyt stilisticheskogo analiza (Sofia, 1942), pp. 38-52; Dmitri Chizhevsky, "Chekhov in the Development of Russian Literature", in Robert L. Jackson (ed.), Chekhov: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, 1967), p. 54; Charanne C. Clarke, "Aspects of Impressionism in Chekhov's Prose", in P. Debreczeny and T. Eekman, op. cit., pp. 123-33.

3 Cf. M. Valency, The Breaking String: The Plays of Anton Chekhov (London, Oxford, New York, 1969), pp. 54, 62, 215, 298.

4 M. Valency calls the action of The Sea-Gull "a complex tissue of inter-laced stories", op. cit., p. 135, cf. pp. 167-8.

5 M. Valency, op. cit., p. 238.

6 Cf. M. Valency, op. cit., pp. 212-6; 222-3, 235, 237-8.

7 Chekhov, Three Sisters, translated by Constance Garnett. Nine Plays of Chekov (New York, 1973), p. 99.

8 Op. cit., p. 107.

9 Op . cit., p. 113.

10 The loneliness of the dramatic figures and the isolation of their aspirations (also often met with in Strindberg), and the fact that at the turn of the century dramatic characters tend to talk beside, rather than to, one another, sometimes expressing themselves in juxtaposed monologues rather than confronted dialogues, are parallel with the growing independence of musical voices in contemporary dramatic (operatic) and symphonic music (Debussy). The tendency is later intensified in both expressionist drama (Kaiser, the young O'Neill) and music (Schönberg, Berg, Webern). Chekhov's mosaic technique also implies an early manifestation of composing the drama in separate interlaced voices which, however, are ultimately related to, if contrasted with, one another, and are referred to both each other and to the possibility of a harmonious resolution of separation and dissonance by the promise of a distant and rather indistinct future. O'Neill's last plays are also characterized by the simultaneity of presenting and resolving isolation.

11Nine Plays of Chekhov, p. 119.

12 Op. cit., p. 121.

13 Op. cit., p. 133.

14 Op. cit., p. 134.

15 Op. cit., p. 138.

16 Op. cit., pp. 140-1.

17 Op. cit., p. 141.

18 Op. cit., p. 145.

19 Op. cit., p. 146.

20 Ibid.

21 It is partly the abstract nature of Sasha's and Trofimov's social and moral perspectives that is responsible for the slightly humorous way they are treated. It should, however, be borne in mind that Chekhov—as appears from one of his letters to his wife Olga Knipper—knew more about Trofimov than what he explicitly represented: one of the reasons why it took Trofimov so long to finish his studies was his having been sent down from university several times. Cf. M. Valency, op. cit., p. 264. For parallels between "The Betrothed" and The Cherry Orchard compare M. Valency, op. cit., pp. 257-60. For a discussion of the story see Thomas Winner's "Theme and Structure in Chekhov's 'Betrothed'", Indiana Slavic Studies, 3 (1963).

22 Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard, translated by C. Garnett. Nine Plays of Chekov (New York, 1973), p. 89.

23 The doubling of the personality into a role-playing and a vital part in Chekhov's plays implies a tentative pointer to O'Neill's full-fledged dual, divided personalities and direct or indirect (actual or quasi-) mask technique in plays like The Reckoning, The Hairy Ape (later production version), The Ancient Mariner, All God's Chillun Got Wings, Marco Millions, The Great God Brown, Lazarus Laughed, Strange Interlude, Dynamo, Mourning Becomes Electro, Days Without End, More Stately Mansions, Long Day's Journey Into Night, or A Moon for the Misbegotten.—Cf. O'Neill, "Memoranda on Masks", "Second Thoughts", "A Dramatist's Notebook", in O. Cargill et al. (eds.), O 'Neill and His Plays (New York, 1970), pp. 116-22.—Eugene M. Waith, "Eugene O'Neill: An Exercise in Unmasking", in J. Gassner (ed.), O'Neill: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, 1964), pp. 29-41.

24Nine Plays of Chekov, p. 85. According to its subtitle, The Cherry Orchard is a comedy. In his letter of September 15, 1903, to Madame Stanislavsky, Chekhov also refers to the play as "a comedy, in parts a farce." Letters on the Short Story … , p. 159. In fact, however, the total testimony of the drama proves it to be rather a tragicomedy with an added emphasis on the comic aspect, but certainly not without serious elegiactragic implications. In this, too, The Cherry Orchard sums up and develops further Chekhov's dramatic achievement.

25Nine Plays of Chekov, p. 66.

26 Op. cit., pp. 77-8.—The vivid and tragic image of a lifegarden also crops up in a number of Chekhov's narrative works such as "The Black Monk" (1894), "The Teacher of Literature" (1894). "Ariadna" (1895), "The House with a Mezzanine" (1896), or "The Lady with the Little Dog" (1898). Cf. Z. Paperny, A. P. Chekhov (Moscow, 1960), Chapter 12.

27 Cf. V. Ermilov, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (Moscow, 1949), pp. 400-15.—E. Triolet, L'histoire d'Anton Tchekhov (Paris, 1954), pp. 189-203—G. Berdnikov, A. P. Chekhov (Leningrad, 1970), pp. 468-94.—L. Speirs, Tolstoy and Chekhov (Cambridge, 1971), pp. 213-23.—J. L. Styan, Chekhov in Performance: A Commentary on the Major Plays (Cambridge, 1971), pp. 239-337.—G. Berdnikov, Chekhov-Dramaturg (Moscow, 1972), pp. 225-52.—M. L. Semanova, Chekhov-Hudozhnik (Moscow, 1976), pp. 186-223.—B. Hahn, Chekhov: A Study of the Major Stories and Plays (Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, 1977), pp. 12-36.

28 Cf. Chapter 7 of My Life.

29Nine Plays of Chekov, p. 94.

30 Op. cit., p. 62.

31 Op. cit., p. 63.

32 Op. cit., p. 70.

33 Op . cit., p. 91.

34 Ibid.

35 Op. cit., p. 76.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid.

38 Op. cit., p. 95.

39 Ultimately the breaking harp-string as a symbol is associated with the past, passing away, evanescence. The cherry orchard as a symbol also becomes charged with past properties, qualities and values which in the present have changed into impractical, if beautiful, illusions. But by way of Trofimov's generalization ("All Russia is our garden", op. cit., p. 77.) this symbol is also capable of enlargement and opening up towards the future. The two sets of symbols indicate their dramatic use: they are aligned according to the requirements of the conflict, the governing tension of the play.

40Letters on the Short Story. … p. 179.

41 When in Chekhov's long short story, "In the Ravine" the greedy Aksinya scalds the infant Nikifor, his mother Lipa shrieks and then the courtyard becomes silent. Nobody dares to go into the kitchen to find out what has happened. When in Gorky's The Lower Depths Vasilisa scalds Natasha, a rebellion of indignation breaks out, and Vasilisa's husband, Kostilyov, the owner of the night lodging, is killed.—Nevertheless, the claim of giving a true dramatic cross-section of contemporary society and its performance brought with it the adoption of a measure of the mosaic method even in Gorky's dramaturgy. This is true not only of the early plays written under Chekhov's influence, but also of the later dramas in which Gorky speaks fully in his own voice. This point of contact between Chekhov's and Gorky's dramatic art calls attention to the objective fragmentation of a social state which received an adequately realistic representation in the two playwrights' works conceived in different ideologies. With Gorky, however, the short-story-patterned, mosaic-like units of the dramatic action tend to unite into a more extensive and therefore more novel-oriented design than with Chekhov.

42Nine Plays of Chekov, p. 101.

43 Letter to A. S. Suvorin, April 24,1899. Letters on the Short Story …, p. 278.

44 Letter to I. L. Scheglov, Jan. 20, 1899. Letters on the Short Story p. 222.

45 Letter to A. S. Suvorin, April 24,1899. Letters on the Short Story …, p. 278.

46 Letter to I. I. Orlov, Feb. 22, 1899. Letters on the Short Story … , p. 287.

47 Ibid., pp. 286-7.

48 Letter to V. 1. Nemirovich-Danchenko, Nov. 26, 1896. Letters on the Short Story … , pp. 287-8.

49 Op. cit., p. 288.

50 Letter to A. S. Suvorin, May 30, 1888. Letters on the Short Story … , p. 58. Cf. Chekhov's letter to A. N. Pleshcheyev, Oct., 1889. "I am afraid of those who look for a tendency between the lines, and who are determined to regard me either as a liberal or as a conservative. I am not a liberal, not a conservative, not a believer in gradual progress, not a monk, not an indifferentist. I should like to be a free artist and nothing more …" Letters on the Short Story … , p. 63.

51 Letter to A. S. Suvorin, Nov. 25, 1892. Letters on the Short Story …, pp. 240-1.

52 Letter to A. S. Suvorin, Oct. 27, 1888. Letters on the Short Story pp. 59-60.

53 Letter to A. S. Suvorin, Nov. 25, 1892. Letters on the Short Story …, p. 241.

54 Letter to A. S. Suvorin, Dec. 27, 1889. Letters on the Short Story p. 263.

55 Letter to A. S. Suvorin, April 1, 1890. Letters on the Short Story … , p. 64.

56 Letter to Madame Avilov, March 19, 1892. Letters on the Short Story … . p. 97.

57 Ibid.

58 The interplay of belief and disbelief is well-founded in Chekhov's social experiences and therefore it can express the certainties and uncertainties of the time. But it is also motivated by the author-doctor's awareness of his incurable illness. He felt old when he was 35 (Letter to V. V. Bilibin, Jan. 18, 1895, Letters on the Short Story … , p. 118), but one should bear in mind that he died at the age of 44.

Richard Peace (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6073

SOURCE: "Chekhov's 'Modern Classicism,'" in The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 65, No. 1, January 1987, pp. 13-25.

[In this essay, Peace uncovers elements of Greek classical tragedy in The Seagull and Three Sisters.]

Chekhov's real career as a dramatist may be seen as having begun with The Seagull: it marks the onset of the truly Chekhovian theatre. In this play the young writer Treplev issues something in the nature of a manifesto with his denunciation of the conventional theatre of his day and the staging of his own play, designed to impress (and to reproach) his mother—a pillar of that theatre, and her lover—the established writer Trigorin.

It is tempting to see in Treplev's demands for new forms in the theatre a manifesto launched by Chekhov himself. Indeed his fellow writer Potapenko (whose own life, as we know, provided material for Chekhov's plot) records that at the time of writing The Seagull Chekhov was himself constantly talking of the need for 'new forms'.1 Nevertheless Treplev's playlet is obviously far removed from Chekhov's own innovatory achievements. But it is only, perhaps, a matter of degree: for if we consider that Chekhov's own revolutionary theatre was a subtle combination of naturalism and symbolism, in which speech and poetic mood replaced overt action, then all these elements, but in a extreme and uncompromising form, also characterize the playlet staged by Treplev. Here, however, naturalism is that supposedly real background against which the piece is played, yet a naturalism which also turns out to be symbolic; for Treplev intends his audience to take the 'real' lake and the 'real' moon as eternal symbols. His playlet, too, emphasizes poetry and diction at the expense of action, yet the diction is artificial, elevated and anything but Chekhovian. The aborted playlet appeals to none of the other characters, with the possible exception of Dorn, the form is too 'new'—it is too avant-garde. Later in Act II his mother will hurl the epithet 'decadent' at her son.2

By an odd irony Chekhov's play itself suffered a similar fate on its opening night in St Petersburg, on 17 October, 1896. The audience reacted to The Seagull as though it, too, were avant-garde, decadent, rubbish and we are told that there was at least one voice from the pit which cried out 'C'est de Maeterlinck'.3 Maeterlinck and the decadent movement often seem synonymous for Chekhov: both were in his mind as he worked on The Seagull. Thus, in a letter to Suvorin of 2 November 1895, he reports on the progress of his play: 'It is growing, but slowly', and he goes on to give Suvorin advice for his own theatre: 'Why dp you not attempt to put on Maeterlinck in your own theatre? If I were the director of your theatre, I would make it a decadent one in two years, or would try to make it so. The theatre might, perhaps, seem strange, but it would nevertheless have a profile (fizionomiya)'.4

Two years later, Chekhov had not, of course, made Suvorin's theatre 'decadent', nor had he staged his own avant-garde play The Seagull with success, but he was nevertheless again writing to Suvorin to communicate his enthusiasm for Maeterlinck: 'I am reading Maeterlinck. I have read his Les Aveugles, L'Intruse and am reading Aglavaine et Selysette. All these are strange, weird things, but the impression is enormous, and if I had a theatre, I would definitely put on Les Aveugles. By the way there is wonderful scenery here, with the sea and a lighthouse in the distance.'5

Chekhov's interest in the play's natural background (which, of course, is also symbolic) seems to recall his own similar use of the lake and the moon in Treplev's playlet, but his own lack of success with The Seagull is obviously in Chekhov's mind; for he goes on to talk about the 'idiotic public' and the need to guard against the failure of his proposed production of Les Aveugles by giving the audience a synopsis of the play: 'the work of Maeterlinck, a Belgian writer, a decadent'.6

If 1896 is the year in which Treplev's 'decadent' playletcum-manifesto was first put before a Russian audience, it is also the year in which Maeterlinck himself published a manifesto for the theatre: Le Tragique quotidien. There is no evidence that Chekhov read it, but we do know of his great and continuing interest in Maeterlinck's theatre,7 and Le Tragique quotidien proclaims an aesthetic theory very close to Chekhov's own, not only in its title, but from its very opening sentence: 'There is a tragic element in the life of every day that is far more real, far more penetrating, far more akin to the true self that is in us than the tragedy that lies in great adventure.'8

Maeterlinck rejects violence and high drama on stage as merely superficial tragedy and is disillusioned by what he finds in the conventional theatre: 'I had gone thither, hoping that the beauty and grandeur and the earnestness of my humble day by day existence would, for one instant, be revealed to me …'.9 This is a conception of theatre which is quite close to Chekhov's own:

… in life people are not every minute shooting each other, hanging themselves, and making declarations of love. And they are not saying clever things every minute. For the most part, they eat, drink, hang about, and talk nonsense; and this must be seen on the stage. A play must be written in which people can come, go, dine, talk about the weather, and play cards, not because that's the way the author wants it, but because that's the way it happens in real life.

Let everything on the stage be just as complex and at the same time just as simple as in life. People dine, merely dine, but at that moment their happiness is being made or their life is being smashed.'10

In rejecting violent dramatic action on stage, Maeter linck, in Le Tragique quotidien, is in search of its opposite extreme—the concept of 'static theatre': 'I do not know whether it be true that a static theatre is impossible. Indeed to me it seems to exist already. Most of the tragedies of Aeschylus are tragedies without movement.'11

Thus we see that this so-called 'decadent' is really an admirer of classical norms. A great part of his essay is devoted to an analysis of classical Greek tragedy which reveals where his own roots lie: his plays may be forward-looking and modern, but at the same time they are also backward-looking and classical in the basic concept of theatre which they express. As a recent Maeterlinckian scholar has said: 'Everything within Maeterlinck's plays works towards a cohesive whole. The drama is tightly structured, adhering to the formulas of French classical theatre: unity of time, place and action'.12

If we turn once more to Treplev's 'decadent' playlet, we can see that the static quality of its conception is one of its most striking features, set as it is in a cold, distant future when all life has ceased, but it also exhibits other elements of classicism, at however rudimentary a level—be it the simplicity of the set, the elevated diction or the sense of a subject dealing with eternal values.13 It will be the argument of this article that classical elements, in that modern interpretation advanced by Maeterlinck, are present in at least one other of Chekhov's plays.

But first, let us look at Chekhov's own classical education. There was a thriving Greek community in his native town of Taganrog, and his father insisted on sending Anton and his brother Nikolay, as young boys, to the local Greek school. He hoped that this would provide an entrée for them into the Greek business community of the town. The instruction was entirely in modern Greek, and the first requirement was for them to learn this language, which they singularly failed to do because of the lack of any real tuition. After this dismal experience Anton was sent to the Taganrog gimnaziya—a type of institution often rendered in English as 'Classical School'. A large part of the curriculum was, in fact, devoted to the study of the classical languages, Latin and Greek. Indeed, after 1871, these subjects occupied more than forty per cent of a pupil's time in such schools.14 The reasons for this were political; it was considered that Classical languages inculcated better attitudes, as opposed to the 'nihilism' often associated with the study of the natural sciences. The Latin master of the school was particularly despised; he acted as an informer, and he may well have served as a prototype for Belikov, the repressive teacher of Greek whom everybody fears, in Chekhov's story "The Man in a Case" ("Chelovek v futlyare"). There is perhaps a further reflection of the author's schooldays in the much milder portrait of a teacher of Latin, that toady to officialdom, Kulygin, in The Three Sisters.15

Teaching of these subjects in the Classical Schools concentrated on language and grammar, and there does not appear to have been much attention paid to classical literature. In any case, Chekhov was obviously not strong in Greek—he was kept down in the third and fifth forms for failing mathematics, geography, and ancient Greek. It seems doubtful, therefore, whether the future author derived much real benefit from his classical education.

Intellectual attitudes to the classics, however, began to change towards the end of the century, at least in a certain section of the intelligentsia. In Russia, as in the West in the case of Maeterlinck, it was figures associated with the growing symbolist movement who brought this about, in particular, D. S. Merezhkovsky and Vyacheslav Ivanov. The historian of Russian literature Prince D. S. Mirsky calls Merezhkovsky 'the principal figure of the "modern" movement during its first stages'.16 He sees him as having developed what he calls 'a religion of Greek antiquity', and thinks his chief merit lies in his popularization of the values of the ancient world and those of the Renaissance. He writes: 'After Merezhkovsky, Florence and Athens became something more than mere names to the Russian intellectual'.17

Merezhkovsky, although younger than Chekhov, was among the first to award him serious critical attention. His article 'An Old Question about a New Talent' appeared in the Northern Courier (Severnyy vestnik) in 1888 but was not entirely well received by Chekhov.18 However, he got to know Merezhkovsky quite well. During a visit to Italy in 1891, he spent time with the Merezhkovskys in Venice,19 he also corresponded with him, though, unfortunately, Chekhov's letters have been lost.20 Nevertheless, from references to Merezhkovsky letters, he appears to have been prepared to give Merezhkovsky his due, but to have had reservations about some of his ideas and the way in which he constantly sought to propound them.21

One of Merezhkovsky's chief services to the cause of classical culture was his translations of Classical Greek tragedy, which between 1891 and 1896 inclusively appeared at the rate of one a year.22 It was Merezhkovsky's translation of Antigone which was staged by the pupils of the L. F. Rzhevskaya classical school for girls (Zhenskaya gimnaziya), where Chekhov's sister Masha was a teacher. This took place in the hall of the Stroganov School on 18 April 1897,23 and the following year, the Moscow Arts Theatre itself was preparing to put the play on. Nemirovich-Danchenko promised to send Chekhov a copy of the translation, and on 21 October 1898, Chekhov wrote to him: 'I am waiting for Antigone. I need it very much' (Zhdu Antigonu. Nuzhna ochen').24 Four years later he had himself acquired a full set of Merezhkovsky's translations, for in 1902 he sent his six Greek tragedies, individually numbered, as a gift to the public library in Taganrog, as part of the regular donation of books he thought the library of his native town should have.25 We may therefore assume that, whatever the shortcomings of his earlier classical education, Chekhov was aware of the achievements of Greek classical tragedy, not only from his personal contacts with Merezhkovsky but also from his translations.

What relevance has all this for Chekhov's own dramatic writing? We have seen Maeterlinck's championship of the classical theatre in Le Tragique quotidien; we have also seen the closeness of Maeterlinck's theories to the dramatic practices of Chekhov himself, and his interest in Maeterlinck at the time of writing The Seagull, and later. Yet one important qualification must be borne in mind. In Le Tragique quotidien Maeterlinck is discussing tragedy, and this is a designation for his own plays which Chekhov seems consciously to avoid. The Seagull, for all its tragic ending, he calls a 'comedy'. His next play, Uncle Vanya, is subtitled 'Scenes from Country Life'. Yet to call Uncle Vanya Chekhov's next play, in the true chronological sense, is very misleading, since it is a reworking of the earlier Wood Demon. When this reworking was undertaken is the subject of debate, but it cannot have been later than 1895.26The Three Sisters, begun in 1900, is the first play which could possibly show any influence of the aesthetic theories of Maeterlinck's Le Tragique quotidien of 1896. In fact, of all Chekhov's four major plays, The Three Sisters is the one that comes nearest to tragedy and, as if to make some concession in this direction, it bears the subtitle 'drama'.

Maurice Valency writes in his study, The Breaking String: 'Chekhov came very readily under the spell of Maeterlinck. In The Three Sisters, as much is conveyed symbolically as is expressed in words'.27 This is undoubtedly true, but one should not assume that the symbolic expression of ideas in the theatre was in any sense new, nor the sole province of Maeterlinck. He, after all, had himself pointed to the symbolic qualities in classical Greek tragedy, and similar views were already being championed by Merezhkovsky. Writing in 1894, in his introductory article: 'In place of a Preface (to the tragedy Oedipus Rex)', Merezhkovsky calls Oedipus Rex a 'symbolic tragedy', italicizing the word symbolic, and he claims: 'Indeed take away from it its symbolism and what will remain? Tragic chance'.28 Merezhkovsky takes a sophisticated view of the play's symbolism, for him the chief symbol in Oedipus Rex is not even present on stage—it is the already banished sphinx: 'Over all the tragedy, like a symbolic statue over a shrine, there reigns the sphinx—the incarnation of fate'.29 The manifestation of the sphinx in the play itself, he argues, is an inner one: 'The sphinx is no longer external, not in nature, but internal, in the soul of the conqueror.' The sphinx is 'the secret of life, the secret of every human conscience'.30

Let us now turn to The Three Sisters. From the outset, Chekhov presents his audience visually with a classical symbol—a row of columns. Their functional purpose is also symbolic for they divide the stage in two. In the front section, there are three women—the three sisters: in the rear—three men: Tuzenbakh, Chebutykin, and Solyonyy. The opening conversation of the women, which consists principally of the reminiscences and hopes of Olga and Irina, is punctuated at crucial moments from behind the columns by an apparently unrelated conversation carried on by the men. It is obvious that these snatches of conversation are to be taken by the audience as a commentary on the main conversation conducted by the sisters—a commentary on the theme of Moscow as a symbol of future hope, and as escape from the present. Chekhov, in this commentary from behind the columns, is introducing his audience to a device which is a modern, symbolic re-interpretation of the function of the chorus in Greek tragedy. The choric effect, of course, is not sustained in this form throughout the play, but having suggested it as a classical device from the very beginning, Chekhov will continue the 'indirect commentary' by a variety of means throughout his play. The characters on stage often speak apparently at random, uttering thoughts, or asking questions, which appear unconnected with what has gone before. On the one hand, this may be interpreted as 'naturalistic'—the way people speak in real life, but on the other hand, such randomness can also provide the suggestion of a commentary.

Maeterlinck, writing in Le Tragique quotidien about Sophocles' tragedy Philoctetes, makes a point which seems to bear on Chekhov's own use of dialogue:

And, indeed, the only words in the play are those that at first seem useless, for it is therein that the essence lies. Side by side with the necessary dialogue will you almost always find another dialogue that seems superfluous, but examine it carefully, and it will be borne home to you, that this is the only one that the soul can listen to profoundly, for here alone is it the soul that is being addressed.31

Maeterlinck is obviously suggesting a metaphysical dimension behind the 'superfluous dialogue' of the true tragic poet, but at a less elevated level his analysis also suggests much that is consonant with Chekhov's dramatic practices. He goes on to ask: 'Is it the thing you say or the reply you receive that has the most value? Are not other forces, other words we cannot hear, brought into being, and do not these determine the event?'.32

Dialogue in The Three Sisters is permeated by 'words we cannot hear'. They are conveyed through a number of devices: indirect commentary, the use of pauses, and, perhaps most important of all, literary allusion. It is the 'unheard words' of literary allusion which can, in Maeterlinck's phrase, 'determine the event'. Thus the death of Tuzenbakh, the one overtly tragic event in the play, is conditioned by literature—Solyonyy's self-identification with the Lermontovian malevolent hero. Here, too, in a strange, roundabout way we seem to come back to the prototypes of classical Greek tragedy: Valency in his study on Chekhov makes the following point about Lermontov's troubled and trouble-seeking heroes: 'For all their theatricalism his characters foreshadow more or less clearly the neurotic hero of our time, the modern counterpart of the tragic protagonist of Sophocles'.33

The most striking literary allusion in The Three Sisters belongs to Masha: her enigmatic quotation from the Prologue to Pushkin's Ruslan and Lyudmila. These are the first actual words she utters in the play, and she feels compelled to recite them again towards the end of Act I, and finally in a slightly fuller, though garbled, version towards the end of Act IV. The reference contains 'words we cannot hear'. The full quatrain, to which her garbled quotation in Act IV relates, is as follows:

Near the curved seashore is a green oak tree.
On this oak tree is a golden chain,
And day and night a learned tomcat
Keeps going round and round on the chain.

These verses in their full form would be readily supplied by an educated Russian audience brought up on them from childhood. For Masha, they represent a riddle. They appear to baffle her (but perhaps only partly so). The riddle, however, has a solution: Masha herself is the 'green oak tree' (the oak is a symbol of strength, its greenery denotes youth),34 but it is in a remote backwater and bound by a 'golden chain' (her marriage bond) to a 'learned tomcat'—the pedantic schoolmaster, Kulygin, who continually fusses round her. Thus Masha's perplexing quotation metaphorically refers to her own position at the opening of the play and to her reversion to this same position in Act IV on the departure of Vershinin. It is the riddle of her own 'tragic' situation.

Merezhkovsky's analysis of Oedipus Rex placed great emphasis on the concept of the riddle as the kernel of the play. Oedipus, he argued, having solved the riddle of the Sphinx, was confronted by an even greater riddle—that of his own being. The Sphinx was no longer external but inside himself. Masha, too, is confronted by a second and greater riddle: the mystery of being, of life itself. In Act II, she challenges Tuzenbakh's views on the predestined flight of migratory birds, which appears to make all philosophy irrelevant:

Masha Isn't there some meaning?

Tuzenbakh Meaning? Look out there, it's snowing. What's the meaning of that? (a pause)

Masha I think a human being has got to have some faith, or at least he's got to seek faith. Otherwise, his life will be empty, empty … How can you live and not know why the cranes fly, why children are born, why the stars shine in the sky … You must either know why you live, or else … nothing matters … everything's just wild grass … (a pause)35

We have here, surely, something akin to what Maeterlinck saw as the very essence of Greek tragedy: 'la situation de l'homme dans l'univers'.36 This exchange between Masha and Tuzenbakh finds its final, despairing echo in the words which conclude the play, but now it is in the mouths of different characters.

Chebutykin … What does it matter? Nothing matters!

Olga If only we knew, if only we knew!37

Thus it is given to Olga, whose explanations of the sisters' position opened the play, to end it on a note of enigmatic pessimism, and here we come close to that metaphysical dimension of classical tragedy, hinted at in the Maeterlinckian formula: 'it is the soul that is being addressed'. We also come close to Merezhkovsky's view of Oedipus Rex: 'Perhaps in the poetry of the entire world, not excluding that of our own day, there has never been expressed more hopeless and terrifying pessimism'.38

Oedipus, Merezhkovsky argues, is a tragic figure because of the irony of fate: 'the wise man who saw through into the secrets of the Sphinx' (Mudrets prozrevavshiy v tayny sfinksa) is turned into a 'pathetic, blind man'.39 Bearing this in mind we can see that there is irony too in the surname which Chekhov has given his sisters, for Prozorov is from the same root as Merezhkovsky's prozrevavshiy 'having seen through' (cf. prozorlivyy—'perspicacious'). For all the implications of their name, the sisters are blind to what is going on around them. Even that embodiment of indifference, Chetbutykin, can chide them for it in Act III: 'Why are you staring at me? Natasha's having a nice little affair with Protopopov and you don't see it. You sit here seeing nothing, and mean-while Natasha's having a nice little affair with Protopopov …'.40

'Perception' in the play, however, is not limited merely to 'sight'. The sisters 'deafness' is also stressed in this same act Olga and Irina hide behind the screens in their bedroom and refuse to hear when Masha wishes to tell them of her illicit love for Vershinin. The process is repeated slightly later with Andrey, when he seeks to have a heart-to-heart talk with his sisters about the problems that are germane to their very existence in the house. Earlier in this same act Masha had herself indignantly raised the question of her brother's financial plight: he has mortgaged their house, and yet it is Natasha who has the money. She is silenced by Kulygin, who discourages his wife from speaking about it, and now when Andrey comes to have his heart-to-heart talk, Masha leaves, asking him to postpone the discussion. A similar combination of indignation, yet reluctance to speak up where it really matters characterizes Masha's attitude to the duel in Act IV. In fact, no one is prepared to say or do anything that would stop it, and so Tuzenbakh is needlessly killed.

It might seem from all this that the three sisters embody the characteristics exemplified in those three allegorical figures: 'Hear no evil', 'See no evil', and 'Speak no evil', but the allegorical suggestions which Chekhov himself appears to make are on quite a different plane. At the play's opening, he focuses attention on the sisters as a symbolic group of three, and again at the play's end. Their classical overtones are those of Parcae, the three weird sisters themselves, an identification strengthened by their 'perspicacious' surname—Prozorovy. Nevertheless, any such hint can only be ironical, for they are not the mistresses of fate, they are its victims. Indeed, it would be truer to see them as embodiments not of fate, but of fatalism. The Soviet scholar T. K. Shakh-Azizova in her book on Chekhov and the Western European theatre of his time (Chekhov i zapadno-yevropeyskaya drama yego vremeni) speaks of Maeterlinck's favourite paradox: 'Sighted people in his works are spiritually blind, and the blind are unusually perspicacious' (prozorlivy—again).41 The motif of 'three sisters' who are also blind is a symbolic theme found in the poetry of Maeterlinck. In his Quinze chansons (Fifteen Songs) of 1896 there are two poems entitled: 'Les Trois Soeurs aveugles' (The Three Blind Sisters) and 'Les Trois Soeurs ont voulu mourir' (The Three Sisters Wanted to Die). Moreover, the first of these was used as a song in his play Pelléas et Melisande in its sixth edition which came out in 1898.42

The ideological symbol of Chekhov's play is Moscow. For the sisters it represents not only a happy future, but the lost happiness of the past. Yet it is not a goal to be attained by action, but rather through fervent wish, buoyed up by portent and omen. Thus, when Irina thinks that a game of patience has worked out, she takes this as a sign that they will be in Moscow. Fedotik, however, points to a card that has been misplaced. The good omen has been inverted.

In classical tragedy the workings of fate are also given expression through omen. Thus, Tiresias in Antigone draws a dire warning from the fighting of birds.43 In The Three Sisters, birds not only form part of the symbolic argument of the riddle of life, they occur again in Act IV as a portent of departure. To the ancient Greeks the fate of Oedipus was seen to lie outside him: it was an external force beyond his control. Freud, in psychologizing the myth, pointed to the internal nature of Oedipus' fate, and Merezhkovsky, as we have already seen, made a similar suggestion, when he claimed that the Sphinx (the symbol of fate) was no longer outside Oedipus, in nature, but inside his own being. The allegorical overtones of Chekhov's three sisters are more in keeping with this modern view: the sisters can be identified with 'The Fates', only in as much as they are the embodiment of their own fates. At the same time, the past, as for Oedi pus, seems to condition the present and the future. This is symbolically stated through the three sisters themselves at the opening of the play. Masha is wearing black, for the past, it is the anniversary of her father's funeral; Irina is wearing white, the day is also her name-day, and she is young and looking to the future; Olga (although it is Sunday) is in the dark blue of work, her schoolmistress's uniform, and is engaged in the present, the everyday routine of correcting schoolwork. Masha's dark mood is a cloud on a day which should be one of festivity. The past cannot be exorcised.

The father and the mother of the Prozorov family still exert an influence, as it were, from the grave. The father has been their driving force, making them learn foreign languages, forcing Irina to get up at seven o'clock, insisting on an academic career for Andrey. A year after his death the standards he set them remain, but they are drifting, unable either to see their meaning or to give them substance. As for the mother, to Chebutykin, at least, she still seems alive in Irina, and his old, unrequited love for her conditions his attitude both to Irina and, more ominously, to her fiancé, Tuzenbakh—it is yet another factor behind the ill-fated duel. As we have seen, Merezhkovsky saw the symbol of fate in Oedipus Rex to be embodied in the non-appearing figure of the Sphinx. In similar manner, The Three Sisters is remarkable for its fateful cast of non-appearing characters—the father, the mother, Protopopov, Kulygin's headmaster, Vershinin's wife and daughters—all of whom exert their baleful influence on the lives of those on the stage.

It is, of course, in its formal characteristics that Chekhov's Three Sisters most differs from classical tragedy: prose is substituted for verse; everyday conversation for elevated diction. Nor would we expect Chekhov to observe the three classical unities of action, place, and time. Yet, in a loose sense, Chekhov does observe them. Unity of action is preserved in as much as inchoate sub-plots, such as the affair between Natasha and Protopopov, or the quarrel between Solyonyy and Tuzenbakh are not allowed to take on a separate dramatic life of their own, but are skilfully subordinated to the central dramatic line. The death of Tuzenbakh occurs out of sight and is reported to those on stage by Chebutykin: Chekhov's version of the classical device of the 'messenger'.

The unity of place is not infringed only in the sense that the action unfolds against the background of the same house (inside in two of its rooms and outside in its garden). Unity of time, however, is far more difficult to perceive in a play which with each act moves from one season to another. Nevertheless, there is a sort of stasis which Chekhov seeks to impose on the flow of time. Shortly after the opening of Act I, the clock on stage, in a very deliberate fashion, strikes twelve, and Olga links the sound to an event of exactly a year ago—the father's funeral: 'The clock struck twelve then, too'. The final act also begins at midday and brings with it a death. Thus, with a backward glance at a former sad midday, the play moves on from its own opening midday to a final noon of further tragedy.

The true form of the classical tragedy is obviously too rigid for the flexibility and sense of informality which Chekhov seeks in his modern theatre. Indeed, he mocks the ancients' veneration for form in the words of that absurd figure, the Latin master Kulygin, in whom Chekhov perhaps recalls something of his own classical schooling.

The Romans enjoyed good health because they knew how to work and how to rest. They had mens sana in corpore sano. Their life had a definite shape, a form. The director of the school says that the most important thing about life is form … A thing that loses its form is finished. That's just as true in our ordinary everyday lives.44

In Chekhov's play itself, 'ordinary, everyday lives' are more in evidence than Kulygin's all important classical form. Nevertheless, beneath the surface flow of life there is a definite shape and form, and a sense of measure which ultimately derive from the spirit, if not the letter of Greek classical tragedy. As we have seen, The Three Sisters does exhibit certain characteristics of this trage dy, but in a more modern guise, as they were interpreted by Merezhkovsky and propounded by Maeterlinck.45 In his modern classicism, Chekhov reveals the 'tragic element in the life of every day' rather than the 'tragedy that lies in great adventure'.


1 See R. Hingley, A New Life of Chekhov, London, 1976, p. 221.

2 A. P. Chekhov, Polnoye sobraniye sochineniy i pisem v tridtsati tomakh, Moscow, 1974-83 (Sochineniya), XIII, p. 40 (hereafter referred to as PSS). See also

3 As recorded in the diary of S. I. Smirnova-Sazonova. See PSS (Pis'ma), VI, p. 522.

4PSS (Pis'ma), VI, p. 89. The editor of this volume, N. I. Gitovich, suggests that it was perhaps under the influence of this advice that Suvorin staged the first Maeterlinck play in Russia on 8 December 1895 in the Theatre of the Literary-Artistic Circle (Teatr literaturno-artisticheskogo kruzhka). The play is referred to as a one-act play Tayny dushi ('Secrets of the Soul'). This does not appear to correspond to the title of any Maeterlinck play. It may be the one-act play Intérieur, but the Bal'mont translation of this is Tarn vnutri ('There inside'). In connection with the staging of this play, Chekhov wrote to Suvorin on 13 December 1895 'You are called in one newspaper a protector of decadence' (PSS (Pis 'ma), VI, p. 108). The evidence of S. I. Smirnova-Sazonova suggests that Suvorin was sympathetic to the 'decadents': 'He began to argue with me about the decadents. He sympathizes with them because of their search for novelty and the unknown, he says that some genius or other will be brought up on this tendency'. Ibid., p. 451.

5 Letter of 12 July 1897, PSS (Pis'ma) VII, p. 26.

6 Loc. cit.

7 Thus he wrote to his wife on 17 December 1902: 'It would not be a bad thing to put on the three plays of Maeterlinck, as I said, with music' (PSS (Pis'ma) XI, p. 94). In October 1904 (after Chekhov's death) the Moscow Arts Theatre produced Les Aveugles, Intérieur, and L'Intruse in the translations of K. D. Bal'mont (ibid., p. 403). Stanislavsky records that in the spring of 1904, although Chekhov was already seriously ill, he was interested in the rehearsals of this production. Stanislavsky had to keep him informed on its progress, show him models of the scenery and explain his staging. See K. S. Stanislavsky, 'A. P. Chekhov v Moskovskom khudozhestvennom teatre', Chekhov v vospominaniyakh sovremennikov (vtoroye dopolnennoye izdaniye), Moscow, 1954, p. 391. There is, however, an account of Chekhov's negative attitude to Russian 'decadents' towards the end of his life, and his view that there was no place in Russian literature for these 'Russian Maeterlincks'. See Ye. Karpov, 'Dve posledniye vstrechi s A. P. Chekhovym', ibid., p. 576. See also

8 See Maurice Maeterlinck, 'The Tragical in Daily Life', in The Treasure of the Humble (translated by Alfred Sutro), London, 1897, p. 97.

9 Ibid., p. 104.

10 Quoted in A. Skaftymov, 'Principles of Structure in Chekhov's Plays', in Chekhov, A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by R. L. Jackson, Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 1967, p. 73.

11 Maeterlinck, op. cit., p. 106.

12 Bettina Knapp, Maurice Maeterlinck, Boston, 1975, p. 175.

13 Balukharyy has pointed to the influence of the writings of Marcus Aurelius on Treplev's playlet. See S. D. Balukhatyy, Problemy dramaturgicheskogo analiza Chekhova, Leningrad, 1927, p. 105.

14 See R. Peace, Chekhov, A Study of the Four Major Plays, New Haven and London, 1983, p. 170.

15 Hingley, op. cit., p. 14.

16 D. S. Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature, Comprising a History of Russian Literature and Contemporary Russian Literature, edited and abridged by F. J. Whitfield, New York, 1960, p. 421.

17 Ibid., p. 414.

18 See E. J. Simmons, Chekhov, A Biography, London, 1963, p. 166 and PSS (Pis'ma), II, pp. 53-54, 69.

19 See letter to I. P. Chekhov, 24 March/5 April 1891, PSS (Pis'ma), IV, p. 202.

20 See PSS (Pis'ma), I, p. 312.

21 See letters to A. S. Suvorin of 7 March and 17 December 1892. PSS (Pis'ma), V, pp. 8,143-44,365. In his letter of 7 March, Chekhov refers disparagingly to Merezhkovsky's 'quasi-Goethe regime' apparently meaning his continual conversations on literature.

22 They appeared as follows:

1891 Aeschylus: 'Prometheus Bound' Vestnik Yevropy, No. 1

1892 Sophocles: 'Antigone' Ibid. No. 4

1893 Euripides: 'Hippolytus' Ibid. No. 1

1894 Sophocles: 'Oedipus Rex' Vestnik inostrannoy literatury, Nos. 1-2 (including Merezhkovsky's 'Preface')

1895 Euripides: 'Medea' Vestnik Yevropy, No. 7

1896 Sophocles: 'Oedipus at Colonus' Ibid. No. 7

23 See PSS (Pis'ma), VII, p. 397.

24 Ibid., p. 303.

25 See Letter to P. F. Iordanov, 19 March 1902, PSS (Pis'ma), x, p. 216.

26 For a discussion of this, see Hingley, op. cit., pp. 224-26.

27 M. Valency, The Breaking String, The Plays of Anton Chekhov, New York, 1966, p. 244.

28 D. S. Merezhkovsky, Polnoye sobraniye sochineniy (Reprint of Moscow 1914 edition), Hildesheim, New York, 1973, xx, p. 5.

29 Ibid., p. 3.

30 Ibid., p. 4.

31 Maeterlinck, op. cit., p. 111.

32 Ibid., p. 113.

33 Valency, op. cit., p. 22.

34 Cf. a similar symbolic use of an oak tree by Tolstoy in War and Peace: L. N. Tolstoy, Polnoye sobraniye sochineniy, Moscow, 1928-58, x, pp. 153-54, 156-57. See also

35PSS (Sochineniya), XIII, p. 147 (Penguin, p. 282).

36 See Maurice Maeterlinck 'Le Tragique quotidien', Le Trésor des humbles, Paris, 1898, p. 190 (and translation Maeterlinck, op. cit., p. 108).

37PSS (Sochineniya), XIII, p. 188 (Penguin, p. 330) Senelick sees this ending as: 'a laconic equivalent of the final chorus in Oedipus the King'. See L. Senelick, Anton Chekhov, Basingstoke and London, 1985, p. 116.

38 Merezhkovsky, op. cit., p. 8.

39 Ibid., p. 6.

40PSS (Sochineniya), XIII, p. 162 (Penguin, p. 301).

41 T. K. Shakh-Azizova Chekhov i zapadno-yevropeyskaya drama yego vremeni, Moscow, 1966, p. 103.

42 See Maurice Maeterlinck, Poésies complètes, ed. J. Hanse, Brussels, 1965, pp. 183-84, 187-88, 2.07-09, 217-18, 284.

43 Merezhkovsky, op. cit., XXI, p. 49.

44PSS (Sochineniya), XIII, p. 133 (Penguin, p. 265).

45 For another view of Chekhov's debt to Maeterlinck see L. Senelick, 'Chekhov's Drama, Maeterlinck and the Russian Symbolists', in Chekhov's Great Plays: A Critical Anthology, ed. J. P. Barricelli, New York and London, 1981, pp. 161-80.

Laurence Senelick (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6016

SOURCE: "Stuffed Seagulls: Parody and the Reception of Chekhov's Plays," in Poetics Today, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1987, pp. 285-98.

[In the essay below, Senelick surveys works that caricature and satirize Chekhov's dramas.]

Parody, the late Dwight Macdonald has declared, is "an intuitive kind of literary criticism, shorthand for what 'serious' critics must write out at length" (1969:xiii).1 At its most refined, parody speaks to the in-crowd, those who are closely acquainted with the text being parodied, and who can best appreciate the accuracy of the parodist's hits. In its perception of an author's foibles and tics, parody must be as astute and as keen as any literary analysis; often, it is informed by a clear-sighted affection for its object of concern. The best parodist, at the level of a Max Beerbohm or a Marcel Proust, has so alert an ear for the idiosyncrasies of his author that his imitation may be all but indistinguishable from the original.

Generally, however, parody is normative, aiming to prune the excesses and eccentricities from a work of art. It is, in George Kitchin's definition, quoted by Macdonald, "the reaction of centrally-minded persons to the vagaries of the modes … [it is] inveterately social and anti-romantic" (p. 560). But it is only a step from anti-romanticism to philistinism and so, much of what passes for parody falls under the heading of heavy-handed travesty. Rather than subtly evoking the mannerisms of its victims, it wins laughs by transposing pathos to bathos, or by caricaturing the most obvious hallmarks of metre, imagery or diction. This commonly occurs when the parody is intended for a wide public, one to whom an author's name and a few salient traits are more familiar than a close acquaintance with his works. In this case parody is a means of neutralizing the uncomfortably novel, difficult or strange.

At such times parody becomes a useful gauge for the rate of cultural seepage, since it both derives from and contributes to the transmission of an easily assimilated image. An avant-garde artist wins common currency in the popular imagination through parody. Picasso, for example, is regularly associated with a jagged, geometric profile and two eyes nestled on the same side of the nose. Shakespearean style is summed up in improvisational comedy sketches by a couple of "I'faiths" and a sword-thrust. These hints are enough to trigger in the spectator's or reader's brain the sense that he knows what is being mocked and stimulates a laugh of superiority. The problem is that these generalized portraits linger in the cultural memory long after their inaccuracy has been demonstrated by the specialists.

Chekhov presents an excellent example of this low-level mythopoeia. His translucency as a writer enables him to be co-opted by those who explicate him: Stanislavsky's Chekhov is not Prince Mirsky's, and Mirsky's Chekhov is not Leo Shestov's. Yet ironically, it is essentially Shestov's view of the Chekhovian hero as a futile prisoner of life, and of Chekhovian words as sobs that has been transmitted to the imagination of those who never heard of Shestov or, for that matter, ever read a line of Chekhov.

Nowhere is this truer than with Chekhov's drama. When an American pop song alluded to "more clouds of grey / Than any Russian play could guarantee," the lyricist had in mind not Gorky or Artsybashev, but Chekhov and, more specifically, the pseudo-Art Theater productions on the New York stage. This cliché is of early origin, but it did not take shape until Chekhov the dramatist had become associated with the Moscow Art Theater.

From the start of his dramatic career, Chekhov was mercilessly attacked by various factions of critical opinion. The conservatives deplored his seeming inability to follow the rules of dramatic construction; the radicals complained that he did not go far enough in abandoning traditional structures. The "mystical anarchists" de nounced him for his lack of spirituality and earthbound positivism, while non-partisan commentators referred to his dramas as "the most undramatic plays in the world," their dominant note one "of gloom, depression and hopelessness" (Mirsky 1927:292-304).2

These negative opinions, offered by intelligent and well-informed contemporaries, cannot be dismissed simply as a lack of sympathy or understanding. Modern culture, and the modern theater with it, have become so fragmented that few artists appeal to a majority, especially when their art is dense, ambiguous and low-keyed. For many, Chekhov is an acquired taste, like 12-tone music or Greek olives. But what has stood in the way of a broader acceptance of Chekhov's real qualities has been the caricature passed down since the 1890s. Just as "Dickensian" conjures up images of roast goose and exuberant bonhomie, so "Chekhovian" has come to mean the twilight zone, a dim and moody penumbra peopled by feckless and maundering eccentrics. And Chekhov himself is seen as "the good doctor," quizzically but kindheartedly shaking his head over these vaporous emanations of his brain.

Chekhov's earliest full-length plays were subjected to satire from journalistic small-fry. Some of this was prompted by his political stance or lack thereof; some by his friendship with the arch-conservative publisher Suvorin; some by the seeming weakness of his dramatic carpentry. One humorist with the pseudonym "I. Grek" [i.e., Y] summed up Chekhov's first performed play Ivanov as "A drama in four acts about a Jewess, a concertina, a count, virtue, an organ-grinder and a pistol." He was bemused by the fact that each act began with an incident that seemed trivial, and parodied it thus:

Act I (The Ivanov garden)

Ivanov feels a head-ache coming on.…

Act II (The Lebedev home)

Lebedev is showing his guests a way that he has invented to wash down vodka with water.…

Act III (The Ivanov home)

The curtain rises too soon and the spectator is unexpectedly presented a picture of Dalmatov, Varlamov and Svobodin [actors in the production] drinking vodka on stage. The actors retain their presence of mind and go on drinking vodka as if this were part of the play and talk about pickles and other hors d'oeuvre."


This last joke is particularly revealing. The scene that opens Act III of Ivanov is one of Chekhov's characteristic experiments. He shows Ivanov's study invaded by the banality of everyday life and submerges the hero's private anguish in a flood of apparently irrelevant chatter. As the Soviet critic Chudakov has noted, what puzzled the satirist was the seemingly "extraneous" elements "which many assumed to be Chekhov's attempt to reproduce real life" (1983:149-152). An ironic layering effect was m