One-Act Plays

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Eric Bentley (essay date 1958)

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SOURCE: "Apologia," in The Brute and Other Farces, by Anton Chekhov, edited by Eric Bentley, translated by Eric Bentley and Theodore Hoffman, Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 1958, pp. i-vii.

[In the following excerpt, Bentley discusses Chekhov's short comic plays and declares that the writer's "greatest plays have a farcical component, and his slightest farces have something in them of the seriousness, pathos, and even subtlety of the greatest plays. "]

1.

Except for some later revisions in the dialogue, Chekhov's seven one-act farces belong to the years 1886-1891, which immediately precede the 'major phase' when the famous full-length plays were written. Like the funny stories which he signed 'Chekhonte' because he was a little self-conscious about them, these little plays are admittedly 'minor Chekhov,' though one makes the admission with a sinking heart in an age which makes a cult of the 'major'—the notion of the major, anyway—in order to excuse its lazy reluctance to read any man's collected works. One would not deny that 'The Best Plays of Chekhov' contains just what it says it does, but one might assert that a reader should no more be content to sit down with that book than a parent should be content to sit down to dinner with only his best children.

It is never wise for an author to give a modest account of himself: the critics accept it. The lighthearted Chekhonte was discounted long ago. Anton Chekhov is played on Broadway and in the West End in a vein of soulful somnolence. The adjective 'Chekhovian' can convey any shade of mournful emotionality from the wistful to the lugubrious; it never suggests the sunny, the zany, the skittish, the wildly destructive, though Chekhov in fact was famous for these qualities even before the others showed themselves.

In a recent collection designed to modify and correct the prevailing view of Chekhov, Mr. Edmund Wilson finds 'his true weight and point' in his last, most sombre, and most sociological works. It is high time, I conclude, to protest against the tendency of modern critics to overlook the obvious. Mr. Wilson did exactly the same thing in his study of Dickens years ago. His new Dickens was to interest us as a man involved in psychoneurotic conflict.

And today there is a fairly widespread assumption that a writer of funny stories—or melodramatic ones—is scarcely worth a critic's attention. Farce and melodrama have come to be valued, if at all, as embellishments of more earnest and more tortured books. One critic makes a favourite of Hard Times, ostensibly because of its superior (that is, more Jamesian) structure. One cannot resist the conclusion, however, that he prefers dark moods to more frivolous ones as more becoming to the serious business of Literature, not to mention Criticism. This is to be seduced by l'esprit sérieux. The Pickwick Papers may be incommensurable with Hard Times, but surely is no more inferior to it than Don Quixote is inferior to Madame Bovary?

Even in the most serious works of Chekhov, as of Dickens, farce and melodrama are not embellishments added later to a structure of more 'literal' substance. One might plausibly maintain, on the contrary, that the structure itself is farcical and melodramatic and that it is the seriousness which is superadded. But at this point the notion of addition is itself misleading, for, in a fully realized masterpiece, nothing is merely stuck on; all is, finally, of a piece. At any rate, once we see that the role of farce in certain non-farcical masterpieces—from Moliére and Dickens to Shaw and Chekhov—is a large and reputable...

(This entire section contains 1787 words.)

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one, we are free at last to view farce in its pure state as a large and reputable phenomenon.

2.

Not that its state often is pure. Labiche has kept French schoolteachers busy for a long time now distinguishing between his 'true farces' and his 'comedies of character'. The poor man himself seems to have been terribly confused on the point. And Chekhov takes no greater pains to stay within boundaries staked out by pedagogues. In the latest of the plays printed, here, "The Celebration," he is taking his leave of farce forever and launching out, as we sense in reading it, towards his masterworks. He made six versions of "The Harmfulness of Tobacco," the earliest of our plays, each one more serious than the last. Even "The Brute" and "Marriage Proposal" are a mass of psychological details such as no average farceur would use.

How far Chekhov's individuality carried him from the regular article can be demonstrated by comparing "The Brute" with its 'source'. The play was suggested to Chekhov by a performance of a French one-act farce: "Les Jurons de Cadillac" by Pierre Berton (1865). Here the principal joke is that the man—already a suitor for the lady's hand at the outset—can't refrain from swearing for more than a few seconds at a time. The action of the play consists of the lady's offering to marry him if only he can hold himself in for one hour. The climactic twist in the action comes when the man fails to meet the demand in such an amiable way that the lady is charmed by him, and the curtain comes down as she herself swears one of his great oaths. The jest seems almost simpleminded compared with Chekhov's. And to tell a less simple story, Chekhov has recast the dramatic action entirely, and placed it in a different, more actual social setting. He has, as we say, 'made more of it', and that 'more' includes a good deal that, by any standard, is serious.

Yet, if it is possible to overlook the serious elements in a Chekhov farce, it is also possible to be obsessed with them. Actors are sometimes tempted to play "Swan Song" or "The Harmfulness of Tobacco" as wholly pathetic outpourings. The wrongness of the interpretation is proved by the fact they find themselves forced into making cuts. When the lecturer in "Tobacco" is exclusively pathetic, the actor has to omit 'business' that is inevitably grotesque, such as his stamping on his jacket and showing the audience the rents in the back of his waistcoat. To be consistent he should also omit parts of the text too, for only the license of farce permits—for example—the number thirteen to recur so madly.

In some ways, "Swan Song" is an even subtler case. Here the pathos is more unabashed. Yet a touch of the utterly ridiculous is necessary not merely to the texture but to the characterization. Those who think that farce always coarsens and simplifies should note that it is farce, in this play, that makes the characterization complex.

Chekhov's skill in the mixing of the elements is nowhere more remarkably apparent than in his re-mixing of them when he makes over one of his own stories into a play. Perhaps the most interesting instance is "Summer in the Country," which was made out of a story called "One of Many."1 Mr. Magarshack interprets the changes as an attempt to 'preserve the decencies of the stage', for, in the story, Tolkachov's load includes a child's coffin, and the poor fellow grumbles that he will probably never get paid for it. But there are reasons for omitting this which go far beyond the matter of moral propriety. A child's coffin on stage, Chekhov must rightly have felt, would carry a higher charge of painful emotion than a farce can stand. Chekhov also knew his stagecraft, and might have concluded that no actor could manage a coffin in addition to half a dozen other impedimenta.

On one point, however, I agree with the Magarshack interpretation. In the story, as a climax to her various persecutions, the wife presents her lawful claim to Tolkachov's person at four in the morning. Chekhov's omission of this poignant incident in the play can surely be taken as a concession to the squeamishness of nineteenth-century audiences. I have smuggled it into the script printed here. And I will report an experience that would have no public importance except that it shows rather vividly how Chekhovian work depends upon a balance that is very easily upset: re-instating this single 'point', I was tempted to put back other things as well, but I soon found myself in danger of destroying the farcical tone of the play without substituting any other.

Chekhov's whole life in the theatre might be seen, not as an exercise in tragi-comedy as traditionally conceived, but as a search for a kind of drama in which tragic and comic elements lose their separate identities in a new, if nameless, unity. Even a title may vibrate with the energy of this search. The play now under discussion is called in the Russian original: "The Tragedian in Spite of Himself," on the pattern of Le médecin malgré lui. Farce is here the form imposed on a potentially tragic situation. But only potentially tragic. The play does not resemble one of Eugène Ionesco's tragic farces in which the despair is deeper than the humour or the love. It is not a tragedy 'in spite of the farcical form, for Tolkachov is not a tragic figure but a tragedian, a play actor, one who sees himself as tragic, a victim of self-dramatization and self-pity, a comic figure. (With all this in mind, I very much wanted to keep the original title. But, since there has never been a plausible translation of Molière's title, it seemed foolish to follow one of the implausible ones in translating Chekhov. My title is derived from Chekhov's subtitle, and my subtitle is more or less a quotation from Tolkachov, the play being, in reality, not a tragedy but a farce.)

In fine, Chekhov's farces, if they are minor, cannot, as such, be dismissed. His greatest plays have a farcical component, and his slightest farces have something in them of the seriousness, pathos, and even sublety of the greatest plays. In some ways simple, they are not one-sided but dialectical. The critic who judges them and the director who stages them must have a dialectical mind in order to grasp the constant conflict and synthesis of elements. In its fine balance of contrasts—particularly of the pathetic and the ridiculous—a Chekhov farce might be regarded as a full-fledged Chekhov drama in miniature.

Notes

1Swan Song and The Celebration are also adaptations of Chekhov stories—Kalkhas and A Helpless Creature, respectively. In The Wedding he draws on two stories (A Marriage of Convenience and A Wedding with a General) and a sketch (The Marriage Season). For further particulars, see David Magarshack's two books on Chekhov: Chekhov the Dramatist and Chekhov: A Life.

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