Eric Bentley (essay date 1958)
SOURCE: "Apologia," in The Brute and Other Farces, by Anton Chekhov, edited by Eric Bentley, translated by Eric Bentley and Theodore Hoffman, Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 1958, pp. i-vii.
[In the following excerpt, Bentley discusses Chekhov's short comic plays and declares that the writer's "greatest plays have a farcical component, and his slightest farces have something in them of the seriousness, pathos, and even subtlety of the greatest plays. "]
Except for some later revisions in the dialogue, Chekhov's seven one-act farces belong to the years 1886-1891, which immediately precede the 'major phase' when the famous full-length plays were written. Like the funny stories which he signed 'Chekhonte' because he was a little self-conscious about them, these little plays are admittedly 'minor Chekhov,' though one makes the admission with a sinking heart in an age which makes a cult of the 'major'—the notion of the major, anyway—in order to excuse its lazy reluctance to read any man's collected works. One would not deny that 'The Best Plays of Chekhov' contains just what it says it does, but one might assert that a reader should no more be content to sit down with that book than a parent should be content to sit down to dinner with only his best children.
It is never wise for an author to give a modest account of himself: the critics accept it. The lighthearted Chekhonte was discounted long ago. Anton Chekhov is played on Broadway and in the West End in a vein of soulful somnolence. The adjective 'Chekhovian' can convey any shade of mournful emotionality from the wistful to the lugubrious; it never suggests the sunny, the zany, the skittish, the wildly destructive, though Chekhov in fact was famous for these qualities even before the others showed themselves.
In a recent collection designed to modify and correct the prevailing view of Chekhov, Mr. Edmund Wilson finds 'his true weight and point' in his last, most sombre, and most sociological works. It is high time, I conclude, to protest against the tendency of modern critics to overlook the obvious. Mr. Wilson did exactly the same thing in his study of Dickens years ago. His new Dickens was to interest us as a man involved in psychoneurotic conflict.
And today there is a fairly widespread assumption that a writer of funny stories—or melodramatic ones—is scarcely worth a critic's attention. Farce and melodrama have come to be valued, if at all, as embellishments of more earnest and more tortured books. One critic makes a favourite of Hard Times, ostensibly because of its superior (that is, more Jamesian) structure. One cannot resist the conclusion, however, that he prefers dark moods to more frivolous ones as more becoming to the serious business of Literature, not to mention Criticism. This is to be seduced by l'esprit sérieux. The Pickwick Papers may be incommensurable with Hard Times, but surely is no more inferior to it than Don Quixote is inferior to Madame Bovary?
Even in the most serious works of Chekhov, as of Dickens, farce and melodrama are not embellishments added later to a structure of more 'literal' substance. One might plausibly maintain, on the contrary, that the structure itself is farcical and melodramatic and that it is the seriousness which is superadded. But at this point the notion of addition is itself misleading, for, in a fully realized masterpiece, nothing is merely stuck on; all is, finally, of a piece. At any rate, once we see that the role of farce in certain non-farcical masterpieces—from Moliére and Dickens to Shaw and Chekhov—is a large and reputable one, we are free at last to view farce in its pure state as a large and reputable phenomenon.
Not that its state often is pure. Labiche has kept French schoolteachers busy for a long time now distinguishing between his 'true farces' and his 'comedies of character'. The poor man himself seems to have been terribly confused on the point. And Chekhov takes no greater pains to stay within boundaries staked out by pedagogues. In the latest of the plays printed, here, "The Celebration," he is taking his leave of farce forever and launching out, as we sense in reading it, towards his masterworks....
(The entire section is 1787 words.)