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“LOL, Chekhov weekend.”
So read the email from my friend a couple of Thursdays ago. On Friday night, we were to go to Broke House, a performance by the Big Art Group that claimed to be inspired by Chekhov’s Three Sisters. On Saturday, we planned to see the on-campus production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.
“LOL, Chekhov undergraduate years” for me. I decided to major in Russian literature and culture after taking a class on Chekhov during the second semester of my first year and have been chasing Anton all over the city ever since. I saw The Cherry Orchard at the Classic Stage Company last semester (loved it) and Three Sisters by the Russian Maly Drama Theatre at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last weekend (enjoyed it).
During my first year, I saw The Seagull (Peter Sarsgaard was in it, and I loved it), Uncle Vanya at the Classic Stage Company (Peter Sarsgaard was in it, and I liked it a lot), and The Cherry Orchard at BAM (Peter Sarsgaard was not in it, and I hated it). Last year, I was supposed to see Three Sisters at the Classic Stage Company, but was snowed in on Long Island (Peter Sarsgaard was in it, so I think I would have loved it, and, consequently, I hate that I did not see it).
And yet I did not see, or even attempt to see, all the Chekhov I could have over the past four years. The Russian Maly Drama Theatre performed Uncle Vanya at BAM two years ago. Target Margin Theater is doing a production of Uncle Vanya later this month and early next. The Soho Repertory Theatre is producing an adaptation of the same play.
Anton Chekhov is quoted as saying that his plays could never be performed outside of Russia and that his works would only be read for a few years after he died. Yet here we are in New York, over a century later, and they are being performed with increasing frequency all over the city.
Chekh and the Class
Three years ago, I signed up for Professor Cathy Popkin’s Chekhov class on a whim, not knowing that in Russia and across America, the name “Popkin” is synonymous with “Chekhov scholar.” I had taken a class on Central and Eastern European history and enjoyed it, so I wanted to try out a literature class. A class exclusively on this Russian author whom I had never read, but about whom I’d heard nothing but good things, was being offered. By the end of this class, I knew that I wanted to major in Russian literature and culture and learn the Russian language. During the course of the semester, however, I was confronted by my own ignorance, both of the Russian canon (my classmates, who had read more than just Anna Karenina, would say things like, “In the Russian original, this word is the same word that Turgenev uses in his least famous novella!”) and of the ambiguities and ambivalences contained in Chekhov’s prose and plays. I used to make comments and, immediately after, question why I’d said what I’d said (to be fair, this has also happened in every class since, but it happened particularly frequently in this class, dedicated to an author who makes a reader second-guess every word).
Popkin does not remind me of my ignorance during our interview. Instead, she agrees that Chekhov plays have been more prevalent in the city in recent years, a change for which she is grateful. “The more of them I see,” she says, smiling, “the more fun it is.”
Still, she faces her own set of challenges in teaching Chekhov’s plays, which she long assumed were not to her taste, since the first productions that she saw were “very straight and gloomy.” The creative writing students in her class aren’t sure how to read the plays (one went so far as to count the lines of dialogue so as to make sense of the significance of different characters), and Popkin herself realizes the importance of recognizing “the element you’re not seeing ... There’s the staging, the visual, that you just don’t have.”
There is also the dimension of the history surrounding the plays that makes studying them a more expansive, unwieldy project than straightforward literary analysis. There’s the reality of the tremendous flop that was Stanislavski’s original production of The Seagull and Chekhov’s feelings of horror and vulnerability at the failure, or the story of how a monologue for one of the characters in Three Sisters was cut out because the woman performing the part was Chekhov’s wife, actress Olga Knipper, and she found it difficult to pronounce.
But she and her students do get through the plays—and, indeed, get much out of getting through them. “The great thing about teaching Chekhov’s plays here,” she says, is that there’s “such a literary, cultured, New York student body.” Popkin says the students in her class this semester picked up on the theme of the question of meaning—“Do things sit there, or do they sit there and mean?” A character in one of the plays actually says, “It’s snowing. What’s the meaning of that?”
The students seized the opportunity to look at what Popkin calls the relationship of “art and life and art and life.” They questioned whether or not the writer character in The Seagull actually is Chekhov, asking what it would mean to put one’s life in writing and how to separate one’s life from one’s work. The Seagull ends with one character bemoaning the fate of the girl he once loved, only to have the girl return to his estate and assert that, despite all of the professional and personal failings she’s been through, she’s totally fine (I apologize for the spoiler, but to be fair, this play has been around for over a century). When reading Three Sisters, the students identified—and identified with—the struggle to achieve the “ability to be where you are.”
Why have people recently turned to Chekhov? Popkin surmises that the plays “grow on each other. There’s a good production, and that inspires others.” Why Chekhov in the first place? “One of the appeals of Chekhov now,” she says, is that “everyone’s heard of Chekhov, but they [his plays] allow for such interpretation.” She cites the silences, the people who just stand there on stage, and the opportunity for originality and inventiveness.
Professor Tatiana Smoliarova, who specializes in Russian and French theatricality in the 18th century, has another theory. She agrees that there’s been a resurgence of Chekhov—“three Seagulls in one fall,” she tells me—and that Chekhov’s plays are an invitation for interpretation. She suggests that people keep staging plays that have already been staged because the ways they choose to do so makes a difference. “They are really very open to various readings. Around each of the characters, you could build a certain reading.” That reading could be one of a comedy or a social drama or a tragedy. Each play has, she says, “a remarkable tolerance for various stagings, almost provoking directors to stage it differently.” Smoliarova herself brought along a copy of the original Stanislavski stage directions when she went to see The Cherry Orchard at the Classic Stage Company before giving a seminar there last December. The irony is that at the time of their original production, Chekhov’s plays were strongly associated with one particular theater group, the Moscow Art Theatre, which employed a particular sort of staging and performed all of the plays, allowing them to build on one another. Chekhov’s legacy was so pervasive in the Moscow Art Theatre that one actor and director, Evgeny Vakhtangov, is said to have died saying, “I want to stage Chekhov” (Smoliarova thinks this is a somewhat strange thing for a dying man to say, but perhaps it is fitting, since Chekhov himself died asking for champagne).
Smoliarova also notes that each turn of the century has a way of echoing its predecessor on an almost subconscious level. Speaking of the old adage that “all the world’s a stage,” she says, “As true as this metaphor is, life is not always theatre. People are not always actors.” However, there are “very important moments at the turns of the century” when the dynamism of the times lead life to look a bit more like a stage—and people, consequently, to turn to the theatre. “History itself thinks of itself much more willingly in theatrical terms.” Chekhov’s plays were originally written and produced at the turn of the 20th century, “the century of losses.” Here, shortly after the turn of the 21st, a century with losses of its own, we too turn to them.
But Smoliarova still says that the greatest appeal of Chekhov’s plays may be their universality. “In the 20th century, for a long time, it was not staged—not till the 1960s, 1970s. It was too human for Soviet power. Actually having pity. Pitying people who are weak was by no means something Soviet people would encourage.” And so, though there are resonances between the turns of the centuries, and though there are “stories similar to The Cherry Orchard in families I know in Moscow,” the plays are about “this search for pity and humanism in very inhuman times. ... I do think it’s a lesson of humanism.” She pauses for a moment, and concludes, “It’s just a good model of theater.”
Chekh and the Campus
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Chekhov on this campus,” Kyle Radler, a junior in CC, muses. Radler directed this semester’s production of The Cherry Orchard. Having been the assistant director of Hamlet, and having noticed that Shakespeare comes to campus every semester, Radler thought, “Let’s see if we can bring this Russian dude.” He continues, “A lot of people think it goes Shakespeare and then Chekhov … I’m a big fan of the classics, and not just so that we can do them one more time, but reinventing them. We should look at it again in a whole new way.” He presented his vision—heavily influenced by the Tom Stoppard production of The Cherry Orchard at BAM three years ago—to CU Players, who agreed that they, too, wanted to see Radler’s vision on stage.
Radler defines this vision as “this notion of progress. This world is changing for all these people, whether they like it or not. … Change has been a big word, for this country especially. What do we lose and gain? ... What happened in this progression from this old Russian world to this movement to our own time, and how can we explore change in this way?”
This vision informed everything from costumes (they became brighter and more updated as the play progressed) to sound (the old-fashioned train from act one morphed into a locomotive by act five) and had a marked influence on the actors’ final product. Chuck Roberts, a senior in CC who played Lopakhin, the merchant of serf stock who readily embraces the change that others in the play would rather ignore, says that while the actors were given tremendous freedom, they all ended with the realization that what they had created was very much Radler’s.
Could the audience of The Cherry Orchard interpret it as a play specific to our own time? In some ways, yes. Sammie Liebman, the producer and a junior at Barnard, says that she advertised it by telling people, “It is a cool piece of theater,” one they could relate to and laugh at. For his part, Radler notes that one could, if one so desired, see parallels to the bank bailouts and the Occupy Wall Street movement. And when I suggest to Roberts that his character’s constant moving around the stage and perpetually checking his iPhone (this production, to symbolize the character’s particular modernity, switched a watch for a mobile) is representative of our own generation’s supposedly shortened attention span, he remarks that the actors once threw around a list of mental illnesses that might plague the various characters. Roberts decided that Lopakhin had Asperger’s syndrome. I note that coming up with a diagnosis for every ailment is a very 21st-century century prescription for these early 20th-century characters and wonder whether Chekhov, a doctor who once declared, “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature my mistress,” would have embraced or rejected these diagnoses. As with so many questions about Chekhov, I could not come up with a clear answer.
In other ways, however, Lopakhin’s behavior is what both Roberts and Radler call “human.” The political theorizing in the play reminds Radler of Columbia, a place where, he says, “a lot of people seem to think they know exactly what’s going on … I sort of wanted to take this opportunity with this play: You can’t come out of it saying, ‘This person was good, this person was bad.’ I just wanted to contemplate these issues that people right now think are really clear.” Roberts, one of the few seniors involved in the production, compares the countdown to the auction of the estate to the countdown to graduation—something new that is going to begin, whether he wants it to or not. To draw out the play’s humanity, those involved made sure that anyone, anywhere in the audience, could see one character’s face.
Did they draw out the human in the characters for the humans in the audience? “My family came and saw the show,” Radler tells me. “They’re not theater people … They really liked the show. And the stuff they were saying about the show—it was in tune with the stuff I wanted to ask. … It warms my heart to think I can do that again.” He smiles and adds, “My grandma liked it.”
Roberts describes one scene in which his character is supposed to propose to another character and instead makes a comment about frost. He describes the character’s reaction to blurting out that particular line as: “Fuck! Why did I just say that?”
Though I did not tell Roberts this, I thought that was the strongest case he could have made for the play’s timelessness, humanity, and relevance to all people of all ages. And still think so, for that matter.
Chekh and the City
Andrei Belgrader had never directed Chekhov before his production of The Cherry Orchard at Classic Stage Company last December. “I kind of avoided Chekhov because I think that, in the culture, there are very strange clichés of how Chekhov should sound, and a lot of actors have preconceived ideas of how it should sound. … I am very familiar with his short stories. I read all of them. And I loved them! I loved them more than the plays! And I just thought, ‘The man who wrote these short stories could not have written something slow and boring.’ It’s a very, very kind of dumb cliché that seems to travel, the idea of how Chekhov is.” He had worked at Classic Stage Company before and, soon enough, found his vision of The Cherry Orchard on stage in New York. He cast actors he was sure “would not have those preconceived ideas,” including John Turturro, with whom Belgrader had previously worked (and who, in my opinion, gave an incredible performance as Lopakhin).
Dina Dodina, vice artistic director of the St. Petersburg-based Maly Drama Theatre, sits comfortably on the other end of the spectrum. Prior to this month’s production of Three Sisters, Maly had previously staged The Cherry Orchard, Play Without a Title, The Seagull, and Uncle Vanya. Their actors, who work with the company for five, 10, or even 15 years, are all similarly familiar with the experience of performing this particular playwright. However, she still concedes that “Chekhov is always very, very challenging … When you read The Cherry Orchard, you might think, ‘What is it all about?,’ and then it catches up to you. In a way, the bleakness of Chekhov is bleaker than the bleakness of Shakespeare. … This is what gradually catches up with you in rehearsal. The more you rehearse, the more you realize how unhappy the characters are. And the best thing you can do is to find some way to relate to them.”
How did Dodina and Maly relate to Chekhov’s characters? Aside from certain parallels between the characters’ time and ours—the economic crisis, the constant work with no happiness to show for it, the strong women waiting for the right man (well said, vice artistic director)—Dodina says that ultimately, “what we found out for ourselves” was that “he’s not giving us answers. But I think he’s helping us form the major questions. … Life is good. Life is hard. Live with it, do your best, and you have to work very hard, and hope that someday, somebody’s life will be made better by your actions.”
This understanding was made possible by the nuance and ambiguity of Chekhov. Three Sisters is the only play that Chekhov considered a tragedy, and even then, it was a tragedy in the sense of high drama (that is, there’s a dead body at the end). In fact, Dodina does not think Chekhov “decided the genre before he wrote the play … Chekhov is like everyday life. One morning, you wake up, and you think it’s the end of the world, and one morning you wake up and see a little bit of light through your window, and it all seems very frivolous. I think Chekhov gives us permission to be human.”
Belgrader, too, sees the comedic quality of the plays. “The original productions by Stanislavski … it kind of transmitted from generation to generation… It kind of makes Chekhov boring, slow. So I was really challenged, actually, to what I thought Chekhov would like to see—because he was really upset at the original production. Researching it, I discovered a really horrifying letter to Stanislavski about the way they approached his play. He practically said, ‘You didn’t even read it. I don’t know what the hell you’re doing. I wrote a comedy! You made it into a tragedy!’ He was really upset … I really allowed myself to be guided by the way the play kind of flows. I think it is a comedy. It’s not a pure comedy—it’s very moving, with some very pure moments. And the truth is his whole work is like that.”
Belgrader also had the additional challenge of translation, which Maly, performing in Russian with English supertitles, does not need to face (Belgrader, an American-based Romanian, reads the plays in translation). “What happens with a lot of the shows I’ve seen,” he tells me, is that “the actors depict a sort of phony Russian soul. And I think it’s more about being human, so it has to sound more like things happening to a human, not things happening to a Russian.”
There are, of course, differences between performing to Russians in Russia and performing to New Yorkers. After she emphasizes the universality and humanity of Chekhov, I ask Dodina how performing in New York is different from performing in Moscow or St. Petersburg. She cites one moment in Three Sisters when one characters says to another, “How you’ve aged!” In Russia, where that is a perfectly normal thing to say to another person after decades of Soviet rule, the audience was silent. In New York, to the company’s surprise, the audience erupted with laughter.
“LOL, Chekhov,” indeed.
Chekh and the Self
On the last day of class, after we finished reading the last of Chekhov’s major plays, Popkin told us that Chekhov deals in ambiguities and moments. If we could learn to deal in moments—in pauses between lines of dialogue, in not knowing why Chekhov called such sad plays “comedies,” in endings that are at once tragic and optimistic—we would be fine. After leaving that final class, I walked around campus with tears in my eyes.
Chekhov wrote the moments in which we must live. Isn’t this what they are all trying to tell me? What Smoliarova and Dodina imply when they say that Chekhov refuses to give answers but can help us ask the questions? Why Radler, Roberts, and Liebman felt connected enough to a play written over a century ago to try to bring it to others? “Chekhov is like life,” Dodina says. I think that’s why people are so afraid of Chekhov and why bad performances are so terrible. And why good performances can, if not permanently alter a life, then change it for the better somehow, if only for a moment.
I like to think that whenever, wherever, and by whomever they’re performed, the Chekhov plays help us to deal in those moments. This, above all, is why we return to them to try them once more, to see what other questions they can help us ask, if not answer. This can’t possibly be true of every production, of course. But I think it might be true of the good ones. The ones that are simultaneously frighteningly relevant—to New York, to Columbia students, to the 21st century—and hauntingly timeless to everyone, everywhere. The ones that embrace the ambiguities and moments. The ones that make us cry, and the ones that have the power to make us really laugh out loud.
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