Monday, December 10, 2018

Chekhov Revised

The Cambridge Companion to Chekhov, edited by Vera Gottlieb and Paul Allain, is a treasure drove of information about one of Russia's most important writers. It's got wonderful essays on each of Chekhov's major plays, as well as an essay that discusses his lesser known, but still well-made, short plays.  It's also got informative essays on Chekhov's influence on acting, stagecraft, and film, and other essays on his short stories.   Below are some short descriptions of just a few of the essays that I found particularly intriguing.  Overall, one gets a sense of Chekhov's aesthetic genius, but also a sense that this genius may be a little less historically transcendent than we might have once believed.  In other words, the essays convince us that Chekhov had something extremely important to say about the human condition in the early part of the twentieth century, but that his insight may have been particularly shocking at a particular moment in European literary history.  Perhaps this is as it should be.  Plays, in particular, often seem to be rooted in a particular aesthetic moment, although Greek Plays, Shakespeare, and maybe Oscar Wilde, seem to weather the passing of time rather well.

Alexander Chudakov

Chudakov's biographical essay on Chekhov emphasizes the fact that the author was always grounded in the specific, material problems of existence.  This approach may have originated from the author's experience with medicine and science.  At any rate, Chekhov's aesthetics always involve everyday difficulties and detailed landscapes, and the absence of authorial comment.  Chedukov's approach to storytelling reminds me that I once read a critical analysis of Woody Allen's movie, Annie Hall, in which the critic pointed out that Allen had introduced the love affair in media res, with the couple spilling onto the screen in the midst of a relatively banal fight about the movie they are about to see. By the time the audience meets the two lovers, they sense the two protagonists are already deeply familiar with one another, almost to the point of boredom or annoyance. The realism of Annie Hall stems from the fact that the romanticism of their origins has been eliminated from the script.  Chudakov says Chekhov always placed his characters into precise settings, and drew inspiration from the men and women he had observed in such settings.

Emma Polotskaya

Polotskaya thinks the secret of Chekhov is the metaphors he uses to describe Russia.   He thinks of Russia as a desert, a plain, an abyss, or even a prison. These metaphors all seem to describe some measure of isolation as well as suffering or even oppression. Chekhov wasn't of course only inspired by his art or personal philosophy of existence to think of Russia as a place of suffering.  He had worked among impoverished Russians and encountered misery in his travels to Sakhalin Island. Chekhov's attitude toward Russian misery, or human misery in general,  suggests that he was a pessimist.  However, Chekhov's power as an artist is related to the fact that he was ambivalent about the future.  Clearly, many of his short stories and plays include characters who maintain some level of faith in the ability of individuals to work for the social improvement of Russia.

Anatoly Smeliansky

This author focuses on Chekhov's influence on theater via the Moscow Art Theater.  According to Smeliansky, Chekhov wanted a drama of life rather than a drama in life.  Avoiding any authorial voice, Chekhov obscured his plots and provided audiences with little consolation and no explanation for the tragic dimensions of his plays. His plays were always ensemble productions. He also placed emphasis on the psychological aspects of existence.  As Chekhov once stated, his characters now shot themselves due to ennui rather than due embezzlement, as they had before.

Vera Gottlieb

Gottlieb discovers Chekhov's contributions to a modernist theater in a letter to his brother in 1886.  According to the letter, a playwright should avoid political or social commentary, work toward "total objectivity," truthfully describe persons and objects, avoid prolixity and stereotypes, and cultivate compassion.  Gottlieb also depicts the change in Chekhov's approach to modern tragedy thus:  In conventional theater, characters aren't able to affect change in their environment for one reason or another, but in Chekhov's plays, the characters could take control of their situation, but for "complex reasons" do not elect to do so.

Patrice Pavis

For Pavis, Ivanov bears witness to the invention of a new dramaturgy.  In older plays, audiences encounter well-defined conflicts, well-made plots, clearly externalized actions, dramatic structures that overshadow characters' dramatic words, and characters who acts as the author's mouthpieces.  In Ivanov, we now see ambiguity, ellipsis, unspoken or implicit character motivations, and indeterminacy.  The flow of plot is logical, dramatic, planned, and expected.  The new dramaturgy leaves audiences unguided. New new plot, such as it is, is decentralized.  With Ivanov, Chekhov is in the process of creating a theater of silences, suspension, and subtexts.

Thomas Kilroy

In the Seagull, Chekhov demonstrated a kind of Olympian detachment from his characters' lives. This detachment allowed him to be generous in his views of their everyday tragedies. From this perspective, Chekhov notes that his characters are suffering from the passage of time. And with time flowing irreversibly, no true heroism is really possible.  If anything, a Chekhovian character can only hope to be persistent, to move "through and beyond" failure.  In the Seagull, every character is caught up in the awkward, untidy, confusing present.  While trying to see the future more clearly, Chekhov's characters often appear to be absurd.  However, their absurdity is inevitable--part of the human condition.

Leonid Heifetz

Chekhov's Uncle Vanya portrays a typical Russian intellectual, incapable of achieving greatness through action.  Indeed, Heifetz declares that every character in the play is a born loser.  Heifetz thinks that Chekhov has somehow captured the essence of the twentieth century by depicting a man who isn't even capable of killing himself.

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