Friday, January 24, 2020

Maurice Valency's The Breaking String: The Plays of Anton Chekhov

Maurice Valency's book, The Breaking String: The Plays of Anton Chekhov, provides a brilliant analysis of Chekhov's overall place in Russian and European theater in general.  In early chapters, Valency outlines the entire history of Russian theater.  He notes that Russian drama is relatively new, and relatively indebted to French theater, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries.  He notes that Russian theater took a backseat to Russian novels and short-stories until the end of the 19th century.  Further, he explains that a few major authors, including Pushkin, Lermontov, Griboyedov, Gogol, Ostrovsky, Turgenev, and Tolstoy, created plays of lasting value to European culture until the advent of Chekhov, and perhaps Gorky. 

Valency's main argument about Chekhov is that he slowly developed a theater that was, paradoxically, anti-theatrical.  As Valancy asserts, "In life we see people;  we do not see stories, and we do not hear thoughts. In the world, what is ordinarily played before our eyes is not a story, but a scene."  According to Valency, Chekhov took up where Ibsen and Strindberg left off by downplaying the importance of speeches, plot devices, entrances and exits, scenes of "high high climax," and other tools of traditional theater.  Not all at once, but over time, Chekhov moved from the relatively traditional theater of Ivanov and Platonov to the strikingly modern aesthetic of the Seagull, the Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, and the Cherry Orchard.

The strengths of Valency's treatment of Chekhov are many.  First, he acknowledges the long and complicated creative trajectory of Chekhov's aesthetic evolution in order to emphasize the radical nature of his creative breakthroughs.  Second, he uses letters and short-stories, as well as the plays themselves, to diagnose Chekhov's changing art.  Third, he contextualizes Chekhov's new theater by comparing it to French, German, English, and Swedish theater, in addition to earlier Russian models. 

How does Valency characterize the mature Chekhov?  He argues that Chekhov was ruthlessly objective, allowing us to sympathize with all of his characters, rather than just some of them.  He believes Chekhov created characters who had no dominate trait, but were, like all humans, complex tapestries of differing moods, ideas, strengths, and weaknesses.  He maintains that Chekhov maintained a delicate but realistic balance between pessimism and optimism, tragedy and comedy.  He declares that Chekhov was elliptical and ever assigned a single meaning to any literary symbol.  Indeed, he preferred to allow his audiences to assign their own meanings to these symbols.  He writes that Chekhov wrote about the exterior life of people, asking audiences to judge his characters by their often contradictory, and always shifting, actions, words, and exterior properties. 

Favorite quotes

Theater history

The Russian stage of the 1860s was not yet ready for subtlety. 

Nobody illustrates better than he the disintegration of the system which Ibsen inherited from Scribe, and Scribe from Corneille, and Corneille from Aristotle.

In fact, he did not know, and never learned, how to write a long narrative.

His plays, beginning with The Sea Gull, consist also of a sequence of scenes, arranged in a meaningful way, but conspicuously lacking in the formal development which was in that day considered essential to drama.

Speculation bored him. 

For Chekhov whatever was clear, decided, and certain was not in the province of art. 


The squalor of life in Russia filled both of them with disgust, and Chekhov was more squeamish than Gorky.

The Wood Demon is a play about waste.  In Russia, it is said, everything is wasted, forests, people, lives, intellect.

It was obviously Chekhov's intention to suggest that it is in the nature of man--at least in Russia--to destroy whatever is beautiful, so that the presence of anything lovely and feminine would affect the Russian character as a red rag, a bull. 

Chekhov quotes:

Only fools and charlatans know everything and understanding everything.

There is not or, at least, there is scarcely a single landed Russian gentleman or university man who at one time or another had not boasted of his past.  Why?  Because Russian enthusiasm possesses one specific quality--it is quickly followed by fatigue. 

We all have just enough brains and just enough feeling to ruin our own lives and the lives of others...

No comments:

Post a Comment