Saturday, March 14, 2015

Anton Chekhov, Two Plays

Introduction

Opening Passage of The Cherry Orchard:

A room which has always been called the nursery. One of the doors leads into ANYA's room. Dawn, sun rises during the scene. May, the cherry trees in flower, but it is cold in the garden with the frost of early morning. Windows closed.

Enter DUNYASHA with a candle and LOPAHIN with a book in his hand.

Opening Passage of Three Sisters:

In the house of the PROZOROVS. A drawing-room with columns beyond which a large room is visible. Mid-day; it is bright and sunny. The table in the farther room is being laid for lunch.

OLGA, in the dark blue uniform of a high-school teacher, is correcting exercise books, at times standing still and thin walking up and down; MASHA, in a black dress, with her hat on her knee, is reading a book; IRINA, in a white dress, is standing plunged in thought.

Summary: The Cherry Orchard is a strange play; it acts like a comedy without being entirely convincing about its comic commitment. The emancipation of Russian serfs has unsettled the economy and society of Russia. People like Lyubov Andreievna Ranevskaya and Boris Borisovich Simeonov-Pishchik, Russian aristocrats, are on the verge of losing their estates, and, while desperate to save them, lack any of the background required for doing so; reformers are spreading throughout Czarist Russia; servants and tradesmen are rising in the world; young people are often breaking with the old ways. The change is hard. We begin in May and end in October, in the course of which the cherry orchard is sold and its razing begun. The cherry orchard itself is a sort of living symbol of the aristocracy, poignant with nostalgia, an opportunity for a new beginning, a treasure, an obstacle. The play is Russia in a nutshell. I suppose that in some sense that explains its ambiguous character as a comedy.

The three sisters of Three Sisters are Olga, Masha, and Irina. Olya is 28 and on her way to being an old maid; Masha is 25 and married and on her way to being an adulteress; Irina, at age 20, is still as much girl as woman and is trying to set out on a way to begin with. The difficulty for each sister is that life seems to have a path set out for her in which she has little interest: Olga will be raised from teacher to headmistress, a job she does not really want; Masha is tired of her husband and in love with another man, and yet eventually will have nowhere else to go but to her husband; Irina is being courted by the Baron Tuzenbach, whom she respects but does not love. There are also a number of ironies; Masha's husband, Fyodor Ilyich Kuligin, is clearly a better match for Olga, who would certainly have married him if he had asked her, as he had considered doing; Masha's impatience with her husband seems justified at first, but her affair makes more clear his real quality; Irina decides to go with the Baron and find that it has suddenly become impossible. The whole play could be summed up in the lines of the sisters as the play comes to a close: "We've got to live" (Masha); "we have got to work" (Irina); "If we only knew" (Olga).

I confess that I found Chekhov somewhat harder going than I expected, particularly since his scenes are very crisp and clear; so much of what goes on is not on the page, and despite the fact that each story has a trajectory when one looks at it as a whole, one that covers a drastic set of changes, as one reads through it rarely seems to be moving much. It all reminds me a bit of a motion comic.

Favorite Passage:

PISHTCHIK. Wait a bit...I'm hot...a most extraordinary occurrence! Some Englishmen came along and found in my land some sort of white clay. (To LYUBOV ANDREYEVNA) And 400 for you...most lovely...wonderful (gives money). The rest later (sips water). A young man in the train was telling me just now that a great philosopher advises jumping off a house-top. "Jump!" says he; "the whole gist of the problem lies in that." (Wonderingly) Fancy that now! Water, please!

Recommendation: I wasn't hugely impressed, but this may well be simply that the works in question just didn't come alive on a first reading.

1 comment:

  1. MrsDarwin9:17 AM

    I didn't read along because I've encountered Chekhov once or twice in print and had the same reaction as you (although, true theater confessions: I've never read all of either The Cherry Orchard or The Three Sisters.) Chekhov is an actor's playwright; much of the action in his plays is subtext and interpretation, and they're far easier to watch than to read. The real action will be going on in the staging and the line readings, as each little interruption and digression takes on a significance it doesn't hold on the page.

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