Chekhov's lasting challenge

The Chekhov Theatre
September 25, 1998

The performance and reception of Chekhov's plays over the last 110 years has been studied before: Patrick Miles in Chekhov on the British Stage and a number of articles in Russian and western publications have tried to catalogue the successes, excesses and failures of producers and actors. Laurence Senelick, however, goes much further than his predecessors. He covers more productions in more languages and, although always reluctant to foist his opinion on his readers, usually hints at his interest, approval or horror.

Few dramatists were as precise as Chekhov in giving stage instructions, and his correspondence leaves no doubts as to how little he rated his contemporaries' productions of his work and the imaginative powers of theatre directors and actors to improve on his text. Furthermore, for most of his oeuvre we have the records of an official Moscow Arts Theatre production - Stanislavsky's detailed mise-en-sc ne and Nemirovich-Danchenko's interpretations - to which Chekhov, if only by silence, gave a seal of approval. At first it might seem that one could as well ignore the metronome markings of a Brahms symphony as attempt to play a Chekhov drama differently.

Unlike a symphony, however, a play has to be reshaped to fit the language it is translated into, the audience it is facing and the constantly changing techniques of actors and directors. Together with Shakespeare and Ibsen, Chekhov has had to endure endless rebirths, in English or Japanese, in middle-class Australia or communist China, to be a vehicle for a Gielgud or a troupe of anonymous players. The measure of his greatness is that productions that are shamelessly unfaithful to the author's expressed intent still work. Uncle Vanya can be an Australian farmer; the three sisters can attack their admirers with their fists; the cherry orchard can be attacked with a chain-saw: the play still succeeds. Again and again, the subtitle "comedy" is ignored and the text played as tragedy. Trevor Griffiths can hijack Chekhov for the Trotskyists; Michael Frayn can delete and add characters to make Wild Honey out of Platonov, and the sacrilege goes unpunished.

"Don't write plays, you don't even know the alphabet of the rules of drama," Chekhov was told by the actor manager Alexander Lensky after the failure of The Wood Demon. Every one of his plays, even the last three which were turned from fiasco to triumph by Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavsky, began, as Chekhov said, "in misunderstandings and ended with rows". There was an undercurrent of antagonism to the theatre in all that he did for it: why else would Chekhov compose his plays out of such delicate material that the auditorium could be more tense than the stage? A man who considered actresses "Machiavellis in skirts" (however seductive) was bound to punish them before their audience by devising parts that would fox and tax them. Between him and Stanislavsky there was more hostility than mutual liking, and Chekhov's settings remind one of a composer trying to defeat a virtuoso soloist with a new concerto. The secret of Chekhov's importance as a dramatist is the hurdles he sets for his performers.

Senelick's erudite yet readable book gives itself enough space to show this challenge working continuously from the first production of Ivanov to the last few years. There are very few important productions he has not studied. Only Moscow's proliferation of splinter-theatres over the last few years has unsettled him, so that some extraordinary transmogrifications of Chekhov go unremarked. Provincial Russian theatre has also profited from the decentralisation of Russian culture: Pakhomov's Lipetsk productions deserve note as some of the few that Chekhov and Stanislavsky would probably recognise today.

Senelick's implied judgements are so sane that we are left wishing he would be more assertive. Politeness, as well as modesty, inhibits him. The Moscow Arts Theatre deserves a more castigating inquisition. For all that it did in the first 25 years of its existence to show the world how Chekhov can be performed and interpreted, it spent the next 25 years, as Stalin's favourite theatre, fossilising itself on the lines of the old system, which Chekhov had so detested, of "serfs and masters, directors and mistresses" and, for political survival, throwing to the wolves fresh talent that would not conform. In dealing with English, French and German productions, at least, contemporary reviewers give Senelick a precedent for being outspoken. In Soviet productions, where the critics were purely ideological, we need more forthright opinions from Senelick.

The most fruitful and twisted branches of Chekhov in performance are the free adaptations and pastiche he has begotten. Senelick deals extensively with Michael Frayn's Wild Honey and with Joshua Logan's The Wisteria Trees, but his remit excludes, for example, Leo Feuchtwanger's remarkable transfer of The Cherry Orchard to an Italian borgo, as The City that Lost its Magic (Die entzauberte Stadt). Senelick mentions Rilke's interest in translating Chekhov (and fails to account for the reasons why Rilke gave up - Chekhov's plays had been bought up by the publisher Adolf Marx and the Russian texts were not available in print from 1899 to 1902). Rilke's abortively Chekhovian attempts at drama tell us a great deal about Chekhov's reception in Europe.

Senelick is very systematic: play by play, period by period, culture by culture is studied, with a felicitous sampling of reviews and memoirs. Even in a study as exhaustive as this, every specialist will find, as well as something unexpected, the absence of something expected. It is permissible to carp at some inaccuracies. Chekhov went to Sakhalin on his own, not accompanied by the dramatist Iuzhin-Sumbatov (as Senelick alleges). Lidia Iavorskaia had rather more than a brief fling with Chekhov - dozens of her passionate love letters to Chekhov survive from the winter of 1893-4 and from early 1896. Nemirovich-Danchenko had a long-standing friendship with Chekhov, but it was never close. The actor Alexander Vishnevsky was at the same school as Chekhov, but, given Chekhov's contempt for his stupidity and noisy eating, was never a "boyhood friend": these men were priateli, not druz'ia. Reactionaries disliked Chekhov's friendship with Suvorin, the Lord Beaverbrook of the day, but nobody disapproved of his admiration for Tolstoy, for Tolstoy got on even better with reactionaries than with radicals.

There are more misspellings in this book than a reputable university press should let pass: the Cyrillic on page xv is a disaster; the diacritics of Czech names are a mess; the Italian for cherry tree is consistently misspelt; Michael Frayn is spelt Frayne, Gottlieb Gottleib; the French critic de Vogue has his trema misplaced; aux camelias has a redundant l, and so on. The notes and indices are good, but a bibliography is sorely needed.

These blemishes do not detract from Senelick's glorious achievement. In tracing the dissemination and mutations of Chekhov he has effectively written a history, and a very knowledgeable and well-written one, of the European and American theatre in the 20th century. His book could well last as long as Chekhov's plays are performed.

Donald Rayfield is professor of Russian and Georgian, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.

The Chekhov Theatre: A Century of the Plays in Performance

Author - Laurence Senelick
ISBN - 0 521 44075 0
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £55.00
Pages - 441

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