Every time I direct, I tell my actors the same thing at the start of rehearsals: “Our job is to put people onstage who are as complicated, complex, confused, ambiguous, lost as any one person in the audience. And of course—we will always fail. But that is our goal. That is all we are trying to do.”The complexity and ambiguity of the human heart. Here I think may be the essence of that relation between actor and audience.
Life in all of its complexity. And all its ambiguity. To let us see that, to see ourselves.
I can think of no greater artist who has allowed us to see this—given us this—than Anton Chekhov. And nowhere is it on better display, with such humanity, generosity and understanding, than in his greatest play, The Cherry Orchard.
In this play, as you know, a once-wealthy family is faced with loss of their estate and beloved cherry orchard. Years before the play begins, there occurred a tragedy: The young son of the house accidently drowned in the nearby river. This devastated the mother, who abandoned her home and young daughter for a guilt-ridden escape to Europe. Everything changed that terrible day for this family. The play proper begins on the day the mother, Madame Ranevskya, returns.
And the first act of the play is set in a room that has remained untouched since the accident—the dead boy’s nursery, where he had slept and played. This, everyone knows, is what the mother must now face.
The Cherry Orchard is a play, I am convinced, about healing. Not about self-indulgent decadents blinded to a changing world; such is a common interpretation, one set on this play by events that occurred soon after it was written—the upheavals in Russia and its revolution. But looked at carefully, I think the play is about healing, and all the complexity that involves. For Ranevskya, it is about trying to heal from the loss of her dead son, and all the guilt she harbors because of that death. She returns to “move on,” to heal; and yet knowing she is unable to cut these ties to her dead son. That is, she needs to have the cherry orchard sold, but she herself can’t be the one who sells it. The complexity of the human heart. And its ambiguities.
By the last act, the estate and orchard have been sold, and Madame Ranevskya is sleeping again; she is moving on, healing, as is the household. As they all pack up, the governess Charlotta picks up a small sack from the floor, and pretends to swaddle this sack as a baby—and makes baby crying noises. “Hush, my sweet, my dear little boy,” she says, silencing the room; saying the one thing on everyone’s mind. And then, as if speaking for everyone, saying the one thing that needs to be said to heal, she says to the bundle: “I’m so sorry for you!” But that is not everything Mr. Chekhov wants to show us at this moment, because here he has a stage direction, perhaps the most extraordinary stage direction in all of theatre that I know. It simply reads: “Charlotta then throws the bundle back where it had been.” “Throws it.” Throws it. We must move on. We must heal or we try to and move on.
The complexity of the human being, in all of its confusions and fears and ambiguities, and ironies. That is what this play is about. Or rather what it celebrates.
And, adding to this complexity, this humanity, is our knowledge today that this play about the need to heal, the need to move on, was being written by a man who knew he was dying.
The complexity of the human heart. Describing that.
I was having a conversation with the wonderful playwright Tony Kushner, who very much considers himself to be a political playwright. And he said to me, “So are you, Richard.” And I said, “No, I’m not. I’m absolutely not.”
Around the same time, I was on a panel down at the Public Theater after a performance of one of my plays, and the moderator said to me, “So, Richard, if you were president, what would you do” about something or other? A silly question. But I then heard myself say, “One, I wouldn’t want to be president. Two, I would be a very bad president. Three, if I were running for president, I wouldn’t vote for me.”
My ambition is to be an artist. And I believe the goal of an artist is to convey back the world to an audience in ways that make them understand it, or feel it, or connect to it, or see it differently. In that sense it is basically a descriptive role—describing the complexity, ambiguity, the conflicts—the soul of life.
And so if you’re going to describe, you’re certainly not going to prescribe. And I think if you consider yourself a political writer, you have an agenda, you have a view of the world that you would like to expound. You would like to change things, you would like the world to move in a certain direction or in a certain way. As an artist, I don’t feel that. I don’t feel that desire.
The world to me is very rich as it is; and it’s the complexity of the world that theatre can best address. I think of Ibsen, who in one play has characters argue that we can’t live with lies—and then in his next, they argue that we can’t live with the truth. Or Strindberg, who prefaces Miss Julie with this: “The multiplicity of motivation is indicative of our time.” By which he means that we do the same thing for different reasons—not just one. And often these reasons for doing the same thing can be contradictory or conflicting.
The complexity of the human heart. Trying just to describe that.
In our time, today in America, perhaps we seek in theatre something we find so missing in our lives. “America is a 24-hour sensory assault,” the theatre critic John Lahr wrote in an essay, “an electronic bombardment of diverse dreams. Image competes with image; and in this stalemate, it becomes harder to see and to feel… The thrill and dignity of the theatre is simply that it is there; the event is firsthand and undeniable. This is important in America, where so much of our ‘experience’ is secondhand.”
And this was written in 1968. Think about how our “secondhand” lives look today in the 21st century, where life is lived not just secondhand but via computer or iPhone or via a “cloud.” You read in the papers how television networks are fighting with each other for rights to “time-sensitive” events, such as sporting events—that is, events where once you know the outcome, there’s no point in watching, no point in recording and watching later, while skipping over the commercials. Present events. Where we, the audience, have a feeling that we are sharing something with others—and at the same time. We are participating as a group—and not alone.
Well, what is theatre but this in spades? What is theatre if not the present?
If not—the NOW. Peter Brook, in The Empty Space, claims all one needs for theatre is an empty space. I look at this a little differently—rather, all one needs for theatre is a shared amount of time. Time is the essence of theatre. Time shared. Time spent together. Live human being in front of live human being over a period of time.
You know the theatre has been called, by some detractors, a “fleeting” or “ephemeral” art. “Written on the wind,” or in the sand. An art that self-destructs. And therefore doesn’t last. That’s all true.
You can’t put theatre away and take it out again; you can’t hang it on the wall, ignore it for days and then suddenly see it as if for the first time. You can’t put it on your shelf, pages marked with notes to return to again and again. Theatre begins and it ends. And that is a strength.
It begins and it ends—like life. Just like we live life.
I have often wondered if we make a mistake when we think a play is like life. A representation of life. What if we think about it all a different way—think of theatre as not a representation of anything, but rather as life, a part of life itself? A relation of live human being to live human being at the same time in the same place—life. It is born, and it dies. And it lives. And for that time—it is alive.
Granville Barker again: “While poetry, painting, sculpture can exist for a little in the cloister or the desert…the drama, simple, democratic, crude if you will, must be of its age.”
Of its age. An art of its own age. Of the present. Of today. Of now. That is its great strength, and its rich moral purpose.
“I am not trying to prove anything quite other than the fact of dancing.”
The fact of showing man to man. Nothing more. Nothing less. The fact of theatre.
“To set up the relation by which all important human intimacies exist.”
“I do not write words. I try and write people.” My mantra, what I have written on a card over my desk. To write people who will spend time in a room with other people.
“Without people a theatre is nothing.”
Recently I completed a four-play cycle at the Public Theater called The Apple Family. Put together, it lasts over seven hours. At the very end of these seven hours of intimate conversations that have been shared, one of the actors turns to the audience and says: “And so we live. Sometimes we come together. Something brings us together. And some days we are alone. But it’s those days together that remind us why we live. Or, maybe it is—how. How—we live.”
To know that we are not alone.
That is why theatre matters to me.
This essay is adapted from the Winton Tolles Lecture at Hamilton College, which Richard Nelson delivered on March 11, 2014.
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