W.H. Auden once proposed that all great works of art “exhibit two contradictory qualities, the quality of always-ness and the quality of now-ness.” When it comes to dramatic literature (as opposed to virtually every other form of art), there’s a long-standing consensus about whose body of work most successfully combines these two qualities. Jan Kott made this more or less official in 1961 with his immensely influential book Shakespeare, Our Contemporary.
But Kott’s thesis has been widely misunderstood. He wasn’t just reasserting Shakespeare’s presumed immortality and universality. After all, Ben Jonson (who really was Shakespeare’s contemporary) had already praised his fellow Elizabethan as being “not of an age, but for all time!” And with regard to our time, Kott wasn’t writing yet another brief on behalf of freewheeling directorial interpretation (as the road to “relevance”). He wasn’t arguing that the only way to “make” Shakespeare our contemporary was to set Richard III in Mussolini’s Italy or The Merchant of Venice in the final years of the Weimar Republic.
Kott’s argument was both subtler and more specific. His central insight sprang from T.S. Eliot’s startling suggestion that the art of the past is influenced by the present just as surely as the art of the present is influenced by the past. In other words, we can’t help but approach Shakespeare’s plays through the prism of the present. For Kott, writing in the late 1950s, this meant examining Shakespeare through a very bleak and brittle lens: the work of Samuel Beckett and the Absurdists (which is to say: Jan Kott’s immediate contemporaries). Accordingly, one of the most influential chapters in his book was titled “King Lear or Endgame.”
By the time Shakespeare, Our Contemporary was translated into English in the early ’60s, Peter Brook had already put its central thesis to the test. In his 1962 production of King Lear, Brook approached Shakespeare’s play as if it had just been (re)written by Beckett. Brook subsequently repaid his debt to Kott (with interest) by writing an introduction to the first English-language edition of Shakespeare, Our Contemporary in 1964.
A quarter-century later, Brook brought a similar historical consciousness to bear on Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. But this time around, he recrafted the Kottian lens into a pair of bifocals, permitting him to peer into Chekhov’s world from two vantage points simultaneously: Shakespearean tragedy, on the one hand, and Beckettian tragic farce on the other.
Brook staged The Cherry Orchard in a vast “empty space,” thereby dispensing with the “wall to wall” detail that had come to characterize Stanislavsky-inspired productions of the play. Without a roof over their heads or a protective barrier between indoors and outdoors, Chekhov’s characters felt uprooted, cast adrift…as “un-housed” as Lear on the heath. In fact, Lear’s description of Poor Tom (“Thou art the thing itself, unaccommodated man…”) was equally applicable to Ranevskaya and her entourage.
Lear-like resonances were sometimes achieved simply by re-punctuating passages already there on the page. (In the new translation Brook commissioned from Elisaveta Lavrova, the aged servant Firs’s final mumblings placed an unusually heavy emphasis on that most nihilistic of words “nothing,” which appears more often in Lear than in any other Shakespeare play.)
Brook also capitalized on the fact that, even in the most conventional productions of The Cherry Orchard, Charlotta, the spunky, eccentric governess, can always be counted on to complain, “I don’t know who I am or where I came from.” As an orphan who grew up performing with a traveling circus, Charlotta prefigures (by half a century) Beckett’s itinerant, vaudevillian tramps. Chekhov even anticipates Didi and Gogo’s Chaplinesque antics with a carrot. According to his stage directions, immediately after Charlotta confesses that she doesn’t know who her parents were (or even whether they were married), she nonchalantly pulls a cucumber out of her pocket and begins to munch on it. Brook pushed the parallels with Godot by having his Charlotta (the unforgettable Linda Hunt) substitute a carrot for the traditional Chekhovian cucumber.
By 1988, when Brook’s Cherry Orchard was performed in New York at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s newly opened Majestic Theater (refurbished to resemble Brook’s fashionably dilapidated Bouffes du Nord), Chekhov had already begun to vie with Shakespeare for the title of “our contemporary.” Granted, Shakespeare still had a lock on what Auden called “always-ness.” But with the approach of the new millennium, it was becoming increasingly clear that no other playwright—not even Shakespeare—tells us more about the way we live now, in the age of digital (dis)connectedness, than Anton Chekhov.
But how can that be? Chekhov died in 1904, so, needless to say, none of his characters own smartphones, iPads or Kindles. They’ve never heard of blogging, selfies, instant messaging or Snapchat.
Nevertheless, there’s something eerily, preternaturally contemporary about the way they interact with each other. Even when seated at the same dinner table, they rarely feel fully “present” to one another. They all seem to practice the sort of “continuous partial attention” that’s become the new normal for denizens of the digital age. Chekhov’s characters are never more alone than when they’re together.
Alone Together! Has anyone ever come up with a better name for a book about Chekhov? Unfortunately, that exact title has already been taken. Not by a literary critic, but by an MIT professor of digital technology, Sherry Turkle, who used it as the title of her 2012 book about the essentially unsocial nature of social media. But more than 100 years earlier, Chekhov had already dramatized a social landscape in which “connectedness” has little to do with E.M. Forster’s famous admonition: “Live in fragments no longer. Only connect.”
Digital technology may have exacerbated the problem. But, as Chekhov would be quick to remind us, the human capacity for disconnection preceded the iPhone by several millennia. In fact, Chekhov might have responded to Forster with his own aphorism reading, “To be human is to dis-connect.” That’s why Chekhov is giving Shakespeare a run for his money with regard to “always-ness” as well. Whether it’s Stupid Fucking Bird, Aaron Posner’s cheerfully irreverent derangement of The Seagull; Christopher Durang’s charming, omnipresent pastiche Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike; or Mikhail Baryshnikov’s haunting portrait of introversion in Big Dance Theater’s Man in a Case, one or another variation on Chekhov has become part of the very air we breathe.
Not bad for a dramatist who, when he died in 1904, had only completed five major plays and who predicted that the shelf life of those plays would not exceed seven years. Even more modestly, Chekhov was unable to imagine that any of his plays might eventually be performed outside of Russia. But today, the sheer hunger for (more) Chekhov has inspired a wide range of artists to devise strategies for transforming relative scarcity into super-abundance: Sarah Ruhl, David Mamet, Anne Baker, Tracy Letts, Tom Stoppard, Brian Friel, Jean-Claude van Itallie, David Hare, Emily Mann and Trevor Griffiths are just a few of the contemporary dramatists who’ve created new English translations or adaptation of Chekhov’s plays. And if you factor in the countless deconstructions, reconstructions and “meditations on” Chekhov’s work—some of them brilliant (like dreamthinkspeak’s Before I Sleep), some merely fanciful, then Chekhov may turn out to be the most frequently produced playwright in New York and London over the past 15 years (a.k.a. the 21st century so far!).
One of the earliest productions to explore the connection between Chekhov and uniquely contemporary forms of disconnection was the Wooster Group of New York City’s 1991 high-tech adaptation of The Three Sisters, retitled Brace Up!
When Andrei (Willem Dafoe) proposed marriage to Natasha (Anna Köhler), the two actors weren’t onstage together in the conventional sense. Dafoe was there live, seated at an upstage table. But his bride-to-be was a talking head on a video monitor.
Of course, by the early ’90s, juxtapositions of live action and video projection had become a key component of almost every Wooster Group production. But in Brace Up!, the conversations between live and virtual performers served a peculiarly Chekhovian purpose—emphasizing the multiple ways in which characters like Andrei and Natasha are both present and absent to one another simultaneously. The sound of their conversation was convincingly realistic (indeed, downright Stanislavskian), but the sense suggested something else entirely: a gap between them that felt unbridgeable, mediated by media.
Ezra Pound once described great artists as “the antennae of the race.” Is it possible that Chekhov, Wooster artistic director Elizabeth LeCompte and the cast of Brace Up! were—however unwittingly—performing the sort of prophetic public service Pound had in mind?
The first commercial Internet Service Providers came into being in the early 1990s. Thus, the years during which the Wooster Group performed ever-evolving iterations of Brace Up! (1991 to 1994) were the very years that we, as a society, went online. To be even more specific, in ’92, a librarian named Jean Polly published an article titled “Surfing the Internet”—and the phrase stuck. A year later, snail mail found itself competing with e-mail.
Aided and abetted by the arrival of smartphones in ’94 (and the temptations of multitasking), our relations with one another underwent a profound metamorphosis: We developed ever more subtle ways of dividing our attention (and sometimes our very identities) between the world online and the world offline. As our lives became more digitally saturated, we pioneered whole new frontiers of distraction, inattention and disengagement.
We became, in other words, more and more like the characters Chekhov had created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. No other playwright has dramatized more modes of miscommunication and interruption, leading to self-absorption.
It’s not that Chekhov was an early incarnation of Marshall McLuhan, or that he set out in any conscious way to dramatize the impact of new technologies on human behavior. Then again, it is true that in 1886 Chekhov published a very short story titled “U Telefona,” or “On the Telephone.” This comic sketch depicted—with remarkable powers of prognostication—how easily our growing dependence on even the simplest varieties of communications technology can unleash havoc when our “signals” get crossed, scrambled. Here a caller, attempting to place a phone reservation with a busy restaurant, finds herself misdirected to—and misconnected with—an infuriating array of wrong numbers. Chekhov concludes his sketch (a mere 800 words) with the phrase “Continuation ad infinitum.” Beckett would surely have appreciated both the brevity of the story and Chekhov’s suggestion that what we’ve just read is merely the first in an endless series of repetitions.
Is there an earlier or more revealing reference to Alexander Graham Bell’s invention anywhere in world literature? And is the frustration at the core of “U Telefona” significantly different from the “Can you hear me now?” mishegas that characterizes our lives today? (“Continuation ad infinitum.”) Poor reception, of one variety or another, has become contemporary shorthand for the complexity and unreliability of communications technologies more generally. But it’s also an apt description of the many ways in which Chekhov’s characters fail to “hear” one another.
This idea figured prominently in Hungarian director Tamás Ascher’s recent production of Uncle Vanya for the Sydney Theatre Company of Australia. By transposing his Vanya to mid-1950s Soviet Russia, Ascher was able to assign a minor role an onstage radio. This vintage Soviet radio-gramophone was handled as a prop by the actor playing Telegin, a dispossessed landowner (nicknamed “Waffles” because of his pockmarked face). In Ascher’s production the radio was one of poor Waffles’s prized possessions, one of the few “luxury items” he still owned. But it’s not for nothing that Vanya is set in the provinces. The subtitle of the play is “scenes from country life,” which all but guarantees that its action takes place far from the nearest urban broadcast center. Inevitably, the radio’s reception is at best intermittent.
The sounds emanating from the radio seemed to mimic the speech patterns of its owner. Waffles’s verbal interjections always seem to come at precisely the wrong moment; his awkward attempts at small talk are either embarrassingly inappropriate or completely off topic. Frequently they resemble the non sequiturs uttered by the Smiths and the Martins in The Bald Soprano, and it’s probably no coincidence that Ascher has directed Ionesco’s play a number of times.
A few months before Ascher’s Vanya was performed in New York (as part of the 2012 Lincoln Center Festival), David Herskovits and his experimental Target Margin Theater staged a radical rethinking of the play in which the metaphor of “poor reception” was carried to pathological extremes. More a meditation on Vanya than a straightforward production of the play, Target Margin’s staging explored the idea that what ails Chekhov’s characters is something more—and indeed, something more serious—than a mere “failure to communicate.”
In this production, Chekhov’s characters weren’t just ill at ease. Their social awkwardness bordered on dis-ease, or at the very least some sort of developmental dis-order. In fact, the program notes for the production explicitly suggest that the speech habits of the characters bear a family resemblance to several neurolinguistic disorders such as “expressive aphasia” (which manifests itself in grammatical errors, repetitive stutters, inconsistent verb tenses and “telegraphic” speech patterns). Under Herskovits’s direction, the characters were always out of sync with one another; physically as well as vocally, something was always off. Attempts at conversation often resembled bad transatlantic phone calls from the pre-fiber-optic era. Pauses were invariably too long or too short.
Their physical interactions were similarly off-kilter, either too close (“in your face”) or too distant. Even the curtain call was disoriented—the actors took their bows on a series of diagonals, thereby avoiding direct eye contact with the audience. Such antisocial behaviors raised an uncomfortable question: Are Chekhov’s characters borderline autistic?
The members of the adventurous Philadelphia-based Pig Iron Theatre Company seem to think so. Their extraordinary 2008 theatre piece Chekhov Lizardbrain explores Chekhov by way of autism, and vice versa. The show takes place within the claustrophobic confines of a singular mind, in this case that of a character named Dmitri, a high-functioning but severely autistic botanist who feels much more at home in the company of plants than of other human beings. Indeed, the question of what it means to be at home (with oneself, in society, or on the street where you once lived) is one of queries that animates this eccentric rumination on Chekhov.
Dmitri fondly recalls the time he spent as a child playing with three friends who were brothers. Their childhood home has come up for sale, and the plot (if we can call it that) of Chekhov: Lizardbrain focuses on Dmitri’s determined efforts to purchase the real estate where his most comforting memories are housed. Imagine a mashup of Three Sisters and Cherry Orchard as told by Temple Grandin.
Activist Grandin, who is quoted in the program notes, was diagnosed with autism at the age of two and eventually devoted much of her life to studying the way animals think. Dmitri is similarly obsessed with studying the way plants “think.” What matters most about Chekhov Lizardbrain is not Dimitri’s personal history per se, but rather the disjoined way the specific details of the story are filtered through his autistic mind. In its own way, Dmitri’s fragmented storytelling is profoundly Chekhovian. As Virginia Woolf once said of Chekhov: “The leap from one thought to another was so wide as to produce a sense of dangerous dislocation.”
There are, to be sure, many characters in Chekhov’s plays whose capacity for distraction and self-absorption would situate them on the autism spectrum. Perhaps Chekhov’s characters were canaries in the coal mine, alerting us to the dangerous possibility that our capacity for face-to-face interaction with other human beings is trending toward autism. We don’t usually think of Chekhov as one of those turn-of-the-century playwrights who consciously set out to diagnose what Matthew Arnold called “this strange disease of modern life.”
But perhaps we should. He was, after all, the only major playwright who also actively practiced medicine. Who better than Dr. Chekhov to take our collective temperatures? Is it mere coincidence that the years in which Chekhov has become “our contemporary” are the very years in which diagnoses of autism have skyrocketed—and also the years in which a whole spectrum of related behaviors have become alarmingly common? The symptoms now routinely lumped under the “autism umbrella” include the misreading of social cues, difficulty listening to others, fixated and/or repetitive activities, narrowing of focus, shrinking attention spans and, of course, the inability or unwillingness to look one another in the eye.
If nothing else, this would explain why companies like Target Margin and Pig Iron have approached Chekhov’s work from the vantage point of social pathology. But would Dr. Chekhov have agreed with their diagnoses?
Hard to say. But, at the very least, I suspect he’d be intrigued by one of the more exotic-sounding linguistic disorders Target Margin cites in its Vanya notes: The technical term is “anacoluthon,” and it’s triggered by emotional states as various as excitement, confusion and laziness—all of which loom large in Chekhov’s plays. But the specific dimension of anacoluthon that would undoubtedly be of greatest interest to Chekhov is the fact that it’s associated with “dramatic monologues” and “stream of consciousness.”
This leads us to one of the most unique and underappreciated of Chekhov’s achievements: the subtle way in which he often blurs the distinction between dialogue and monologue.
Think of that sad, funny moment in Act 2 of The Three Sisters when poor, henpecked Andrei pours his heart out to the elderly (but nearly deaf) Ferapont—on the page, their exchange appears to be conventional, realistic dialogue:
Andrei: Oh my dear old friend….Just out of boredom today, just out of idleness, I picked up this book, my old university lectures and I had to laugh…
Ferapont: No idea…[what you’re saying]…I don’t hear too well.
Andrei: Well…if you could hear properly, I don’t suppose I’d be talking to you.
Desperate to unburden himself, Andrei appears to be bending Ferapont’s ear. But poor old Ferapont has no ear to bend. What looks (and even sounds) at first like dialogue turns out to be something quite ambiguous.
Ironically, even the great ensemble sequences in Chekhov often consist of sequential interior monologues. This ongoing mental chatter rises and falls in volume as Chekhov’s words float in and out of each character’s consciousness. Think of the six-handed game of lotto in Act 4 of The Seagull. Outwardly, each character appears to be absorbed in the mechanics of holding, examining and dealing cards. But their verbal “dialogue” is more like multiple streams of consciousness, which sequentially reveal what each character is thinking—without so much as acknowledging the existence of the others.
Surely these exchanges have more in common with late Beckett than with any of the realists who were Chekhov’s more immediate contemporaries. In Beckett’s Come and Go, for example, three female characters are seated on a bench facing the audience. When one of them asks the others, “Shall we hold hands in the old way?”, it’s all but impossible not to think of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. (That’s why it made perfect sense in 2010 for Orietta Crispino to devise and direct a mashup of both plays titled The Three Sisters Come and Go.)
This close kinship with Beckett is surely one of many reasons Chekhov so readily qualifies as our contemporary. But if we really want to appreciate his profound modernity, we need to consider Chekhov in relation to his own contemporaries: the late-19th- and early-20th-century realists, who, to their credit, attempted to rid the boulevard theatre of its most egregious excesses and artifice, such as the cheap thrills of melodrama (what Wagner called “effects without causes”), exhibitionistic acting conventions, and the excessive “no-loose-ends” tidiness of the well-made play.
But Chekhov was also acutely aware of the way “realism” empties the theatrical tub of much more than histrionic bathwater. All overtly theatrical conventions—the chorus, the aside, the soliloquy—were also summarily thrown out, for fear that they might spoil the illusion at the heart of realism: the conceit that the actors and the spectators are separated by an invisible yet inviolable fourth wall.
But it was Chekhov’s special genius to reincorporate classical conventions (like the soliloquy) without undermining the basic premises or promises of realism. He knew full well that in the age of the fourth wall, the actors are expected to pretend that the audience isn’t really there.
How then to make sense of a character who brazenly faces the audience and addresses them directly? Isn’t that character “really” talking to himself or herself in public? Within the narrow confines of psychological realism, the only logical motivation for such behavior is mental instability.
This is the point at which Chekhov the dramatist meets Chekhov the doctor. Chekhov dramatizes the potentially unhealthy (if not pathological) consequences of extreme introversion.
It’s this aspect of the playwright that makes him feel so uncannily prescient with regard to our digitally dictated behavior in the early 21st century. After all, until quite recently, if we encountered someone “talking to himself” on the street, we simply took it for granted that he was a street person—a sad, probably homeless soul who had lost the ability to distinguish between monologue and dialogue. But today, in the age of the concealed Bluetooth, all such easy bets are off.
So, when Chekhov blurs the line between monologue and dialogue, it is sometimes for the purpose of signifying anti-social behavior—but not always. There are plenty of other occasions when Chekhov reincorporates conventions like the soliloquy for purely aesthetic reasons, thereby reclaiming for dramatic literature some of the overt theatricality that realism had jettisoned in the name of verisimilitude. And if there’s been a single directorial practice that links many of the most adventurous recent productions of Chekhov—both avant-garde and mainstream—it’s a new willingness not only to acknowledge that the plays contain soliloquies, but to actually stage these soliloquies as soliloquies.
Consider the way Russian director Lev Dodin handled Vershinin’s utopian musings toward the end of Act 3 in the Maly Drama Theatre’s production of The Three Sisters. Vershinin is one of those classic Chekhovian characters who desperately needs to believe in the inevitability of progress, if only as a hedge against the bleakness of his own circumstances (e.g., “What a life it’s going to be, surely, what a life!…”). Traditionally, Vershinin delivers his philosophical pep talk to Masha and Irina. But here, the actor playing Vershinin (Igor Chernevich) not only faced the audience—he seemed to be confiding in us. He even appeared to know who we were: 21st-century middle-class theatregoers, time-travelers from the very future he was so determined to idealize. No wonder his cockeyed optimism deflated right before our eyes.
Chekhovian traditionalists—those eager to preserve their image of Chekhov as a great psychological realist—can therefore breathe a sigh of relief, reassured that the Maly’s production did not (necessarily) violate the most sacred of all realistic conventions: the illusion that the audience and the actors are separated by an imaginary fourth wall.
The same however, cannot be said of the version Cherry Orchard directed by Andre Belgrader for New York City’s Classic Stage Company in 2011. This became abundantly clear just a few moments after the lights came up for the beginning of Act 2. Four characters were on stage: Charlotta, the eccentric governess, in the company of Yasha, Yephikodov and Dunyasha.
Charlotta (Roberta Maxwell) was doing what Chekhov’s characters do best—feeling sorry for herself. “I so long to talk to someone, but there’s no one to talk to. I haven’t got anyone.” The other characters remained oblivious to her laments. But Charlotta was more than willing to take matters into her own hands. Eyeing an unoccupied seat in the audience, she strode directly toward it, plopped herself down and began to chat up the startled spectators on either side. Clearly, this Charlotta, in search of verbal companionship, was willing to take whatever steps were necessary. But had she—stylistically—taken a step too far and crossed the line?
To Chekhovian purists, that bottom line is always the curtain line. But their argument proceeds from a faulty assumption: that an overly “theatrical,” fourth-wall-violating approach to this scene is unfaithful to the play Chekhov actually wrote. The more strictly “Stanislavskian” one’s approach to this scene, the more quickly one discovers that Chekhov was by no means a conventional realist.
Here we begin to see why the working relationship between Chekhov and Stanislavsky was often so contentious. Soon after walking out on the first performance of The Cherry Orchard at the Moscow Art Theatre, Chekhov angrily declared, “Stanislavsky has ruined my play.” This wasn’t the first time Stanislavsky’s obsessive attention to realistic detail had driven the playwright up the wall. What recent productions like Belgrader’s make evident is that the “wall” Stanislavsky drove him up (and perhaps over) was, in fact, that fourth wall.
And once you’ve abolished it, is it still necessary to realistically represent the other three walls? Belgrader obviously didn’t think so; otherwise he wouldn’t have staged the play in “three-quarters round” at a venue like CSC.
The litmus test of whether or not this approach was at odds with Chekhov’s play came in Act 4 when Dianne Wiest as Ranevskya paused to take one last look at her childhood nursery, a room flush with conflicting memories of comfort and loss. Without a single solid wall anywhere in sight, Wiest murmured softly, “If these walls could talk.”
A generation ago, that might have proved dangerous. The discrepancy between word and image could easily have turned unintentionally comic. But by 2010, Belgrader’s decision to liberate Chekhov from the confines of the traditional box set no longer felt like “out of the box” thinking.
Then again, things were quite different back in 1977 when I had my first “Chekhov Without Walls” experience. This was Andrei Serban’s game-changing production of the Public Theater’s Cherry Orchard, performed at Lincoln Center. Serban, who had emigrated to the U.S. from Romania eight years earlier, didn’t just eliminate wall-to-wall scenery, as Brook would do five years later in Paris. Serban set the play in a vast dreamscape of seemingly infinite depth, the sort of decentralized space that Robert Wilson had designed a year earlier at the Met for his epochal collaboration with Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach.
But this was still a full decade before Brook’s “empty space” version of the play toured to New York; and the Lincoln Center audience wasn’t ready yet for the cognitive dissonance that arose when Irene Worth as Ranevskaya—dwarfed against the open-ended space—insisted on taking “one last look at these walls.” There were audible giggles. But, when contrasted with Belgrader’s production in 2010, it’s also a clear indication of how drastically our ideas about Chekhov have changed over the past 40 years.
I can’t say for sure that Serban was influenced by Einstein on the Beach the year before; but the very idea that Chekhov could be approached by way of a nonliterary theatre artist like Wilson opened up additional dimensions of the play. This was—at least in my experience—the first production of The Cherry Orchard to fully embody the subterranean poetry in Chekhov’s evocative description of the “atmosphere” he envisions for Act 2 of the play: “On one side rise dark poplars; and there the cherry orchard begins. In the distance, a row of telegraph poles and far, far away on the horizon, there is faintly outlined a great town, only visible in very fine, clear weather.”
Utilizing every inch of the Beaumont’s vast thrust stage, Serban captured what Chekhov means by the words “far, far away on the horizon.”
Here, for once, was a successful attempt to grapple with what Chekhov meant by that most elusive of catchphrases, “atmosphere.” When, to cite but one example, Chekhov tells us that the sun is about to set and that the characters are in a “reflective” mood, he prepares us for the lethargy and drift that will inform the way his words are spoken.
The air is so thick with heat and humidity that even the slightest physical exertion meets with “atmospheric” resistance. The sense of idleness, being stuck, takes its toll on the characters’ rhythms of speech. A sentence will begin clearly and confidently, but then—out of sheer indolence (or the suspicion that no one is really listening)—will drift away, sinking into a less audible, more private mode of self-address. Everything related to human will—conviction, focus, volume, clarity—evaporates into the muggy air. The resulting drowsiness produces one of those liminal states of being: not quite asleep, not quite awake, and certainly not fully alert.
No other playwright has ever specified such a wide variety of nonverbal sounds to be created by the actors themselves between (or in place of ) words: These include coughs, throat-clearings, sighs, giggles, absent-minded humming, whistling, yodeling and, of course, sobs, shrieks and audible hyperventilation.
Annie Baker made a related discovery while researching and adapting the Russian text of Uncle Vanya for a Soho Rep production two years ago. In a New York Times interview she mentions what a “huge revelation” it was to learn that the Russian text is riddled with ellipses, sentence fragments and filler. Baker singles out words like “tak” and “nu,” rough equivalents of “um” and “er.” Her biggest reservation about most English translations and adaptations is that these hesitations, interruptions and nonverbal sounds have been “weirdly translated into full sentences with periods.”
Of course, the richness of the nonverbal elements in Chekhov is part and parcel of what Stanislavsky called subtext. “Chekhov,” Stanislavsky once wrote, “often expressed his thought not in speeches but in pauses or between the lines or in replies consisting of a single word….The characters often feel and think things not expressed in the lines they speak.”
This also helps explain why Chekhov is responsible for the single most poetically resonant description of nonverbal sound in all of dramatic literature, that legendary stage direction in The Cherry Orchard which reads: “A sound is heard far off in the distance, as if coming from the sky. It is the sound of a string breaking that dies away sadly. A stillness falls, and nothing is heard but the sound of an axe striking a tree far away in the orchard.”
Similarly, one of the most iconic moments in Andre Gregory and Wally Shawn’s film Vanya on 42nd Street owes much of its power to nonverbal sound. Yelena (Julianne Moore) has come to loathe herself in part because she recognizes that she will never muster the courage to run off with Astrov (or with anyone else, for that matter). What makes this moment of self-recognition so unforgettable has less to do with Chekhov’s words (“I am a coward, I am afraid; my conscience torments me”) than with an auditory “cross-fade” on the film’s soundtrack: Moore’s unsuccessful attempt to stifle a fit of sobbing morphs into the sound of a ticking clock.
Moments like these remind us that Chekhov was also the first playwright to dramatize what Umberto Eco calls the postmodern dilemma—i.e., “the predicament of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, ‘I love you madly,’ because he knows that she knows (and she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland.” The more “cultivated” a Chekhov character, the more they feel like a self-conscious “echo” of some famous fictional character.
Poor Constantine in The Seagull knows that his neurotic, tempestuous “scenes” with his mother mirror those of Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude. This burden of self-knowledge contributes to his steadily growing sense of inauthenticity. When Solony in The Three Sisters brazenly challenges Baron Tuesenbach to a duel, it’s because he’s been reading too much of the romantic poet Lermontov. Masha’s doom and gloom is equally self-dramatized: Her determination to dress in black—and her justification for this sartorial affectation (“I’m in mourning for my life”)—can easily make her sound like a poor imitation of Sarah Bernhardt at her most melodramatic.
In classical comedy, the more ludicrous a character, the more they tend to be lacking in self-awareness. Characters like Shakespeare’s Malvolio or Moliére’s Mr. Jourdan are oblivious to their own ridiculousness. But Chekhov’s characters are often mortifyingly conscious of how they appear to others: When Vanya learns that Serebriakoff plans to sell the family estate, he reacts at first with stunned incomprehension (“This can’t be happening….”). But his dumbfounded disbelief quickly morphs into unbridled rage, and he dashes offstage in desperation.
What follows is one of the most hilarious, humiliating, and self-deprecating scenes in all of dramatic literature. It unfolds as follows: A gun is fired offstage. Vanya’s nemesis, Serebriekov, stumbles into view, followed by Vanya, wildly waving a pistol. Vanya fires two more shots—missing his intended target both times. But the audience can already sense a lack of conviction in the awkward way Vanya brandishes the weapon. Self-consciousness has begun to take its toll. Vanya knows how ridiculous—how melodramatic—this all looks; and he soon abandons his impulsive quest for vengeance.
Nothing undermines “impulse” more quickly than the “Eco-chamber” of postmodern self-consciousness. Indeed, Eco’s parable of postmodernism is itself an “echo” of what Harold Bloom, two decades earlier, had already called “belatedness”: that world-weary feeling of having arrived “too late” in the game of human history, accompanied by the nagging suspicion that everything worth saying has already been said and everything worth doing has already been done. “What’s new? Nothing’s new. Everything’s old,” declares Wally Shawn as Vanya in David Mamet’s screenplay for Vanya on 42nd Street.
The very term “postmodern” suggests that our plight is to always arrive after the party has ended. Then again, it’s not easy to arrive “on time” when you’re lugging so much historical baggage. And regardless of how you choose to visualize that image—an endless procession of suitcases, packing crates, cardboard boxes, whatever—the relentless repetition of such objects is more likely to result in comedy, even farce, than tragedy. Indeed, when it comes to the realization that history is doomed to repeat itself, even as unfunny a writer as Karl Marx begins to sound more like Groucho Marx. In his meditation on Hegel in The 18th Burumiere, Marx wrote:
Hegel remarked somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. But he forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce!
Chekhov was the first playwright to assume that there is no end—apocalyptic or otherwise—to history. This helps explain why Chekhov (rather than Shakespeare) was the dramatist whose work felt most timely following the conclusion of the Cold War. By contrast, when Jan Kott wrote his essay “Lear or Endgame” in the late 1950s, Shakespeare and Beckett felt almost too contemporary. The barren terrain of both Endgame and Lear poetically embodied the overarching threat of nuclear apocalypse. And, in retrospect, it appears eerily appropriate that the acronym for this precarious balance of terror between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was MAD (mutually assured destruction).
By contrast, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the threat of nuclear Armageddon gave way to other, less spectacular end-time scenarios. Similarly, when the millennial jitters occasioned by the approach of the year 2000 failed to materialize (does anyone even remember Y2K?), the resulting emotional landscape felt infinitely more Chekhovian than Shakespearean—closer perhaps to Ronald Tavel’s recipe for a Theatre of the Ridiculous: “We have passed beyond the absurd: Our position is absolutely preposterous.”
The recent vogue for end-of-the-world parodies (Zombie Apocalypse, This Is the End, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) illustrates just how far we’ve how far from the apocalyptic landscape of Beckett (or, for that matter, from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now). In Chekhov, as opposed to Shakespeare, there are no exemplary flame-outs. No flashes of blinding revelation. In other words, no apocalypses, then, now or ever.
Ironic reversals of fate are replaced by the numbing repetitions of habit. As a result, Chekhov conflates many of the traditional distinctions between comedy and tragedy, including Susanne Langer’s famous argument that tragedies end in “self-consummation,” comedies in “self-preservation” (i.e., a stage littered with corpses vs. the procreative promise of a wedding or an orgy).
Vanya’s tragedy is that he doesn’t die at the end of Chekhov’s play. Indeed, Vanya’s earlier plan to commit suicide—like all the rest of his “plans”—fails to materialize. In Three Sisters, Tchebutykin, the cynical, alcoholic army doctor, attempts, without success, to drown his sorrows in vodka after learning that a patient under his care has died. Stumbling about in a drunken stupor, he drops a family heirloom, an antique clock, which shatters as it hits the floor. “Oh, that I didn’t exist,” he mutters in suicidal desperation.
If Three Sisters were a more conventional tragedy, the shattering of the clock might come to signify a classic end-time moment, or, at the very least, the end of the character’s time on earth. But Tchebutykin, as surely as Vanya, will continue “to exist.” And that simple fact, more than anything else, constitutes both his tragedy and his farce. In Chekhov, even shattered clocks keep on ticking. There is no end of time. (Even during the Cold War, it would have been difficult to imagine a production of Three Sisters in which the destruction of Tchebutykin’s antique time-piece functioned as a convincing symbol for nuclear annihilation.)
Walter Benjamin once proposed that all great writers either dissolve a genre or create one. Chekhov does both, simultaneously. He reminds us that the most complicated genres of drama are more than mere conflations of comedy and tragedy, broadly construed. Chekhov factors both farce and melodrama into the mix. Note that he described The Cherry Orchard as ‘”not a drama but a comedy, in places almost a farce.” As a result of this mixing and matching of genres, Chekhov becomes the first playwright to pose this deeply counterintuitive question: Is it possible that comedy is ultimately more pessimistic than tragedy?
There is no easy answer to that question. Amos Oz, the great Israeli novelist and peace activist was well aware of this irony when he argued for a “Chekhovian” rather than “Shakespearean” conclusion to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. We all know what he means by the Shakespearean resolution (i.e., a stage piled high with dead bodies). But as Oz hastens to remind us, there is one possible alternative: “the Chekhov tradition…where everyone is disappointed, disillusioned, embittered, heartbroken….but alive.”
Clearly, Oz the peace activist prefers this Two-State Solution. But Amos Oz the novelist is equally quick to emphasize that even this “solution” won’t lead to a “sentimental happy ending, but rather a Chekhovian ending.” Which is to say: an ending in which life—however messy, unhappy or lacking in closure—goes on.
Both literally and figuratively, Chekhov is the most prosaic of all great playwrights. That may not sound like much of a compliment, but I mean it as the highest praise. I’m not just alluding to the fact that, unlike Shakespeare, his characters speak in prose rather than poetry. The more important fact is that Chekhov’s characters live in prose rather than poetry. No one—not even Shakespeare—has dramatized that gap more effectively than Anton Pavlovich Chekhov.
Shakespeare may be better than anyone at dramatizing the highs and the lows, the peaks and the valleys, not to mention the rollercoaster ride that carries his characters from one extreme to the other. But there’s another dimension of the ride that Chekhov is better at: the middle of the journey, the prose passages, where we spend most of our lives. Chekhov is better than Shakespeare at dramatizing what Freud called the “ordinary, everyday unhappiness” of human beings. And if we want access to the fullest possible range of human experience, we cannot live by Shakespeare alone.
Roger Copeland is a professor of theatre and dance at Oberlin College and the author of Merce Cunningham: The Modernizing of Modern Dance (Routledge).
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!