play twenty six: the cherry orchard

Chekhov would die a year after the production of his final play.
Chekhov would die a year after the production of his final play.

Author: Anton Chekhov Published: 1903 Translator: Elisaveta Fen Synopsis: The lovelorn, bankrupt Liubov Andryeevna returns from Paris to settle the debts on her provincial estate. Its widely celebrated cherry orchard carries the ghost of her family and she struggles to reconcile the weight of these memories with her reckless refusal to take financial responsibility for herself. Her daughters Ania and Varia, her brother Gayev, and her long-faithful servant Feers are caught in the tidal wave of change that is sweeping past their matriarch as the local peasant son-cum-millionaire Lopakhin threatens their beloved home. What moved me: now at the fifth and final of Chekhov’s major works it is clear that this is his most consummate piece of craftsmanship. Every character has the depth of a well and, as in life, we are only given a glance into it as they come into our field of view, before they pass on and escape us. The complaint of boredom, which is the bread on which Chekhov’s work is buttered, is surprisingly absent here. There is too much immediately at stake for these characters to be bored, and the flurry with which they pass through their scenes made me forget myself. What moved me most, though, was a sound. In the final moment, the forgotten Feers, the emblem of servitude in a historical moment that was moving towards the utter rejection of inequality, lies down to die to the far-off sound of an axe chopping into a cherry tree. It produced a stunned, quiet pain that still sits with me hours after I’d finished reading.

play twenty five: three sisters

The 2010 Off-Broadway production.
The 2010 Off-Broadway production.

Author: Anton Chekhov

Published: 1901

Translator: Elisaveta Fen

Synopsis: Three sisters – Olga, Masha, and Irena – live with their brother Andrei in a provincial Russian town since their move from Moscow by their father eleven years ago. The locally-stationed battalion of soldiers is the fodder for the love affairs that gradually unfold. The sisters eke out their existence to support their dissolute gambler of a brother and his insufferable wife Natasha, and gradually let go of their dream to return home.

What moved me: this is perhaps the saddest of Chekhov’s plays, if only for the initial presence of hope that is missing in his other work. In the others there is an enduring optimism for future generations to live better than those currently suffering, but here the deep-seated longing to return to Moscow belies an idealism, a belief that things could be perfect now, that is gradually worn away like old costume jewellery.

As was seeded in Ivanov, Chekhov’s control of entry and exit in group scenes, and of the dynamics within the group, is masterful. Act One has fifteen people at any one time onstage and his ability to bind them together with elastic rope such that any one exit/entrance effects a shift in the air is breathtaking.

Also, Natasha. Fuck. What a heinous creature. I’ve never read a play that has made my jaw drop in shock, but she made it happen.

play twenty four: uncle vanya

The terrible Yeliena.
The vampiric Yeliena.

Author: Anton Chekhov

Published: 1899

Translator: Elisaveta Fen

Synopsis: The gout-ridden professor Serebriakov has retired to his country estate with his much younger wife Yeliena Andryeevna. His daughter from his first marriage, Sonia, and her uncle, Vanya, have looked after his affairs but gradually realise that his much-lauded career, which they have tirelessly supported, has been a sham. The old sophist and the beautiful, bored, listless Yeliena gradually infect the family with their aimless ways, before a rupture in the emotional equilibrium of the group forces them to depart.

What moved me: What might be most moving about this work is Chekhov’s prescience about our collective responsibility for the environment. Astrov (another doctor!) is committed to sustainable living, not only in his treatment of patients but also in his role as a landowner.

ASTROV: […] Anyone who can burn up all that beauty in a stove, who can destroy something that we cannot create, must be a barbarian incapable of reason. Man is endowed with reason and creative power so that he can increase what has been given him, but up to the present he’s been destroying and not creating. There are fewer and fewer forests, the rivers are drying up, the wild creatures are almost exterminated, the climate is being ruined, and the land is getting poorer and more hideous every day. [To VOINITSKY.] I can see your ironic expression, and I believe that what I say doesn’t seem at all serious to you, and…and maybe it is just crankiness….All the same when I go walking by the woods that belong to the peasants, the woods I saved from being cut down, or when I hear the rustling of the young trees I planted with my own hands, I’m conscious of the fact that the climate is to some extent in my power too, and that if mankind is happy in a thousand years’ time, I’ll be responsible for it even though only to a very minute extent. […]

Yeliena sucks this conviction from him in her general malaise – that black hole of purposelessness that plagues so many of Chekhov’s humans. His universe is pockmarked with these black holes and yet I would not characterise it as pessimistic. It’s perhaps both more hopeful and more resigned – we must each find our purpose and hold onto it as best we can, for the slightest wind will shake it from our hands.

play twenty three: the seagull

Kristin Scott Thomas as Irena Nikolayevna Arkadina. Perfect.
Kristin Scott Thomas as Irena Nikolayevna Arkadina. Perfect.

Author: Anton Chekhov

Published: 1896

Translator: Elisaveta Fen

Synopsis: Kostia and his sweetheart Nina put on a show for the local families by the lake at his Uncle Sorin’s estate. Kostia is determined to find a new art form and to impress both his histrionic mother, the famous actress Irina Arkadina, and her follower Trigorin, a famous writer. The failure of his work pulls a thread that leads to the gradual unravelling of his life.

What moved me: I’m not sure whether it was because Ivanov was written in a fortnight, or whether it was because Checkhov was 27 and it wasn’t until he was 36 when The Seagull was first produced (I don’t even know if this really does make any difference at all) but the development between these two works is like Polyxena’s shooting star wiped across the sky. Between these two plays irritation has been replaced by devastation. Everything has a purpose. Kostia’s botched suicide attempt is emblematic of every character’s aborted desire and false hope. The way in which the seagull reconnects moments in time across years of turmoil that are lived offstage is painful in its simplicity. And that ending. Fuck.

Also, it is interesting to note what has carried across into this work: the presence of a doctor as a key character, and the presence of Hamlet (Ivanov was sickened by his likeness to him; the players in The Seagull cannot help but quote him) and the work of Gogol as key weaves in the play-fabric.