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 nine: the lonesome west

Leenane.
Leenane.

Author: Martin McDonagh

Published: 1997

Synopsis: The Connor brothers fit right into the casually violent and deeply melancholic town of Leenane, Galway. Here, people walk into the lake and don’t swim back to shore. Woven into this town’s dark fabric, Valene and Coleman have lived out of each other’s pockets their entire lives. Muddy layers of petty disputes and grievances erupt without warning and have cost those few who’ve gotten close to them much. Their mutual hatred sits uneasily with the possibility that they cannot live without each other and the tragedy, perhaps, is that neither is willing to find out.

What moved me: this work is terrifyingly visceral. I saw a production of it in 2009 at Downstairs Belvoir but had forgotten its brutal humour and unkempt menace. It’s like chewing on gristle but being unable to stop your jaw clamping down. Its devastation is the responsibility it gives you to hope: a marrow-of-your-bones weariness knowing that nothing in this world can change but that you are the one who has to believe that it can.

play seven: don juan comes back from the war

Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas, Otto Dix, 1924
Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas, Otto Dix, 1924

Author: Ödön von Horváth

Published: 1938

Synopsis: Don Juan returns from the Great War in search of his jilted fiancee. In this period of massive inflation and despair he is the only man left alive. The world now revolves around women, who cannot help but revolve around him. Contracting influenza, his journey to the house of his fiancee’s grandmother (where he believes she is staying) is delayed long enough for his reformed nature to gradually deteriorate with each new affair. He is constantly looking for a reminder of his ideal beloved. With his health steadily declining, his eventual arrival is met with the grandmother’s triumphant news that her granddaughter died of heartache in 1916. He visits her grave and sits down in the snow to die beside her. His ideal may have always only existed in death.

What moved me: the way Don Juan tries to love a part of every woman he encounters in order to reconstruct his ideal love, just as every woman tries to recreate him in the image of the men they’ve lost. It creates a terrible melancholy and the sense that he is Frankenstein trying to make his own bride in a world where all values have been dislocated.