The story behind "Twin Lights" and the small miracle I saw last night at the Stone Center

From the wings of the theatre, three middle schoolers craned their necks with electric attention to see a scene being performed onstage. I have rarely, if ever, seen that kind of concentration from this age group for that length of time in a theatre, and I have spent a lot of time with that age group. Normally, these junior youth would be here backstage absorbed in readying their own musical performance since they were up next, or at least engaged in some mild goofing-off. But no, they were rapt. The scene involved a twin sister and brother in an African village debating the direction of their lives, and these three young viewers--two African-American girls and one Mexican-American boy--listened like it was their own lives unfolding onstage or like a secret was contained in this dialogue that would resolve the contradictions of their own beings. 

I realized how thirsty these young souls are for narratives that speak to their truest selves by performers who represent their cultures and, frankly, their skin colors. I realized again why I do this work, despite the countervailing winds that sometimes leave me feeling like my own bag of Aeolus had been opened while I slumbered. 

And that was just one moment from a glorious celebration of diversity, oneness and artistic beauty last night at UNC's Sonja Haynes Stone Center. (Photos) There, the Baha'i community of Chapel Hill and their friends and neighbors celebrated the 200th Anniversary of the Birth of Baha'u'llah, as part of a worldwide series of grassroots celebrations of that spiritual occasion.

A banner by artist Joe Paczkowski, an artist from Finland.

A banner by artist Joe Paczkowski, an artist from Finland.

The scene performed was from "Twin Lights," a play I wrote at the request of the Baha'i community of Durham, and which premiered on Friday at the Durham Arts council. The performers were Moriah Renee Williams and Brian Wagura, two young actors from Durham, and the play was directed by Dilsey Davis Shull. (Some photos here.) I will post more pictures and perhaps videos soon, as they make their way back to me, but I thought I would share the program notes I wrote for that performance. They introduce the occasion the play was written for, and provide some context for understanding the play and why it is a distinct direction for theatre--one that is vitally needed in our day of mounting chaos and despair, yet increasing readiness for profound and lasting change.


cover-cropped.jpg

Playwright's Notes

Twin Lights

Two hundred years ago, a child was born who was destined to change the face of the world. Mírzá Husayn ‘Alí-i-Núrí was born in Tehran, Persia (now Iran), the son of a nobleman who served in the court of the Shah. As He grew, He became known for his spirituality, innate knowledge and extraordinary wisdom. He paid no attention to the life of the court and the ambitions of the rich and powerful. He chose instead to attend to the poor and downtrodden, gaining the name, “The Father of the Poor.”

In 1844, a letter arrived from the city of Shiraz meant specifically for Him. It was sent by a 25-year old merchant called “The Báb” (or “The Gate”), and it proclaimed the advent of a New Age for humanity. As soon as He finished reading the message, Mírzá Husayn ‘Alí accepted the Báb as a divine Messenger. He immediately turned His life and wealth to the task of spreading the Báb’s Message. That Message tore through Persia like wildfire with hundreds of thousands converting in a matter of a few short years. The response of the Islamic clergy and the Qajar authorities was terrible. They executed the Báb and slaughtered thousands of His followers, including all the greatest figures among them, except for one— Mírzá Husayn ‘Alí, who was called “Bahá’u’lláh” (or “The Glory of God”).

In December 1852, Bahá’u’lláh sat in an unspeakably awful dungeon known as “The Black Pit” with the weight of a galling chain on His shoulders. For four months He had been there, as one-by-one His companions were taken to be executed. It was here He began to receive the first revelations of a divine Message. “In those infrequent moments of slumber,” He said, “I felt as if something flowed from the crown of My head over My breast, even as a mighty torrent that precipitateth itself upon the earth from the summit of a lofty mountain …. At such moments My tongue recited what no man could bear to hear.”

A replica of Bahá'u'lláh's chains from the 'Siyah-Chal' prison

A replica of Bahá'u'lláh's chains from the 'Siyah-Chal' prison

Just then, Bahá’u’lláh was called up, apparently spared because of the intervention of the Russian Minister, who deeply admired Him. Fragile and ill, barely recognizable to His family, He emerged, but not free. Exile would be His lot. For 40 years, Bahá’u’lláh would suffer repeated exiles and imprisonment at the hands of the Persian and Ottoman authorities. “So great have been Our sufferings,” He later said, “that even the eyes of Our enemies have wept over Us.”

In 1863, on the eve of another banishment, He turned sorrow to great joy by announcing to His companions that He was indeed the Promised One the Báb had foretold—the Universal Manifestation of God promised in all the world’s Scriptures. His message was for humanity on the cusp of its collective maturity, this being now an era of unimaginable possibility and of unprecedented danger. His urgent teaching was that the hope of humanity lay in fully embracing our oneness: “So powerful is the light of unity,” He proclaimed, “that it can illuminate the whole earth.”


Our play, “Twin Lights,” is a parable of the possibility and danger, the hope and despair at play in our world today. It takes place in an African village, but also reflects life here in Durham. Its characters form a nuclear family, and at the same time they represent different perspectives on the value of religious teaching. Most evidently, the play dramatizes a simple encounter of what is arguably the greatest religious confrontation of the modern age. By that is not meant the seemingly never-ending clash of competing doctrines and dogmas by their respective followers and fanatics. What is meant is the meeting of the traditional notion of religion—rooted, as it so often is, in fixed boundaries of identity and ethnicity—with a new idea of faith, which seeks not to overthrow and replace, but to dissolve those same hardened boundaries and identities, which paralyze the advance of unity.

Bahá'u'lláh's prison in Akka. His cell was in the upper right corner

Bahá'u'lláh's prison in Akka. His cell was in the upper right corner

For all of history, religion has been that which most strongly binds a people together. Now, for our very survival, we must find a way to conceive of religion as a means of binding not just a people, but all people. “That which the Lord hath ordained as the sovereign remedy and mightiest instrument for the healing of all the world is the union of all its peoples in one universal Cause, one common Faith.”

 

When I was 19, I spent six months in Botswana, a country in southern Africa whose main feature is its Kalahari Desert. I spent time in the villages in “the bush”, meeting ordinary and extraordinary people, including members of the Baha’i Faith. Yes, there were Baha’is in the remotest settlements of the Kalahari! I was not there long enough to have any effect on the place or the people, but that people and that place had a lifelong impact on me. So when I went searching inside myself for a subject that could capture the heart of this Holy Day celebration, it was to that people and that place that I turned. Thebe came first. Her full name ‘Tebogo’ means “We are thankful” in Setswana, while her nickname ‘Thebe’ means “Shield.”

Tonight’s production is not a scrupulous reproduction of Setswana culture. It is a joyful community collaboration around a story inspired by Botswana performed by individuals of many different backgrounds and faith traditions. Costumes, songs and dances show Pan-African and African Diaspora influences, and beyond. Everyone is bringing their gifts to the table, and so the table starts to look more and more like all of humanity. I am especially grateful for Walltown Children’s Theatre and One Human Family’s engagement. These are vibrant artistic communities of their own, and Dilsey and Cara have brought all those relationships and artistic gifts into our communion.

The Shrine of Bahá'u'lláh in Bahji, as it is today

The Shrine of Bahá'u'lláh in Bahji, as it is today

I believe Baha’u’llah is happy because of our gathering. The sorrow He faced in His earthly life has been turned into joy in the heavenly realms by virtue of this celebration and other such authentic displays of the oneness of the world of humanity. “The earth is one country,” He announced from a 19th Century Ottoman prison, “and mankind its citizens.”

MP
October 2017

Articulating Suffering - PRC's Experimental Production of "De Profundis"

From the program notes to De Profundis, a PRC2 production, inspired by Oscar Wilde, co-conceived by Brian Mertes and Jim Findlay, and performed by Nicole Villamil. Jan 11-15, Kenan Theatre at the Kenan Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Articulating Suffering

By Mark Perry

De Profundis is the title of a meditation in prose penned by famed playwright and aesthete Oscar Wilde in 1897 from a Reading prison cell. Written as a letter to his former lover, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, it is a sounding of Wilde’s own soul. Confessional, philosophical, sober—it is a pole apart from the sprightly iconoclasm of The Importance of Being Earnest, while maintaining Wilde’s astonishing acuity.

Just three months after Earnest’s triumphant premiere, Wilde walked into prison and a purgatory of deprivation. The polished socialite, the refined epicure, the loving family man—all the roles he had taken pleasure in were now subverted with the deft irony of one of his signature epigrams. Perhaps most maddening, if not most tragic, was that this lord of language, for over a year and a half, had no access to pen and paper, and therefore no means of expression in his unyielding solitude. The intervention of a friend and the accession of a kindlier warden ended this literary fast. He was given paper to write—albeit one page at a time. The warden justified this granting of privilege as “medicinal.” The result was an outpouring of pent-up feeling and thought with its attempted articulation of the mystical secret hidden in the heart of pain. 

Oscar Wilde in Rome, 1900

Oscar Wilde in Rome, 1900

Tonight you will be immersed in that outpouring. This performance of De Profundis has been developed here at PlayMakers over the past couple of weeks as a collaboration primarily among three guest artists—director Brian Mertes, performer Nicole Villamil, and designer Jim Findlay. It is not a dramatization of Wilde’s imprisonment, nor even a play with a character in recognizable given circumstances. And yet, out of the depths of this text, a performance emerged. Recalling the abstracted minimalism of Beckett, an individual gives form and voice for universal suffering. And yet here is hope. The paradox of gender binary is resolved into an emerging, if still hypothesized, new self. As images and passages come, we welcome them to mingle with our understanding of Wilde’s life and travails, or Christ’s, or our own.

Whether Bosie ever read the letter, his vain nature was unaltered. Nevertheless, that Narcissus caught up in his reflection served as a mirror in which Wilde might address his own vanity and awaken a new self. This performance might serve this same ‘medicinal’ purpose for us.

More information http://www.playmakersrep.org/show/de-profundis/

The 100 year anniversary of Paul Green at UNC

School is starting again here in Chapel Hill. The students have returned, and a whole bunch of them are brand-new. They shine with eagerness and curiosity these first couple of weeks, until the workload and tests begin to cover that luster little-by-little. I talk to them in class about their "spark," telling them to protect it, to cherish that openness, that curiosity that wells up from inside like the primordial urging of Life.

100 years ago, a young man just like them came here, eager and ready to learn, his spark bright. He was a little older—22 at the time, but afire with longing to learn and to grow. He had worked two years to raise money back home in Harnett County, about 50 miles south of Chapel Hill. Young Paul Green had been warned of this place by a well-meaning teacher and minister. Even then it seems UNC excited suspicions of liberal thinking, as if it were a gateway to godlessness. The man pointed to a field and told him, "I'd rather see you taken out there in your coffin and buried in that ground than to go to the University of North Carolina and run the risk of burning in the fires of hell hereafter."

(This blog was first posted as "UNC’s Paul Green: a like-mind in a different time" in Sept 2015.)

Read More

A Brief History of Russian Drama (Before 1900): Examining the Good Dr. Chekhov, part 4

In looking at Anton Chekhov's development as a playwright, it is important to acknowledge his artistic predecessors. These include diverse influences from outside Russia - from Shakespeare to Zola to Maeterlinck. They also include the indigenous drama that had sprung up in Russia, starting in the 18th Century, with roots from even before that. 

Throughout history, Drama has emerged from two perennial, yet contradictory sources. The one is the sublime stories and sacred rituals of religion and the other the studied mockery and profane embellishments of everyday human folly. When enacted, the grandeur of the former is magnified by our solemn, collective attention, while the satirical whip of the latter is urged on by laughter and, frequently, intoxication. In more medieval times, both of these impulses remained at the level of amateur performance, and they continued as such for centuries. In some cultures, however, the theatrical impulses eventually evolved into a professional endeavor, and the resulting literature – that of the written play – could gain a refinement that justified its being passed down the generations. Russia experienced this transition much later than many European countries, but in time it would come to transform forever the face of drama around the world.  

[Much of the information that follows is taken from George R. Noyes’ Masterpieces of Russian Drama (1933).] 

Literature in Russia before the 1917 Revolution, according to Noyes, can be divided into four periods. The first lasted from 1760 to 1820, roughly speaking, when significant progress was made towards a Russian literature, albeit one that was highly imitative of French Classical Models.  The second category is Russian Romanticism, which went from about 1820 to 1840. The third and most fruitful period lasted from around 1840 to 1890 and witnessed the high watermark of Russian Realism. The fourth period lasts from about 1890 to the 1917 Revolution and built on the Realist tradition but with the intrusion, in Noyes' thinking, of Modernist trends such as Symbolism and Futurism. 

The famed Tsar Peter the Great (R. 1682 – 1725) formed what became known as the Russian Empire and encouraged the spread of education and the Europeanization of Russia from its medieval, agrarian practices. A couple of generations later, Catherine the Great (R. 1762-1796) ruled as the Russian Empire was entering the beginnings of a golden age. Still with a strong French influence, Russia was gaining an educated and cultivated upper class.

1. French-Classical Influence: 1760-1820

If we look at drama in the 1700s, the French Tragedy (a la Jean Racine) was strong and Russian comedy would develop first along French guidelines. Noyes offers this insightful description:

All over the world comedy in the 18th Century was in general of the type which had been brought to perfection in France by Moliere, and which went back through him to Terence and Menander… The plot must center about a love story… This plot was, however, usually subordinated to a picture of society drawn in a satiric vein. Satire opened the door to didacticism; the comic writers prided themselves on being teachers of social good sense, a sort of practical morality… Here was a dramatic formula that could be adapted to any country and to any period.” [Masterpieces, pp. 2-3]

The first significant Russian comic playwright was Denis Ivanov Fonvizin (1744-1792), who wrote The Young Hopeful (1782), a Russianized French comedy featuring great satiric portraits of “backward country squires.” The next significant Russian comic playwright was young enough to be Fonvizin’s grandson: Alexander Sergeyevich Griboyedov (1795-1829) wrote Wit Works Woe (1823), a comedy of manners that may be compared with Moliere's The Misanthrope, but the characters are Russian aristocracy in the city. The play was censored, however, and never staged in his lifetime. The first full staging was in 1869.

2. Russian Romanticism: 1820-1840

The 19th Century would come to be known as the Golden Age of Russian Literature, basically consisting of the Romantic and Realist periods. The Russian Romantic period featured Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), considered the “greatest of all Russian poets.” Turning away from the French Classical models, he was influenced more by Lord Byron and Shakespeare. His Boris Godunov (1825) was a closet drama, the story of a Russian historical figure. The drama was a series of dramatic scenes, but lacking in cohesion. It lives on today mainly in Mussorgsky’s opera of the same name (1874) based on Pushkin’s play. The second greatest Romantic poet of this age was Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841), who did not write plays.

3. Russian Realism: 1840-1890

Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) was an artist of “sentiment, satire, caricature,” and whom Noyes compares to Charles Dickens. He was the first great Russian writer to focus on everyday people, the “indistinguished, vulgar sort” (Masterpieces, 5). His play, The Government Inspector(Revizor, 1836) is a satiric comedy about graft among provincial officials. While it still follows French form, it is fully Russian in substance. It was a favorite of Tsar Nicholas I and only passed the censor because of his intervention.

Read more about Gogol’s The Government Inspector

Russia’s first professional playwright was Alexander Ostrovsky (1823-1886) and perhaps the only one of the 19th century, since most who wrote plays mainly wrote in other forms. As Noyes said,

The drama has been one of the great glories of Russian literature, but it has never been the most important type of that literature… Aside from [Ostrovsky], the most significant Russian plays have been written by novelists and poets.” [Masterpieces, 1]

Ostrovsky wrote 41 prose plays and dealt with the middle and lower classes. He was beloved for scenes that depicted everyday Russian reality. His plays include The Poor Bride (1852) and The Thunderstorm (1860), which is considered his masterpiece. The Forest (1870) is his play that most resembles Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in subject matter.

Read more about Ostrovsky’s The Forest

Russia’s three most famous authors of the Realist period are Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and Tolstoy. Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) wrote no plays, but Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev (1818-1883) did—for a while, anyway. Turgenev was among the best educated Russians of his time, definitively upper class. His A Month in the Country (1850) was based on Honoré de Balzac’s melodrama The Stepmother, but he turned it into what Noyes calls a “domestic comedy” with Russian details. The author considered it a closet drama, and it was not acted until 1872. Turgenev’s novels include Rudin (1856), Virgin Soil (1876), and Fathers and Children (1862). His “Sportsman’s Sketches” were short stories that brought him fame (1847 – 1851). He was much loved and appreciated in his time, but later on seemed to fall from favor.

Read more about Turgenev’s A Month in the Country

Alexey Pisemsky (1820-1881) wrote the play A Bitter Fate (1859), which was similar to the work of French Naturalist author and playwright Emile Zola.

Russia’s greatest writer of all time is arguably Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). Tolstoy was of the highest Russian nobility, but also had extremely broad experiences in his life. His major novels War and Peace (1863-1869) and Anna Karenina (1873-1877) were written before he had his religious conversion in 1879. In the year 1886, Tolstoy wrote both the superb short story The Death of Ivan Ilyitch (1886) and the play The Power of Darkness, which is arguably the greatest of Russian tragedies.

Count Alexey Tolstoy (1817-1875) was a distant cousin of Leo Tolstoy’s. He is famous as a playwright for his historical trilogy including The Death of Ivan the Terrible (1864), Tsar Feodor Ivanovich (1868), and Tsar Boris (1870). Tsar Feodor Ivanovich was famously the first play produced by the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898.

The years 1880 to 1890 are described by Noyes as “relatively sterile” and “the opening of a new period in Russian letters.” (Masterpieces, 15) In that decade, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Ostrovsky all died, and Tolstoy changed. The eighties were a time of larger changes in society, of political crackdown and suppression, and of significant growth in the spread of Capitalism.

In 1887, a young writer of short stories, Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), would premiere the play Ivanov, of which he uncharacteristically boasted “The plot is unprecedented.” Ivanov was an ambitious, if imperfect, first foray into what would become known as Chekhovian Drama--to be fully realized in the plays The Seagull (1896)Uncle Vanya (1897), Three Sisters (1900) and The Cherry Orchard (1903).

MP

Noyes, George Rapall. Masterpieces of Russian Drama, Vol. 1 and 2. Dover Publications: New York, 1960. 

Squeezing out the Slave Drop by Drop: Examining the Good Dr. Chekhov, part 3

What writers of the gentry had free from birth, we the underclass have to pay for with our youth.” (Anton Chekhov, Letter to A. Suvorin, Jan. 1889)

Most of the great Russian writers of the 19th Century—Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy, to name the most prominent examples—came from the Russian aristocracy or the landowning class. Not so Anton Chekhov. Most of his ancestors were serfs—slaves, that is, lest we interpret the word euphemistically.

His paternal grandfather, Egor Chekhov, had earned money to buy freedom for himself and his dependents in 1841, while his maternal grandfather, Iakov Morozov, had been freed by his father’s labor in 1821. Only Anton’s maternal grandmother, Aleksandra Kokhmakova, had come from affluence—still non-gentry, but they were respected craftspeople. By 1860, when Anton was born in the port city of Taganrog, his family were considered meschchane, or petite-bourgeoisie—a class hovering above servitude.

The port city of Taganrog, the birthplace of Anton Chekhov .  

The port city of Taganrog, the birthplace of Anton Chekhov .  

While 19th Century Russia’s class system was highly regimented and codified from the Tsar on his throne to the peasant in the field, it was also increasingly porous. Social reforms of the 1860s brought new possibilities to millions—the most sweeping of these reforms was the general emancipation of serfs in 1861. Social mobility was possible, and education was key. And despite the numerous dreadful remnants of serfdom that remained in their blood, the Chekhov family kept sight of the value of education as a means of social uplift.

The life of the Chekhovs in Taganrog was marked by cramped quarters, chaotic finances and emotional hardship, constant moving from one house to another. There were always relatives and other stragglers living with them, swelling the number of dependents. The house was tyrannically run, and yet somehow they maintained their cohesion. Together with their extended family, they were considered clannish by townspeople.

The Chekhov family--parents and six children--with other relatives, 1874. Anton stands second from left. His father and mother are seated center.

The Chekhov family--parents and six children--with other relatives, 1874. Anton stands second from left. His father and mother are seated center.

Anton’s father, Pavel Egorovich Chekhov, was a shopkeeper selling various household goods. The store was never run right as Pavel was more interested in conducting church choir than serving customers. He was a complicated case: religious, drawn to the arts, dedicated to family, and yet abusive in the extreme during the childhood of Anton and his brothers. He beat them mercilessly, considering it his God-given duty.

The two older boys—Aleksander and Kolia—were traumatized by this abuse. Both wet their beds well into their teens. Despite remarkable talents and ample opportunities, both displayed self-sabotaging behavior that kept them from stability or success whether with career or family. As an adult, Anton wrote to Aleksander, “Tyranny and lies crippled our childhood so much that it makes me sick and afraid to remember.” This note of commiseration notwithstanding, Anton seems to have responded differently to the tribulation. He grew tougher.

Pavel himself was thrashed as a child by his father so badly that he had to wear a truss his entire life. In fact, in 1898 at the age of 73, he decided one day not to wear his truss and he died as a result of the complications arising. His son was not present to treat him.

Anton’s mother, Evgenia Morozova Chekhova, was kind-hearted and comely. She had no dowry, so she married a man below her inherent quality. She gave birth to seven living children. Six of her children—five boys and one girl—grew to adulthood: Aleksander (b. 1855), Kolia (b. 1858), Anton (b. 1860), Vania (b. 1861), Masha (b. 1863), and Misha (b. 1865). She was devastated by the loss of the last one, a baby girl named Evgenia, when Anton was 11.

a10fddb9cd58382319a5bf2b7487e17c.jpg

Throughout his life, Anton cared deeply for his mother, while he showed only filial respect for his father. He faulted him for the abuse and humiliation his siblings and his mother experienced. At the same time, Chekhov would spend most of his life surrounded by and providing for both his parents. At the age of 17, during a lengthy period of separation from them, he wrote to a family member:

My father and mother are the only people in the whole wide world for whom I shall never ever grudge anything. If I ever stand high, it is their doing, they are glorious people, and their unbounded love of their children puts them above all praise, compensates for any faults of theirs.” 

Looking over their lives, one sees that Chekhov’s family members—immediate and extended—were dealt an extra portion of talent and yet a general inability to control it or benefit from it. They were something like the dramatis personae in his plays, a cast of well-meaning, passionate, caring, inept, hypocritical, delusional individuals who love each other but can’t stand to be either with or away from each other.

Anton (C) with siblings and his father, 1874

As a student, Anton was rather unremarkable at first. For one thing, he was forced to spend long hours even at a young age watching over the shop while his father pursued his interests elsewhere. He and his brothers were pushed to sing choir music until they grew hoarse. Still he made his way through the Taganrog school that thrived in the period he and his siblings attended. According to Donald Rayfield,

The quiet resistance to all authority, the core of Anton’s adult personality, was fomented in the classroom. The gimnazia was a great leveler—upwards, rather than downwards. It gave pupils from poor, clerical, Jewish or merchant households the rights and aspirations of the ruling class.” 

Everything changed when Anton was 16, when his family began their protracted move to Moscow—his brothers as students, his father as a fugitive from debtors. Anton was put in charge of the store, as well as the family’s property and financial affairs in Taganrog. It would be three years that he would be separated from them, three years of difficulty and growth, three years of turning towards and yearning for Moscow.  

At this point, something in his character shifted. He began to excel at his studies. Maybe it was the solitude, or the ability to concentrate in a more stable living environment with family friend Gavriil Selivanov—a prototype of the character Lopakhin. He began to seriously consider medicine as a career. More than this, he gained an independent drive and purpose and work ethic that would carry him the rest of his life.

The secret to Chekhov’s worldly success you can see lay not simply in talent or genius, but in that chip of hardness, the callousness to make his way in the world, to calculate and make cold, rational decisions. This quality clashed with his dominant bearing of tact and mannered wit, and it was a recurrent confoundment for all who let him into their hearts—from his brothers to his collaborators to his lovers to literary statesmen, all experienced one time or another the flint in his character.

Anton Chekhov, painted by his brother Kolia, 1884

Anton Chekhov, painted by his brother Kolia, 1884

In 1879, Chekhov closed up shop for good in Taganrog and headed to Moscow, to stay with his struggling family and to join Moscow University’s medical faculty—that is, to start five years of medical training. There, he would begin writing parodies for small periodicals to print at 5 kopecks a line as a way of supporting his large family. This would open the door to writing short stories, all the while studying and beginning his medical career, all the while helping to manage a bustling household.

Short stories would be his ticket to the elite circle of Russian literary figures. He would come to write some longer pieces—novella size, but never anything on the door-stopping scale of Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy, whose works are infamous for their length and depth, import and sermonizing. Chekhov never had the psychological space afforded him to develop story on such a scale. Most of his early stories, he claimed, he tossed off in 24 hours or less. Chekhov took to writing not to change the world but to provide for himself and his large family. As was quoted at the beginning, he paid with his youth “what writers of the gentry had free from birth.”

That quote, from a letter to his friend and publisher A. Suvorin, continues in a most instructive way showing how a 29-year old Chekhov saw his own upbringing and framed his process of refining his character. He wrote it, however, as if sketching out a character study for a short story:

Why don’t you write the story of a young man, the son of a serf, a former shop boy, chorister, schoolboy and student, brought up on deferring to rank, on kissing priests’ hands, submitting to others’ ideas, thankful for every crust, thrashed many times, who tormented animals, who loved having dinner with rich relatives, who was quite needlessly hypocritical before God and people, just because he knew he was a nonentity—write about this young man squeezing drop by drop the slave out of himself and waking one fine morning feeling that real human blood, not a slave’s, is flowing in his veins.” 

MP


Most of the information included here comes from the Donald Rayfield biography, Anton Chekhov: A Life. See my review:

Examining the Good Dr. Chekhov

This season, Chapel Hill is experiencing a minor jubilee of the mature drama of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). We might say the centerpiece is Three Sisters at Playmakers Repertory Company, directed by brand new Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch. Three Sisters runs through February 7 (although its opening weekend was lost in the winter storm). We see PRC’s “Visit to the Prozorovs” is bookended by two productions of The Cherry Orchard—the first, a bittersweet swan song of Deep Dish Theater Company in October and November, and the second, a Chekhov debut for the Kenan Theatre Company coming this April.

Playmakers production of Three Sisters, directed by Vivienne Benesch.

Playmakers production of Three Sisters, directed by Vivienne Benesch.

Chekhov's dramatic work is renowned for its intricately-drawn characters, its indirect style of plotting, its naturalistic dialogue that obscures subtextual meaning, and its heavy, existential themes that the dramatist insisted were light and impressionistic. 

Three Sisters (1900) and The Cherry Orchard (1903) were Chekhov's last plays—two deeply complex, yet vigorous pieces written by a sick and even dying man. Chekhov had faced a terrifying lung hemorrhage in March 1897 while dining at the Ermitage in Moscow. Medical consensus pushed him to repair to a warmer climate to convalesce due to his advanced stage of TB. And so he moved to the Crimea, to the coastal city of Yalta, to buy himself a little time, a little time at the expense of loneliness. A medical doctor himself, astute in diagnosis and prognosis, Chekhov knew what fate was before him. (He had accurately predicted his death three years earlier, in June 1894, telling a friend he had 5 or 10 years left to live. The latter parameter was to be hauntingly accurate.) It was in Yalta, in his temperate banishment, even as he faced increasingly painful and debilitating symptoms, that he brought these two plays to life. He was blossoming as a playwright even as he was putting into order the affairs of his life's main literary output—his short story writing, for which he had become famous. 

Before his death, a friend asked Chekhov how long people would go on reading his work. Ever self-deprecating, he said, "Seven years." When pressed, he said, "Well, seven and a half."  

Was this simply self-deprecation, or was there some wistful insight here? A generation later, Revolution would transform the Russian Empire into the Soviet Union, hardly a place for the plays of Anton Chekhov. Chekhov's lack of ideological commitment had infuriated both liberal and conservative factions even in his own day. Moreover, the Moscow Art Theatre, which had triumphantly ascended to new artistic heights with four successive Chekhov plays between 1898 and 1904, could no longer by the mid-1920s justify keeping him in their repertoire. Konstantin Stanislavsky, the MAT's star director and actor, commented "I would prefer not to be acting in his [Chekhov's] plays", whereas his partner, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko—Chekhov's friend and champion, wrote in 1925, "It is necessary to exclude from the MAT repertoire... works of literature that are unacceptable for the present day (for example, all of Chekhov's plays...)." No less an icon to the October Revolution than Vladimir Lenin had a pithy rejection to offer. After attending a Chekhov performance, he is said to have remarked, "Is it really necessary to stir up such feelings? One needs to appeal to cheerfulness, work and joy."   

This question of Lenin's is worthy of reflection. It calls to mind Plato's objection to the inclusion of drama in his ideal Republic and Augustine's banishment of it from his ideal Church. Despite my love for the theatre, I don't reject these philosophers' views out of hand. They were serious thinkers, as was Chekhov, and their perspectives are part of a whole picture.

To broaden our basis for reflection and to tie it to the mission of Drama Circle, let's reframe the inquiry: "What is the value of producing Chekhov's work today? Do his plays have anything to say to modern audiences? Or are they museum pieces, a.k.a."classics", that we are beholden to resurrecting from time to time to ensure the continuance of the Western (and White) Dramatic Canon? Does performing Chekhov help us understand our world in the 21st Century? Does it help us analyze our lives, diagnose our maladies, heal our wounds, awaken our empathy, kindle our joy, and offer hope or succor in our painful transitions? 

In his program notes to PRC's Three Sisters, Dramaturg Adam Versenyi finds connection between the times: "Our world, like Chekhov’s, is one of changing values and great social and spiritual stress." [Read more]

For my part, I intend to explore over the coming months Chekhov's life and work with an eye to addressing these questions of relevance. This is, in part, an attempt to process all of the material I've been reading in preparation to direct the upcoming Kenan Theatre Company's production of The Cherry Orchard. It is also an attempt to evaluate dispassionately a playwright I have grown to revere over the years. In reverence, there is an impulse to oversimplify. Chekhov himself was a complex character. Even his closest friends and collaborators, from time to time, found themselves forced to reexamine their relationship with the dear doctor.  

Mark Perry

Silhouettes of Service

This past Monday evening, some of us stepped out of the chilly weather into Swain Hall to see a moving piece of documentary theatre honoring the stories of veterans. "Silhouettes of Service" is a one-man show created and performed by Gregory DeCandia, who is currently a MFA acting student in UNC's Dept of Dramatic Art. The script consists of excerpts of interviews Greg did with veterans of various wars as they reflected on their service to their country. In crisp portraits of 18 soldiers, he beautifully depicts the diversity of the military and displays some of the breadth of experiences to be found therein. He includes veterans of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a surviving solder of World War II, and then towards the end, his play narrows in on the Vietnam Vet experience. The title is apt as each soldier's excerpt is like a silhouette--quick, providing an outlined glimpse of character, and each piece reflects back on a main theme, the military mantra of "service to country."

It happened that four of the eighteen interviewees were in the audience on Monday evening, all of them veterans of Vietnam. After the show, they stood up and joined Greg onstage for a heartfelt discussion. These are men in their sixties and early seventies, several of them still haunted by their time over there and by their unwelcomed return. The war was bad, real bad, and worse because the coming-back held no promise of sanctuary or of healing. These men had risked everything in service to their country, but their service had become an aching source of shame.

Forty years later, their stories are central pieces in a work fashioned not simply of words but of understanding and care, of truth-seeking and truth-telling, of a long-overdue honoring. As you might expect, these men were moved by this airing of their collective story and by the empathetic feedback loop created among performer and audience and subject. We were all moved. The scars are still there, but when the heart is moved, the healing can flow.

This is the power of theatre. This is the goal of the theatre. To seek out the wounded, to tell of the injury, to air the wound, and to dress it with care. To heal. 

"Silhouettes of Service" was directed by Joseph Megel and presented as part of a "Veterans and their Families" Festival sponsored by Streetsigns and The Process Series, a new work development initiative housed in the UNC Communication Studies Department. Other plays in this Festival include "Downrange" by Mike Wiley and "An Loc" by Elisabeth Lewis Corley. In March, Cape Fear Regional Theatre will present the premiere full production of Mike Wiley's "Downrange" about the unsung lives of military spouses.  If last May's staged readings were any indication, that production will be electrifying, given CFRT's proximity to Fort Bragg and the jeopardized state of military families after fourteen years of continuous deployments. 

Hats off to these theatre artists and companies that are awake to the needs of our time and our place! This work is service to your community and country.

Mark Perry