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