The Magazine

A Russian Master

Anton Chekhov's unforgiving eye was focused on himself.

Sep 25, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 02 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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The Complete Plays

by Anton Chekhov

Edited and translated

by Laurence Senelick

Norton, 992 pp., $39.95

Of great modern writers, the one readers tend to think of as most like themselves is Anton Chekhov (1860-1904).

The supreme modern playwright, and a peerless writer of short stories, Chekhov embodied, in his work as in his life, the ordinary virtues that good democrats like: warmth, compassion, appreciation for simple pleasures, amused skepticism about big ideas, worldly experience that only enhances the common touch, misgivings about moral absolutes and the people who require them.

Those who knew Chekhov, and those who read him a century after his death, agree on fundamentals: He was the very soul of goodness.

How Chekhov's goodness translates into literary greatness remains controversial. The English playwright David Hare writes in the introduction to his adaptation of Chek hov's first play (which Chekhov left untitled but which Hare calls Platonov) that a "critical battle has been raging in the hundred years since Chekhov's death." On one side are those who think Chekhov so loves his characters that he grants them the irreducible complexity of actual living men and refuses to use them as vehicles for moral judgment. On the other side are those, like the leftist Hare, "who prefer to believe that their man was as political, as social and as specific a writer as Gorky or Tolstoy. They think of him as a moralist."

The critical debate concerns which sort of liberal writer Chekhov happened to be: the serenely nonjudgmen tal creator or the heroically indignant crusader. This first-ever English edition of Chekhov's Complete Plays, translated and edited by Laurence Senelick, a professor at Tufts who has done his job as scholar and translator nearly to perfection, provides the occasion to reconsider the liberal imagination in the light of Chekhov's life and work.

Anton Chekhov was born and raised in Taganrog, a town of some 50,000 inhabitants 600 miles south of Moscow. Greek millionaires formed the local aristocracy, Cossacks and Ukrainians spiced the rich ethnic stew, and Turkish procurers plucked young girls from the street to adorn their masters' harems. Chekhov would coin the epithet "Taganrogish" to describe boorishness, malice, ignorance, and squalor.

Chekhov's paternal grandfather had been a serf who had bought his freedom, and his father was a merchant, choirmaster, and martinet. Anton would remark that his own experience ratified his belief in progress: Life definitely got better when his father stopped beating him. After the elder Chekhov went bankrupt in 1875 and lost his house, the family decamped to Moscow, leaving Anton behind to finish his studies. Anton rejoined his family in 1879, coming to Moscow for medical training.

To help support himself and his floundering family, Chekhov stole time from his studies to write, tossing off droll sketches for the comic newspaper Dragonfly. Only several months into Chekhov's literary career, his editor delivered a stinging slap: "You are withering without having flowered. Such a pity." Chekhov shared that disheartening opinion of his own work, dismissing the slapstick anecdotes, mock advertisements, and cartoon captions he turned out as "my literary excrement." He tried his hand as a columnist, but found the work dispiriting. "Journalist means at the very least a scoundrel," he lamented; and rather than continue cranking out his quota of unfunny humor, he would prefer "dealing with a dose of the clap."

In 1885 a freelance assignment for the Saint Petersburg Gazette led to a productive association with that paper: Permitted to write seriously and at greater length than before, Chekhov began to find his voice and became demonically prolific. In 1886, a swanker Saint Petersburg daily, New Time, invited him to appear in its pages, and Chekhov entered into business, and into warm friendship, with the publishing tycoon Alexey Suvorin. Flagrantly anti-Semitic, awash in self-made wealth, generally supportive of the autocratic government, Suvorin was the bête noire of the liberal intelligentsia, and Chekhov had reason to believe that writing for New Time would blacken his own name. But only a couple of years later, his reputation was flourishing. Even the prestigious Thick Journals--literary monthlies whose devotees looked down their noses at the daily papers Chekhov had been writing for--published extended reviews of his work; and with his long story "The Steppe" in 1888, they began publishing him.

Soon Chekhov's literary energies spilled out into the theater. Already at the age of twenty he had written a sprawling seven-hour melodrama that remained untitled and was never performed in his lifetime; this was the play that David Hare trimmed to less than half that length and made excitingly stageworthy in 2001. From 1888 to 1890, Chekhov wrote a four-act play, The Wood Demon, which he would later strip to its foundation and rebuild as Uncle Vanya; turned out four one-act farces; and spruced up Ivanov, which enjoyed a triumphant St. Petersburg premiere in 1889. But this triumph bored him. It is hard to think of another born man of the theater so readily disenchanted with life before the footlights.

"Actresses are cows who see themselves as demi-goddesses," he wrote. Male actors must be instructed never to speak words of their own, lest a tidal wave of fatuity sweep all good sense away. In short, "the modern theater is a skin rash, a sort of urbane venereal disease."

To escape the theater's itching unpleasantness, in 1890, Chekhov headed off on an expedition to Sakhalin, the island off the Siberian coast that was Russia's penal colony. In a certain mood he regarded the punishing journey as a welcome diversion; in another, he saw himself embarking on a pilgrimage, to redeem Mother Russia of her sin in creating "a place of unbearable suffering, on a scale of which no creature but man is capable, whether he be free or in chains." Of the 28,000 people on the island, roughly 10,000 were either convicts in chain gangs or exiled settlers eking out a subsistence from the unyielding soil. All of them were forbidden to return to European Russia.

In three backbreaking months Chekhov spoke with all ten thousand. Bearing witness to the very nadir of degradation--refractory convicts permanently shackled to wheelbarrows, drunken mothers selling their pubescent daughters into whoredom, routine floggings the sight of which gave him nightmares--exhausted Chekhov, but on his return home, he labored mightily to produce Sakhalin Island, the longest work he ever wrote, and a classic in the thriving genre of Russian penology.

During the winter of 1891-92, when starvation ravaged the southern and eastern regions of European Russia, Chekhov joined the famine relief effort. After he purchased a country estate in Melikhovo, 50 miles south of Moscow, he provided free medical treatment for the local peasantry, and largely at his own expense designed and oversaw the construction of three village schools. At the same time, in his fiction he was merciless in describing the brawling vodka-soaked imbecility of peasant life. Unexpectedly, Russian Marxists endorsed his unsparing depiction of the peasantry, but Chekhov wanted no such allies: "To seek good ends by foul means is to befoul those very ends. . . . Why assure the peasants that they're right to be ignorant, and that their crude superstitions are Sacred Truth? Can any Glorious Future redeem such filthy lies?"

To steer clear of political passions was Chekhov's guiding instinct, but on occasion he became inflamed with outrage like the hottest firebrand. The Dreyfus case moved Chekhov sharply to assail his friend Suvorin, whose hatred of Jews drove his newspaper's condemnation of Dreyfus: "Even if Dreyfus is guilty, [his foremost defender Emile] Zola is still right, because the writer's task is not to accuse or pursue, but to defend even the guilty once they are condemned and are undergoing punishment."

The St. Petersburg student riots of 1899 further alienated Chekhov from Suvorin, but then saw Chekhov coming to his old friend's aid. The protesters were justified, Chekhov declared: "When people lack the right to express their views freely they express them provocatively and irritably." Suvorin thought otherwise, and his support for the government crackdown earned him the censure of the Mutual Aid Association of Russian Writers and Scholars, which convened a Court of Honor expressly to condemn the dishonorable publisher.

However reprehensible Chekhov found his friend's views--and the friendship was chilled thereafter--he could not bring himself to join the court in its indictment. Freedom of speech was endangered by the high-handed liberals, who would gladly substitute their own repression for the government's if given the chance. For Chekhov, freedom's primacy was non-negotiable; even professed enemies of freedom were allowed their say.

Despite this defense of Suvorin, one suspects that Chekhov found it more agreeable to come to the aid of wronged leftists than of maligned rightists. In 1902, after the Marxist writer Maxim Gorky was elected to the Academy of Sciences only to be expelled by the czar's own order, Chekhov resigned his membership in the Academy. This was about as defiant as Chekhov ever got: He was willing to stick his neck out for a friend and a principle, but not so far that he would be in danger of winding up headless.

But then politics was not his foremost concern; literature was, and to that he dedicated his life, writing and writing and writing. He turned out over 600 stories in his lifetime; the Constance Garnett translations run to fourteen volumes. It is for his four greatest plays, however, that he is most acclaimed: The Seagull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1899), Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904) constitute the heart of the modern theatrical repertory, and are performed far more often than the canonical works of Ibsen, Strindberg, or Shaw.

Their inaugural performances by the Moscow Art Theater made the name of the actor and director Konstantin Stanislavsky; the influence of his celebrated acting technique, the Method, remains vital, going beyond mere adherence to the text and demanding that the actor "come with a complete understanding of what the character is experiencing," in the words of Stella Adler, who carried on the tradition in the American theater. The telegram that Stanislavsky sent Chekhov on first reading The Cherry Orchard suggests a madness to his method: JUST READ PLAY SHAKEN CANNOT COME TO SENSES IN UNPRECEDENTED ECSTASY . . . SINCERELY CONGRATULATE AUTHOR GENIUS.

The author genius, for his part, wished the director would knock off the soulful bunkum and see his plays for what they are. Milking Chekhov's work for its last drop of pathos led the Muscovite artistes to miss the comedy, the playwright complained after another triumphant run: "All I can say is, Stanislavsky has wrecked my play."

There was, however, an unexceptionable benefit that Chekhov enjoyed from his association with Stanislavsky's troupe: In 1901 he married one of its leading ladies, Olga Knipper. He was 41, she 32; in their voluminous and quite playful correspondence, she called him the Author and he called her the Actress. It wasn't all play, of course. Turning serious during the first time in their married life they were apart, she wrote in full Stanislavskian effusion, "My soul aches when I remember the quiet anguish which seems so deeply seated in your soul." He replied that she was talking nonsense: no anguish detectable in his soul, if he even had a soul.

Her own anguish was patent: Chekhov was dying of tuberculosis contracted in his youth. For years he had been his own worst patient, refusing to admit that spitting up blood was evidence of consumption. All doubt, or pretense, vanished when, during a luncheon with Suvorin in 1897, a torrential hemorrhage poured from Chekhov's throat. Knowing the now undeniable truth appeared to weaken Chekhov, although he continued to work hard. When he married, he said that he was more suited to be a grandfather than a husband.

He and Olga spent as much time apart as together, as she lived the glittering footloose life of a celebrated actress, while he remained home in Yalta. When she suffered a miscarriage, the child was almost certainly another man's. Yet she was at Chekhov's bedside in July 1904, in a hotel room in the German spa of Badenweiler, when he announced in curt German that he was dying, drained a glass of champagne, turned onto his side, and expired without fanfare. The railroad boxcar taking his coffin to St. Petersburg bore the inscription FRESH OYSTERS. As dog owners occasionally come to resemble their pets, so writers' lives sometimes come to look startlingly like their work.

Death hovers ever near in Chekhov's fiction and drama, but what obsesses him most is living death, the despair of misspent existence. The plays focus and amplify the two intertwined questions that Chekhov turned to again and again in his stories: How should we live, and why aren't we living that way now? Chekhov composes variations on a theme of impotence. None of his characters summons from within himself the wisdom and strength that living well demands; everyone longs for something vastly finer than he's got, but ends up with pretty much what he deserves.

The Seagull opens with a young woman telling the ill-favored schoolteacher who loves her that she wears black because she is in mourning for her life; this funereal note rings throughout the play. The aspiring playwright Treplyov loves Nina; however, infatuated with the thought of artistic fame and wishing for a life on the stage, she throws him over for the older and far more distinguished novelist Trigorin, whose mistress is Treplyov's mother, the famous actress Arkadina. Nina has Trigorin's child, but the baby dies and Trigorin leaves her to return to Arkadina. After Nina comes to tell Treplyov how she still loves Trigorin but has made a substantial life for herself despite her romantic disappointment, by her discovering what a serious artistic vocation means, Treplyov realizes his own hopes for love and literary accomplishment are doomed, and he shoots himself for the second time in the play, finally to the desired effect.

In Uncle Vanya, around the gout-ridden and imperious Professor Serebryakov and his beautiful young second wife, assorted unfortunates circle haplessly, like flotsam in a whirlpool. Vanya is Serebryakov's brother-in-law through the professor's first marriage; pushing 50, he has never married and has sacrificed his own intellectual ambitions to the dutiful management of Serebryakov's estate. When Serebryakov announces his intention of selling the estate out from under his impoverished relatives, Vanya's squeal of self-pity appalls even himself: "My life is wasted! I'm talented, intelligent, audacious. . . . If I had had a normal life, I might have evolved into a Schopenhauer, a Dostoyevsky. . . . What a damn fool thing to say! I'm losing my mind. . . . Mommy, I'm desperate! Mommy!" [Chekhov's ellipses.] Enraged by Serebryakov's ingratitude, Vanya grabs a pistol and fires a couple rounds in the professor's direction, then collapses in despair.

Sonya's vision of eternal happiness to follow a life of heartache famously ends the play: "Uncle Vanya, we will go on living. We will live through a long, long series of days, no end of evenings; we will patiently bear the ordeals that Fate sends us; we will labor for others both now and in our old age, knowing no rest, but when our time comes, we will die meekly, and beyond the grave we will tell how we suffered, how we wept, how bitter we felt, and God will take pity on us, and you and I, Uncle Vanya, dear Uncle, shall see a life bright, beautiful, exquisite, we shall rejoice and look upon our present unhappiness with forbearance, with a smile--and we'll be at peace."

In Three Sisters, the four grown children of the late General Prozorov--Olga, Masha, Irina, and Andrey--mark time in a provincial backwater, rapturously dreaming of Moscow; for Chekhov, real life always lies elsewhere. In the town where they are stuck, Andrey moans, not one remarkable person has relieved the pall of dullness and mediocrity. A collection of officers from the local garrison calls regularly at the Prozorov house, adding a touch of erotic intrigue and making happiness seem possible: Lieutenant Colonel Vershinin, whose wife is mentally ill, loves the tempestuous Masha, who is married to a schoolmaster she despises; Lieutenant Tusenbach, a baron of sublime moral stature but unprepossessing appearance, loves the young Irina, but so does Captain Solyony, madcap and repulsive, who hates Tusenbach and taunts him unforgivably.

The men are given to philosophizing in a bluff, soldierly way, and the women egg on their speculations. Vershinin believes that only in the radiant future, many generations hence, will people at last be happy. Tusenbach contradicts him, and insists that life will always be the same as it has always been: "Birds of passage, cranes for instance, fly on and on, and whatever thoughts, sublime or trivial, may drift through their heads, they'll keep on flying and never know what for or where to." Masha retorts that life without some definite belief is pointless, and Tusenbach responds, "The point . . . Look, there's snow falling. What's the point of that?" [Chekhov's ellipsis.] With this exchange Chekhov divides the world into two camps. Some minds hunger for a reason to go on living, while others yearn for more and more life just as it is.

The pursuit of happiness preoccupies Chekhov's characters endlessly; the possession of happiness unfailingly eludes them. One morning the garrison moves on to another town. Vershinin leaves Masha, who loves him as intensely as he does her. Tusenbach is leaving the army to marry Irina; however, the malignant Solyony goads Tusenbach into a duel and kills him. Olga, who has never known a man's love, consoles her agonized sisters as best she can: "Oh, dear sisters, this life of ours is not over yet. Let's go on living! The music plays so gaily, so cheerfully, and it seems as if, just a little while longer and we shall learn why we're alive, why we suffer . . . If only we knew, if only we knew!" [Chekhov's ellipsis.] But to live in sadness without knowing why is the inescapable plight of Chekhov's souls, tormented by the killing ordinariness of their days.

The Cherry Orchard is a mocking elegy for the landed gentry, elegant, inane, and hopeless--doomed to lose their archaically gracious way of life to the new commercial energies surging up from the lower social reaches. Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya, who fled her home for Paris five years before, trying to escape the memory of her husband's fatal alcoholism and her young son's drowning, returns to the old manse with its nonpareil cherry orchard, only to find that the mortgage cannot be met--her faithless lover squandered her fortune--and the estate will be put up for auction. Lopakhin, a local business wheel whose father and grandfather had been serfs on the estate, tries to convince Ranevskaya and her brother, the loopy billiards fanatic Gaev, to avoid the auction, cut down the cherry orchard, and lease the land for vacation cottages. The aristocrats find Lopakhin's scheme unthinkably vulgar, and they lose the estate--to Lopakhin. He will level the orchard, build those cottages, and add to his fortune; Gaev will work for the first time in his life, in a bank, and Ranevskaya returns to Paris and her reprobate lover. The play ends with an aged and ill family servant, Firs, inadvertently locked in the house after everyone else has gone.

Chekhov was surely right to fault Stanislavsky for overlooking the comic aspect of this play. Even the earnest talk about how best to live pulls sharply toward the ridiculous. The perpetual student Trofimov carries on about the coming age of the working man and tells Ranevskaya's lovely daughter that souls pure as theirs are above love, while she aches to be kissed. The inept accountant Yepikhodov drones his way into matters of life and death, which seem laughable in so inconsequential a creature: "I'm a cultured person, I read all kinds of remarkable books, but somehow I can't figure out my inclinations, what I want personally, to live or to shoot myself, speaking on my own behalf, nevertheless I always carry a revolver on my person. Here it is." For the likes of him, death wouldn't be much different from living.

The unlived life is the central tragedy for Chekhov: and the punishment for failure is the life you do live, wanly, tepidly, with false hope or no hope at all. The good everyone seeks, usually in vain, is always one of the goods of this world: love, success in work, energy, excitement, conviviality, elegance, graciousness, animal spirits. The search for wisdom takes the form of casual talk about everyday activities: how to live through a succession of perfectly ordinary days is the object of this homely philosophizing. Salvation is to be had here and now, or not at all; eternity offers only interminable nothingness, whose sole consolation is that you will no longer spend your days and nights regretting your failure to live as you should.

For Chekhov, unlike Sartre, hell is not other people: Hell is yourself, but its fires are intensified by the other people around you, especially those you love most; and this is the hottest hell not because you cannot be your true self in this company, but because among these intimates, who all know you to the bitter core, pretense is impossible and your true self is inescapable. To stand emotionally naked in polite company--like Treplyov crossed in love, Vanya considering his wasted life and opening fire on his tormentor, Ranevskaya weeping for the home she must leave--is to be not only tragically vulnerable but also ludicrous.

The spectacle of dwindling vitality and disappointed hope makes you think on the one hand, Yes, isn't life inevitably like that, no one escapes this sadness; yet on the other hand, you cannot help but say, What is wrong with these people? What Chekhov describes is the disenchantment of liberal hopefulness. The liberal reformer, whom Ivanov exemplifies, overestimates his powers of moral suasion and underestimates the intractability of the human material he attempts to reshape. When he fails to fulfill the ambitions of his public life, he places the full weight of his desire on the frail shoulders of private life, of love and domesticity; but there too he fails. He ends in nihilism as Nietzsche defined it: The world that should exist does not, the world that does exist should not, and under those circumstances life is intolerable. David Hare, among others, insists that Chekhov is displaying the wounds of a particular time and place. But Chekhov's reach extends further than Russia at the turn of the 20th century, for he renders the failure of the liberal soul, or want of soul, as it has existed throughout the modern world.

Chekhov knows that soul, or soullessness, intimately; it is his own. In a letter to the writer and editor Alexey Pleshcheyev in 1888, Chekhov professes his creed: "My holy of holies is the human body, good health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and complete freedom--freedom from violence and lies, no matter what form these two last may take." But can these be enough to sustain a life of high purpose?

When Chekhov reconsiders his own life, the answer is distressing. Four years later, writing to Alexey Suvorin, Chekhov compares the great writers of the past, whose art had some noble aim--perhaps an immediate goal like the abolition of serfdom or national liberation, perhaps a distant one like knowledge of God or the happiness of mankind--to the artists of his day, including himself: "We describe life as it is, but once we have done that--whoa there! We dig in our heels and won't budge another inch, however hard you whip us! We have neither immediate nor distant goals, our souls are empty. We have no politics, we don't believe in revolution, we have no God, we're not afraid of ghosts, and personally I don't even fear blindness or death. A man who desires nothing, hopes for nothing, and fears nothing cannot be an artist."

Judging himself by the same standard David Hare uses, Chekhov pronounces his art sadly wanting; the great artists, he believes, are indeed passionate moralists, but he is something else. Simply to tell the truth as he does, to render faithfully the living reality, is not good enough in his eyes. His art lacks vital force because he is not a whole man. To portray pallid and forlorn modern specimens is as much as an etiolated type like him can manage. The real artists, such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, not only possess a knowledge of run-of-the-mill spiritual pathology and even profound evil, but also cherish a vision of man at his highest. Chekhov's highest is middling at best. To be Chekhov, Chekhov confesses, is to be less than fully alive.

Our own estimate of his powers and his achievement cannot be so unforgiving; for where would that leave us? Yet our admiration for him, this good democrat most like ourselves, must take into account the sad fact that he did not believe himself worthy of such admiration.

Algis Valiunas is a writer in Florida.