Thursday, March 5, 2015
I think I'll stick to the shorts
Over the years I've read a few of Chekhov's short stories so I decided to read some of his longer works when I was at a cheap bookstore and ended up picking up an old book with four of his plays in it. I maybe should have remembered my personal history with drama and decided to pick up a collection of shorts instead because, damn, do I not like reading drama. Chekhov is very competent and I'm sure he was writing about things that seemed tremendously important and simultaneously hugely overblown in his own time but there's something that's lost in the translation from the 120 year old Russian plays to a reader in the US in 2015. The plays are sometimes funny, sometimes dull, and short enough not to make me want to tear my hair out, but reading four of them in a row was just a bit too much for me to handle with grace.
The Seagull - 1895
This is a play about a dozen people who can't get what they want and so refuse to grow up. An aging actress stifles her artistic son; her younger lover leads on and torments the young woman the son loves; the son is loved by the daughter of a steward; the daughter is loved by a schoolmaster she can only sneer at. The actress's brother wishes he had done something other than public service with his life and is unsatisfied with his retirement. There are two writers (the son and the lover) who are alternately obsessed and repulsed by their own writing. I just don't have a lot of sympathy for most of these characters. The lot of them seem like terrible, self-involved hypocrites. But I do have to admire the steward's daughter, who gets shit done, and her schoolmaster husband who soldiers on in spite of his problems. Which, I think, is the point. The upper classes in the stories don't do anything and waste everybody's time while looking good while the lower classes are the ones who actually strive for what they want/need. I think. I also think this is going to be a recurring theme in the other plays in this collection.
The Cherry Orchard - 1904
I feel like there's a lot of context that I'm missing here because I'm not exactly well-versed in turn-of-the-century Russian history, but the gist of what I'm getting is that people can be just so fucking useless and Chekhov is totally sick of that shit. I'm also picking up that classism is stupid and, sadly, getting a "bitches be crazy" vibe. To be totally honest a lot of what I'm reading here is exactly the sort of thing that irritates the shit out of me whenever I read Ibsen: none of the characters are sympathetic, all of their problems are inane or incomprehensible, and there's not enough action or consideration to keep me engaged. I could chill with Firs - the old, sick, lost servant is the only one in the story who is completely disgusted by what he sees and seems to be powerless to stop it or divert it in any way. Everyone else just keeps saying "oh no, I couldn't bear it if this happened" and then exercises no effort for the outcome they want. I mean, I know there's supposed to be a sense of futility in this story but Firs is the only one for whom any action is actually futile because he's pretty much dead from the start.
Three Sisters - 1901
This play is a lot of the same but we get to see a lot of fixation on the future - the question is asked multiple times "what will the future think of us" and never really answered. The sisters are accomplished without being happy and the story does a lot of talking about how class is a construct and work is the only way to be satisfied. And, I mean, I agree with that in general but I'm a little sick of reading about it. This was also the first of the plays in this collection that I stopped bothering with names at all - the only ones I remember are Natalya, because she's really irritating, and Bobik, because it sounds funny to me. I get the feeling that this name thing wouldn't matter so much if I was actually watching a play and associating different actors with the characters, but when you're not given the visual aid it's really easy for these characters to blend into one another - mostly because a lot of them say the same sorts of things as the others.
Uncle Vanya - 1897
I think of all the plays in this book Uncle Vanya is the best constructed and has the most sympathetic characters. It's the only one in which the humor of the situation is sad and human, not grotesque, and funnily enough it's really the only play with a happy ending. I also got more of a personal resonance with this story because it wasn't about people wasting their lives out of a habit of indolence, it was about people wasting their lives out of misplaced trust and altruism. Uncle Vanya's outburst to his brother-in-law is the funniest, saddest, and most entertaining moment in the whole collection.
Chekhov, Anton. Four Great Plays by Chekhov. Bantam Classic. New York: New York. 1963.