Commentary: How Anton Chekhov became the playwright of the moment

The hectic rhythms of this time are not those of an Anton Chekhov piece. But the Russian writer is very present at the moment.

More concerned with questions than answers, Chekhov’s plays depict people rather than heroes or villains. Life is captured in plots where not much seems to be happening and yet everything is different in the end.

All of this contradicts our sensationalist, moralizing, politically divisive zeitgeist. But theater artists, filmmakers, and writers, drawn to the inner richness of Chekhov’s plays, have discovered not only the timeliness of his outdated work, but also its aesthetic fluidity and frankness.

Suddenly, Chekhov seems to be everyone’s favorite collaborator. And many of us are beginning to remember that despite our differences at heart, we’re still introspective Czech characters.

Two actors are sitting next to each other on the stage, one laying his hand on the other.

Chelsea Kurtz and Hugo Armstrong in Uncle Vanya at the Pasadena Playhouse.

(Jeff Lorch)

A new production of Uncle Vanya is underway at the Pasadena Playhouse directed by Michael Michetti. The translation, a collaboration between playwright-director Richard Nelson and the veteran team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, premiered in 2018 at the Old Globe in San Diego in a sleek, compact and intensely intimate production that seemed like it was going to be we listen to the characters.

After this revival, I doubted I would ever experience Uncle Vanya as emotionally intense again, but then I saw Drive My Car, this year’s Oscar-winning international feature film. Co-written and directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, the film (streaming on HBO Max) is an adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s story of the same name from his collection Men Without Women. Chekhov’s play plays a prominent role and gives the film its soul.

The protagonist, Kafuku, is a middle-aged actor mourning the death of his unfaithful wife. He was invited to direct Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima, a city that rose from the ashes. Kafuku, a shell of his former self, has played the role of Vanya before and learned his lines through a tape his wife prepared from the script. Chekhov’s return to Hiroshima slowly brings him back to life.

Hamaguchi directs with exemplary restraint. The movement of history is underground. We watch a haunted kafuku leading rehearsals; we overhear him playing his spooky “Vanya” tape in the car to and from the theater; and we watch as he reluctantly opens up to his young driver, who also happens to be drowning in complicated grief. Together they stage the meaning of Chekhov’s play backstage.

A man sits in the back seat of a car driven by a young woman.

Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura in the movie Drive My Car.

(The Match Factory)

Uncle Vanya has been described as Chekhov’s most spiritual work. Vanya, a middle-aged manager at his family’s country estate, and Sonya, his unmarried niece, sacrificed themselves for Serebryakov, Sonya’s father, who was married to Vanya’s beloved dead sister. Serebryakov, a quirky retired professor, has returned with Elena, his stunningly beautiful and much younger second wife, and has thrown the boring routine of the household into chaos.

Vanya falls for Elena, as does Astrov, the doctor with a passion for environmentalism and vodka, whom Sonya unrequitedly loves. Rejected as a lover by Elena and angry when Serebryakov announces that he intends to put the estate up for sale, Vanya feels that his life has been wasted. His anger, once ridiculously vented, turns inward and his thoughts are on death. The play is a study in learning to endure failure and futility, if not for yourself then for those you love, like the lonely Sonya who has enough heartache without adding her uncle’s suicide.

Surviving the disenchantment without succumbing to despair, persevering after dreams have been shattered, finding the will to keep going when all that lies ahead is a succession of monotonous days – “Uncle Vanya” if I think about it, could be the perfect piece for our pandemic scarred moment.

Gary Shteyngart acknowledges this connection in his recent novel Our Country Friends, set just as COVID-19 is sweeping the world. Set in a private colony of bungalows in New York’s Hudson Valley, where a group of friends have been hiding during the pandemic, the book is Czech in its essential framework.

The dramatis personae of the novel are listed at the beginning, with brief descriptions usually reserved for plays. Sasha, a novelist concerned about the fate of a television contract that would allow him to hold on to his bohemian land holdings, and his psychiatrist Masha host an extended reunion that focuses on issues of endurance . How, the novel asks, can the characters advance with a touch of grace in the face of betrayal, defeat, and the suffering inherent in the human condition?

“The tragic poet writes out of a sense of crisis,” asserted respected theater critic Eric Bentley. “The comic poet writes less out of a particular crisis than out of that constant pang of misery which is even more common in human life than crises, and therefore a more intractable problem.”

In a splendid Chekhovian aside, Bentley adds: “If we get up tomorrow morning we might be able to go an hour or two without our tragic consciousness, but we’re going to need our sense of humor badly.”

As many of us have realized in these difficult past few years, catastrophe offers no protection from the onslaughts of everyday life. Even in a deadly pandemic, pets get sick, couples break up, heart attacks happen and fender bends ruin an afternoon.

With his compassionate humor, Chekhov neither accuses his characters nor lets go of their short-sighted concerns. His plays remind artists of all disciplines that life is not lived in headlines but in fleeting moments. Great things are happening in Chekhov. Homes are lost, guns occasionally go off, and people die. But the focus is on muddling through.

Chekhov’s artistic vision offers a corrective to the Twitter metabolism of our increasingly virtual culture. Nothing, it turns out, is stronger than our impact on each other. Other people may drive us crazy, but because of them we find the strength to go on living. “Uncle Vanya” is a dark piece, but also a really comforting piece.

Rachel Cusk’s recent novel Second Place, another pandemic-era tale set in an idyllic upstate, acknowledges a debt to Lorenzo in Taos, Mable Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir about the time DH Lawrence came after her New Mexico came. But the story of a narcissistic artist – in this case a painter – who arrives as a guest of honor and dishonorably shatters the precarious balance struck between a writer mother, her daughter, her significant other and a wildcard guest is reminiscent of The Seagull. Chekhov’s Masterful Comedy About Artists in Love.

Cusk’s refusal to take the brewing clashes of her story to melodramatic conclusions also hints at the influence of “Uncle Vanya.” I might read Chekhov into the novel, but the wry interplay of creative personalities and egos makes it impossible not to think of The Seagull enjoying her own place in the limelight.

A new adaptation from director Yasen Peyankov simply titled Seagull is nearing the end of its run at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater. And New York’s imaginative downtown troupe Elevator Repair Service will perform their own “Seagull” this summer, in a version that, according to the company’s website, “reinvents the classic Chekhov drama by pushing the line between a play and a candid conversation.” blurred with the audience. ”

This is a strategy recently employed in the flamboyant deconstruction of the Wilma Theater’s The Cherry Orchard, adapted by Russian director Dmitry Krymov in collaboration with the Hothouse Company. Characters trudged through the audience with their luggage, and some viewers were called onstage to help with a tie and take part in a volleyball game. Yes, volleyball was played in a production that was uncompromisingly, if not baselessly, anachronistic.

Actors gesture and perform on stage.

A scene from the Wilma Theater adaptation of ‘The Cherry Orchard’ directed by Dmitry Krymov.

(Joan Austin)

The Cherry Orchard dramatizes a societal shift between the landowning nobility and the descendants of serfs, ready to capitalize on their initiative and seize what has been denied them. Not surprisingly, at a time of significant historical upheaval, artists are drawn to experimenting with this seismic spectacle.

In The Orchard, which opens in New York later this month, Ukrainian director Igor Golyak presents a hybrid production that includes an immersive performance at the Baryshnikov Arts Center and a separate interactive online experience. The cast, which includes stage luminaries Jessica Hecht and Mark Nelson, features Mikhail Baryshnikov as both Anton Chekhov and Firs, the elderly servant who stays behind when the estate is eventually auctioned off.

Of course, Chekhov is rarely absent from the repertoire, but I can’t remember when he was so adventurously present. Many of these offerings have been in the works for a long time, but something is tangible in the air.

Michetti said he had wanted to do Uncle Vanya for a long time and jumped at the chance when the Pasadena Playhouse offered him the opportunity. Out of his own interest, he offered a compelling explanation for this sudden spread of Chekhov.

“The pandemic has caused many people to re-evaluate their lives, to decide if they made the right decisions and to consider whether there might be another chapter for them,” he says. “So many things shocked us. The world as we knew it was changing. The entire industry was taken away from those in the theater. This really felt like an opportunity to heed the call to look at our lives, a very Czech thing.”

Michetti calls the Great Resignation “Chekhov’s stuff”. Certainly his characters are constantly thinking about paths not taken or left. What psychoanalyst Adam Phillips calls “the unlived life” seems to invariably preoccupy them most.

But the plays don’t rush or teach moral lessons. Instead, as the critic Richard Gilman astutely remarked, they represent how we exist in time. They show us trying to escape from an unsatisfying present through speculative fictions about how our suffering will eventually be redeemed by reciprocated love or satisfying work, or if these fail, by God’s mercy.

Chekhov saw this tendency as human, all too poignantly human. His art does not attempt to correct, merely to point out that our real lives are quietly unfolding while we dream of better days. Commentary: How Anton Chekhov became the playwright of the moment

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